Being Honest About When NFP is a Cross

In our attempts to convince the world of the rightness and goodness of our message, we often forget to be completely honest about the difficulties on the path to holiness. We forget saints had very dark nights and arduous climbs while at times tangibly experiencing the immense joy of God. We often focus too much on the abstract and the realm of ideas without focusing on the complexities and practicalities of being Fallen human beings. The path of redemption is one of hope and joy, but it also comes with great challenges.

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI in his encyclical Spe Salvi states:

“Redemption is offered to us in the sense that we have been given hope, trustworthy hope, by virtue of which we can face our present: the present, even if it is arduous, can be lived and accepted if it leads towards a goal, if we can be sure of this goal, and if this goal is great enough to justify the effort of the journey.”

Natural Family Planning (NFP) can be one of those challenges for some couples.

We want to draw people away from contraception and a contraceptive mentality, which is a great good. Our hope is for people to begin to see the true plan for marriage that God has in mind for each couple. In a world of promiscuity, hook ups, divorce, adultery, and abortion our desire is to share with the world another way. It is a way of joy and it is found in an encounter with Jesus Christ through His Church.

This encounter which leads us ever deeper into the great mystery and love of Our Triune God makes tremendous demands of us. We work to meet those demands in love, but we are weak, fallen, sinful, tempted, and wage intense spiritual battles where demons await our fall. This isn’t an ordinary journey. The path to sainthood is the hardest thing we will ever do. It comes with sacrifice, losses, pain, illness, weakness, and eventually death. We experience all of these things while keeping our eyes fixed on Christ in constant hope. We have to keep getting back up over and over and over again. We fall for the same reasons time and time again. God asks us to get back up, to cling to the Sacraments, and to pray always. We are to stay close to Him, even in our failings. We are to cling to Him when what He asks of us is a great struggle and sacrifice.

We will have periods of great joy and peace, but it comes at a price. The Divine Gardener has His pruning shears at the ready always to cut away any part of us that is not producing brilliant roses. He cuts deep. In fact, He will cut us all of the way back to the ground, so that we can become the brilliant, beautiful, holy person He created us to be. It is this pruning that we live each and every day as we continue to progress spiritually. For many people, NFP is a part of the pruning process and at times it is a great sacrifice.

How implementation differs from ideas

Objectively speaking, Theology of the Body is an immense gift to the Church. St. John Paul II has allowed us to come to a deeper understanding of marriage and human sexuality. It is a wonderful work for study and meditation. It changed my life and helped me to understand the Church’s teaching on contraception so that I could submit in obedience to that doctrine. It is a teaching that should be shared far and wide to help couples understand the depth of Catholic teaching on marriage and human sexuality.

Subjectively, however, it is still a struggle for many couples for a variety of reasons, none of which negates the truth of the Church’s teaching. This also doesn’t negate the very real frustrations, struggles, and pain that NFP causes some people. Sacrifice hurts. It’s supposed to. That’s how we learn to love as Christ loves, but we are allowed to be honest about how much it hurts sometimes. Very often there is a huge difference between the world of ideas and theological discourse and living what is asked of us by God.

In my experience, NFP is pretty easy in the short-term. When there is an end in sight, it’s much easier to have to sacrifice how often and when spouses can come together in the marital embrace. Even a couple of years, in my experience, isn’t too difficult. It’s easy to talk through the sacrifices and the difficulties and work together. In those times, there’s always the hope that a period of NFP will end and more children and the freedom to be together at any point will return. Sex is a gift to married couples that is meant to be enjoyed and fruitful. It strengthens marriages and draws couples into greater unity, while always remaining open to God’s plan for any children who may or may not come.

When NFP Becomes a Cross

For some of us the temporary turns into permanent and it can become a long road. In truth, NFP is a Cross that my husband and I have to try to bear together. It has caused periods of discord, tension, and frustration for both of us. My husband is chronically ill with a dangerous disease. I have debilitating hormone deficiencies that can no longer be treated by NaPro because I couldn’t tolerate the side effects, including excruciating bleeding ovarian cysts. I’ve had four miscarriages that have decimated my body because of my hormone imbalances and that have caused profound grief in our family. My last miscarriage was while I was on NaPro treatments. My chart has never been the perfect kind you see in NFP classes, which means that I have always had even more limited days than a lot of women.

With all of this in mind, we have never been tempted to use contraception in our marriage. We love Christ and we love Holy Mother Church. It isn’t easy at times, however. NFP in our experience is not always a joyful easy way for spouses to grow together. We are already busy sacrificing elsewhere because of the Crosses we’ve been given, so NFP is another addition to the pile. I don’t say this in despair or bitterness. I say it because it is true and it is time to start being more honest about the practicalities and the human dimensions of what we are being asked to live by God in our marriages.

Becoming a saint is not for the faint of heart. We always live in hope, but that hope doesn’t require us to completely ignore the pain of the sacrifices. We are to persevere in hope, but the pain we experience at times is very real and a part of the refinement process. In fact, sharing that pain allows us to grow in deeper communion with our brothers and sisters in Christ facing similar challenges. Our load is lightened when we walk it together. We are the Mystical Body after all and we do not live in individualistic isolation.

The answer is the Cross

The path to holiness requires the Cross. The more we grow in our understanding of Christ’s call in our lives and our love deepens for Him, we come to see that He demands everything from us. The process is painful. It is a process of deep, transforming love, but it still makes us hurt in ways we didn’t think possible. There are times NFP is a Cross. It can become heavy and burdensome. As a woman, it is a huge struggle for me that the only time I can be with my husband is when my body isn’t as open because of the natural way women’s bodies are designed. I know other women feel the same way. This in turn causes frustration and pain for our husbands. I’m here to tell other couples struggling with the demands of NFP: You are not alone.

Perhaps the people who are joyfully and gleefully sharing their wonderful NFP stories are holier than I am. That is completely possible. I suspect, however, that we haven’t considered the complexities of each individual marriage and in our desire to get people to use NFP over contraception we are leaving the Cross out of the equation. We don’t want to scare couples, so we pretend like NFP is the answer to everything. In fact, we are setting those couples up for failure or great frustration because of our lack of honesty, reflection, and concern for the difficulties that can occur in married life. We forget that the Cross is an indispensable part of our joy.

When I married my husband, I didn’t expect to lose so many babies and struggle with such great hormone issues. My only option at this point is birth control, which I emphatically declined. I didn’t expect my husband to be diagnosed with a chronic dangerous and at times debilitating disease 7 years into our marriage. Nobody knows what God expects of us when we stand at the altar and enter into the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony. All we do know is that we are consenting to walking together on the path to heaven until death. We are agreeing to the joys, the sorrows, the blessings, and the hardships. We are agreeing to work to become saints together and all marriages are a combination of joy and sorrow, the Cross and the Resurrection.

Trust in Christ

The teaching of the Church is beautiful and it is true. There’s no denying that reality. I myself have been greatly moved by Theology of the Body, and as a theologian, I greatly enjoy studying it. That being said, it is not theology that most couples turn to when they are struggling. Reading a dense work like Theology of the Body is not what most couples are going to do when they are staring down 13-15 more years of NFP like my husband and I are staring at. No, we are looking to the Cross. We are focusing on Our Lord who completely emptied Himself for us. It is in the Cross that we are able to continue moving forward and to keep doing what God asks of us.  We find joy and freedom in the Cross, even amidst pain and frustration.

It is in our weaknesses that we are made strong, St Paul reminds us. Quite frankly, if we don’t look at the difficulties or we ignore them, then we can’t progress spiritually. The climb towards God is arduous, but it is filled with faith, hope, and love. We need to trust God more and allow ourselves to be honest so that we can love our brothers and sisters in Christ who are embarking on the journey of marriage and those who are struggling with the demands of NFP in their marriages now. There is nothing wrong with admitting that NFP can be deeply difficult and a great sacrifice, especially in a culture like our own. We need to honestly ask ourselves: Do we have so little faith in Christ that we cannot be honest with others and ourselves so that we can encounter one another in the Cross?

By

Constance T. Hull is a wife, mother, homeschooler, and a graduate with an M.A. in Theology with an emphasis in philosophy.  Her desire is to live the wonder so passionately preached in the works of G.K. Chesterton and to share that with her daughter and others. While you can frequently find her head inside of a great work of theology or philosophy, she considers her husband and daughter to be her greatest teachers. She is passionate about beauty, working towards holiness, the Sacraments, and all things Catholic. She is also published at The Federalist, Public Discourse, and blogs frequently at Swimming the Depths (www.swimmingthedepths.com).

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  • independent_forever

    Unfortunately, growing up in the 70s we simply were NOT taught well at all in any of this NFP or even our Catholic teachings. I don’t like shifting blame to others but in this case it is like the Scripture reading in Acts 8 (below) where the eunuch was reading but did not know what it meant—SAME issue for Catholics who grew up in the 60s and 70s (and maybe even 80s too. How could we have been expected to practice the faith when we were poorly instructed or not taught at all? I went to Catholic school for almost 8 years and learn ZERO about our faith—had religion class but it was more history than formation….go figure. I think Pope Paul II and Vatican council changed a lot but for many of us that was too late for some things or would still take time for us to appreciate and learn from that Saint.

    Unfortunately, for us it’s too late for more children but by the grace of God we did have a son and are blessed for that. BUT, there’s always a small part of me that is sad we didn’t use NFP or just selflessly welcome more children….like others, we “planned” to have a child…isn’t that ridiculous. Like our priest told me once, if you want to make God smile, plan your life. So true…thankfully I have dived back into our faith and am reading everything I can to educate myself and incorporate prayer into my life and truly understand the gifts we have been given all by God’s grace…we do nothing on our own and that is a hard lesson to learn too. Just reading the Catechism and Bible is more than enough for most Catholics but the abundance of apologetics out there now and resources like Catholic answers, called to communion, EWTN, books by converts and so on really make a difference and I have hope now….for myself but also for the younger generation…they at least have the information readily available that we did not have so that is a good thing. Good article by the way….just goes to show we cannot gain salvation without going through the Cross…

    ACTS8
    “Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch,
    a court official of the Candace,
    that is, the queen of the Ethiopians,
    in charge of her entire treasury,
    who had come to Jerusalem to worship, and was returning home.
    Seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah.
    The Spirit said to Philip,
    “Go and join up with that chariot.”
    Philip ran up and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet and said,
    “Do you understand what you are reading?”
    He replied,
    “How can I, unless someone instructs me?”
    So he invited Philip to get in and sit with him”

  • Vitus B.

    Your words are truly inspiring and an honest gift to all of us married Catholics, your struggle has increased my faith and desire to continue practicing the gift of chastity/NFP within my marriage.

  • Jo Warsch

    You may not realise this but contraception IS the cause of abortion.

  • Constance

    It would not violate Church teaching for me to take birth control to medically treat the severe pain I endure at times from my hormone issues since it would be used medically to treat the reproductive system. I, however, had to decide against it because I carry a genetic mutation that increases my risk of blood clots. Hormonal birth control could actually kill me, so I immediately said no. As long as it is used to medically treat a woman’s reproductive health issues, it is licit, it is never licit to intentionally use it specifically to avoid pregnancy.

  • Constance

    I suggest a thorough and open reading of Humanae Vitae. I’m afraid you are not only incorrect morally, Peggy, but factually contraception has led to more abortions, not less. Blessed Paul VI’s reading of reality, the times, and truth was truly prophetic. Contraception has led to abortion on demand, no fault divorce, promiscuity/the hook up culture, less children, and the objectification of both women and men.

  • Lisa Cooper

    I’m so sorry you’ve been through so much. My husband and I used periodic abstinence for probably 15 years straight because with four kids and then other issues cropping up, I really didn’t think I would be able to handle another child, much as I wanted one at times. It does get easier.

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