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.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Merry Christmas

I know, I know you think this post is really late, but it really is not. I have been thinking about the New Year's hype and if I even care about it all. I have never really been into resolutions or going out to celebrate the New Year. This year has been no different. I keep trying to make myself care, but I just don't. I am more into the fact that it is technically still Christmas. And it will still be Christmas in our house until the traditional Epiphany on Jan 6th!

I have been praying and pondering what I want from this Christ child, this Messiah, this King, this Savior. What is my prayer and what are my desires? This is what I have come up with so far: I want the Christ child to help me, save me, heal me and change me. That is all. Pretty simple huh? Well not so much, when we consider the inner working of the human heart and the concupiscence that we are all born with.

I want Him to help me do what God is asking me to do. I don't just want the grace that He provides, I want to skillfully use it and be cognizant to call upon it when I need it. I know that the grace is there, but I want to be more aware of when I need it. Often we do not ask God for the grace to become more Christ like in those moments of anger, frustration, selfishness or when we are sleep deprived. We usually ask for grace in those moments of silent prayer or peaceful adoration when we are at our best, but we need Him the most when we are at our worst. So, that is my prayer; that Christ help me to be aware of when I need grace.

I want Him to save me; mostly to save me from myself. I want to be saved from my perfectionist ideals; that I must be perfect, that I am perfect and that others need be perfect. I have always wanted to do things perfectly. I am a classic type A personality, yet I am quite messy in my personal space. I want the walls of needing to be perfect to be torn down so that God can perfect my soul and not my external surroundings. I want my heart to love Him more perfectly. Mainly, I don't want to get in the way of God's will or His movements in my life. I want to get out of the way and let Him do His work!

I want Him to heal me from my fears. A lot of the time I base my decisions on fear. How much will this hurt? Will this kill me? Will I look stupid? Will anybody get hurt? I am so tired of fear being a dominant force in my life. I need healing in this area. I need courage; the kind that only the Holy Spirit can infuse in me. This past year God has been working on these things with me, but I want to surrender even more and take this healing to the next level. I want courage to be the driving force in my life, not fear.

I want Him to change me by continually transforming me into who He made me to be. I recently celebrated my 15 year anniversary of giving my life to Christ. I was baptized as a baby and did all the Sacraments I was suppose to at the age I was suppose to... my mother made sure of it. But I had not fully surrendered my life to Christ. I have been reflecting on how I have changed since then. My ideals and habits have become different. Even though I have been walking the talk for these past fifteen years, I know there are many areas that I can grow in. I want Him to change my heart so that His will is all that I desire. There is a song that we used to sing in youth group that said, "Change my heart O God, make it ever true. Change my heart O God, may I be like you. You are the potter, I am the clay." That is my prayer; to be molded by The Potter. That is my prayer for all of you.

Happy New Year, and more importantly, MERRY CHRISTMAS!!!