Tales from the Valley

"Not all those who wander are lost"- J.R.R. Tolkien

The Couple in the Pew

The Couple in the Pew

This is my article that was published in the Catholic Standard a few months ago. I found it online today and thought you all would like to read it.

The couple in the pew: the impact of infertility

By Connie Poulos
Thursday, April 23, 2015 2:26 PM

There is a couple sitting in the pew on Sunday. You know they have been married at least one, two, three years now. No children yet.

If you’ve spotted me, or any of the thousands of local Catholics dealing with infertility, our childlessness is not by choice.

The desire for children is deeply rooted in our human nature. We see this in the excitement and hope of those trying to conceive. We see it most profoundly in the pain experienced by those for whom this desire is unfulfilled.

According to a recent study, one in six couples struggle with some form of infertility. Infertility is defined as the inability to conceive after a year of trying, or the inability to carry a pregnancy to term. Infertility can be primary (no living children) or secondary (unable to conceive or carry an additional child). Affecting men and women in equal numbers, infertility is a true medical condition and not the result of stress, “not doing it right” or “not relaxing.” Worse still, it is a real emotional and spiritual trauma that can potentially wreak havoc on a husband and wife.

The inability to achieve something so natural, so expected, so inherent to the dignity of marriage, cuts at the heart of our sense of self. Broken dreams serve as a painful reminder that children are indeed a gift; they cannot be created on demand. They cannot be earned. We are not the Author of Life, God is.

Emotionally, there is no way to “get over” infertility. It is a continual loss, day in and day out. Even years after acceptance, something unexpected can trigger uncontrollable tears. Baptisms, Mass readings mentioning pregnancy, pregnancy announcements and receiving a shower invitation are all situations that can re-open the wound. Holidays are hard. Mother’s Day and Father’s Day Masses bring a unique degree of torture. Why should all these happy events cause such grief? Simply this: the wound is too deep. The weight is too much to bear.

Part of this cross, unique to Catholics, is choosing to put God above our own desires. With some forms of infertility, the only way to fulfill the good, natural, and burning desire for a biological child is through illicit treatments. Laying down our God-given desires and freely choosing to forgo these technologies (sometimes out of pure obedience) is a tremendous sacrifice. Many friends and family cannot understand why we choose this. Instead of supporting our faith, they act as though we are bringing pain upon ourselves, and plead with us to try IVF. What keeps us going? We trust that in his wisdom, God does not give us these rules to make us miserable, but because he knows what is ultimately going to make us happy.

Learning to live in an infertile reality is like climbing a mountain barefoot in a blizzard. First things first, hold tight to your spouse and to God. No matter what is causing infertility, the important thing to remember is that this suffering, this pain, was not given to you by God. Suffering is a reality of our fallen world, as unavoidable as earthquakes and hurricanes. As much as we cry over infertility, God cries more. He loves life; he loves babies! He cries for those who are unable to conceive or who lose a child. The beauty of our faith is that we believe that our suffering itself is fruitful. We have hope that God can and will use our suffering to create something glorious. “Behold, I make all things new” (Revelation 21:5).

Even in the cross, there are gifts to be explored. Infertility opens our eyes to the reality that fruitfulness in marriage takes many forms, and that our call to life and love is a daily occupation, regardless of our circumstances. Infertility, viewed from the cross, reminds us that the gift given in marriage involves a new life, even if it may not be expressed in the beautiful gift of children. All married love is fruitful. The light of Christ that comes out of the sacramental union shines forth into the darkness of our fallen world. “The vocation to love,” said Pope Benedict, “is a vocation to the gift of self and this is a possibility that cannot be impeded by any organic condition.”

When God calls us to marriage, he calls us to love and honor our spouse all the days of our lives. He calls us to be open to whatever life he has planned. Our vocation to marriage is as real and as serious as any other vocation. A family of two is no less a family. We are a visible sign of God’s love.

If you or someone you know is struggling with infertility, we would like to invite you to the upcoming Archdiocesan Morning of Hope and Healing, to be held on Saturday, April 25 at 10:00, at the Saint John Paul II Shrine in Washington, DC. Planned with all types of infertility in mind, we welcome all those who carry this cross, along with their friends, families and supporters. There will be simultaneous translation into Spanish for our Hispanic faithful. For more information, please visit http://www.adw.org/event/mass-hope-healing/ or email or call Mary Hamm in the Office of Family Life at hammm@adw.org; or 301 853-4499.

(Connie Poulos is a local Catholic blogger at http://www.TalesfromtheValley.com . #Visible Sign is a column on marriage and family life produced by the Archdiocese of Washington’s Office for Family Life. For more information, see http://www.adw.org/visiblesign.)

Gemma

Gemma

This is St. Gemma. I just finished reading her diary. And, um, WOW.

Gemma Galgani was an Italian girl who lived at the turn of the century near Lucca, Italy. Much like St. Therese, her mother died when she was very young, and from then on she embraced Mary as her mom. Gemma’s diary is all about her love for Jesus and her struggle for holiness. What is really remarkable is that she was frequently blessed with mystical experiences, regularly conversing with Jesus, Mary, her Guardian Angel, and St. Gabriel Possenti.

I loved her diary. I really loved it. She was close to my age, and reading the conversations between Gemma and Jesus were just so…. I can’t think of a word. It was awesome. And in her diary, Jesus comes across as a real person- not just the up-in-the-sky ethereal Godhead, but the real flesh, blood and personality that we know is true but so often forget. He has a personality!! His facial expressions show real emotions, and he laughs. And her guardian angel even says things like, “Gemma, you have to talk to Jesus this way, otherwise he won’t want to do what you ask.” How human is that!!?? As Catholics we believe that Jesus really is human and divine, but how often do we remember the human part? There’s even one part where Gemma says something to Jesus that her guardian angel had told her, and Jesus gets kind of a stern look on his face and said “I don’t like him to tattle on me.”

Reading St. Gemma’s journey to holiness made me think a lot about my life, and I think it has a great lesson for everyone. So much in life is out of our control. Gemma was never able to become a Passionist sister, as was her dream. And some dreams really do not come true, no matter how hard we try. But God has a plan and a purpose for each of us, and that is holiness. We are made for Heaven, and the prayer for holiness will always be answered. This dream will come true.

St. Gemma’s diary is a love story with Jesus.  He loves us more than we can imagine, and all he wants from us is our love in return.

If you’d like to read more about St. Gemma and her Diary, click here.

St. Gemma, pray for us.

Taking Up Our Cross

Taking Up Our Cross

The first followers of Jesus called their faith The Way. Living the Gospel is a journey and a way of life, one that was so strikingly different from their pagan neighbors that they stood out. It’s no different today. As my grandfather used to say, “We live one way, the world lives another.” Our faith is counter-cultural. To put it bluntly, if you truly live as a Christian, you will not fit in.

This can mean a number of things, and none of them are easy. It can mean going out of your way during a busy, stressful day to help someone, or being patient with a cranky call center rep. It can mean refusing to engage in gossip about a troublesome family member, and doing your best to love them as Jesus does. It can mean being the only one of your friends not to live together before marriage, because your faith teaches that marriage and sex are sacred. It can mean giving up an hour of your Sunday morning to get dressed and visit Jesus at Mass, even when you “don’t get anything out of it” because you know its the right thing to do.

It can mean any form of denying yourself and your wishes, even if they are natural, because you believe that there is a proper ordering of things, and you have the gift of free will.

A wise person once said, “Christianity without suffering isn’t Christianity, it’s Paganism.” We can all be nice and get along. What makes Christianity different? It’s our willingness to bear wrongs patiently in the name of our God. It’s taking up your cross daily, and striving to live according to the Gospel.

Our society has indeed reached a new era of paganism. No, not too many people still believe in Zeus and Mars. The modern gods are Money, Conformity, Relativism and Desire, and the king of the gods, Self.

Everybody has a cross to bear, something that makes you say “I could be a perfect Catholic if that one teaching didn’t go against what I need in my life. It works for some people, but it won’t work for me because of x, y and z.” To live our faith, we need to abandon those thoughts. They are not from God. When Peter suggested that Jesus find a way out of his impending crucifixion, Jesus rebuked him saying, “Get behind me, Satan!” And yet we know the cross was hard for Jesus to accept. He sweat blood as he prayed, “Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not as I will, but as you will.”

Accepting our cross is the hardest thing we’ll ever do. And we’re going to fall on occasion. But God knows this, and he loves us anyway. The beauty of our faith is that we know that if we leave the right path, our Good Shepherd loves us so much that he goes looking for us, eager to forgive us, bring us back, and help us follow the Way.

Jesus-The-Good-Shepherd

My Patron Saint

My Patron Saint

“Which Saint are you going to choose for your Confirmation?” It’s a question I heard about as frequently as “What are you going to be when you grow up?” The dreaming, the imagining and the pressure was pretty much the same for both questions.

I always thought I would choose St. Elizabeth Ann Seton. Elizabeth is a pretty name, I thought. And living in Maryland, I remember the time my parents took me to Emmitsburg to see her shrine.

elizabeth

St. Agnes was a favorite of mine as well. Patron saint of girls? I’m a girl, so that’s cool. She was always a favorite. The martyrs are all inspiring.

agnes

Finally, push came to shove and 7th grade came around. I had to make a decision. “No, you can’t just pick a pretty name,” my teacher said. “You have to pick a saint whose example means something to you. Which saint lived a life that you would like to imitate?”

Well, now things changed. St. Elizabeth became a nun. I did not want to be a nun, at least not yet in my life. In fact, I decided right then and there to rule out every female saint that was a nun, which seemed like 90% of them. The mothering ones didn’t quite appeal to me either. That narrowed it down to the early martyrs and a handful of others, including:

St. Joan of Arc.

joan

That’s it! That’s the one! There’s an adventure story if you ever heard one. God told her to put on men’s clothes and lead the French army to victory, which ultimately led to a martyr’s death by burning, all the while fixing her eyes on the crucifix and calling out the name of Jesus.

I always had a sense that someday there would be some sort of revolution or underground movement, or that Christianity would go underground (like the early days), and I would be heavily involved as a leader. More childish nonsense, perhaps. But it lasted the whole of my childhood, and St. Joan of Arc fit that narrative.

Did I imitate this saint’s path to holiness, like my religion teacher said I should? Looking back at the last few decades, I might not be much of an underground leader, but I’ve definitely gone against the grain. I still love that I chose St. Joan of Arc because her attitude of “who cares what society thinks” has been a big inspiration for me. Maybe the Holy Spirit was guiding me there, knowing that I would soon face a lot of things that would set me apart. As much as I love her, I’m ashamed to say I don’t ask her intercession nearly as often as I should. I’m trying to get better at that so she’ll know me when we meet in heaven.

Who did you pick for your Confirmation saint, and why? Are you still happy with your choice? Do you talk to them much?

When Necessary, Use Words.

When Necessary, Use Words.

Truth be told, I’m rather non-confrontational. I don’t seek out arguments. And if there’s one skill I learned at the auto body, it’s patience and calm under fire.

That being said, it seems rather ironic that I’ve always had an interest in Catholic apologetics- studying, explaining and defending the faith against misconceptions (and the occasional outright lie).

As Christians, we are called to evangelize. What does this mean? St. Francis of Assisi is famously quoted saying, “Preach the Gospel at all times, and when necessary, use words.” Our love should be the primary witness to Christ in our lives. No one likes a pushy door-to-door Bible salesman, or the people who confront you at the mall on Sundays when all you want is a new pair of jeans.

When Necessary, Use Words.

But what about those times when words really are necessary?

I usually don’t start discussions about differences in faith. My general philosophy is that no one is converted in an argument. If someone asks me questions about my Catholicism, I’m happy to answer. I love religious discussions. But I usually don’t go looking for debates.

Recently, thanks to social media, I’ve been involved in a few of these. The first was quite amicable. It was difficult, but everyone involved was respectful and polite. I truly believe that the participants were seeking the truth.

The second of these was markedly different. It was with a stranger: a professed atheist. He started poking me a little, but he seemed polite enough. It was civil, so I entertained him for a bit. But as the conversation wore on, he lost his cool. He started getting rude. And then he crossed the line: he referred to his atheism as “the way, the truth and the life.”

That’s when I knew who was talking. I said a prayer and ended the conversation.

So what’s the takeaway? How do we handle conversations about differences of faith? Do we never discuss religion at all, be friends with everyone, and go through life never making waves? But what about all the misinformation out there? Don’t we need to be witnesses to the truth of the gospel, and aren’t words necessary at times? How should we handle things like this?

+AMDG+

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-Küster-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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Infertility Awareness: A Catholic Perspective

Infertility Awareness: A Catholic Perspective
The following is reprinted with graphics from my friends at Conceiving Hope, at their request. It was written by a “secret” facebook group of over 430 women, of which I am a member. If you would like to join our group, please use my Contact form to get in touch. In addition, if you are in the Washington, DC area and would like to attend a Mass being offered this Saturday for those suffering from infertility, please click here.
Infertility_Awareness_Week2015_Banner
One in six couples will experience infertility at some point in their marriage. Infertility is medically defined as the inability to conceive after 12 cycles of “unprotected” intercourse or 6 cycles using “fertility-focused” intercourse. A couple who has never conceived has “primary infertility” and a couple who has conceived in the past (regardless of the outcome) but is unable to again has “secondary infertility”. Many couples who experience infertility have also experienced miscarriage or pregnancy loss.

This week, April 19 – 25, 2015 is National Infertility Awareness Week.

We, a group of Catholic women who have experienced infertility, would like to take a moment to share with you what the experience of infertility is like, share ways that you can be of support to a family member or friend, and share resources that are helpful.

If you are experiencing infertility, please know you are not alone. You are loved and prayed for and there are resources to help you with the spiritual, emotional, and medical aspects of this journey.

In the beginning of trying to conceive a child, there is much hope and anticipation; for some, even a small fear of “what if we get pregnant right away?” There is planning of how to tell your husband and when you’d announce to the rest of the family. It is a joyful time that for most couples results in a positive pregnancy test within the first few months. However, for one in six couples, the months go by without a positive test and the fears and doubts begin to creep in. At the 6th month of trying using fertility-focused intercourse (using Natural Family Planning), the couple knows something is wrong and is considered “infertile” by doctors who understand the charting of a woman’s pattern of fertility. At the 9th month of trying, the month that, had they conceived that first month, a baby would have been arriving, is often the most painful of the early milestones. At the 12th month mark the couple “earns” the label from the mainstream medical community as “infertile”.

As the months go by, the hopes and dreams are replaced with fears, doubts, and the most invasive doctors’ appointments possible. As a Catholic couple faithful to the teachings of the Church, we are presented by secular doctors with options that are not options for us and are told things like “you’ll never have children” and “you have unexplained infertility”; by our Catholic doctors we are told to keep praying and to have hope as they roll up their sleeves and work hard to figure out the cause of our infertility, with each visit asking, “How are you and your husband doing with all of this?”

We find it hard to fit in. We have faith and values that are different than our secular culture, but our small families, whether childless (primary infertility) or with fewer children than we hoped for (secondary infertility), make us blend in with the norm. We have faith and values that are in line with the teachings of our Church, but our daily life looks so much different than the others who share those values and that makes us stand out in a way that we would rather not. We are Catholic husbands and wives living out our vocation fully. Our openness to life does not come in the form of children; it takes on the form of a quiet “no” or “not yet” or “maybe never” from God each month as we slowly trod along. Our openness to and respect for life courageously resists the temptations presented to us by the secular artificial reproductive technology industry.

Often times our friends and family do not know what to say to us, and so they choose to not say anything. Our infertility stands like a great big elephant in the room that separates us from others. Most of the time, we don’t want to talk about it, especially not in public or in group settings because it is painful and we will often shed tears. We realize it is difficult and ask that you realize this difficulty as well. We will do our best to be patient and to explain our situation to those who genuinely would like to know, but please respect our privacy and the boundaries we establish, as not only is infertility painful, it is also very personal.

One of the hardest experiences of infertility is that it is cyclical. Each month we get our hopes up as we try; we know what our due date would be as soon as we ovulate; we know how we would share the news with our husband and when and how we would tell our parents. We spend two weeks walking a fine line between hope and realism, between dreaming and despairing. When our next cycle begins – with cramps and bleeding and tears – we often only have a day or two before we must begin taking the medications that are meant to help us conceive. There is little to no time to mourn the dream that is once again not achievable; no time to truly allow ourselves to heal from one disappointment before we must begin hoping and trying again. We do not get to pick what days our hormones will plummet or how the medications we are often taking will affect us. We do not get to pick the day that would be “best” for us for our next cycle to start. We are at the mercy of hope, and while that hope keeps us going it is also what leaves us in tears when it is not realized.

Some will experience infertility with a complete lack of cycles. Some couples won’t even get to experience the benefit of being able to really try to conceive because of this harsh reality, which is a constant reminder of brokenness for those experiencing it. The pain and anxiety that comes from a lack of reproductive health can be crippling.

And yet others, despite hormonal dysfunction and health issues, will experience the cyclical nature of infertility through conception itself (or recurring conception). These couples go on to lose their children (early, full term, or shortly after birth, and anywhere in between) either once or many times. If you know that we’ve experienced a loss (something we may or may not have the courage to share), know that we are grieving. It wasn’t “just” a pregnancy or “just another” pregnancy that was lost; it was our living baby that died. And we are more likely to be traumatized by the cyclical nature of our infertility because of our losses. We do not get to choose that our cycles will mimic our losses. We are at the mercy of hope.

Our faith is tested. We ask God “why?”, we yell at Him; we draw closer to God and we push Him away. Mass brings us to tears more often than not and the season of Advent brings us to our knees. The chorus of “Happy Mother’s Day” that surrounds us at Mass every year will be almost more devastating than the blessing of mothers itself. We know that the Lord is trustworthy and that we can trust in Him; sometimes it is just a bigger task than we can achieve on our own.

Please

* Pray for us. Truly, it is the best thing that anyone can do.

* Do not make assumptions about anything – not the size of a family or whether or not a couple knows what is morally acceptable to the Church. Most couples who experience infertility do so in silence and these assumptions only add to the pain. If you are genuinely interested, and not merely curious, begin a genuine friendship and discover the truth over time.

* Do not offer advice such as “just relax,” “you should adopt,” “try this medical option or that medical option” – or really give any advice. Infertility is a symptom of an underlying medical problem; a medical problem that often involves complicated and invasive treatment to cure.

* Do not assume that we will adopt. Adoption is a separate calling and should be discerned by every married couple irrespective of their ability to conceive biological children. Infertility does not automatically mean that a couple is meant to adopt.

* Do not assume that if we try to adopt that the process will be successful. Many adoption attempts fail and don’t result in a couple receiving a child placement (temporarily or permanently). Some couples are flat out rejected from attempting to adopt by different agencies and governments. Just like adoption is an incredibly intrusive and emotionally charged issue that is part of a separate calling in the journey to “parenthood”, it isn’t always a possibility for infertile parents. Do not assume we can. And be gentle if we are trying. It’s extra painful to be infertile and not be able to adopt. And we are likely so hurt that we can’t bear to share the details with everyone.

* Ask how we are doing and be willing to hear and be present for the “real” answer. Often times we answer, “OK” because that’s the easy, “safe” answer. Let us know that you are willing to walk through this tough time with us. Frequently we just need someone who is willing to listen and give us a hug and let us know we are loved.

* Offer a Mass for us or give us a prayer card or medal to let us know you are praying for us. Just please refrain from telling us how we must pray this novena or ask for that saint’s intercession. Most likely we’ve prayed it and ask for the intercession daily. Please feel free to pray novenas and ask for intercession on our behalf.

* Be tolerant and patient. The medications we take can leave us at less than our best; we may not have the energy or ability to do much. Please also respect us when we say “no, thank you” to food or drinks. We may have restricted diets due to our medical conditions and/or medications.

* Share the good news of your pregnancy privately (preferably in an email or card or letter and not via text, IM chat, phone call or in person) and as soon as possible. Please understand that we are truly filled with joy for you; any sadness we feel is because we have been reminded of our own pain and we often feel horrible guilt over it as well. Please be patient and kind if we don’t respond immediately, attend your baby shower or don’t “Like” all of your Facebook updates about your children. Again, it is really about us, not you.

* Help steer group conversations away from pregnancy and parenting topics when we are around. We like to be able to interact in a conversation to which we can contribute meaningfully.

*Do not exclude us from your life because you think we may be uncomfortable. It is actually more painful to be left out because of the cross we’re carrying, and we know that doesn’t make a lot of sense to our families and friends. We will excuse ourselves from events or situations if we must, and please let us do so gracefully if the circumstance arises.

* Do not ask when we are going to “start a family” (we started one the day we got married).

* Do not ask which one of us is the “problem” – we are either fertile or infertile as a couple.

* Do grieve with us if you know that we’ve experienced a miscarriage, stillbirth, or infant death (or many). You may not know what to say to comfort us, and that’s ok. Let us grieve at our own pace and on our own schedule without guilt or explanations, even if we have living children. Do not offer platitudes for why you think it happened, how you think it’s part of God’s plan for us to suffer, or any number of things you think might have been wrong with the child. It was our living baby that died. Let us grieve, pray for us, and if you can, let us know you care by being there for us in our grief. Let us know that you remember that our baby lived, no matter how short of a life.

* Do not say things like “I know you’ll be parents some day,” or “It will happen, I know it will!” Along the same lines, please do not tell us stories of a couple you know who struggled for years and went on to conceive or to “just adopt and then you’ll get pregnant” (this one actually only happens a small percentage of the time). Only God knows what our future holds, please pray with us that we are able to graciously accept His will for our lives.

* Do not pity us. Yes, we have much sorrow. Yes, we struggle. But, we place our faith in God, lean on the grace of our marriage, and trust that someday, whether here on earth or in heaven, we will see and understand God’s plan.

___________________________________________________

Because this topic is so difficult for so many women and men, the best thing our friends and family can do (and indeed strangers we encounter who may be aware of our struggles) is pray for us. We are grateful for those who offer their prayers and support in a gentle way. Your support is invaluable to us.

Lastly, remember that compassion means “to suffer with”. We didn’t sign up for this to happen. We can’t control whether we overcome this. And we’re doing our best to navigate the murky waters and maintain our sanity and our faith and our relationships with our family and friends through it all. We truly need your support and love to accomplish that. Please, please suffer with us and be Christ to us. No other understanding of our cross will be more merciful or more loving than if you put yourself in a situation to sympathize or empathize with us. The pain of infertility is exacerbated by the fact that it draws us into ourselves. We need your help to remind us in the most difficult moments that we aren’t alone, God didn’t forget us, and that we have something precious to offer through the fruitfulness of our marriage even when it isn’t manifesting in the children we so desperately want to hold. Together, we can offer up our shared suffering for Christ. It’s a powerful witness to both of our faiths to travel this road together and we’ll manage it better with your help than if we have to travel it all alone.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   ***************************************************************************************

This post was made possible through the collaboration of 430 members of a “secret” facebook group of Catholic women and men struggling with the pains of infertility in all of its forms. Together we are stronger. And in having the conversation, we are breaking the silence.

If you are Catholic and experiencing the pains of infertility and would like to join a “secret” facebook support group, please let me know and I will happily add you to our discussion.

Sin and Sauerkraut

Sin and Sauerkraut

It was either Lent or Advent. One of the two. I know this because we were getting ready for a school-wide penance service.

All of Ms. Q’s 6th grade religion class was seated in a circle on the floor. Ms. Q. was at 12:00, holding a bowl of the most disgusting concoction I’ve ever seen: canned liver-flavored dog food mixed with sauerkraut.

“If ANYONE moves a muscle, if ONE DROP of this gets on the floor or if ANYONE puts this on anyone else, you WILL get detention. Immediately.”

Boy if that doesn’t strike terror into the mind of an 11-year-old. Let’s hope I really was the teacher’s pet in this case.

“Now hold out your hands.”

Oh, gross. Must we?

For the first time in, like, ever, you could hear an ant crawling.

With the fear of God in our hearts, each of us accepted that gross pile of crap. Ms. Q. explained,

“This is what sin looks like on your soul. When we go to Confession, it’s like taking a shower. God washes away all that gunk.”

I’m sure she was more eloquent, but that is what I remember. I also remember being in girl’s room afterwards, scrubbing my hands and bumming lotion and hand-sanitizer off my cousin who was in 8th grade at the time. (1999 was the year of Bath and Body Works mania, thank God!)

Some say that Ms. Q. was out of her mind that day- but I’ve always considered this a stroke of genius. Sin is ugly. It really is. And even though an 11-year-old might not be able to understand all the consequences that sin can bring later in life, she can understand that something that smells and looks like worm-infested vomit isn’t something she wants in her life.  In fact, 16 years later, that inner 11-year-old can still remember the smell. And though my understanding of Confession has since deepened, the thought of a spiritual hand-washing still motivates me on occasion. (If you’d like to read some deeper, more adult thoughts on the subject, click here.)

Thank you, Ms. Q., for instilling in me a sense of spiritual hygiene. And, um, pass the lotion, please.

Constantinople’s Lament

Constantinople’s Lament

My mom still talks about a time when I was a toddler and wanted so badly to see the inside of a church I had spotted on the side of the road. Being an adventurous mom, she pulled over and took me inside. Next thing you know, little Connie Ann is running up and down the aisles from the front to the back, pointing at the cross and shouting gleefully, “Jesus!”

I’ve since learned to control my outbursts (mostly). But I still love, love, love churches. Today I want to talk about my experience visiting one of the world’s greatest, found in the city of my namesake. (Yes, my name is Constance, but when my mom was in a playful mood, she called me Constantinople. And this was before I became a lover of Church history.)

Hagia Sophia
Hagia Sophia, August 2010, Evening

Dedicated on my birthday, December 27 (though in 537), the Hagia Sophia is a beautiful masterpiece of Byzantine culture as well as an engineering marvel. The ring of windows at the base of the dome amazed everyone who saw it. “What is holding the dome?” they wondered. It looks as though the dome is suspended on a ring of light.

If you squint, you can see the Theotokos on the wall in the back, behind me head.
Standing where the Empress Irene would sit. If you squint, you can see the Theotokos mosaic in the apse.

Apart from the columns, the marble, the dome, and the windows, this church was filled with the most ornate mosaics in the empire. Beautiful scenes filled every wall and alcove, designed to lift the viewer’s thoughts to the world above.

HagiaSophiaMary
Mary and the Child Jesus with Empress Irene and her son, Emperor Alexander.

Visiting this great wonder of the world was a dream come true, though it was also marked with sadness. You see, when Constantinople was overtaken by the Ottoman Turks in 1431, they converted our beautiful home into a mosque. The Christian artifacts were removed and the heavenly mosaics were covered in plaster. Islamic art and writings were hung over the images of our Lord and the Saints. The Glory of Christendom was forced to submit to the Muslims, guarded by four minarets.

In 1935, Mustafa Atatürk had the Hagia Sophia converted once again- this time to a museum. In an effort to honor both the Christian and Islamic history of the building, some of the mosaics were once again exposed, though many remain covered to this day.

Deesis
Deesis Mosaic: Jesus flanked by Mary and John the Baptist.

This is our Constantinople, bound by the shackles of time. Being in this place, seeing what it was, and knowing what it has become created such a storm of emotions in my soul. They say you many not pray in the building- but they can say what they want.

What is there to say when one walks where such tragedy has occurred? What once was the beautiful house of God is beaten down and chained by years of wounds and disenchantment. Would anyone believe the glory it used to house? Will it ever again be what it truly is? How many souls are just like this temple, tragically fallen from grace and seemingly without hope? What glorious beauty hides beneath the whitewash of our conquerors? When will we break the shackles and accept who we were meant to be? Do we have the Faith and Hope to live for the One who built us?

I hope so. And yes, it will always be Constantinople to me.

Radiating Fruitfulness: Sacrifice

Radiating Fruitfulness: Sacrifice

We made it! I made it! Welcome to the third and final installment of my first series, “Radiating Fruitfulness: Charity, Hospitality, Sacrifice,” where we explore what it means for a marriage to be fruitful, even for those of us not blessed with children. If you’re just joining us, feel free to check out Part 1: Radiating Charity and Part 2: Radiating Hospitality.

Radiating Sacrifice

Somehow that title doesn’t have the same ring as the last two. The word “sacrifice” doesn’t exactly fill us with warm fuzzies, does it? Still, the Catechism points to sacrifice as a way in which all marriages are fruitful. What does this mean?

Sacrifice means giving something of ourselves, offering something up, as a gift to God. Sacrifice is an act of love, and an exercise in trust. We know that we will be ok without these things, because God is our strength. Christ gave is own life as a sacrifice on the cross, to redeem us. We in turn take up our crosses daily, uniting our suffering to his.

We know that marriage comes with sacrifice. We vow to love and honor each other “in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health.” Even in the good times, placing the needs of your spouse before yourself isn’t always the easiest thing to do. Sanctification in marriage comes from a daily dying to yourself for the sake of the other. “No, I’m not going to stay at the office later than I have to, because I have a wife who needs me.” “Sorry, I’m going to have to cancel my plans to take care of my husband who’s not feeling well.” “Yes, I’ll hold my tongue in front of your mother.”

Those things are little, and yet we know there are bigger sacrifices that come with love.

“No, we’re not going to live together before marriage because we trust that God has a plan for us, and that sex belongs in marriage, period.”

And then, the struggle of the infertile:

“No, doctor/mom/dad/brother/cousin/myself, for the thousandth time, we refuse to engage in IVF. Yes, we know that that is our only chance for a biological child. Yes, we are suffering, more than you realize. But we trust that God has a plan for us, and that new life is sacred. We make this sacrifice because our souls are more important to us than the fulfillment of our dreams, because our greatest dream is the Kingdom of God.”

What good, truly, comes from these sacrifices? If we look with human eyes, we only see the pain. In the first instance- “My spouse is encroaching on my comfort.” In the second- “Quaint, archaic rules are getting in the way of how I want to live.” In the third- “Old men in Rome are dictating whether or not I can have children.”

If we look with eyes of faith, we see the Glory of God. When we sacrifice and die to ourselves, we open our hearts and become holier people, and that holiness radiates outward.

Like St. Therese’s “Little Way”, we are growing in holiness through small, everyday sacrifices. In the first instance, sacrificing your own comfort to tend to the needs of another bears witness to the love and patience of the Father.  In the second instance, bearing witness to the truth of sexuality goes so far against the grain that it angers those who can’t bear the light. While many won’t have to courage to say it out loud, more than one will be touched by this witness. And on a much more personal note, couples can attest to the many blessings and graces that flow after marriage as a result of this sacrifice.

In the third case, perhaps the witness is more silent. Perhaps not many will know that refusing IVF comes with an immense suffering on your part. But I promise, it is worth it. Graces flow from obedience. In the words of Our Lady of Lourdes, “I cannot promise you happiness in this world, only in the next.” Couples dealing with infertility are on the front lines of the culture wars. Our witness to the dignity of life and the sanctity of marriage matters. It is perhaps a still, small voice- but one that has the power to open eyes and change hearts.

 

We know that all love bears fruit. It is my hope that this series might be a small comfort to my brothers and sisters who are suffering in the throws of infertility. I promise you, your marriage has a purpose. God has a plan. I pray that all who read this will experience the healing touch of Our Lord Jesus Christ, and that whether or not you have children, your marriage will bear much fruit, for his greater glory.

+AMDG+

 

RadiatingFruitfulness