Tales from the Valley

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

A New Year’s Resolution for the Broken Hearted

A New Year’s Resolution for the Broken Hearted

I look around the world right now, and as far as I can see, we are walking through a crimson field of broken hearts.

My sisters and brothers are lying wounded.

Death. End of a Relationship. Unemployment. Infertility. Sickness.

The loss of a dream.

When you’ve had dreams or expectations for  how your life would go, you often don’t realize how dear they are to you until you’ve lost them — when the wind has been knocked out of your sails and you’re left wondering, “What is left?”

Who am I, since I am not who I thought I was?

What hope is there, what way out, since what’s done is done and there is no returning to the innocence I have lost?

It’s not an easy question to answer. It’s one that I myself have struggled with for many years, and still fall prey to on occasion.

After many years of turmoil and grief, my identity was lost, and the one that I had tried to form for myself was becoming twisted and more painful than ever before. It was like a broken bone that had attempted to heal but had never been properly set.

There was nothing more that I could do. I was done. I was done trying to form a new identity for myself. And so, I prayed.

I asked the Lord to do it for me. I asked him to take these shattered pieces of the little girl that once was, and make from them a new creation. To tell me, since my sense of self was gone, who I truly was.

And once I had surrendered all my defenses, the answer came.

You are my daughter.

As clear as that. Not booming out of the sky, but through the words of the priest in the confessional, and echoed again within my heart.

You are mine.

And this, as simple as it may be, is the answer. This is the hope that we have when all is lost. That we are His. He made us, he loves us, he cries with us, and has plans for us. Nothing at all happens without his permission, and from the evil that befalls us, he brings about the good of our salvation.

To all the broken hearted, to all who face this new year with anxiety and sadness, I want you to resolve to take this life one moment at a time, remembering with each step that you are the child of a God who loves you deeply.

Whatever you have lost, however shattered your heart, you have a Dad in heaven who wants to pick you up and carry you, if you let him.

Give him the pieces of your heart. He knows what to do with them.

 

You’re not a native

You’re not a native

I’ve decided that today I want to tell you it’s ok if you’re hurting.

It’s ok if you’re not doing great.

It’s ok if you’re feeling like you can’t handle the cards you’ve been dealt.

And it’s ok if you cry.

 

You know why?

Because you weren’t designed for this. You weren’t made for sorrows and suffering and crap happening in your life.

All of that stuff–that’s part of this fallen world.

But you weren’t made for this. This isn’t your true home.

You were made for Heaven.

So it’s ok that you’re having a hard time handling all this. It’s ok if you just need to lean your head on your Friend and cry. That’s what He’s there for. And He gets it. Because He made you.

 

Let me tell you a little story.

Once upon a time….

I forgot that I used to be normal.

I’d been on “infertility island” so long, I’d almost forgotten that I wasn’t born here. I’ve been drinking the water and thought I was a native. Like Peter Pan and the Lost Boys, I’ve forgotten that I had a life before this island.

Then, as with the Lost Boys in Neverland, something triggered an ancient memory.

My mom shared an article on my Facebook page about toys in the 90s, asking if I remember Baby All Gone. Of course I do! She was only the coolest baby doll ever with the niftiest spoon of cherries that disappeared when you fed them to her. Coolest. Baby doll. Ever.

Wait a minute… baby doll?

Yes, I had one. And I loved it. And while my mommy was taking care of my baby sister, I was taking care of my baby doll. And in my little curly head I was assuming this was perfectly normal. I’m doing what mommy does and someday when I grow up I’ll be just like mommy and have a real baby too.

I wasn’t born on this island. I was shipwrecked here at age 16. But this is not my true home.

It wasn’t always like this. I wasn’t always like this.

I realized that I was being too hard on myself. I was echoing the voices of well-meaning people who have never been on this island. You should be better at this, I would say. You’ve been here for over a DECADE. You should be able to handle it now. Why did you break down in the baby section? Why did you cry on your way to the shower? You can do better.

The I saw the post from my mom, and remembered the truth.

I had a life before the island. I am not a native. I never was, and I never will be.

And truthfully, none of us are.

When we are wounded by the world, we become so hard on ourselves. We say that we should be better at this. We say, “I should be able to handle this.” But maybe that’s our pride talking, telling us to forget the truth about who we are, and whose we are.

We are not from here. This is not our home; we are only pilgrims passing through. And so we keep walking, keep trying, keep moving forward, but we can’t get anywhere on our own because we’re not made for this place. When people (including yourself) say, “You should be able to handle this,” remember the truth. You can’t handle this—at least, not on your own. And you’re not supposed to. That’s what God is for.

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What about me?

What about me?

Remember the parable of the laborers in the vineyard? At the end of the day, the owner pays everyone the same wage, a full daily rate, even to those who had been working for only an hour. The workers who had been there all day got upset and thought they should be paid even more. The owner, (God, in this case) says, “Are you jealous because I am generous?” (Matthew 20:15).

How many times when dealing with our sufferings have we thought, “How come she gets babies and I don’t?” “How come they have a good marriage and mine didn’t work out?” “How come they get money and I can’t pay my grocery bill?” All of these things can be summed up in our minds as, “Why do good things happen to everyone, even to bad people, but never to me?”

We don’t wish anyone ill will, but we question why they get the things we desire most, while we are kept waiting. We have been laboring in the vineyard day after day, through the heat and without rest, and yet these people get the things we think will make us happy. So God asks us,

“Are you jealous because I am generous?”

We know that he will take care of us. Who among you would give your son a stone when he asks for bread? But we don’t always understand what this means in our life. What if he doesn’t cure your physical illness, give you money, or make your problems disappear?

God will satisfy the desires of our heart, but that doesn’t mean he’ll give us everything we think we need. Just like 6-year-olds praying for a pony, sometimes adults still don’t understand what they truly need. God is not our personal genie, and we cannot control the way that our Divine Physician chooses to heal. Instead, our job is to seek first the kingdom, to be more like him and to be with him. As we become holier, our wills align more closely with his. Only then will our hearts be satisfied.

He will heal our wounds. He will make us whole. He will bring us to himself.

Our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee.

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.)

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-KĂźster-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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The Crack

The Crack

I often cry at Mass, but I’ve never cried during a homily- until tonight. Tonight, I had tears streaming down my face the whole time. It was like God was using the priest to speak to directly to me.

This week’s gospel is the story of the Samaritan woman at the well. I can’t really replicate this homily here, but I’ll try to summarize.

We all have these walls we put up, from our hurts, our sin, our wounds. We put them up to protect ourselves, so we won’t get hurt again. Though these walls may protect us, they also don’t let anyone in- not even God. And as long as those walls are up, we can’t heal.

The woman obviously had something wrong in her life. She was at the well in the middle of the day, rather than in the morning with everyone else. She clearly wanted to avoid seeing the other women in the village.

You can picture Jesus smiling knowingly when he said, “Go get your husband.” And you can picture the woman say, rather hard and defensive, “I don’t have a husband.” There. There’s the sore spot. And Jesus reaches in with, “I know. You’ve had 5 husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband.” There’s the wound. Clearly she must have been through some terrible things.

Later, she goes out to the very townspeople she had been avoiding and says, “This man told me everything I’ve ever done. Could he be the Christ?”

The only way to heal is to let the walls crack enough to let Jesus in. And he is the only one who can heal you. And he’ll use that very thing, that wound, to transform you and bring you to him. That wound is how you are going to glorify him.

He knows everything you’ve ever done. Learning that your life was not what you thought it was, discovering that you would never be a “normal” person, realizing that you could never again look at things the same way, feeling like an outcast, knowing that there would be no one else in your life who would really “get it”-that’s exactly what he’s going after. He’s going to reach in with his healing touch and turn that around so it can be used for good, to bring others to him. He’s going to help you tear down those walls.

And it all starts with a crack.

He Cried More

He Cried More

Last night I went to my first healing service. I never would have gone on my own, but my mother-in-law has been inviting me for a few months now, so I went. Knock long enough and the door opens.

At one point in the night, I went to confession to a priest I’ve never met, and I told him about the trauma of learning at age 16 that I was born without a uterus. I told him that I didn’t even feel like I belong at a “women’s night” when I’m missing something that is so central to what we perceive womanhood to be. Little girls play with baby dolls, and as Christians we hold a deep love and admiration for the mother of Jesus. I didn’t even know if I would be allowed to be married. I didn’t know how a potential husband would take the news. Pregnancies and talk of “starting a family” bring up a host of traumatic memories and wounds so deep that many will never understand. We talked about that for a long time. And he said something to me that no one has ever said before.

“As much as you’ve cried over this, since age 16, God cried more.”

The priest continued, “He loves life, He loves babies! He didn’t plan for this to happen to you. He is right there with you.”

I have never “blamed” God for MRKH, but I always just kind of assumed that he must be ok with it, since he allowed it. But there is evil in the world as a result of sin, and it has nothing to do with the paradise that God originally planned. There is physical evil, like Ebola and cancer and the common cold, and there is natural evil, like hurricanes and tornadoes… and being born without a uterus. He didn’t want this to happen. It wasn’t part of the plan. It grieves him too.

He cried more.