Yesterday, I was listening to a recording of a clinical psychologist who was speaking to an audience of Catholics dealing with infertility. His talk covered a number of struggles that he had seen in his patients, and one that stood out the most was this experience of an existential crisis.
“If I’m not going to have children, either by birth or adoption, then what is the purpose of my life?”
So often in Catholic circles (and society at large, for that matter), we try to tie our purpose in life to a specific, tangible mission. In the case of the married, this means raising children.
And this thought is pervasive. I remember being a young teen standing in a driveway talking to my Dad, telling him about discerning my vocation and wondering what I was here for. He looked at me and said, “I used to wonder about that too. You know what my dad said to me? Your purpose is to get married and have kids.”
Picture the dad in My Big Fat Greek Wedding: “Get Married! Make Babies!” This Mediterranean style of fatherly pontification was not at all foreign to me- my dad and his dad before him were both Italian.
And while this simple, straightforward way of directing the young may have done well to keep our families in line for centuries, it glosses over one important truth: not everyone is called to domestic life, and not everyone who IS called to domesticity will have everything work out as they would wish.
So what then, when the plan doesn’t play out?
I’ve heard a few answers. I’ve heard of some who say that they found themselves called to adopt, or even to forgo adoption and consciously dedicate their lives to the Church. These are beautiful things, but they’re very specific. They work for these particular individuals, but they’re not always helpful for everyone facing these challenges.
What about the rest of us?
What is the purpose of our lives when they don’t fit the poster?
The answer, I think, is very simple. And it’s our propensity to ignore or overlook the simple that leads us into so much distress as we continue to suffer through the searching.
Now, I’m much too young for the Baltimore Catechism, but I am aware of it’s famous beginning. Pardon as I paraphrase from memory:
Who made me?
God made me.
Why did he make me?
To know, love, and serve Him.
There you go.
It really is that simple. Your purpose, no matter who you are or what your state of life, is to know, love, and serve God.
“Ok,” I can hear some of you saying, “I get that. But when I got married I thought I would serve him by raising children.”
This is where we need to bring up a spiritual concept called “abandonment.” specifically this means giving up (abandoning) our own will and desires and trusting our Shepherd to lead us where He wishes. He knows the way home, and even though sometimes we think we know better, we don’t. We’re just little lambs.
Furthermore, not only are we just little lambs, but we’re not God. We’re His servants. And as the servant, our job isn’t to say, “Ok God. I’m going to serve you my way by doing this thing I want.” No- He’s the boss. He’s the Master. He’s going to show us how He wants us to serve. This is why, even though some of our desires are good, they are just not what He wants from us at the moment. Hence the need for this deeper abandonment.
I can think of a lot of examples of this from my life. You probably can too. The time I wanted to be a retreat leader in high school and the committee rejected me. The time I wanted to study theology to become a religion teacher but the classes left me feeling like something was missing in my life. The time I wanted to adopt but was left with a horrible pit in my stomach and just knew this wasn’t what He wanted from me at the time.
We have great ideas, great desires, great potential to do great things. But none of it will work and none of it will be any good until we learn to abandon all of this and let our Shepherd carry us where He wants to go.
I don’t know where your life will go, or what great mission the Lord has for you. I don’t even know what my own mission is. But I do know that He loves you, and has created you out of this great love. Your job, and mine, is to trust.
12 thoughts on “When Your Life Doesn’t Fit the Poster”
So wonderful. SUCH a great reminder!! Thank you.
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Thanks Bethany! ❤
Amen! Abandonment also is interesting when it comes to knowing what it is that He wants you to do. Like you said, there are those that are called to specific things, but then there are those of us that are just trying to live life in the best way we can figure out. You don’t ever know if there will be some unifying theme or over-arching purpose to it all… Except the simple and true one that you mentioned.
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Hi M! Reading your comment while listening to Be Thou My Vision… and it’s amazing how it goes together. 🙂 Have a blessed day!! ❤
My issue is that the Church teaches having and educating biological children is the primary mission of married people. It’s not us, or our Mediterranean forebears, who came up with that. It’s literally the Church’s teaching. So when we fail to produce, we fail in our mission. The Church
Maggie, this actually is not what the Catholic Church teaches. According to the Catechism, marriage has two equal purposes- the sanctification of the spouses and the education of children. The Church regcognizes that not all marriages can produce children- otherwise she would not allow infertile and advanced age couples to marry. This is also evident in the Code of Canon Law (canon 1084 specifically) where it explicitly states that sterility is not an impediment to marriage. This is great news! Especially for someone like me, who found out as a teenager that I didn’t have a uterus at all, and therefore would never have children. Yet our Lord called me to marriage just the same! You have not failed in your mission. Even Pope Benedict wrote that the vocation of Marriage is a vocation of the gift of self, and this is not frustrated by infertility. Also read Amoris Laetitia- Pope Francis talks about this as well, about how good and beautiful marriage is in itself, regardless of children. Your marriage matters and is valuable in the eyes of the church, even without biological children. Check out this post of mine too, it may explain this better than a comment: https://talesfromthevalley.com/2015/03/10/its-valid-period/
Sadly the Church does teach that procreation is the primary purpose. She acknowledges that both unitive and procreative ends EXIST, but one is placed higher than the other. After waking up this morning, I regret posting this information because it will surely cause more suffering for you, as it has for me. Most priests and catechists keep this teaching low profile because of how hurtful and upsetting it can be. When I was first diagnosed with “terminal” infertility I lost myself in research, looking for answers, and this was a mistake. The Church’s theology is so undeveloped, it’s very wounding.
“17. Since, however, We have spoken fully elsewhere on the Christian education of youth, let Us sum it all up by quoting once more the words of St. Augustine: “As regards the offspring it is provided that they should be begotten lovingly and educated religiously,” …. and “The primary end of marriage is the procreation and the education of children.'” Casti Connubii, Pius XI, 1930.
“No human law can abolish the natural and original right of marriage, nor in any way limit the chief and principal purpose of marriage ordained by God’s authority from the beginning: “Increase and multiply”” – Leo XIII, Rerum Novarum, 1891
Here also is scholarly article that goes over why the Church teaches the primary end is procreation, it at least mentions that this teaching is hard to accept, a bone thrown to us perhaps. The footnotes are helpful. https://www.catholicculture.org/culture/library/view.cfm?recnum=5822
Marriages like ours seem to be tolerated as not sinful, but lacking a critical ingredient. Vatican II addressed it, but vaguely, sidestepping the issue entirely, because the Council Fathers couldn’t agree between traditionalists and modernizers.
I hope that this hasn’t hurt you as it hurt me very badly when I first discovered it. I’m hopeful one day, doctrine will develop so that unitive ends will be on par with procreative ends. In the meantime life as a Catholic Christian can seem impossible.
Here’s the thing, Maggie. In the Catechism of the Catholic Church it explicitly states in paragraph 1601 “The matrimonial covenant, by which a man and a woman establish between themselves a partnership of the whole of life, is by its nature ordered toward the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of offspring; this covenant between baptized persons has been raised by Christ the Lord to the dignity of a sacrament.”
Casti Connubii and Rerum Novarum don’t take away from this, and when read in conjuction with the entire body of the Magisterium (and the Bible and all of Tradition, for that matter) leads to a wholistic teaching that marriage has a meaning in and of itself, not simply based on the “supreme gift” which is a blessing bestowed by God and completely outside of our control. A childless marriage is a suffering and a circumstance but it does not lessen the value or importance or mission of the marriage itself. Why would God call the infertile to marriage if not for this? LOVE is always fruitful – even if that fruit isn’t physical children. Marriage is in itself at the service of life and love, and how this plays out is purely up to God and not us. Love radiates outward! Even if this isn’t made physical in the form of bio kids.
Not trying to be confrontational but based on the argument you’re making, if I take it to it’s natural conclusion, would you then argue that perhaps my vocation is a fake? Or that the vocations of so many childless and married Saints and Blesseds were mistakes? God loves marriage, yes for children but also because of the world-changing power of this LOVE. A love that represents and points to the love between Christ and the Church, regardless of whether or not the Lord uses this love to bring new children into the world.
I guess what I’m also saying is that Marriage in itself always brings new LIFE- even when it’s not in the form of children. And this is our vocation- to participate in this love, life, and creation, whatever it may bring.
By no means are our vocations fake, but the context is disheartening. Especially because the church also teaches that celibacy is objectively superior to marriage. So not only am I not called to the highest vocation, I am not even able to fully accomplish the purposes of marriage, in fact, the main purpose according to traditional teaching. The heart of my struggle is this. A bird with a broken wing is still a bird; it does not lose any of its essential bird-ness just because it can not fly. And yet it was MEANT to fly. This is all the more clear with all the other sparrows swooping above, that a life spent stuck on the ground is no place for a bird. So why does God do this? He created marriage with a purpose, called me to it, and then allowed my wings to be snapped. Marriage remains marriage, but flightless. I fully appreciate what you are saying that the baptismal vocation of holiness remains intact regardless. I just don’t understand the rest of what God is doing here. Or not doing.
I would be interested in knowing any saints or blesseds who were married and childless. I know of Elizabeth Leseur (not a saint) and St Catherine of Genoa. All the others seem to have wound up as religious, martyrs, or taking vows of chastity. And those 2 had very unhappy marriages. I always read saint biographies, get excited that I’ve found one like me, and then at the end she is widowod and becomes Mother Superior of a convent somewhere.
I see where you’re going with the bird analogy, and it is one that I have been intimately familiar with in my own life. You see, the Lord created me female… then “forgot” (some could say) to give me a womb. I am missing what some theologians have indeed called an essential element of femininity. And yet, female he created me.
Does this frustrate my purpose, or mean in some way that my destiny is stunted or unfulfilled? Perhaps one time I thought so, but the answer is no. For my very soul is female, and the Lord knows for which purpose he created me.
Move this into marriage. Would we really say that the Church “merely tolerates it as not sinful”? No, because truly, ‘Christ abundantly blesses this love,” as he says in the Rite of Marriage. And he is not a liar. Are my wings clipped? Well, again I’d say no – because what if I’m not a sparrow, but an ostrich? Or what if I were never meant to fly, but to be a little songbird to perch in his living room and brighten his mornings with my happy little chirps?
We can say that marriage as an institution holds for one of its purposes the continuation of the human race, but as for particulars, God has individual purposes. He loves us uniquely as individuals, and our vocations are no different. GK Chesterton and his wife were childless. St. Henry and his wife are the patrons of childless couples, though they lived a vow of chastity. I have two sets of aunts and uncles who have a very meaningful, purposeful marriage and are good and holy people, though they never had children of their own. Who’s to say that they are not saints? Also, some good friends of mine were childless for the first 13 years of their marriage, and spent these years in continual sacrificial service to the Church.
For some, childlessness is a season, for others, it’s permanent. But the Lord doesn’t judge a successful marriage based on how many children he decides to give it! He judges marriages based on how well the couple is open to his grace and mirrors his love. As he said to St. Faustina, “I do not reward for good results, but for the patience and hardship undergone for my sake.”
As for a list of canonized examples, let’s look at it another way. There is no married person who was canonized because they had children. Even Sts Louis and Zelie, though they had children, were canonized for their own tireless and sacrificial following of our Lord.
There is no canonized person with MRKH (the genetic disorder that leaves me wombless) and yet that doesn’t mean that sainthood is impossible for me. My favorite saints for this journey are St. Joan of Arc (whose purpose was hardly in line with traditional ideas), St. Gemma (who loved Jesus perhaps as a result of her suffering) and St. Therese, who reminds us time and again how dearly Jesus loves us, personally, in the context of our “littleness”. I also love St. Fabiola of Rome, who was married, childless, eventually widowed, but her claim to holiness lies in that she was a motherly figure to the entire city of Rome during the time of St. Jerome.
Living of course, but perhaps no one has been more encouraging in this cross than Pope Benedict XVI. His quote I shared with you in that other post sums it up (that our vocation is not frustrated by this), but I also loves his reminder, “The world promises you comfort, but you were not made for comfort. You were made for greatness.” -And what great saint didn’t face massive crosses, extreme adversity, and even serious physical defects and illnesses? It is through this suffering that we have the opportunity to become saints.
The most annoying thing about the theologians you mention, specifically Alice von Hildebrand, is that she was childless herself – shouldn’t she have known better!? Her husband had a thesis that differentiated the primary purpose of marriage (procreation) from its primary meaning (the love of the couple). He actually passed this idea of purpose vs meaning by the Vatican and they approved… So he recognized the problem childless couples face and found a solution… although I’ve found his thoughts on the subject quite a stretch.
I really like what you pointed out about the marriage rite and “Christ abundantly blesses this love.” There are no fertility-based conditions on that blessing. It’s true that couples have a crown in their children, but I think couples with “bare heads” have room to receive Jesus’ own crown, the crown of thorns. This ultimately could be a much better gift than a household of children… but now I am getting into dangerous territory where I’m denying kids are the supreme gift. This is a double bind, I feel, where trying to untie the knot becomes hopeless.
I myself was diagnosed in premature menopause at 27, so I married the year before fully expecting to have babies. I have similar issues where the ovaries seem to be considered the seat of the personality or soul… I had some once but so defective they are no longer visible on ultrasound. The latest health care directive from Rome says the only transplants that are forbidden are for brains, testicles or ovaries… the reproductive bits are on the same level as the brain! Very disturbing. But of course I accept this… trying not to think of the implications.
Honestly, I think you’re working yourself into a knot with thinking too hard. Let’s focus on the truths of our faith:
Children are the “supreme gift” of marriage, but they are not the only gift. Suffering is a gift. Jesus says so himself. And it is through our suffering that we can share in his redemptive work and grow closest to him. “The Lord is close to the brokenhearted.”
Everyone who is called to marriage is called to be “open to life” but this doesn’t mean that you must force it. This is what the Church recognizes when she says that we do not have a right to children. If children are going to be given, spouses have a right that this happens only through them (hence the reason donor eggs are immoral) but the spouses themselves do not have a right to a child.
God has a different plan for everyone, and everyone has a cross. We have a cultural problem in the Church where some people assume (wrongly) that more kids = more holiness, but that’s not how it is in reality. The Holy Family had exactly one child. Some families are invited to be open and accepting of this cross of infertility. It doesn’t make them less holy, in fact, it could even make them more so, if they pick up this cross and follow Him.