Sunday, September 25, 2016

Illumination of Dark Hearts and Shadowed Minds

     Weird title huh? What could I possibly write in this post?

     I know it has been a while since I have written. There are times where I feel I have so much to say and times where I can not fully express what I am trying to say. If I could describe the past 6 months-1 year of my life, it would be boiled down to the following two words: growing pains. You know when you would get those aches as a kid because your body was growing and your parents said, "Oh, it's just growing pains."? Well, that is what I feel has been going on with me, not physically, but on the emotional and spiritual level as well as in my marriage. I have been reflecting a lot lately since Ma Crow left our home.  As I have been reflecting on my time of “hands on” service to her, JJ and I discovered a lot about the state of my soul, psyche and our marriage. The experience in care giving has taken my mind out of the shadows about what it is to be a mother, my perfectionism and the state of my soul.

     Let's start on the "Dark Hearts" part of this post. I realized in a deeper way the fleeting emotions of the heart. I realized my concupiscence and how I easily fall into sin because of it. It brought me to my knees begging God for mercy. Appropriate for this year of mercy huh? While taking care of Ma Crow 24/7 with JJ, I found myself so tired that I would snap at him and even at Ma Crow. I wanted to drive a wedge between JJ and I so that I could have an excuse to leave him to deal with caring for Ma Crow alone. Not that I would leave him for good, but I wanted to go stay with my family so it would be easier on me. I am ashamed to even type those words, but they are true and that is how I felt at the time. I realized how weak I am when it comes to giving of myself and not getting much back in return. At the end of long days, JJ and I could barely hold a conversation as we were both so tired; yet we yearned to spend more time together. I recognized the way in which the enemy was trying to use this situation to get us off guard. I would hear lies echoed in my heart like, "You will lose him." or, "He cares more about his mother than he does you." and, "Your dad left, so you will be just like him." These fears started to consume my heart and I would pick fights with JJ for random things. For the record, there were legitimate things that JJ needed to address while we were caring for Ma Crow, as well as after she left.

     I do not want to give the impression that I am all bad and JJ is all good. If I think about it in this way, that is when the enemy wreaks havoc on me. We must confront the lies we hear and light them with truths... more on that later. Meanwhile, my emotions were trying to run the ship and, with the grace of the sacraments, God was able to reveal this fact to me. Confession and spiritual direction from two different priests helped me to see the bigger picture and look beyond myself. I realized how selfish I was being and that up until then JJ had been my rock; now it was my turn to be his. It was when I confronted this darkness in my heart and asked Jesus for mercy and help that I was better able to serve JJ and Ma Crow. Even the times where I was done and did not want to do a single thing for anyone else, God gave me the grace to keep going. He not only gave me the grace to keep going, He gave me the grace to do it with joy! By the end of our time taking care of Ma Crow in our home I was sad that we could not do it anymore and I was going to miss her.

     Shadowed minds. This can happen when you are naturally exhausted and sleep deprived. Things start to seem hazy and your path looks so unclear. There were so many times where I had no idea what to do or how to handle a situation. Grant it, we needed to give ourselves a learning curve because we had not taken care of a stroke patient before and we had no idea what to expect. We had no clue she got up so many times at night to use the restroom, that we would not be able to just take her wherever we wanted to go or the emotional baggage that comes with a fully grown elderly human being. We had to change our way of thinking from, "Ma Crow is here for rapid recovery." and, "We run the show." to, "What is best for us all as a family." In the spiritual life, your path to God can seem like a shadow or like you are looking at the road through a veil. We will never see clearly until the day we meet Him face to face. There will always be some sort of haze because of our concupiscence. The wonderful gifts that help us clear the haze a bit are Confession, Mass and mental prayer. I have to say, when I can’t get to daily Mass or confession as often as I'd like, mental prayer is such a saving grace for me. The constant dialogue of, “Help me Jesus!”, “What do you want from me?!”, and, “Have mercy on me!”, keeps me coming back to Him over and over.

     After Ma Crow left our home, we knew God was calling us to a time of heavy discernment. There were things we realized that we wanted in our life, and taking care of Ma Crow helped us to realize that. Times of discernment seem especially shadowy though, don't they? The waters always seem murky when trying to find a clear answer, and as you try and push away the shadowy reflection, it just becomes more distorted. The questions arise of what to do, for how long, in what way and how do we get there? I am already a very methodical person and plan a journey meticulously before stepping out the door (can you say Bilbo Baggins?) But, with the things of God you can not do that. It really is an adventure and I do not like adventure because of my natural tendency toward fear. I love how God wants to release me from my fears, though there are many.

     I should have known that this is THE reason God wanted me to marry JJ! Since from the start of our marriage it has been an adventure. For our honeymoon, JJ and I went on a road trip up north. We had no map to get us there. We just knew we could take PCH and get to our destination eventually. A simple 4 1/2 hour drive turned into a 7 hour excursion with wrong turns, gas station directions, sightseeing, back roads and Hershey Kisses raining in our car (literally!). It was an adventure, but there was a safety and security there. I was not worried when we would get to check into our hotel; I was a joy filled beaming new bride. I am guessing the grace of the sacrament had a lot to do with that. The point is that I trusted and did not have fear; even though the way was not certain.

     Now, God is asking me trust Him in the same way I did then. Through much discussion, prayer and discernment, JJ and I have decided to pursue adoption through foster care. There are so many things I have to say about this decision. There has been so much peace given us about this decision, even though we know what heart ache could and will await us. We are ready. We are ready to open our lives up to a child who needs us, whether that be for a limited time or their whole life. We are not saints; we are simply answering a call. We know that we will have struggles and believe me, there are so many things about this process that are illogical and quite frankly, stupid. But, I am willing to submit to the call that God has laid out before us. We have gone to our initial classes, done finger printing, finished our application and will have our initial home inspection this upcoming week! We are so excited and are trying to enjoy the process and journey as much as possible before the real work of parenting starts.

     So, big news huh?! WAIT, there's more!

     We are also picking up where we left off with our NaPro Dr., in hopes of trying to conceive again. I underwent some initial testing to get a baseline of where I am at. I had an u/s that indicated LUFS was still an issue. This time she saw it on my right ovary, but my left ovary looked as if it could have ovulated, though she could not confirm. So, we now have a plan from our NaPro Dr. that we will follow in hopes of trying to conceive. Again, there was so much discussion and prayer between JJ, myself and our spiritual director that went into this decision. God has given me so much peace about this process. I do not feel like I am beating a dead horse with going back to NaPro. I actually feel hope and determination; no matter what happens. As our NaPro Dr. was laying out the cycle plan to me with ultrasounds and blood tests, I chuckled and said, “Oh, I remember this.” She replied, “Are you ready for this?” My answer was simply, “Yes, with God’s peace, I am ready.” If my NaPro Dr. is not ready to give up on us and she has hope, then I am not ready to give up. I trust her judgement and I know she would tell me if she didn’t think it was possible. So our new cycle plan will start next cycle!   

     We are ready. Ready to submit to the call that God has laid out before us. We are, "Opening wide the doors to Christ.” There is a peace and fortitude that is pushing me along that I did not feel was there beforehand. I felt like I had peace, but I was still afraid of God’s answer. I am no longer afraid of what will or won’t be His plan. I just want what is His plan. As we move forward on this journey of two huge and time consuming ways to grow our family, we would appreciate any prayers on our behalf. We are already praying for our children and how they will come to us. We are especially praying for those children and families we will encounter in the foster care system. As Mother Luisita* would say, “Adelante (onward)!” We keep moving forward trusting in God and knowing His will for us is better than our own.

     *Venerable Mother Luisita was the foundress of the Carmelite Sisters of the Most Sacred Heart here in Los Angeles. You can find out more about her here.  

Friday, March 4, 2016

Fruitful Redemption: Spiritual Helps for the Infertile Catholic

    A couple of weeks ago, I awoke one morning to the promptings of my guardian angel reminding me to read an article that was brought to my attention the day before. It was on the "spiritual test" for those suffering with infertility. To say that the article lacked any consolation and comfort would be a huge understatement. So, armed with coffee in hand and some of my favorite music on, I am going to write what I feel and know to be a more comprehensive, compassionate and truthful perspective on the spiritual side of infertility for Catholics. The original article can be found here at US Catholic. There is mention of Catholic couples doing ART and IVF, so be warned. Now, I am no theologian but I have been told by various priests, who have a passion for the theology of marriage and family, that I have a knack for understanding Church teaching in this regard. I will be pointing out what the Catechism of the Catholic Church states about the subject of infertility; which the article failed to do.

   So, let's get down to the basics; first on what the Church says about infertility and couples who struggle with this cross. In the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) it states:
   "Couples who discover that they are sterile suffer greatly....Research aimed at reducing human sterility is to be encouraged, on condition that it is placed 'at the service of the human person,'...
Techniques that entail the dissociation of husband and wife, by the intrusion of a person other than the couple are gravely immoral. Techniques involving only the married couple (homologous artificial insemination and fertilization) are perhaps less reprehensible, yet remain morally unacceptable. They dissociate the sexual act from the procreative act." (Excerpts from CCC #2374-2377)

   In summary, using artificial reproductive technologies that separate the marital act of the spouses is a no-no; such are IVF and surrogacy. The CCC goes on to say:

   "A child is not something owed to one, but is a gift...A child may not be considered a piece of property, an idea to which an alleged 'right to a child' would lead." (CCC #2378)
   This paragraph always digs into my heart as I realize that a child is a gift and for some reason I am not receiving that gift. This is where it can feel like the Church is turning you away if you are infertile. But wait, there is more:

   "The Gospel shows that physical sterility is not an absolute evil. Spouses who suffer from infertility after exhausting legitimate medical procedures should unite themselves with the Lord's Cross, the source of all spiritual fecundity. They can give expression to their generosity by adopting abandoned children or performing demanding services for others." (CCC #2379)
   Now, this can seem like a cop out from the Church and just a consolation prize to some. I can see how a person could take it that way, but the suffering that you endure from infertility can actually be such a source of fruitfulness that you could have never imagined; a spiritual fruitfulness that you may not have received if your path were easier in this regard.

   The Church is not condoning the use of whatever means necessary to make you happy nor is the Church leaving those living with infertility out in the cold. As someone who has been living with infertility for 7+ years, there have been many low valleys that I have been through. Like other couples, I have questioned the existence of God, asked why is God punishing me, tried to do penance for past sins so I can get what I want and prayed many novenas in order to bug God so much that He just gives into my desires. I have cried like Hannah while pouring my heart out to God and have shaken my fist at Him until my arm almost fell off.

   I would like to say a word about redemptive suffering here. Your suffering has purpose; even if it is just to remind you that you were made for more than this life. You were made for Heaven. When you are suffering, it is a good reminder that God wants to draw close to you. You can not run away from the way in which you are to be sanctified. You just can't. Believe me, I have tried. I have learned that the suffering I experience here on earth can be used for a greater purpose; for example, to pray for others in need. The very fact that I am willing to use my suffering to bring about good, unites me with Christ more closely; as He brought about salvation through His suffering. Now, none of us are going to bring about salvation for the whole world because that is found in Christ's perfect sacrifice, but we can imitate Him and unite ourselves with Him; thereby making our prayers more powerful. Through infertility and miscarriage I have drawn close to God in a way that I do not think I would have otherwise. For that, I am thankful. No, I am not thankful for losing our child; I am thankful that God brought about good through this soul wrenching suffering.

   There are so many peaks and valleys that we have in our spiritual lives, but those living with infertility (whether primary or secondary) can often experience the valleys more often than the peaks. This goes to the fact that infertility is a deep spiritual suffering that happens at the core of your being. Part of being human and Catholic is to pro-create and raise up the next generation; us infertile people can't do that in the traditional sense. So often times infertility can make one feel less than human or less masculine or feminine. Spiritual suffering is extremely debilitating, since it deals with not just our relationship with ourselves and others, but it deals with our relationship with our Creator. Our relationship with God our Father and Creator is the most important one of our lives and when we are hearing a repeated "No" to this very strong, beautiful and natural desire for children, it is a crushing blow to that relationship. This can give us a skewed view on who God is and we have to confront our false ideas about God.

   Infertility makes you confront the Creator vs. creature relationship that often times people have not dealt with before, unless they have dealt with past deep suffering. Infertility is an area of suffering where you realize you ultimately do not have control. Even though your desire is a holy and noble one, there are no amount of Hail Mary's that can change the will of God for your life; though there are an infinite amount of Hail Mary's that can change YOU.  So I would like to lay out some spiritual advice and help for those living with infertility.

   1. Your feelings are a good indicator on what is going on inside. Do not ignore the feelings in hopes that they will go away or just be fleeting like other feelings. These feelings of sadness, shame and anger due to infertility will not go away. These feelings are valid! I have heard from women who have crossed over and have adopted, are fostering or got pregnant and carried to term that these feelings still linger. Sometimes, they may linger your whole life. Confront the feelings in prayer, therapy and Reconciliation. I suggest all three of these strategies because it is best to care for the whole person when you are dealing with such suffering.

   2. Work on your relationship with God. Simply put, fall in love with God. This may be very difficult because you are pissed at Him for this infertility business, but HE LOVES YOU SO MUCH. He wants to lavish you in His love and suffer with you, for you are His beloved. Read scripture, in particular for women, read Isaiah 62:1-5. This scripture always reminds me that God will not let me go and He will continue fighting for me until I take my last breath. Pray the stations of the Cross or the sorrowful mysteries of the rosary so that you can walk with Christ in mutual suffering. When we suffer with someone, we grow closer to them and this suffering can actually aid in our relationship with God. Deepen your prayer life and conversation with God. Don't hold back your hurt because He wants to know all about you; even the wounds we try and hide.

   3. Cling to the Sacraments of Confession and The Eucharist. This will help you to realize that, even though you are validly suffering greatly, it does not give you license to sin. There have been so many times where my confessor has stopped me and made me realize that I am taking my pain out on others, especially my husband! Confess those sins or talk about the temptation to do IVF and illicit ART treatments. Chances are, the priest has heard it all! At Mass I started to say prayers of thanksgiving after Communion instead of asking God for what I want. Before Communion, I petition Jesus and after, I just thank Him. Sometimes it has been difficult to say "Thank you Jesus" when I am on the verge of sobbing over another cycle day 1. This has helped me to have a more grateful attitude and perspective for what I do have. It reminds me that God is on my side no matter what, and for that I am truly thankful. My confessor also suggested that if I pray a novena, to pray the same novena over again in thanksgiving, no matter what the outcome. I do have to say I am praying less novenas now, but making the ones I do pray more purposeful.

   4. Seek spiritual counsel. Spiritual direction can be such a great resource if you are discerning adoption, foster care, medical treatments or childless living. Now, this one may take some time, since it is hard to find a spiritual director; let alone one that is a right fit for you. I recommend a priest or religious sister if you can find one, but a trusted person who is faithful to the teachings of the Church would be sufficient as well. You may have to try out a few different ones if you are not comfortable after a couple meetings. You should trust the person and their advice should be tailored to your particular spiritual dilemma; not just a generalization. Not many priests are versed in pastoral care for infertility, but they at least need to be compassionate. I had to go through a few different priests before I found my regular confessor who is a trustworthy priest that has compassion toward my situation. Remember though, the role of the spiritual director is not your counselor or therapist. Do not put that responsibility on them. The role of the SD is to help guide you through your spiritual life and discernment. Do not expect them to give you all the answers if you are not putting work into your prayer life.

   5. Fall deeper in love with your spouse. How can this help you with the spiritual suffering of infertility? Our spouse can be a great consolation from God while living with infertility. Take part in the marital embrace and not just during the times where you are trying to conceive, but other times as well. Initiate that spiritual and physical bond between the two of you that is only shared between you alone. Now, I understand that couples living with infertility are often wounded when it comes to the marital embrace because it has not produced the fruit that they were hoping for, but now is the time to work on this wound. Seek therapy for this issue if need be so that you can find healing in this area.
Another way you can deepen your relationship with your spouse is through prayer; so pray with one another. A homework assignment I gave to one of my infertile couples recently was to write down 10 ways that they are fruitful in their marriage; not having anything to do with children. Write down and acknowledge what you as a couple bring to the table and how you can you use those gifts to build up the Kingdom of God. You will be surprised to find that so many blessings get overlooked!

   So there you have it. Five ways to combat the spiritual difficulties that come with infertility, all the while staying faithful to the Church's teachings. I am not an expert, well maybe I am, but I still struggle. I have my moments, even after 7+ years. I know there are women who have dealt with this for much longer and have stayed faithful to the Church, so I know it is not impossible. This is not a fix all list either where you do all of this and magically you will feel better about being infertile. I don't know anyone who feels good about being infertile but I do know people who have been given peace. I hope this is helpful to all the Catholic couples living with infertility and if you have any suggestions that help with the spiritual side of infertility, please, do share!

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Letting Go of "The Precious"

For all of you Lord of the Rings geeks out there, you know what I am talking about when you read the title. For all of you non cool people out there who don't know much about The Hobbit or the Lord of the Rings series, I will break it down for you. There is a ring that is very powerful that everyone wants so that they can be all powerful and in control. The catch is the ring makes you go cray cray because your desire for it drives you mad and you turn inward instead of using the power of the ring to do what is good for all. The ring is referred to as "my precious" to the person who wishes to possess it and it becomes an idol. The ring brings out the worst part of the characters, but for some reason, Hobbits are immune to the ring's evil powers for a longer period of time than other creatures. Perhaps that is because Hobbits are simple creatures who are happy and content with their lives. They are not overly superficial, but they love to have fun and joke around. They work when they need to work, play when they need to play, rest when they need to rest and eat when the need eat. Actually, their eating habits may be out of control... Anyway so back to my point. Hobbits lead a well ordered life; which is their main endearing quality. I always feel that I am part hobbit because I love my quiet time and my little hobbit hole, plus I eat about 6 times a day!

Why am I bringing up Hobbits and a magical ring? Well, we all have something or someone that we consider precious; it may even be an ideal that you consider precious. It's something you hold on so tight to that the thought of letting it go seems so unbearable it would make you go crazy and you are not even sure you could really let it go. It may be that job you really want, the idea of being married but you are still single, financial wealth, being seen as perfect or it can even be your own children. For me, "my precious" is getting pregnant again and adopting. Yup, I want both. There have been times where I feel like I can totally trust God with our family and feel the peace of "God's timing" and all that. Then, there have been times where I feel so sorrowful and want to control the situation where I feel like I would try any amount of summersaults to get pregnant. The original desire is good, but because of my human nature and concupiscence, I distort this desire. I want to control it and make it happen instead of trusting God completely with this desire or "precious."

Over these many years of infertility I have been working on letting "my precious" go. This past year, that was a huge theme in my life and I finally started to feel comfortable and HAPPY in my current situation. Therapy has been a huge part of that process for me. I have recently discovered that JJ's "precious" is his mother, Ma Crow. I don't want to get too much into JJ's story, for that is his to tell when he is ready. Just like infertility has been such a cross for me to bear, JJ's cross has been seeing his mother in such need and knowing he can not heal her instantly.  I have never seen my husband struggle so much internally and spiritually. I have known him for fifteen years and in that time he has always been the constant, quiet and steady man of faith. I could see how letting go of Ma Crow and trusting God completely with her healing would be difficult (understatement) because if this were my mother, I would be the same way.

Now the part of the journey is going to get harder since Ma Crow will be leaving our home this upcoming week and going to live with my SIL for a few months. She is over an hour away and it will be a difficult transition for JJ and for myself. We will not get to see her everyday. We will probably see her every other weekend. That is such a drastic change! JJ has to go back to work at the beginning of February and my client load is growing rapidly again, so we can no longer be her 24/7 care takers. It was so sad coming to this reality and having to have the conversation with Ma Crow. We all cried and have been a bit mopey since then.

Ma Crow has become so very precious and important to me in these last 6 months, especially since her stroke, and even more so these past 8 weeks that she has been living with us. The thing is, it is not in the same way as the "precious" would be. For some reason, God is giving me peace about the whole situation; maybe because I have been through this process of letting go of something and someone so dear to me. For JJ, this is his mother, the woman who gave birth to him, nursed him, bathed him and held him when he cried. The woman who gave him advice on what to do as an adult and told him what kind of woman to marry. He has always been able to shoot the breeze with her while having a cup of coffee and understand her because they are so alike. When he started earning money on his own as an adult he used to buy her flowers once in awhile just to make sure she felt special. Now, because of the stroke, most of the times she forgets things that just happened. Sometimes she does not understand what he is trying to say or she is not present because her brain is trying to figure something out. She is different from who she was before the stroke. Since JJ has known her all his life, his experience is totally different from mine.

A friend asked me the other day "I know you love your MIL, but do you like her?" My answer was a very hearty yes! Since her and JJ have both the same primary and secondary temperaments, I really like being around her. We even did the 200 temperament question with her just to confirm our suspicions about her temperament. She is a bit too much of a smart ass for me at times, but then again, so is JJ. I love that she reminds me of Minnesota and the cordiality of the Midwest. She is not haughty, but very down to earth. Plus, she is practical, simple and does not like extravagant things. All of these qualities that I fell in love with about JJ, I have learned, come from his mother. I did not think I could even last a month with her living with us and now I can not imagine her not being here. This is not to say that this has not been difficult all around; on our marriage especially. It has not been sunshine and rainbows. We have been impatient with one another and have seen each other's ugly side. Ma Crow, JJ and I have definitely had some intense arguments, but we have worked through it all together.

I have gotten to know my mother in law in ways that most daughters in law never get to. I have gotten to care for her in such a close, personal and downright awkward way. I can't imagine what it feels like for her to have her daughter in law help bathe her, clothe her and even inspect her poop! What a gift and privilege it has been for me to care for her! She has taught me so much, but the biggest lesson I have learned is that motherhood is not as scary as I think it is. Our relationship is not the normal cordial one you have with in laws where you share a common love for this person you are connected to. Now, we share a common love for one another, and not the gushy love, but the real love where you have seen the person's flaws and weaknesses and still choose to love them.

I am going to miss her being in our home, even in as close a quarters as we have lived. I will miss her daily wise cracks and her saying, "Thank God she did not become a Carmelite Jack, or we would not be eating so well" or, "Thank you for the gift of self." I will miss her and JJ cracking up about something while I am cooking in the kitchen. I will miss her saying "Tien cuidado", every time I go to leave for work. I know I will still get to see her and talk to her, but it won't be as much as it has been. I was talking with a friend on how hard this will be for JJ and she said, "Well you guys can't hog all the blessings. Since she has been such a blessing to you, maybe God wants to bless the other family members with spending more time with her." That is so true for us to remember; we are not the only ones who can care for her or who want to care for her! It is not all about what is best for us, it is what is best for all involved at this time.

I have learned that by letting go of "my precious" it is a continual letting go. As we loosen the grip on what we want to control we can grasp on to the hem of Jesus' garment more. As we let go, we are more free to love and give of ourselves as a self gift to whomever is before us. This week is going to be a tough one as we will be going to my SIL's to transition Ma Crow. We have to trust that God has the timeline for her healing in control. JJ has to let go of his "precious" and I need to support him through this. I need to be his Samwise Gamgee right now. Please pray for us all during this transition, especially pray for peace, Ma Crow's healing and my SIL and her family as they welcome Ma Crow into their home.