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?