On Soulmates by Mary Henriquez

Something horrible happened to me last year.

While sitting in a theology class (that I loved) during the course of my master’s work at a Catholic graduate school (that I loved), one of my professors (whom I really loved) boldly stated that he didn’t believe that God “had someone” for us. To him, the notion that the Lord wills and has in mind a particular mate for those of us that are called to marriage was overly romantic and false. The alternative that he offered was that God’s will is for each one of us to be holy and, if one were earnestly pursuing that, should they choose a mate (and should that mate choose back), God’s blessing would be upon it. However, (as I perceived it, anyway), the specifics of how and with whom this potential vocation occurred were not of huge importance to Him. As soon as the words were uttered, I knew I didn’t like them and a small seed of unease began to worm its way into the previously peaceful soil of my heart.

After class, upon returning to the home I shared with several other theology students, we launched into a heated a discussion about our professor’s comment. After much debate, the majority consensus seemed to be that our beloved professor was correct: God doesn’t have some fantastical soulmate waiting out there somewhere for us. Our mates are our own choice. We are on our own.

My roommates pointed out many beautiful and positive things about this particular worldview on vocations: the obvious respect that our Creator has for our free choice, His unwillingness to corner us into only having a single chance to get it “right”, the beauty in our mates being with us, not because they are supernaturally destined to, but because they choose to be. Yet, despite all of these true and reasonable points, this new reality did not settle well with me. That seed of unease began to beget deep, twisted roots of dissatisfaction and sprout creeping vines of passive panic.

I, like many young adults in their mid-twenties, had been fed years of college campus ministers and well-intentioned speakers on retreats telling me that God had a plan for my vocation. I, like many other young adults, had said goodbye to a life of promiscuity when I heard the Good News at the age of 19 and said hello to a life of righteous, but difficult, chastity. I, like so many others, had began to watch younger friends, non-religious family members, and promiscuous classmates find love, get engaged, and start their happily-ever-afters, while I, who was trying desperately to follow God’s will for my life, remained perpetually single. But I was content. I trusted in the Lord’s plan for my life. When the man that I adored through most of my undergraduate experience told me that he was only interested in me as a friend, I trusted. When I graduated from college without having been asked on a single date, I trusted. When the man on my post-college missionary team took my breath away and then decided to become a priest, I trusted. Through all of my self-discovery and loneliness, through my tears, in the bitterness and sweetness, I trusted. The blessing and the aching of my singleness would surely end in my being rewarded for my stern struggle with a wonderful husband. Every heartbreak and unexpected turn of my life was okay with me, because I trusted that it was all part of God’s Greater Plan to lead me to the one that He always had in mind for me.

To confront the fact that my vision might not be true changed everything.

Were all the twists and turns in my life just arbitrary?

What if no one else ever decided to choose me?

What was the point of persevering along the difficult path of righteousness if it were just as likely to result in loneliness as in      marriage?

How dare God call me to follow Him, make me all these promises, and leave me hanging out to dry?

I decided that, if God wasn’t about to help me out in the mate-finding department, I needed to take matters into my own hands. And since His way of doing things had gotten me a whole lot of nowhere, I was going to do it my way. I rebelled. For the first time since making my commitment to live chastely, I willingly gave into sins against my purity. I gave way to many temptations, I got involved with men that I knew weren’t good for me, and I stopped praying. I was angry with God, but the more I spited Him, the emptier I felt, and the farther I wandered from Him, the more directionless I really became.

At the bottom of my ravaged heart, I knew that I missed the Lord. I found myself in the confessional one Saturday afternoon, pouring out my feelings of confusion and anger towards God. The loving priest’s counsel to me was humbling: He said, “You’re not really mad at God. You’re mad at who you think He is.” My deep, deep discontent wasn’t just about my frustration at still being single. It was at the idea that God didn’t care about my life or my future. The idea that my hurts and hopes, fears and wishes were pretty much irrelevant to Him. The idea that the God Who knew every hair on my head didn’t really give a damn whether I got married or not. The idea that my best friend wasn’t Who I thought He was.

This realization was the beginning of my slow healing, the start of the process of letting God back in. The journey has been difficult and gradual for me, and I’m still in it. I’m still learning to be faithful and learning to hope, but, with the Lord’s patience and grace (as well as the counsel of several holy people in my life), I have learned several important lessons:

  1. Righteous living is worth it for God’s sake.

I was so busy being absorbed in my own misery that I became completely transfixed on the rewards I thought I deserved for being holy. I thought that my pursuit of purity and prayer were going to result in the prize of a spouse, when, in reality, my prize is Jesus Himself. He gives us a model for life because He knows it’s what’s best for us and we should be impelled to adhere to His commandments out of love for Him, not out of earthly gain.

  1. Our God is not a laissez-faire God.

My disillusionment with God began when I started to believe that He was out of touch with my every day and that He was more of a “big picture” type of Guy. I think this bothered me so much because our human hearts innately know that God has created us for deep and loving intimacy with Him. Psalm 56 tells us that “our wanderings have been noted by God” and that our tears are “stored in His vial.” I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t sound like a hands-off policy to me. In my rejoicing and in my suffering, God is before me always.

  1. The Mystery of Concursus

As members of the Christian family, we are blessed heirs to a faith that, at its very essence, is centered on the Incarnation. Our Lord came to earth and was 100-percent God and 100-percent man. Our Sacred Scripture is 100-percent divinely authored and 100-percent humanly authored (the Church calls this the “mystery of concursus”). Our faith is a “both/and” faith. I think it works the same way with our vocations. When I (God-willing, haha!) meet the man I am to marry, God has given me the freedom to choose him of my own volition. He’s not going to be my puppet master about it. However, it will also be entirely His will. How exactly does this work out? I’m not totally sure. As modern intellectuals, it’s often difficult for us to grasp that God’s ways are not always for us to understand in a complete way, but I am growing to trust the truth that He’s got it under control and that part of Christian freedom is not needing to pick apart every single method He’s got going on.

On the other side of all my turmoil, how do I feel about soulmates? I’m undecided. I think God would be a pretty narrow God if He only gave us a solitary chance to choose the right person. I think it’s possible that there are multiple people with whom one could be happy and holy and that God will bless the choices we make if we are seeking Him in the midst of them. However, I also believe that God is good beyond what our conceptions of goodness could ever contain. I believe that it’s totally possible that the Lord knows us and loves us so deeply that He creates us with another in mind. I suppose that I will not know the reality of the situation until I make it to Heaven. That is the one part of His plan that I am certain of. And I will choose to live in the joyful hope that I will see His go.

Marriage, the Church and the Eucharist by Rebecca Barclay

From the beginning of the book of Genesis to the end of the Bible in the book of Revelation, God chose to use the imagery of marriage to show us the relationship He desires to have with His people. Because the human person has been created as a body-soul unity, God uses the physical realities to reveal to us the deeper meaning behind spiritual realities. “For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made” Romans 1:19-20.

I would like to write specifically about the relation between Marriage, the Church and the Eucharist (the Eucharist according to the beliefs of the Catholic Church). This is an inexhaustible subject and all the time in the world would not be enough to penetrate into the depths of this great Mystery.

Like I said, marriage is what God chose to reveal to us the type of relationship He wants with us. So we must begin by asking what is marriage and what does the word of God show us about marriage? Marriage was established ‘in the beginning’ when man was created:
“Then the Lord God said, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.’ So out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name. The man gave names to all cattle, and to the birds of the air, and to every beast of the field; but for the man there was not found a helper fit for him. So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and while he slept he took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh; and the rib which the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. Then the man said, ‘This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.’ Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh.” Genesis 2:18-24

In this passage we are given the ‘steps’ of marriage: “a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh.” From this verse we can see 3 chronological steps that occur in the ‘process’ of marriage. The first is a man leaves his father and his mother. The leaving of one’s father and mother shows that there is a certain type of commitment that must take place. Adam did not have a father or a mother, and so this verse has been given for all those after Adam—to us. In the spousal love between a man and a woman there must be a commitment. This committed love is an essential part of spousal love. Leaving one’s own family signifies the commitment to a new family, a new beginning, new life. The second step is ‘cleaves to his wife.’ This is the marriage ceremony. At the marriage ceremony the spouses cleave to each other. They commit themselves to each other by the total and complete gift of self. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states: “The spouses seal their consent to give themselves to each other through the offering of their own lives” (paragraph 1621). The third step is “and they become one flesh.” It is only once there has been the act of commitment and the offering of self, that a man and woman ‘become one flesh’ in the marital embrace. The marital embrace is the consummation of this love. From this moment on, each time the couple again embrace each other in the marital embrace, it is a renewal of their wedding vows. The marital embrace is a re-presentation of the total and complete gift of self offered at the wedding ceremony and fulfilled in the “becoming of one flesh.” It makes present again the offering of the bodies. The union that takes place between the man and woman in the bodies signifies the total and complete gift of self to the other.

And this is the type of relationship God desires to have with us. And Jesus Christ, taking the image that God Himself has given us, brought about and fulfilled the marital union between God and His people. He did this through the Incarnation, His Passion and Cross, and the Sacrament of the Eucharist.

Coming down from Heaven, God is now God-with-us. In Jesus Christ, humanity has been wed to a divine Person and now God is with us. Jesus, leaving his Father, became man for us. And 33 years later, He also left his Mother Mary, for us. Can you imagine the dialogue between Christ and Mary before He left for Jerusalem? The trust that Mary had, knowing that her Son has been destined for “the rise and fall of many” and to be a “sign of contradiction” (Luke 2:33). The depths of Jesus’ love for us, to leave his home, his friends, his family, to embark on a journey of suffering, pain and sin, and death—for us. He who knew not sin came to know sin, for us. In the Garden of Gethsemane we see the free consent and commitment of Christ to us, as He prays only for the Father’s will to be done. Here is the beginning of the wedding ‘process’, the process of total self-giving. Jesus, choosing to give himself to us, unites His will to the Father’s and “moves towards the wedding day and ceremony”. The process of total self-giving reaches its fulfillment on the Cross. When all that could be given had been given, God said “it is consummated”—it is finished. Whenever a man and woman have made this commitment, given themselves to each other, and when the two have become one, God says “it is consummated.” The process of the total giving of self has been finished when the two become one.

When Christ “slept the sleep of death” on the Cross, God brought forth from His side the Church. And this is signified by the blood and water which gushed forth from the pierced heart of Jesus. The water represents the waters of baptism, by which one enters into the Church. And the blood represents the blood of Christ, the blood of the Eucharist, through which we are able to receive Christ’s total gift of self. By Christ’s total gift of self on the Cross, man is able to receive Christ so that the “two may become one.”

Every time a husband and wife become one again through the marital embrace this is what is happening: the husband and wife are making present again the gift of themselves and the gift of their bodies (signifying their total gift) that they presented to God and to each other on their wedding day. Every time the husband and wife become one flesh, the bridegroom gives himself completely to the bride—to be received by the bride; and the bride is completely open to receiving the bridegroom. When the wife receives the husband into her body, she is receiving his love and his very life into her. And he is implanting the very seeds of life which could very well grow until a life is fully formed in her. The two, husband and wife, have become one, and very often bring forth another, a child. The two have become one have become three…it is here that the family of man most fully mirrors the family of God.

And how does this happen between Christ and His Church? “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. This mystery is a profound one, and I mean in reference to Christ and the church…” (Ephesians 5:31-32). This is where the heart of the Mass, the Eucharistic celebration, comes into play.

Mass is re-presentation of the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross. It is not a re-sacrificing—the sacrifice is not repeated, rather the celebration of the sacrifice is repeated. That is why it is said that a priest celebrates Mass. During Mass, the priest, along with the whole Church (this includes all the members of the body of Christ, not simply the ones present), brings before the Father the sacrifice of Christ that was made 2000 years ago. The priest presents again to the Father the gift of self that Christ made years ago. The Eucharistic celebration is a re-presentation of a past event and this re-presentation makes present the event being recalled—Christ’s gift, our “wedding day”. Each time we receive Jesus Christ (body, blood, soul and divinity) in the Eucharist, the two become one. The bridegroom, Christ, gives himself completely to his bride and the bride is completely open to receiving the bridegroom. The bridegroom gives to us His life and His love. Christ himself said “he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day…” (John 6:54). Christ, through the Eucharist, plants the seeds of eternal life in us.

Single…and Ready to Mingle?! by Rebecca Barclay

Many people view the single life in one of two ways.  Either the single life is a torturous means of existence to be endured as bravely (quickly) as possible, or the single life is the time of your life free-from-all-responsibility and lending itself to promiscuity.  Naturally the Catholic Church has some sort of answer for all the questions we face (that’s not to say the answers are clear cut or easy).

The two views mentioned above about the approach to the single life could seem like the “Catholic” approach vs. the “secular” approach.  There’s a lot of hype in the Catholic world about the greatness of theology of the body, NFP, and living out the faith in the context of a Catholic family setting.  There’s also the call to the priesthood or religious life, a mighty high calling indeed.  But what about the single life?  Are people called to the single life?  How are Catholics to approach the single life without treating it like torture or utter freedom?

The truth is that all people are called to the single life at one point or another.  How long each person is called to the single life is another story.  If you’re in this gig (the Church) for saint-making (which we’re all called to), then it’s best to figure out how to handle being single (whether or not you want to mingle).

Being Catholic and trying to grow into the saint God wants you to be has a lot to do with our time and place in history.  It does us no good to try to behave in the world the way Saint Ignatius did in the 1st century or St. Theresa of Avila did in the 15th century.  It’s left to us to be a light to the world and salt to the earth in the 21st century.  And frankly, we’ve got our work cut out for us.  We have technology to take up, creativity to baptize, and discipline to learn.  The work place is in dire need of honest, hard working, and just workers.  The family is in dire need of true love and responsible parenthood. The political realm is in dire need of generous and devoted politicians.

Nowadays it’s very easy for us to get caught up in the romanticized version of married love; it’s easy to get caught up in the modern obsessions with sexualized-thinking because everything is sexualized; it’s easy to get caught up in the idea that ‘being married’ will solve all my problems.

The truth is if you’re single, God wants you to be single right now.  God is calling you to something right now that you will miss if you are too busy looking ahead to other things.  If you’re Catholic and you’re single, and you want to be married, you are being asked to trust that God will fulfill your deepest desires better than you can imagine.  If you’re single and living promiscuously, God is ever awaiting for you to turn to Him with your desires for love and fulfillment.

At times I wish I had been married already, or feel like I am just waiting to meet ‘the one’ and then life can start.  But this isn’t the right attitude to have as a Catholic who proclaims a God who works all things for good and whose Divine Providence guides all my half-heartedly devoted actions and choices (using even my poor choices and half hearted intentions for my good).  The longer I am single, the more I realize what a gift of time this is for me right now.  Had I been married at 22 right out of college I wouldn’t have the formative experiences, the learning, or the adventures of the last 3 years of my life.  I’d be an entirely different person.  As a single person you have a gift from God that you don’t know how long will be yours.  You are given the freedom to learn about yourself in a collage of experiences of which the range and diversity depends completely on your willingness and your desires/choices.  You are given the time free of direct responsibility of another, with which you can invest in hobbies, personal interests, volunteer opportunities, traveling, etc.  You are given time alone with yourself, which is vital and necessary for self-awareness and holiness, for finding out who you are.

The following are three things I would suggest to all those who find themselves single and wanting to live well:

Prayer

Learn how to pray.  Learn how you best communicate with God, your maker and the one who has your plans for happiness.  Discipline yourself in your prayer.  Set aside a certain amount of time daily and stick to it.  Not only will you feel an order to your day, but you’ll also find peace in your choices, joy in your state of life, and the courage to do what God sets before you.

Friendships & Adventures

Get out there and meet people!  Do you have something you’ve always wanted to try?  Go out and try it and find a friend along the way.  Be interested in others who are different from you.  And be willing to go on adventures.  Travel if you can and how you can.  Visit your close friends from college.  Make the time to see your family.  As a single person, you only have to juggle one schedule, so now’s the time to really juggle!  Not only do you make friends and good memories, but you also learn about yourself from going through new experiences and trying new things.

Risks

And be willing to take risks.  Don’t like the job you’re at now?  Don’t settle.  Find a new job.  Go back to school.  Take a risk.  The time you have as a single person is, in the basest sense of the word, the time you’re most free to make a job change, to move, or to change your lifestyle.  Don’t let yourself settle into a mediocre or complacent way of life.  Don’t let the modern work-a-day world rob you of your joy or keep your eyes blind from God’s plan for your life.  Your life as a Christian is an adventure but only if you’re willing to let God lead you.  Have you always wanted to do a mission trip? Plan for it then.  It’s far too easy to get caught up in the practical, financially-guided, modern world when the disinterested, free, and holy adventurous life of following the Son of God is waiting for each of us.  Be willing to place your trust in God every day with the small things and when the big decisions in life come along, His peace will guide you in your choices.

God knows how to best fulfill our desires.  Time spent as a single person is not meant to be torturous but is meant to be a time of growth and happiness.  Learning how to live well and be holy should never be separated from your present state in life and your everyday living.

Cardinal Dolan: The Witness of Marriage

Enjoy this delightful, joyful and sincere address given by our very own Cardinal Dolan to the Knights of Columbus in Anaheim. Que viva Cristo Rey!

States Dinner Address Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan Archbishop of New York President, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Anaheim, California, August 7, 2012

Supreme Knight and Mrs. Anderson; Past Supreme Knight and Mrs. Dechant; my brother knights and beloved wives;

My brother cardinals; Bishop Brown, Archbishop Viganó, my brother bishops, priests, and deacons; our consecrated women and men religious; seminarians, guests, friends one and all . . .

Que viva Cristo Rey!

To anyone who claims the Church is lackluster;

To anyone who thinks the Church has lost the dare given us by Jesus to “cast out to the deep!”

To anyone who doubts the solidarity between God’s people and His priests and bishops;

To anyone who contends that Catholics are beaten down by constant attacks on faith, the Church, our values, and our God-given freedom of religion . . .

I say, “Let them come to the Supreme Convention of the Knights of Columbus!”

As we anticipate the Year of Faith, I thank you, brother knights, for 130 years of vibrant, salt-of-the-earth-light-to-the-world Catholic witness!

As we prepare for the upcoming Synod of Bishops in Rome on the New Evangelization, I congratulate you, brother knights, for taking that ball and running with it, in the same missionary spirit that characterized Christopher Columbus.

It’s good to be in California; they love us here in Anaheim. Heads up, though: one of the bell boys here at the hotel did complain to me that we knights don’t tip that well. “We love these Knights of Columbus,” he said, “but, they arrive with the Ten Commandments and a ten dollar bill . . . and leave without breaking either!”

Carl, thanks for giving me the “honeymoon suite.” I was a bit surprised. Let me assure you that’s the first time that’s ever happened!

I am reminded of the story told by the Venerable Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen. Seems as if he, too, was offered the “honeymoon suite” at a hotel where he was to give a talk. It was in a southern city, at that time unfamiliar with Catholics. As Archbishop Sheen was leaving his honeymoon suite for supper, the housekeeping attendant asked if she could turn down the bed, and the archbishop told her he would appreciate such service. When he returned later that evening, sure enough, the bed was turned down, and there was a mint on both pillows. On one side of the bed was the archbishop’s pajamas laid out; on the other, apparently for Mrs. Sheen, was his beautiful lace alb he wore for Mass!

Which brings me to my topic: Marriage.

Usually, at this State’s Dinner, thousands of our knights look up in admiration to this dais, the head table, to this “crimson tide” of bishops and cardinals.

Tonight, I’m going to literally “turn the tables” as we up here look out with awe, admiration, and deep appreciation upon you, our knights and their wives, united in marriage.

For this evening, I want to salute marriage. . . and it would be tough to find anyone who has done more to defend, strengthen, and promote marriage than you, Knights of Columbus, and your cherished wives and families. In fact, as you are aware, one of the driving motives of the Venerable Father Michael McGivney in founding the Knights was to assist men better fulfill their vocation as husbands and dads.

We Catholics are hopeless romantics, you know, when it comes to married love . . .

Against all odds, we still believe that, when a man and woman vow that they’ll love and honor each other, “for better or worse, in sickness and in health, for richer or poorer, until death do us part,” they really do mean it;

We still hold fast to the teaching of the Bible that God so esteems marriage that He compared His personal, passionate, eternal love for Israel to that between a husband and a wife; that Saint Paul tells us that the love of Jesus for us, His Church, is just like that of a groom for His bride;

We still have in our gut the Church’s timeless “Valentine’s Day card,” that the love between a husband and a wife has the same characteristics as does that of God for us: it is faithful; it is forever; it brings about new life in children.

We are such hopeless romantics that we contend the best way to get a hint of how God loves us now, and in eternity, is to look at how you, married couples, love one another. “The love of a man and woman is made holy in the sacrament of marriage, and becomes the mirror of your everlasting love . . . ,” chants the Preface in the Nuptial Mass.

You see why we, mostly celibates up here, look out upon you married couples with awe? We gaze out now at thousands of icons, reflections, mirrors of the way God loves us.

Now, you are, we are, the first to acknowledge that this romantic, poetic, lofty, divine lustre of marriage can at times be tarnished a bit in the day-in-day-out challenges of lifelong, life-giving, faithful love.

For example, I recently had the golden jubilee of a wonderful couple I’ve known for decades.

“What’s the secret to the success of your fifty years of marriage? I asked Pat.

“Well, you know Eileen and I are both of Irish background, so, for our 25th anniversary, I took her back to Ireland.”

“Pat, how thoughtful,” I remarked.

“Yeah and then, for our 50th, I went back to get her! There’s the key to our success!”

Tension, trial, temptation, turmoil – – they come indeed, but – – just as Jesus worked His first miracle, at the request of His blessed Mother, for a newly married couple at Cana by turning water into wine – – so does Jesus transform those choppy waters of tension, trial, temptation, and turmoil, into a vintage wine of tried-and-true-trust in marriage.

So, brother knights and wives, I thank you for being such metaphors of God’s love; and I exhort you, please, to continue, now, more than ever, to be so. Why, now more than ever! Let me give you a few reasons.

When I was Archbishop of Milwaukee, at an archdiocesan pastoral council meeting, we were discussing ways to increase vocations to the priesthood and consecrated religious life . . . yet another project, by the way, you Knights have vigorously promoted.

Well, Jan Ruidl, one of the members, commented:

“Archbishop Dolan, in talking about an increase in vocations for priests, sisters, and brothers, I think you’re barking-up-the-wrong-tree!”

Uh-oh, here it comes, I thought, buckling my bullet-proof vest, figuring Jan would begin arguing for an end to celibacy or to the male-only-priesthood.

But Jan continued:…

Please read the rest at the Knights of Columbus website.

Natural Family Planning: A Husband’s Perspective by Michael Hahn

This post is re-published with permish from Grace at camppatton.com (do yourself a favor and go read her blog. You’re welcome) and the author Michael Hahn.
——–
The Catholic Church’s teaching on contraception has been in the news a lot recently, leading a number of people, Catholics and non-Catholics alike, to take to public fora and offer their opinions on it, both for and against.

Especially in Catholic circles, but increasingly among Protestant Christians as well, discussions of this sort often trade on assumptions concerning the barbarism, or the beauty, of what is seen as the “Catholic alternative” to contraception, natural family planning (NFP).

Not being a moral theologian, I’m sure I can’t give a proper account of how exactly contraception and NFP differ from a moral standpoint—and thankfully, many others have weighed in on precisely this point. Nonetheless, as a husband, father, and sometime “practitioner” of NFP who takes seriously the reality of this difference (even if I can’t explain it), I’d like to think that there’s still something that I can add, based on my own experience of NFP, and its unique challenges and rewards. I know that everyone’s experience is different, so I don’t pretend to speak for others—neither for men in general, nor for married couples, nor even for my own wife, whose perspective as a woman remains irreducibly other than my own. Yet even if my experience isn’t at all universal, the standards of Christian living we should be aiming for are.

NFP: Promise vs. Reality

Right off the bat I should admit that I have generally had one of two ideas of what NFP looks like. The first is a bright, soft-focused mental picture of marital bliss, where husband and wife are in harmony with each other, with nature, and with God. There may be kids, too, and if so, they are always beautiful and well behaved. This is what the cover of pretty much any piece of NFP literature that I’ve seen will look like, and it’s certainly what I had in mind before getting married.

The second idea is more or less the exact opposite of the first: think dark and poorly lit, with husband and wife each feeling frustrated, resentful, and very much alone. Maybe they’re fighting again, or perhaps just sitting in a tense silence that is broken only by the baby’s cries from the other room. I’m not saying this is how things look like in our home, at least not exactly, but this is the sort of foreboding way that I’ve tended to regard NFP since getting married. Were I to state it in a quasi-mathematical form, my thinking could be summed up as: NFP = no sex = tension and disharmony.

I’ve of course read that NFP tracking methods can be used when a couple is trying to achieve pregnancy, which would undoubtedly alter my equation above. But since my own experience of it has been mainly in the context of pregnancy avoidance, and since a woman’s “signs” can often be more like “mixed signals,” I’m going to let the first part of it stand: NFP = no sex (for the most part).

As I see it, if there’s a problem with the math involved in my way of thinking about NFP, it’s most likely in the second part of my equation: no sex = tension and disharmony. And it’s on this point that I find the Catholic Church’s teaching especially helpful.

There’s a nice euphemism used for “no sex” in the various resources I’ve seen on the Church’s teaching on human sexuality, namely, “continence,” which is more or less just a fancy word for self-control. And in my experience, the tension and disharmony that I tend to equate with continence is due mainly to a lack of real self-control on my part—since it’s not a habit I’ve sufficiently cultivated, it usually feels pretty unnatural to me.

What’s So “Natural” About It, Anyway?

On the one hand, it makes sense that practicing continence might seem unnatural, since coming together as man and wife is an essential and natural part of the sacrament of marriage. On the other hand, there are many instances when prudence might dictate that my wife and I are not at a place where we can welcome new members of the family, and that we therefore shouldn’t “issue invitations” by engaging in an act that by its very nature is ordered toward procreation.

Continence or NFP isn’t “natural,” then, as if it were essential to marriage, and yet it is natural insofar as its exercise recognizes and affirms the divinely inscribed nature of sex between husband and wife. But damn if it isn’t still really hard.

Why is it so hard? Well for starters, there’s that basic problem of a lack of self-control that seems to plague most all of us since the fall of Adam and Eve. This makes it so that gaining virtues of self-control and relinquishing selfish attitudes is really hard work. And in the context of practicing NFP, this hard work usually includes a whole lot more of the communication, cooperation, and self-sacrifice that married life already requires.

But it’s precisely because continence is so linked to the tasks proper to marriage that I find these extra efforts to be worthwhile. See, the promise of NFP isn’t that it will automatically work wonders for your marriage or sex life. Rather, it’s that, when properly used, it can become a fruitful means of progress in the lifelong task of fulfilling our vows of complete mutual self-gift that we spouses make on our wedding days.

In short, for me as a husband, NFP serves as a reminder of what I signed up for when I said “I do.”

It’s a reminder that there are in fact many ways to love my wife with my body, and that sometimes this bodily love means not coming together sexually, but instead expressing my love for her by exercising self-control, channeling my affection instead toward acts of service, toward words of affirmation, toward praying for her, and toward speaking with her at greater length than we might otherwise be accustomed to. These expressions of love are different than making love, to be sure, but they need not be any less physical—or better, any less integral. These expressions are meant to communicate that, because our bodies are not our own, and because our bodily union is capable of producing new life, we are called to be attentive to where the other one is at the moment—physically, emotionally, and spiritually.

Overcoming Selfishness

Marriage is a work in progress, and the fact is that my wife and I every day fall far short of the total mutual self-gift in Christ that we vowed at our wedding. This falling short is, frankly, discouraging, and it can at times be a source of deep pain. But it never absolves us from our commitment to strive, each day, to love one another just a little bit more than we might feel like at the moment.

There are indeed times when the practice of NFP is the principal area of this struggle in our marriage, when it seems that all one (or both) of us can think about is how we feel like making love, but can’t, because we’ve previously come to the decision that we ought not invite new life into our home and family, whether for financial, physical, or emotional reasons. This is when the “bargaining” usually begins: “There’s not that high of a probability of conception, so maybe we can risk it, right?”

If there’s any truth to the suspicions of a “contraceptive mentality” for couples using NFP, I feel quite sure that you’ll find it here. And yet the mentality isn’t really “contraceptive” per se, but simply selfish. And it’s precisely this selfishness, in all its various forms, that God intends the sacrament of marriage to gradually uproot. Moreover, this selfishness can cut both ways: I can be selfish in my reasons for avoiding sex so that we can avoid pregnancy, but I can also be selfish in my reasons for having sex, and for that matter, in my reasons for trying to achieve pregnancy as well.

NFP is a challenge, then, not just because it means you can’t have sex whenever you want (though that can be a real downer). Even more, though, it’s a challenge because it’s part of a much larger set of commitments—both to God and to the wife and children he’s so generously given as a part of my specific vocation as a Christian. Thus, for me, the biggest challenge of NFP—but also its greatest promise—is that its proper practice means saying yes to God, to my wife, and to my children, which often means saying no to myself, at least for the moment.

Some Practical Advice

Whether it’s NFP, marriage, or the Christian life in general, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Some may be called, at particular points in time, to practice continence for the sake of spacing children, and others may not. For those who do practice NFP, or are thinking of doing so, here are a few practical considerations that I have found helpful.

  • · Pray, both individually and as a couple. God is the one who has joined you and your spouse, and who desires your holiness and the wellbeing of your marriage and family. Frequent conversation with God in prayer is essential for discerning the concrete ways in which we are to respond to his call to love him and one another.
  • · Pick the right time to talk. Though spouses should talk openly (and frequently) about their goals and hopes and fears for the marriage and family, this should be done at a time when the two of you aren’t particularly inclined to be “in the mood,” since this will surely impact your deliberation about what God wants for your family at the present.
  • · Try to stay on the same page. A frequent complaint among men about NFP is that wives seem to use it as an excuse to withhold themselves from their husbands. Assuming that this is not actually the case, a husband can avoid cultivating unwarranted suspicions by remaining abreast of his wife’s signs and where she is in her cycle. This need not entail checking signs or charting together, but simply means maintaining mutual responsibility for fertility awareness.
  • · Stick to the plan, at least for now. When the two of you have come to a decision—whether it’s to pursue conception, avoid it, or just let the chips fall where they may—do your best to stick to it, together: It’s no good if a couple says that they’ve opted to avoid conception this cycle but then one (or both) of the spouses wants to start fooling around, since this does nothing but ratchet up the stress level (and perhaps set the stage for a new darling little one). If you and your spouse have come to a prudent decision previously, it is no doubt for good cause, and the prayer, conversation, and discernment that went into that decision shouldn’t simply be tossed out because one’s hormones have given you the sudden urge to “take a chance.” Likewise, if conception or a laissez-faire attitude are the chosen course, it isn’t good or helpful to return to sources of anxiety when an appropriate time has arisen for the two of you to be intimate. Unless some new piece of data has emerged that would have changed the original process of discussion and discernment, just stick with the plan, trusting in one another, and trusting in God.
  • · Stay chaste. Whether or not you and your spouse have opted to practice continence and to abstain from sex for the time being, remember that you are called to purity of intention and action, both individually and as a couple. Regardless of the frustrations that continence may involve, recourse to pornography and/or masturbation is never permissible, nor is it ok to pursue sexual pleasure with each other (frottage, heavy petting, oral sex, etc.) as a substitute for, or outside the context of, procreative sex. Moreover, even if certain other physical expressions of affection aren’t sinful, they may still prove to be imprudent or unhelpful to your present course of action (or inaction, as the case may be). Again, on this last point, communicating with each other is key.
  • · Remain flexible. Circumstances change, and what was the right decision for one month ago might not be the right decision for today. Keep an open heart to what God is asking of you and your spouse, and how you can best respond to his call to holiness and love.

Putting the Soul Back in Sex by Rebecca Barclay

As Christians we are called to take all areas of life and render them unto Christ.  Perhaps the way that this is most necessary in the present times is to take back the bedroom, and the marriage bed, for the sake of Christ.  We live in a time where sex is used to in many different ways—from one-night stands to ‘free love’, from selling toothpaste to selling cars to selling children across seas.  It’s used in jokes and it’s used in song lyrics.  The question can be found on the tongues of the most sincere seekers to the most nonchalant: “What’s the big deal with sex?”

When I was growing up there was a hit song with the following lyrics:

You and me baby ain’t nothing but mammals

So let’s do it like they do on the discovery channel

This song debuted as the lead song for the Bloodhound Gang’s album “Hooray for Boobies” in 1999.  I was eleven at the time, but knew almost all the words before quite understanding their meaning.  The phrase quoted above states the exact problem with modern thinking in regards to sex, and this is exactly where we must begin as Christians.  ‘We aren’t anything but mammals.’  If we were nothing but mammals, there truly wouldn’t be a problem with modern culture’s approach to sex.  However, we are a union of body and soul—and we must figure out what difference our immortal souls make—both for sex and for the rest of life.

This is what separates us from other ‘mammals.’  We have within us the ‘breath of God.’  This breath of God, this soul we’ve been given–this is what is made in the Image and Likeness of God.  The soul gives us two capacities above other creatures: the ability to know and the ability to love (free will).  We are made in the image and likeness of God because we, like Him, are capable of knowing and of loving.  The human person is a union of a body and a soul.  Until we fully embrace this truth we will always be falling short of the holiness and greatness to which we are called.  Christ came to set us free—and He came fully human and fully God.  Almost all heresies and ill-thinking in theology are a result of misunderstanding the truth that Christ both God and man, fully; that we are a body-soul union, created to participate in Christ, fully.

To be fully human, and to be holy, our bodies must be ordered to our souls and our souls must be ordered to God.  This is what separates us from other creatures—the truth that we can order our bodies and our souls to God.  Because we are a body-soul union and not simply a soul that has a body or a body that has a soul, we can’t just do whatever we want, though this is what Satan will tempt us to do.

Christ said, “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full” (John 10:10).  Satan works by taking the good and twisting it into something ugly and sinful.  A lot of people make the mistake of viewing Satan and God as ‘equal’ in power.  The truth is that Satan is a creature, a powerful creature, but a creature nonetheless.  He can’t create evil—he can only take what is good and twist it to be used against its purpose.  So, take a look at our culture.  It is filled with promiscuity, sexual innuendos, sexual confusion and temptations.  Clearly sex is something that is very good and Satan has done his best to twist it time and again so that we can hardly recognize the marital act as good or even holy.  Sex is the mutual exchange of the complete gift of self between a man and a woman—physical gift, emotional gift, spiritual gift.  Sex is called the ‘marital’ act because it is the embodiment of what married life is: the gift of yourself to another for the sake of love.  And this is holy—created good, fallen into sin, and in the process of being redeemed.  Holiness comes by way of struggle and strife.  “The kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent take it by storm.”  (Matthew 11:12).

Each generation and times have their own difficulties and trials to face.  In the modern world we live in now, we breathe in the culture’s understanding of soulless sex.  It is the atmosphere we find ourselves in at the moment, and because that is the case, it is difficult for us (even as Christians) to understand and fully live out Catholic teaching in regards to sexuality.   Christians are mistaken in thinking that we are called to be chaste until marriage, and then we can be unchaste in marriage ‘because sex is dirty.’  The truth is that sex can, and ought to, be holy, each and every time a man and a woman enter into the marital act.   Basically, all sex should be soul-filled sex.

People often mistake the Church’s teachings—“the Church thinks the body is bad, that’s why you can’t have sex whenever you want.”  The exact opposite is the truth: the Church sees the body as so good that sex can only be so good when it’s viewed within the whole picture of human flourishing.  The Church sees the body as soo good and, therefore, the soul is soo good and just as much a part of what the body does.  The martial act, the total giving of oneself to another physically, is such a good act that it is impossible to separate it from the soul.  It’s impossible to “have sex”, to “make love”, to “exchange fluids” without the soul.  This is because the soul is the center part of the person—not the body.  The soul animates the human person—it’s impossible to do anything without your soul.  We can’t divorce our bodies and our souls, no matter how hard we try.  What we do to our bodies affects our souls; how we treat our souls affects our bodies.

Christ didn’t come to promise us a life of ease, comfort, and pleasure.  He did come to redeem us, by way of the Cross.  And the more we turn to prayer and to the example of Christ and the Saints before us the more we will be able to let Him redeem us, through and through, emotionally, physically, spiritually, and yes, even sexually.  As we stay the course we can look forward to the day when this earth shall pass away, and with it, the tension in each of us between our bodies and our souls.

———-

Read more of Becca’s writing at her blog The Young Adult’s Guide to Taking Over the World – Oh Wait, I’m Catholic.