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!