The Stages of Grief, MRKH style

The Stages of Grief, MRKH style

I’ll be throwing a few personal details out there with this post, but if it helps one other girl struggling with MRKH or the prospect of permanent infertility, it is worth it. I truly believe that God has been holding my hand through the entire ordeal, and that his grace makes all things possible.

In the months leading up to the discovery of my MRKH, I became profoundly spiritual. I would spend every available moment in the church that was across the street from my high school, praying before the Blessed Sacrament. I was the sacristan of the school chapel, and the chaplain was my spiritual director. I had a deep desire to give my whole life to God as a religious sister. I know now that this was our Lord’s way of preparing me for the trauma that would soon enter my life.

Outside I look completely normal, and up until that point I had developed normally for a teenage girl, so no one suspected anything was different. Finally, when I turned 16 and I still hadn’t menstruated (even though I felt cramps), we knew something was wrong. After a long series of doctors and tests, a laparoscopy finally proved that I had “congenital absence of uterus and vagina.” I learned later that this is also known as Mayer-Rokitansky-KĂŒster-Hauser Syndrome, or MRKH.

When I first heard the news, I was calm. I’m going to be a nun, so this doesn’t matter, I thought. Not a big deal. Let’s call that Stage 1: Denial.

Next came the identity crisis. Also known as Stage 2: Anger and Confusion

Stages of Grief: MRKH Style

True story: this question plagued me for a long time. People associate womanhood with motherhood. In our culture we call getting your 1st period “becoming a woman.” As Catholics, we hold a deep love for the mother of Jesus. Growing up in a big family, all of the women I knew were mothers. Female conversation topics almost always included children. Where did this leave me? If I didn’t have a womb, was I truly a woman?

After much anger, tears, and throwing theology books (looking at you, Alice von Hildebrand), I came to realize that being a woman has nothing to do with one’s body parts, or lack thereof. My faith teaches that God created me female on purpose, and that even my soul was created female. After a lot of over-thinking and crying, I figured it must be true. Womanhood is more than skin deep. And it is so much more than reproduction. But what about marriage? Would I be permitted to marry in the church? Thank God I felt very close to my spiritual director at the time, and he guided me to Canon Law that stated, yes. Absolutely. Sterility is not an impediment to marriage, and impotence is only an impediment if it is permanent and irreversible (mine was easily corrected). Marriage and sex is about more than the ability to bear children. My future marriage would be valid.

After the identity crisis (which lasted at least 2-3 years), we hit Stage 3:  Bargaining.

AKA, learning to trust.

I knew that the Church was opposed to IVF and surrogacy. I had a decent knowledge of why, thanks to Catholic high school. But I still wrestled with accepting this. Being in love with Jesus, I never wanted to knowingly disobey his Church, even if I disagreed (thank you, Mom and Dad, for filling my head with tales of great Saints who became my childhood heroes). And so, it was in this frame of mind that I lived the next several years of my life.

I knew there would be no special dispensation for IVF. I knew if it was considered a sin, it was bound in heaven. But still, I thought there should be some “ethical” way of doing the illicit. Though I would obey the Church, I frequently opened the conversation about it, hoping she would change her mind. I even published an article on this blog in 2010 (6 years after diagnosis) about why I thought the Church should change her stance on IVF (though I’ve since removed the post).

I think I hit Stage 4: Depression not long after my wedding. I was so unbearably sad that my husband and I would never be blessed with a child that was genetically related to us. We would never see what that looks like. Our love would never be “fruitful” in the traditional sense of the word.

Thanks be to God, I married a man who was similarly committed to obedience. Even before marriage, we trusted that these rules were given to us by God not to make us unhappy, but because he loves us and knows what is best. I believe it was the grace from the Sacrament of Marriage that opened my heart to the truth about IVF, and led to Stage 5: Acceptance. Even if you don’t kill any embryos, and you collect sperm in a “licit” way, it doesn’t matter. The act of marriage is so profoundly sacred and beautiful, and absolutely nothing should get in the way of that. We have a right that, if we are blessed with biological parenthood, it will only be through each other. Our bond is sacred. Nothing should mess with that, or cheapen it. The marital relationship should not be subject to manipulation, for any reason. This is a beautiful thing.

(Note: if you would like to read an in-depth explanation of the Church’s teaching on IVF, written by a Catholic dealing with infertility, please see this awesome post from Conceiving Hope.)

Clearly, as evidenced on this site, I still grieve. I’m sure this is a thorn that will be with me all the days of my life. I will always need God’s help. But I write because I want you to know that there is hope, even though it might not be what you think. Hope is not the confidence of a miraculous cure, but the confidence that God is with us and will sustain us. He has a plan. I know this. And no matter what you’re facing, he will carry you through.

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It’s Valid. Period.

It’s Valid. Period.

(This is the post where it becomes evident that I once considered a career in Canon Law- the legal governance of the Catholic Church. Enjoy.)

It has come to my attention that there are many people, even members of the clergy, who do not know what the Catholic Church teaches about the validity of marriage with regards to infertility. This is a huge deal! How are we supposed to grow awareness and compassion among Catholics when even some of our priests don’t know if our marriages count? Yikes.

So, is a marriage suffering infertility still valid? YES. Of course.

Here is what you need to know:

Infertility has no bearing whatsoever on the validity of the Sacrament of Marriage. It is neither here nor there. Marriage is not only about children. It is also about the good of the spouses. (See Exhibit A.)

If perfect fertility were a requirement for marriage, then women past menopause wouldn’t be permitted to marry. Hysterectomies would come with annulment proceedings. Couples found infertile would be sent to the tribunals. Pre-marital fertility testing would be required. All kinds of ridiculous pandemonium would ensue.

This sounds crazy because it IS. We know from our good common sense that marriage is about more than fertility, or lack thereof.

So what DOES the Catholic Church officially teach about marriage with regards to physical infertility? The Code of Canon Law (the official “rule book”) states this clearly:

“Sterility neither prohibits nor nullifies marriage, without prejudice to the prescript of ⇒ can. 1098″ –Canon 1084.3.

Boom.

And that Canon 1098 is all about being open and honest with your intended spouse:

“A person contracts invalidly who enters into a marriage deceived by malice, perpetrated to obtain consent, concerning some quality of the other partner which by its very nature can gravely disturb the partnership of conjugal life.”

In other words, the ONLY way that infertility would POSSIBLY become grounds for annulment is if you intentionally LIED about it and hid it from your spouse prior to marriage. Lying and deceit are never cool.

Bottom line: If you discovered infertility after marriage, or if knew you were infertile ahead of marriage (like me) and you were perfectly open and honest with your dearly beloved, your marriage is 100% valid, licit, and recognized before God and the Church.

Period.

And, much more beautifully, Pope Benedict XVI put it this way:

“I would like to remind the couples who are experiencing the condition of infertility, that their vocation to marriage is no less because of this. Spouses, for their own baptismal and marriage vocation, are called to cooperate with God in the creation of a new humanity. The vocation to love, in fact, is a vocation to the gift of self and this is a possibility that no organic condition can prevent. There, where science has not yet found an answer, the answer that gives light comes from Christ”.

3 Things Infertile Couples Need from the Church

3 Things Infertile Couples Need from the Church

It has now been 10 years since I learned that I don’t have a uterus (MRKH). During this time, having sought the help of many faithful lay people, priests, theology books, saints’ writings, blog posts and support groups, I have noticed that there is a gaping hole in the body of Catholic publishing and public awareness. Catholics dealing with infertility have plenty of resources telling them what the church does and does not permit with regard to reproductive technologies. What they don’t have is enough spiritual support to help them walk the difficult road they face.

I love that Pope Francis talks about the Church as being a field hospital. It’s not just a place for the perfectly holy with perfectly working bodies who live in perfectly formed worlds. There is sin, there is suffering, and there is death. We live in a war zone.

I don’t know anything about pastoral techniques, and I don’t have a theology degree, but I have walked this particular road long enough to have a decent view of the landscape. Taking the last 10 years into account, this is what I would like the world to know:

Infertile people need help carrying this cross. They need validation of their suffering, confirmation of their place in the Body of Christ, and encouragement to walk the path set before them.

1. Validation of suffering.

Accepting infertility is a grieving process, not unlike grieving the death of a loved one. The pain is real. Don’t minimize it. Never tell someone to “get over it.” Even years later, something unexpected can trigger tears without warning (prime example: Facebook pregnancy announcements- especially with pictures). Your infertile friends are grieving. Minister accordingly. Ask them how they’re doing. Empathize. Tell them you love them. Help them feel loved. Help them know that God loves them and has a plan for them, in spite of their body’s failings. Don’t offer false hope, and beware of Prosperity Gospel squeaking its way in. Sometimes, more prayer isn’t going to make a baby. God will do what He wills, not what we will.

2. Confirmation of their place in the Body of Christ.

Simply put, many of us feel like we don’t belong. We’re surrounded by other couples who have been gifted with children.

Infertile couples need to know that their marriage has a purpose in itself, with or without children, which are a gratuitous gift from God and not a prerequisite to a faithful union or a required demonstration of fruitfulness. Being “open to life” means being open to whatever life God has planned for you, be it 10 children, no children, overseas missionary work, or anything else. Growing up in a family, it’s natural to expect children-but what right do we have to expect a gift? If we teach that certain technologies are wrong because children are a gift and not a right, then we need to carry that through and emphasize the fact that marriage is not made complete by the blessing of children- sacramental marriage is already complete to begin with. This teaching tends to get lost. We need to remember that children are not the only manifestation of fruitfulness in marriage. They are most obvious, but not the only. Let’s talk about other manifestations of fruitfulness: Charity, Hospitality and Sacrifice.

3. Encouragement to walk the path set before them.

Following the teachings of the Magisterium in the case of infertility may be the hardest thing that many of these couples have ever done in their lives. With some forms of infertility, the the only way to fulfill the good, natural, and burning desire for a biological child is through illicit treatments. Laying down these God-given desires and freely choosing to forgo these technologies (sometimes out of pure obedience rather than agreement) is a tremendous sacrifice. It is truly dying to oneself. This self-sacrifice can go on for years, or even a lifetime. If you know someone dealing with infertility who is trying to follow Church teaching- encourage them. Recognize their desire to please the Lord. Don’t beat them down with doctrine and never, ever say, “just adopt.” Adoption is a unique calling, one that the couple needs to discern separately.

The best thing that anyone ever said to me upon expressing my frustration with Church teaching was, “God gives us these rules for a reason. He knows what is ultimately going to make you happy. Somehow, I don’t think that IVF is going to make you happy.” Those words have stuck with me ever since they were said some six years ago, and they have become the biggest source of encouragement for me along this path. True, these words won’t work for everyone, but there is something out there to give life to The Way for each person who desires to walk it. At the end of the day, the best thing you can do is to help us to see the beauty of the Church’s teachings. Help us stay strong in our belief that this road is worth it. Be a friend along the road, even if it’s the Via Dolorosa.

The Body of Christ: Beaten and Bruised, Stolen and Mocked, Adored and Glorified

The Body of Christ: Beaten and Bruised, Stolen and Mocked, Adored and Glorified
The following is not my own, but something that must be shared. This completely floored me today. It reads like something from St. Lawrence or the other martyrs. I had to share it with you. I hope it goes viral among Catholics. I found this on Facebook today, shared by my husband’s uncle who is a Roman Catholic Priest. He didn’t write it. It looks like writer is Steven R. Sanchez. Mr. Sanchez, please correct me if I am wrong. I have nothing to add. Here you go:

 

 

I have been trying to put a few things together in my mind and I welcome the intervention of my friends and my betters.

For the last week I have been incredibly bothered by a homily I heard on the Feast of the Assumption. The priest began speaking about hope and goodness promised by the Assumption in the face of what seems like a negation, like death. He then said “Surely all of you are aware of the terrible thing happening in the Midwest.” At this point, I was certain and completely moved that he was going to say “In Ferguson, Missouri . . . ” Instead he said, “In Oklahoma City . . . “

I was completely floored. Not only did I not have a clue what he was referring to, when he finally did get to the point (some Satanists were trying to hold a black mass with a consecrated host) I was absolutely shocked.

Literally, in the preceding weeks, women and children fleeing the poverty and violence of their homes had been met by utter violence and hatred at the American border, Iraqi Christians had been exiled, crucified, and their children decapitated by ISIS, and in ANOTHER MIDWEST TOWN, an unarmed young black man had been shot and killed by a police officer and the result was utter chaos in the streets and a police response that I could only stare mouth agape as TANKS ROLLED DOWN THE STREETS OF AN AMERICAN TOWN WITH GUNS AIMED AT AMERICAN CITIZENS.

And instead, for this young priest, the greatest evil facing our country, the evil we in BROOKLYN had to join in and pray for a miracle, pray for an end to the evil, was this Black Mass in Oklahoma.

And so I began to think about this. Something bothered me about this whole juxtaposition. Was this priest right? Was it that in some profound cosmic mystery the Black Mass was more serious and dangerous than everything else?

You see, these Satanists were trying to get their hands on a consecrated host, on the real presence of Christ. Not just a symbol, not just some bread that they could pretend was a consecrated host, they wanted to get their hands on the real thing . . . the body of Christ. And this image began to ruminate in me.

On the border of Mexico in Texas and California the body of Christ, present in these women and children coming to our country with all of the hope of a better life, was rejected. “Go home. We don’t want you here. America for Americans.” Yes, America for Americans, not America for the poor, not for the marginalized, not for the stranger, not the outcast, nor the orphan and the widow . . . No, not them. Not those stinking dirty brown faces that came here–gasp–illegally! No, not that Body of Christ.

And in Iraq. Not those nazarenes. Not them. Send them away. Kill them if they stay. And we can sit comfortably by while they suffer. And our president can golf. And our congress can pontificate. And our elite can talk about how we can’t go back there. Can’t help them. And isn’t it all too bad. We don’t really want to get involved. Not with that Body of Christ, persecuted and martyred.

And in Ferguson. It’s just easier to look at this police officer as a racist murderer. To look at Michael Brown as the latest victim of a racist society. And especially from the other side of those tanks, to look at those crowds of young men and women, angry and hurt, as just violent criminals that we must STOP before they loot and hurt those businesses, by ANY MEANS NECESSARY it seems. Because to look at them as people, wounded, fragile, full of desire for love and truth and beauty . . . well, then, I might have to put my ideology aside and actually feel something. Maybe even weep. No, let’s talk about the plight of the black man, the racism of the white man, the inherent goodness of the police, the slant of the media, the rush to judgment . . . let’s talk about men in general, because they don’t have bodies . . . No, no body of Christ for us here either. Just sociological claims and political posturing. Right and Left and Republican and Democrat. Men and women without flesh. Ideas without bodies.

You see, for me the irony is that we ignore the body of Christ in Mosul. We disincarnate the Body of Christ in Ferguson. We reject the Body of Christ on the border. But in Oklahoma City, there, Satanists are trying to get their hands on the Body of Christ. For all their perversion, they’re the only ones who are trying to get their hands on Him.

And what were they going to do? Commit a sacrilege? Trample it? Beat it? Profane it? The first time that happened, He had handed himself over for it. When Peter raised his sword to defend him, he was rebuked. The Son of Man must suffer and die. And we’re scandalized by some Satanists? This is where we spend our energy?

You see, I’m not a bishop. (I’m sure the whole Church should rejoice in that.) But if I were. If I was the Bishop of Oklahoma City, I would have said “Ok, you want the Body of Christ so badly, I’ll take him to you.” And I would have invited my flock to go with me. We would have walked through the streets of Oklahoma City, from the Cathedral to the Convention Center where these Satanists would be waiting, and Monstrance in Hand I would have led my flock. I would have led them right inside. I would have led them right up to their altar. I would have turned, and offered the benediction, and I would have prostrated myself, and invited my flock to prostrate itself. We would have prostrated ourselves and there offered ourselves to his Presence. And we would have stayed. Let them Crucify him, but I would adore him. And I would have wept. Wept for these poor confused Satanists. Wept for Iraq. For Isis. For Ferguson. For those women and children at the border. For America. But most of all, I would have wept for Him. Him who I long for and I am so unfaithful to. Him who I want to love but everyday I crucify. Him who is the only one that can respond to this deep and utterly profound need I have for happiness. And I doubt there would have been a black mass. But I’m probably wrong, and I would have handed him over myself, and then I would have shown myself to be like Judas. Again.

This is probably why I’m not a bishop.

“Our Hearts Are Restless”

“Our Hearts Are Restless”

Now that January is almost over, it’s time to assess how I’m doing with my resolutions. I’m happy to report that 2 out of 3 are going remarkably well. I’ve stuck to my Jorge Cruise diet, and I feel great. I’ve even lost about 5 pounds so far. SNAPS!
My second resolution was to enjoy my house more. This one is definitely working out for me. I’m not entirely sure what I’m doing differently. Maybe it was an attitude adjustment. Either way, I’m really enjoying it. Also, my job is becoming more bearable when I think about the reason I have to go to work.

My third resolution was to grow deeper in my Catholic faith. This one has been a little tricky. My participation in the Sacraments is about where it has always been. James and I always go to Sunday Mass together, and that will never change. I’ve been to Confession once this year, and will go again soon.

It’s not this outward participation that is my problem, though. My prayer life is minimal compared to what it used to be in the past. I seem to be experiencing some sort of aversion to long prayers. I think that what I need to do is just force myself into a habit of prayer. Love is an action, not a feeling. Loving God requires commitment, like marriage. You know that you love him, but sometimes you have to remind yourself, and act lovingly even when you don’t feel like it. You have to “put in the time” whether you want to or not. Eventually, it will pay off.

Perhaps this is a little bit like St. John of the Cross and his “Dark Night of the Soul”. I don’t seem to be interested in praying, yet I have a desire to be more interested in praying. I’ll just pray anyway. As St. Augustine said, “Our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee, O Lord.”

What Lent Means to Me

Throughout my years growing up in a Catholic family, I always looked forward to Lent. Kind of weird, I know. But I think it was because of all the traditions. I liked going to Stations of the Cross on Fridays, and watching the priest and altar servers walk from station to station, praying, kneeling, and chanting the Stabat Mater. It was 7:30 on a friday night, and the church was packed. Then we’d have cheese pizza in the church basement afterwards.

Faith was important in my family, and Lent represented it all: the promise of redemption and the knowledge that, though we screw up sometimes, God loves us more than we could ever imagine. Lent was a chance to get more serious about spirituality, say more rosaries, go to Mass, go to Confession, and remember how much God loves us.

A wise priest once told me that truth is important, but not more important than love. Sure, you have plenty of people who know all the ins and outs of theology, philosophy, and church history, but without love they truly are, as St. Paul said, “a sounding brass or a clanging cymbal”. Then there’s the other extreme, people who are so open and accepting that they don’t have the will or the desire to speak the truth when necessary. As they say (and this applies to both extremes), “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.” We cannot lose sight of the truth, but we cannot lose sight of love either. We need both.

That is what Lent means to me. Yes, we screw up. Yes, we should be better. But God loves us anyways, and is always there to forgive us. It’s not about how many times you mess up, or how bad you’ve been. It’s about the fact that God loves us so much that he was willing to become one of us, and suffer an excruciating death for the chance that we might love him back.

What’s the point of Confession?

Last night, in the midst of all the shopping and wrapping and baking, my fiancĂ© and I decided to go to our parish penance service. If you’re not familiar with Catholic penance services, they do a few readings from the bible, have a short homily, and then everyone lines up to receive the Sacrament of Confession. Several priests from other parishes were there to hear confessions, including one from my beloved old parish, St. Mary of the Mills.

Going to confession is one of those things that provokes a lot of uncertainty from people, whether they are Catholic or not. Plenty of people argue that there’s no need for it. Why tell the priest your sins when you can tell God yourself?

The official answer is that through the Sacrament of Confession, God forgives us of our sins and grants us the grace to be stronger in the future. This is a textbook answer that works for some. It’s not compelling enough for everyone.

There’s no answer that would satisfy everyone, but the reason I go is pretty simple. It’s wonderful to be able to tell someone all of your problems, and have that person listen, give you a thoughtful answer, and tell you not to worry about it anymore. That’s basically what confession is. Most priests will listen as if they’re your best friend. They’ll give you advice you never thought of. They’ll tell you that God forgives you. When you’re really troubled, it makes a huge difference to hear someone actually say, “I absolve you of your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”

The best part of it all is that there is someone who will listen. They’ll listen, and they’ll never tell a single soul. It’s sacred. Confession is an opportunity to talk to someone in total secrecy and know that they have your best interest at heart. With everything that goes on in life, how could you not want to take advantage of that?

Why I Go to Mass

Last night, before Mass, James and I were sitting in the pew at St. Patrick’s. The stained glass windows were black, and the warm glow of candles from the altar created a calm atmosphere. The choir was practicing a chant of Ave Maria. I felt as people must have felt for the last 2000 years. In walks the young priest, wearing that dress. Sure it’s not a dress, it’s the old pre-Vatican II non-pants priest daily wear. Seeing priests in it always makes me feel as though I have been transported through time, or that time is still completely. I am seeing what people saw in 1980, in 1880, in 1780, in 80. (Ok maybe they didn’t wear that back in 80 AD but you get the point.)

Once the priest is done suiting up in the sacristy, the procession begins: altar boys holding candles, the lectors, the priest in his white chasuble. The songs are ones that have been used for generations. There’s something about being at Mass at night. It’s timeless.

Balcony of the Haggia Sophia
Me in the Haggia Sophia, where Mass was said for almost 1000 years.

James and I were at church last night because yesterday was the feast of the Immaculate Conception. Basically that means that on December 8, we celebrate the belief that God allowed Mary to be born without the stain of original sin in order for her to later be the mother of Jesus. Born Catholic, I have always gone to church. Even during times of my life when I felt far from God, and confused about what I believed in, I still went to church. Blame it on my Catholic school upbringing. I think the reason I have never quit church, no matter how dismal I felt about my life or about God, was that to me, the church is home. The traditions, the prayers, the vestments, and the songs from 200 or 500 years ago all make me feel that I am part of something that is way more important than any other something I have ever been a part of.

I have taken many theology classes in my life. I have studied the history of the prayers and the songs, the saints and the creed, the schisms and the councils. Studying, though, can only get you so far. Sometimes, people study so much that they lose sight of what really matters, that God became Man to teach us how to love one another. They care more about the letter of the law than the spirit of the law. No matter how doubtful I ever feel about God, about people, about where my life is headed, coming back to Mass reminds me why I keep going. The Church is our mother, the home we come back to when all else fails. That is the way I felt last night.