Catholicism

Why I Hate/Like/Love NFP after Miscarriage

I’ve said before that my husband and I practice natural family planning (NFP) and it brings us closer together. Boy has that perspective turned upside down (and back again) over the last 12 months.

Before & After

It wasn’t always hard. For a long time, it was just plain easy.

In the early years of our marriage, NFP gave me the tools to understand my body. It empowered me to embrace my natural functioning and to admire the efficiency and the beauty of the female body. And it helped my husband and me respect that nature very deeply—to work with it instead of fighting against it. It made us value one another more.

When we wanted to start trying for a baby, the knowledge we had from using NFP for so long made it blessedly easy. And after we had our first child, it helped me see how my body recovered and how my fertility affected so many other components of my daily feelings and physiological experiences. We successfully used NFP to space our pregnancies. The postpartum period isn’t easy for so many reasons, and the complexity of managing NFP during that time is one of them—but we came out just fine.

It was after my son was born that things got trickier. The postpartum hormones hit me hard that time, and I found it difficult to connect with my husband—I felt so much more like a mother and less like a wife. Between those feelings and some other circumstances, NFP was a point of frustration between us. We fought against it and wished we could control it. But, of course, we couldn’t. That’s not how it works.

Even then, NFP did provide structure where we needed it. It gave us accountability and guidelines that helped us improve and do better for one another. And it took off some of the pressure we were putting on ourselves, on things that we gave too much or too little importance.

But, like many aspects of my life, my perspective on NFP was divided into a Before and an After by our miscarriages.

Before we lost our babies, NFP was a sometimes challenging, but overall very rewarding pursuit.

After we lost our babies, if only for a while, NFP was a difficult reality I struggled not to resent.

When the Mind and the Body Disagree

It was painful to hear my OBGYN try to tell me that my pregnancy tests might’ve been “false positives” when I had my first loss. NFP made it painful because I knew, very intimately, how my body worked and that I’d conceived that cycle.

It was painful to watch my body go right back to normal after that experience, as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened. (Although it was also a bit of a relief, not living in limbo.)

The next time we conceived, it was painful to see 8 weeks of healthy pregnancy go down the drain when the first warning signs appeared. And it crushed us to say goodbye to those babies, too.

Years of charting and researching fertility burdened me with the knowledge that there was, very likely, something wrong with me that led to our losses. And when I sent my charts to my NFP instructor, she confirmed that something was off. Something I missed. Something I felt I should’ve seen as a warning. Something that told me I failed to protect my babies.

Then, months of charting and seeing no improvement made me resentful of my body and NFP. There were days I wished for blissful ignorance, but at the same time, I was petrified of doing something wrong and putting more babies—not to mention my husband and myself—at risk of another miscarriage. Practicing NFP was excruciating, but the alternative—throwing caution to the wind—was unthinkable. It was an incredibly stressful place to be.

After I saw a NaproTechnology doctor—someone specially trained in natural, life-affirming treatments for infertility and miscarriage, and familiar with the Creighton method of fertility charting—and started supplementing, my cycles did improve. I was happy to see it—happy to see our odds of a healthy pregnancy becoming stronger again. But it was also a painful reminder that my body wasn’t doing it right on its own anymore.

Choosing Beauty

Now that the grief isn’t so fresh and we’re making strides toward healthier fertility, it’s easier to see the positive aspects of NFP again. I know that I’m fortunate to have had this knowledge and these resources, so that we could be empowered to spot a problem and work to resolve it rather than keep trying and failing on our own.

Empowerment isn’t easy. It’s not a hand-out and it isn’t a magic wand that makes taking the reins on life simple. Ignorance is easy—but it’s also empty. Empowerment is what gives us the energy and the skills to do what is right, effective, and good. But that’s a lot of responsibility, and sometimes the weight of it can be so very heavy.

For now, my husband and I are trying to see NFP like we’re trying to see life these days: as a gift that can’t be taken for granted, that must be enjoyed moment by moment, that is out of our control but within our capacity to manage together.

If you’ve experienced a loss, please don’t lose hope. Please hang on, with every last bit of strength you have, to the promise of renewal and understanding and recovery. Have faith, do your best, and love your family. Everything else will follow.

Relativism and the Erosion of Truth

We are creatures of need.

At our most basic level, we must eat, drink, seek shelter, stay warm. A little higher up on this hierarchy of needs, we must feel safe from violence and secure in our pursuits. Above that there’s the need for social belonging. Next is respect: we crave the recognition of others and, more importantly, positive self-esteem. Finally, there’s self-actualization: the point at which we realize our full potential.*

Most of us would recognize these needs as simple truths, and it’s obvious that the higher you climb on this pyramid, the more difficult it is to meet each need. Achieving each is dependent on securing the previous, and so life becomes an arduous endeavor for fulfillment.

In our lifetimes, we develop tactics for meeting those needs as best we can. Sometimes we do things right: we prioritize properly to set and achieve positive goals. Other times, we choose shortcuts: bad habits that provide quick satisfaction in lieu of putting in the work to reach big-picture fulfillment.

Relativism—the view that there is no objective right or wrong, and that each of us can decide the truth for ourselves—is our culture’s shortcut. It’s how we bridge the gap between what we should do and what we want to do, without facing the challenges inherent to the disconnect that sometimes exists there. In fact, it’s how we convince ourselves that there is, in fact, no disconnect. Because how can you claim that anyone should do anything when there’s no Absolute Truth at all?

*Abraham Maslow, the American psychologist who developed this framework, later went on to say that “self-transcendence”—in which we pursue some higher, altruistic, spiritual goal, outside of ourselves—is the actual penultimate dimension of need. Ironically, Maslow was an atheist. But doesn’t this theory establish the importance of faith? What better way to explain, in secular terms, why the pursuit of God’s will is the natural end to which our everyday behaviors must be the means?

Cognitive Dissonance

To dig into this further, we need to understand that our minds are averse to what we call cognitive dissonance. In a way, this means that we want our beliefs and behaviors always to be in harmony.

For example, say you believe that “people with anxiety are weak.” But then your sister—who has overcome some immense obstacles, including raising a child with extensive medical needs—confesses to you that she’s been seeing a therapist and has a prescription for Xanax after a recent, debilitating bout of panic attacks. Deep down, your reactive behavior is to judge her: Wow, and here I thought she seemed so together.

On some level, though, there’s a disconnect here that would bother you: How can I judge my sister as weak when I know her to be strong? How can someone so strong struggle with a condition that afflicts only the weak? Your mind would want to correct it, likely via one of three tactics:

  • #1: Fundamentally changing one or more of your relevant beliefs (e.g., accepting that anxiety affects even very strong people, or that your sister is actually a weak person);
  • #2: Gathering new information that reduces the dissonance by outweighing, or objectively disproving, your original belief (e.g., discovering scientific research showing that, in fact, even very successful and otherwise happy caregivers are commonly afflicted with anxiety disorders); or
  • #3: Reducing the importance of your original belief (e.g., realizing that you shouldn’t care at all about how weak a person with anxiety may seem—it’s not your business anyway).

Arguably the most difficult of these methods is the first one. To change your belief that anxiety is for the weak, you’d have to abandon your own paradigms and cease the automatic way in which you judge a man who is too nervous to drive a car (Can’t he just suck it up and run his own errands?). To change your belief that your sister is strong, you’d have to somehow ignore the years of first-hand interactions with her that have made her resilience obvious.

It’s not easy to completely overturn our fundamental beliefs or habitual behaviors. It’s one thing to convince yourself that perhaps you didn’t know enough about a subject (tactic #2) or placed too much importance on it (tactic #3); it’s quite another to admit that you’ve been outright wrong all along.

Of course, in this example, the mental exercise of correcting dissonance can have a positive outcome: it can help us overcome negative stereotypes and become more understanding of the people around us. But this instinct for mental harmony can also become a crutch that helps us subvert our core belief systems.

Dissonance Between Friends

Now, let’s look at a conversation which commonly ends in some pervasive, relativistic platitude like “that wouldn’t be right for me, but it’s not my place to tell you what to do.”

Say Timothy and Vince are good friends. They’ve known each other since high school, and are now in their late forties with good careers and healthy families. Both attended church together as teens, and they were married in that same church just a couple of years apart. Timothy comes from divorced parents who fought viciously during their separation; his relationship with his father, who virtually disappeared from his life after the legal battle, has never been the same. Vince comes from a traditional family and his parents, who have both died, were together for 40 years.

Vince invites Timothy out to catch up; it’s been a while since they watched a game together. During a commercial break, Vince surprises Timothy with a confession.

Vince: “So Jane and I have decided to see other people.”

Timothy: “Oh, wow, man. I’m sorry to hear that. Have you decided who’s going to keep the house?”

Vince: “No, no, it’s not like that. We’re going to stay together because she’s not working and can’t afford to move anywhere on her own, plus keep the kids. We’ve just sort of lost interest in each other, and this seems like the simplest solution.”

Timothy: “Huh—I see. How did all of this come about? How did you guys even start that conversation?”

Vince: “Well, it’s an old story, I guess. There’s this new attorney at work and she made me feel like a hound again, you know? I haven’t felt like that in ages. It wasn’t long before things between us were getting heavy, and Jane found some text messages on my phone. I came clean right away; told her I’ve just been feeling like things between us weren’t really working anymore. I asked her, ‘Why waste time feeling unhappy when we could try something new? Life is short.’ It’s not like we’d even touched each other in months. There was just nothing there. She was real quiet but didn’t put up a fight. She didn’t want to figure out how to go back to work, and I didn’t want to miss out on the kids, so I told her we should just stick around but do our own things.”

Timothy: “Jeez. And she was okay with all of that?”

Vince: “Yeah. I mean, she hasn’t said no yet. So far neither of us has voiced any complaints. The kids don’t have to find out. And this way Jane doesn’t have to worry about me anymore. We can just take charge of our own lives and keep living together like we always have. We’ve basically been like roommates for a while anyway. Why not make it official?”

Timothy: “Wow. Well, I could never do that, but I hope it works out for you, man.”

What thought process might Timothy be trying to cycle through here? Let’s break it down.

Timothy has always seen Vince as someone who was committed to his family; his kids go to private schools and have big college funds, he was never an excessive workaholic, and his wife always seemed happy that she could stay home and spend time with the kids instead of having to work full time like Maggie, Timothy’s wife, does, to help make ends meet. Vince went on and on at his bachelor party about how much he loved his bride, and he didn’t do anything sketchy there and hasn’t since (until now). Plus, according to Vince, Jane was fine with it. She was going along with the arrangement “without any complaints.” And maybe it was better for the kids that their parents would still appear together, and not fight in court for the next several years.

Still, things aren’t really in harmony here. Timothy believes that parents who leave marriages tend to miss out on the closest possible relationships with their children (like his own dad did). He also believes that marriage is precious, and that it shouldn’t be entered into—or set aside—lightly (especially after seeing his mom suffer through her divorce from his dad). Finally, he believes that Vince is a good provider for his children, and that he genuinely appreciates his family. But he’s not seeing these beliefs line up, given Vince’s choices.

Timothy can try to respond to this dissonance in a few ways:

  • He can acknowledge that Vince’s behavior doesn’t match up with Timothy’s belief in him as a good family man, thus making a new judgment that Vince’s moral framework no longer matches his own (the consequences of which could involve losing Vince as a friend, or confronting Vince about his actions);
  • He can tell himself that his understanding of marriage and why it’s important for a family’s foundation is too narrow, and can be broadened to include the co-parenting and co-habitating arrangement that Vince is describing (after all, it seems to be working for Vince so far, and Vince has more exposure to healthy marriage than Timothy does, given their parents’ situations); or
  • He can reduce the importance of his opinions altogether (because aren’t they just that—opinions?), and choose to believe Vince when he says he isn’t harming anyone and should be able to make his own decisions.

Which of those options sounds like it involves the least mental and social gymnastics?

Who Am I to Judge?

Relativism so quickly takes root in us precisely because that last option is easiest.

It’s incredibly difficult to confront—or, worse, lose—a friend over a personal and tender subject like this. It’s difficult to change our own beliefs across the board, based on the possibly sketchy experiences of another person. But it’s not that hard to think ‘It’s none of my business,’ and simply ignore some potential red flags, because we’d rather trust our friends and maintain the status quo.

Taking that one step further, it almost seems like the better way to operate, doesn’t it? Relativism seems like a perfect way to “live and let live.” We don’t get in other people’s business, and they don’t get in ours—we simply coexist. Why shouldn’t we accept our differences of opinion, and choose to live and work beside our neighbors without deigning to think our choices are more valid than theirs?

In truth, though, taking a relativistic stance is not an act of love. It’s an act of cowardice.

Edward Sri, in his book Who Am I to Judge? Responding to Relativism with Logic and Love, summarizes this truth well: “Relativism … divides us. It trains us to focus on ourselves and ignore the people around us—what they’re going through, how they’re living, and ways they might need our help.”

relativisim quote 1

Thus, relativism becomes a philosophy of self-centeredness. Sri goes on: “In many ways, relativism paralyzes us. So we sit back and do nothing, and let our friends and relatives damage their lives.”

The neglect goes both ways. Don’t we all believe that the people we love help make us better? But how can they if we demand their apathetic, unconditional acceptance of even our worst behaviors?

A New Normal

Sri’s book discusses how relativism dominates our current culture, why it came to be that way, and how we can confront it. The short of it is that we’ve traded the classical moral code for a new one—one that can be summarized as “minding your own business.” Because, Sri notes, despite a common refrain to the contrary, relativism does call us to project an ethical framework onto others:

At first glance, [relativism] seems like a good way to promote tolerance of diverse views. But we must understand very clearly that relativism, in fact, is not value neutral. Relativism itself is a certain way of looking at the world. And this view—that there is no right or wrong—is being imposed on us. In other words, the belief that there is no moral truth is itself a point of view. And those who do not agree with this relativistic perspective are being forced to play by its rules or risk being labeled as judgmental if they uphold traditional moral values. (emphasis original)

Joseph Ratzinger—also known as Pope Benedict XVI—also talked about this trend in Without Roots: “The more relativism becomes the generally accepted way of thinking, the more it tends toward intolerance, thereby becoming a new dogmatism. … It prescribes itself as the only way to think and speak—if, that is, one wishes to stay in fashion. Being faithful to traditional values and to the knowledge that upholds them is labeled intolerance.” Ultimately, he concludes, “I think it is vital that we oppose this imposition … which threatens freedom of thought as well as freedom of religion.”

As Catholics, we live tenets of faith that are often unpopular at best, and ridiculed at worst. We believe in the utmost respect for life at all stages, despite circumstances that may make this position inconvenient or painful. We believe in sexual ethics as the truest expression of love and fulfillment of God’s design for men and women. We believe in the True Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. We believe in doing good for our neighbors. We believe in setting aside materialism. We believe in our obligation to pursue, respect, and submit to the sacraments in many facets of life, remaining loyal to the Mass, to marriage, to confession, to religious life.

All of this means that we believe in a moral framework that cannot be boxed in as a relative truth. It is universal. And it is our responsibility to live and defend it at every opportunity, with kindness and firmness, within our Church and outside of it.

This is, sometimes, an intensely difficult responsibility. Some of us are better at it than others. (I’ve always been the “live by example” type myself, often choosing the easier route of simply living by this moral framework in the hopes that I will influence others subtly—and deftly avoiding direct confrontation at all costs. Not the bravest form of evangelization, I admit.) But no matter how we do it, it rarely makes us popular.

There are few more efficient avenues to the erosion of truth than the relativism that dominates popular thinking in our communities. By trying hard to swim up that stream and resist its pull, we are not pushing away our neighbors—on the contrary, we’re trying to bring them home. And we are not lifting ourselves up as “better” people—just hoping for a better world in which our own children can grow well.

 

Tender and Mild: A Mommy’s Mantra

Back in December, I came across a trend that interested me: choosing a “word of the year” and using it as a guidepost for personal development over a 12-month period.

As someone who has—in 28 years of life—yet to write down a new year’s resolution, keep track of that record, and think about that goal throughout the following year (let alone actually execute on it), this concept caught my eye. It seemed like the perfect alternative to goal-setting for someone who has a knack for procrastinating, tends to be disorganized, and may (if we’re being honest) be a tiny bit lazy here and there.

Turns out, though, that it wasn’t as simple an approach as it seemed.

Words are Hard

There are a lot of words, guys. Like, a quarter of a million of them (in English). Even if you cut that down dramatically and assume just 1 percent are potentially useful, positive, and relevant in this context, that’s still thousands of words to ponder. (How many thousands of words do I even know?)

Thankfully, I’m a lover of words by nature, so mulling them over doesn’t require a ton of mental focus. It can happen in the back of my mind as I go about my day. So I tried to let it happen without too much effort on my part. I didn’t want to overthink this theme for the year; I wanted it to emerge from the shadows of my subconscious and help me learn something about myself.

Ha. Turns out “the shadows of my subconscious” can be pretty sticky. Thus, the difficulty.

After a week or two of this mulling, I kind of gave up. I am impatient. Nothing was shedding any light in those little corners of my mind. Perusing lists of virtues and random word generators wasn’t stirring up any passion for me. I’ve been reading a few chapters of the Bible each day via an email series, and nothing jumped out at me there, either. I figured I’d just go back to my old way of vaguely thinking of things I should do for the year, then go on to achieve my reading challenge and little else.

Advent-ageous

Of course, the moment we stop dwelling on our issues is often the moment that their solutions make themselves known. (Someday, maybe St. Anthony will tell me why we find the little things we’ve lost as soon as we stop looking for them.)

As we settled into the Advent season and I saw the star of the Nativity on the proverbial horizon, I found myself in the very narrow window of time when I actually enjoy listening to Christmas music. For 50ish weeks of the year, I’m simply not in the mood for it. I get so irritated when radio stations are usurped by premature holiday tunes as soon as Halloween is over. But between about December 20 and the Epiphany, I’m as ignited as any Christian by a peaceful rendition of ‘O Come All Ye Faithful.’

‘Silent Night’ is a long-time favorite of mine, and this past season, one of my favorite lines stood out dramatically as I listened: “Holy Infant, so tender and mild.”

Tender and mild. That’s what I need to be.

Being A More Child-like Daughter and Mother

We are called to be Christ-like. And we can be like Him in many ways, if we cling to faith and we try to be our very best. He was as human as we are, after all. But if you’re anything like me, you might be a little intimidated by His divinity in this effort to emulate Him. I have often asked myself a simple but looming question: “How can I, a sinner, try to express in my thoughts, words, or actions the holiness of God?”

The saints have long taught us that this is possible. But the saints can be intimidating sometimes, too, can’t they?

Christ gave us an antidote for this intimidation when He instructed us to have faith like a little child. I did some reading on this last year, and it opened my eyes to the concept. This is a beautiful subject for another day, but for now, let’s put it this way: doesn’t God deserve to be looked upon with the awed eyes, reached for with the soft hands, and loved unconditionally with the blind trust of His children?

I realized that setting “tender and mild” as my theme for 2018 could help me develop this innocent and deep faith in God. And the more I thought about it, the more I realized that embracing a child’s unrestricted sense of love and joy would make me a better mom, too.

So, this year, when I find myself dwelling on the grown-up, made-up stresses of daily life; when I lose my patience for whining children who won’t eat their dinner; when I am tempted to put my own exhaustion above my husband’s well-earned need for my attention—in these times and many others, I have a new mantra to repeat in my mind and under my breath:

Tender and mild. Tender and mild. Tender and mild.

So far it seems like a peaceful way to be.

Do you have a word of the year for 2018? How are you embracing it, now that we’re two months into the year? Share it in the comments or on my new Facebook page!

 

A Different Kind of Lenten Observance

“Catholic guilt” is a sentiment so common, it has its own (relatively lengthy) Wikipedia page.

In many circles, the term is considered a criticism of Catholic culture. But many more Catholics I know would tell you it’s a healthy response to the sense of responsibility and accountability instilled in our hearts by our faith.

Either way, I think Lent is the season in which so many of us feel this tug most acutely. Even many non-practicing Catholics I know embrace some very popish traditions during this time: receiving ashes on Ash Wednesday, abstaining from meat on Fridays, or giving up a favorite treat.

Lenten practices include fasting, abstinence, and almsgiving. All are meant to help us remove our focus from ourselves, contemplate the suffering of Christ, and unite with one another in prayer and selflessness.

Pope Benedict XIV has had a lot to say on the importance of this season: “The observance of Lent is the very badge of the Christian warfare. By it we prove ourselves not to be enemies of Christ. … Should mankind grow remiss in their observance of Lent, it would be a detriment to God’s glory, a disgrace to the Catholic religion, and a danger to Christian souls.”

So it’s kind of a big deal.

Can Self-restraint Become Selfish?

In past years, I have fallen into the trap of letting my Lenten observances become self-centered. I ask myself, “What should I give up for Lent this year?” with little or no regard for the impact I can and should have on my community. I even think (though I hate to admit it), “What bad habit can Lent help me break this year?”

Those aren’t bad questions, but they don’t really achieve the “prove myself not to be an enemy of Christ” purpose all that explicitly, either. So this year, I tried to ask myself some different questions as I discerned what penitential practice to take up between February 14 and Easter:

  • How can I devote more of my mental energy to others?
  • In what ways can I show God and neighbor how grateful I am for them?
  • Is there an opportunity to substitute some neutral or bad habit with prayer on a daily basis?
  • How can I ensure that any small sacrifice I make stays vivid, instead of becoming less thought-provoking as the season goes on and the sacrifice becomes habitual?
  • What are some ways to incorporate more prayer into my bustling life as a working mom of two small children?

Finding the time for prayer seemed simple, if I do it in conjunction with whatever sacrifice I make: every time I want to reach for that thing, I can say a prayer. And incorporating others into those prayers was simple, too, because I can offer that prayer for whatever intention I choose.

However, during past years (except the year I gave up cheese, because that was HARD), I thought less and less about whatever treat I gave up over time. As the season of Lent went on, the lack of that indulgence became a matter of habit, so those small opportunities for prayer and reflection became relatively infrequent.

So I wanted, this year, to be more intentional about the sacrifice itself, as well as the prayers I’m offering up in those small moments of want throughout the day.

A Schedule of Observances

With this in mind, I settled on a very different approach, and I’m nervously excited to see how it goes.

In short, each week I’ll give up something different so that the sense of sacrifice feels novel throughout the season. The prayers will feel fresh because I’ll have a particular intention to keep in mind each week as well.

Here’s the “schedule” I’ve put together:

  • Week 1 (2/14-2/20)
    • Fast: cheese
    • Intention: the unborn
  • Week 2 (2/21-2/27)
    • Fast: condiments
    • Intention: the poor
  • Week 3 (2/28-3/6)
    • Fast: sweets
    • Intention: the reversion of those who have strayed from the Church
  • Week 4 (3/7-3/13)
    • Fast: Facebook
    • Intention: my children
  • Week 5 (3/14-3/20)
    • Fast: coffee
    • Intention: souls in Purgatory
  • Week 6 (3/21-3/28)
    • Fast: snacks*
    • Intention: my husband
  • Paschal Triduum (3/29-3/31)
    • Fast: social media
    • Focus: glorifying God

*I’m nursing and don’t want to risk my milk supply, so when I say I’m giving up snacks, I’m talking eating between meals for pleasure. I’ll still need to eat if I’m hungry, but I’ll keep it to non-indulgent things.

The Triduum—that is, the three days leading up to Easter—is technically not a part of Lent. It’s a single celebration in three liturgies (check out this page from the USCCB for more info), and its focus is on the final days of Christ as well as the Resurrection. So instead of a prayer intention during this time, I’ll utter some extra Glory Bes and similar praises.

Additionally, I’m also hoping to give more life to this blog during Lent, like I did last year—it’s a very positive channel for reflection and prayer for me, and writing each post is a labor of love. (If you’re following along, you’ll notice a fresh design and you’ll probably see more frequent, more casual posts moving forward. I’m making this more of a mommy blog to help me stay active with it.)

Finally, Erik and I are going to say a family rosary every week—either all at once, or in decades at a time—with the kids “participating” as well. The family who prays together, stays together, and we want to be better about building this practice with our babies.

A Prayer for Lent

I hope you’ll join me in a prayerful journey of fasting, abstinence, and almsgiving this Lent. Here’s a good one I found to help set the stage in our hearts.

God, heavenly Father,

look upon me and hear my prayer

during this holy Season of Lent.

By the good works You inspire,

help me to discipline my body

and to be renewed in spirit.

 

Without You I can do nothing.

By Your Spirit help me to know what is right

and to be eager in doing Your will.

Teach me to find new life through penance.

Keep me from sin, and help me live

by Your commandment of love.

God of love, bring me back to You.

Send Your Spirit to make me strong

in faith and active in good works.

May my acts of penance bring me Your forgiveness,

open my heart to Your love,

and prepare me for the coming feast

of the Resurrection of Jesus.

 

Lord, during this Lenten Season,

nourish me with Your Word of life

and make me one

with You in love and prayer.

 

Fill my heart with Your love

and keep me faithful to the Gospel of Christ.

Give me the grace to rise above my human weakness.

Give me new life by Your Sacraments, especially the Mass.

 

Father, our source of life,

I reach out with joy to grasp Your hand;

let me walk more readily in Your ways.

Guide me in Your gentle mercy,

for left to myself I cannot do Your Will.

 

Father of love, source of all blessings,

help me to pass from my old life of sin

to the new life of grace.

Prepare me for the glory of Your Kingdom.

I ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, Your Son,

Who lives and reigns with You

and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever.

 

Amen.

 

A Letter to Mary, Queen of Heaven

Dear Mary,

I have so many questions. I must admit that, for as long as I can remember, I’ve seen you as an amazing but also baffling woman. In many ways, your story is like a fairytale—and your unrelenting faith is like a superpower. How could I ever begin to understand you, let alone emulate you, in my own life?

As a young girl on the cusp of a new marriage—challenges all their own—you faced one of the most profound trials ever presented to mankind: you were asked to carry, bear, and raise the Son of God. You, Mary, were visited by an angel and told that this heaviest of burdens—and greatest of privileges—would be placed squarely on your shoulders. And you said yes. You pronounced your fiat and said “I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.”

Then the angel departed from you abruptly; what went through your mind? Did you wonder if it had all been a dream until your body started changing and there was no denying the Truth? Did you fret over what your new husband would think? Did you quake in anticipation of the judgment you might receive from others? Did you struggle to picture yourself, a first-time mother, as the caretaker of the most important child ever to enter this world?

Now that I am a mother myself, and have felt the joy and anxiety of very conventional pregnancies, I can only wonder at what you must’ve felt in your position—to be so truly gifted with this immense role in Salvation History, and yet struck by what an unthinkable responsibility it must be.

When you visited your relative, Elizabeth, and she sang your praises and greeted you with joy as the child in her womb leaped at the closeness of the child in yours, did it feel real? You were perhaps too early in your pregnancy to feel your child moving within you. So, when Elizabeth reacted so vividly to your new identity as the Mother of God, how did it strike you? What knowledge did it place in your heart about the fruit of your womb?

With both of my babies, things didn’t seem real to me that early on. Even after I could feel their kicks and rolls, I couldn’t help but wonder at the individuality and separateness of those babies who lived and grew in my body. How on earth could such a miracle be real?

Is that how you felt, too?

As your husband contemplated quietly sending you away upon discovering your pregnancy, were you anxious? Did you wonder, even for a moment, what would become of you and your child? Did you doubt the path that you had accepted? And when Joseph had his own encounter with an angel and trusted in God’s instructions to start a life with you as planned, what did your smile look like? Did you know that this gentle and selfless man would be on your side all along?

My husband is my greatest partner, friend, confidant, and supporter in life. The briefest thought of losing him makes me shiver. I hope that you felt warmed by God’s reassurances all along during what must have been a very stressful time.

During your ninth month, large with child and fleeing to safety with your husband through an ancient landscape, were you frustrated when you were told all of the inns were full? Did you feel the gradual rise and fall of labor pains even then, as you trekked with Joseph from place to place and found nowhere to rest your weary, swollen body? Did the pain frighten you? And when you found shelter in the company of livestock and hay and a lowly manger, did you wonder at the irony of your position?

What joy and relief did you experience when that miraculous child made His way into the world, and you were finally able to hold Him in your arms? The two of you were the perfect pair—spotless and selfless. I have long thought that, if I could go back in time to any one moment, it would be to the Nativity. I imagine the mere sight of the delight on the face of each member of your Holy Family must’ve been enough to erase many years of pain and suffering.

In the following years, watching your son grow from a helpless newborn to an energetic child and, finally, to a serene and hardworking young adult, how often did you wonder at His godliness?

Was the Trinity any easier for you to comprehend than it is for me? In some ways, I imagine your proximity made it harder, for how could a child who refused your meals and laughed at your jokes and wept in your arms with the pain of a bump on the head be both human and God? And yet you knew of His two natures, and you trusted in that transcendent reality and the path God had laid out for your family.

Jesus as a boy sat in your lap—a true Throne of Wisdom—and learned from you. In those days, a mother took responsibility for the care of her young children—she was their teacher, leader, friend, and caretaker as they grew and learned to live in this world. Though He was always God, Jesus was also always human, and needed His mother just like any of us would—needed her guidance, her soothing voice, her discipline, her compassion.

At some point during Jesus’s childhood, you lost your husband. How painful it must have been to mourn him while a child—this child—depended on you constantly. How scary it must have been to be alone in the raising of your son for the rest of His life.

Despite all of this, you and Jesus emerged from His youth just as the Father intended: perfect, without stain, unfailingly loyal to the ultimate destiny of this most precious Lamb of God.

Both guests at the wedding at Cana, you and Jesus must’ve made an inspiring duo. You, the greatest mother, proudly encouraged your grown son, who, in His humility, hesitated to perform the miracle you knew He could enact. And He, the greatest man, complied—though not without a bit of protest (was it playful?)—and made someone else’s wedding day quite memorable, to say the least.

What does perfect motherly pride feel like? To know that your child is quite literally wonderful in every way, to be happy for your part in that wonder, and yet to retain the wisdom that these facts can only be a gift from God?

And then there’s the question I’m most afraid to ask: what did it feel like to see this precious child, grown into a man, rejected, humiliated, and crucified by people He could only ever love? Selfishly, as a mother myself, I hesitate to know the answer. I can only hope the glory of His resurrection overshadowed immediately that pain for you. And, of course, I can thank you for your part in His sacrifice—the role of a mother who must let her only child die for the sake of so many children she doesn’t even know.

I can’t wait to ask you all of this when, hopefully, someday, I am blessed to meet you. In the meantime, I pray that your example makes me a stronger woman, a more patient and selfless mother, a more loyal daughter, and a more faithful child of God. Truly, thank you.

With love,

Your daughter

The Healthiest Habit of the Happiest People

There are some very chipper people in the world who just radiate joy. You know them when you meet them: they’re smiling, kind, and content. They’re sure of the goodness in their lives, and the goodness in you—even if you’re still a stranger. And they just don’t seem to see the gloom that simply must be around them.

Sometimes we see these people and envy them. How can anyone be so positive all the time? How can life feel so easy to them? Why can’t I feel like that?

We’ve all heard (and maybe told) the anti-sunshine-and-rainbows jokes. Because the fact is that, much of the time, life isn’t pretty. And that might make us think that viewing the world “with rose-colored glasses” is rarely the best idea.

But this tendency is, in fact, a very positive quality. Studies find that people who foster a positive outlook on life (in a realistic way, of course) are happier, more successful, and even healthier.

Gratitude as a Virtue

Anecdotally, every one of those joyful people I’ve met in life have one thing in common: thankfulness. Simple gratitude goes a long way, it seems, in building a happier, healthier mindset; a more meaningful spiritual life; and a more positive outlook with which to enjoy the good things in our world.

For me, gratitude is a habit. It’s the best habit, because it works on your heart in so many ways. Gratitude forces us to recognize the wonderful things around us. It encourages us to hold onto our respect for others, and to speak positively to them. It fosters a consistent, positive prayer life. It humbles us. And it inspires us to be better people.

Though not listed among the Cardinal or theological virtues by Catholicism, the concept of thankfulness has been top-of-mind for many of our saints, and it is all over Scripture. Christ Himself gave thanks to God many times, often during some of the most pre-eminent miracles and moments of the Gospels.

Gratitude is part and parcel of many of our cardinal virtues. It is woven into justice, in that it acknowledges and rewards the rightness and generosity of others; it is a part of prudence, in that it requires mindfulness, care, and wisdom in practice; it is supportive of temperance, in that it shows us how to be selfless; and it is rewarded by fortitude, in that a thankful person is often a courageous and strong person.

And what better way can we supplement our practice of the theological virtues—faith, hope, and charity—but by expressing gratefulness to God for those gifts, and to our neighbors for practicing them along with us?

The Wisdom of Giving Thanks

What makes thankfulness so important to us, as humans? We are responsible for so much in life, and yet so little. We are gifted with so much in life, and yet deserve so little of it. The least we must do is acknowledge this generosity and show our thanks for it. We must take nothing for granted, lest we learn the hard way how fragile our lives truly are.

Here are some bits of wisdom I love:

“No duty is more urgent than that of returning thanks.” – St. Ambrose

 “Remember the past with gratitude. Live the present with enthusiasm. Look forward to the future with confidence.” – Pope St. John Paul II

“The secret of happiness is to live moment by moment and to thank God for what He is sending us every day in His goodness.” – St. Gianna Beretta Molla

“Lord, teach me to be generous. Teach me to serve You as You deserve.” – St. Ignatius of Loyola 

How to Be More Thankful

I have met so many beautiful people whose positivity is unwavering. Their secret, I think, is that they always find something to be thankful for. They always choose to acknowledge and lift up the good that surrounds them, rather than focusing on their struggles. They know that, in the end, we can control very little—but we can be grateful for very much.

In learning from them and from my own experience, here are five ways I try to make thankfulness a habit in my life:

  1. Always acknowledge the little things. When you come across your favorite number by happenstance, give a little thanks for the small smile it brings. When someone holds the door for you, always thank them out loud and with a smile. Upon learning to recognize the tiny moments of every day for which we can say “Thank you,” we become much more grateful for the bigger moments, too.
  2. Pray with proper order. There are several key elements to prayer, and thankfulness is one of them. It should come before we make requests to God. Remember ACTS when you pray: Adoration, Contrition, Thankfulness, and Supplication. My humility and penchant for gratitude improves greatly when I keep prayer in perspective this way.
  3. Share your gratitude with people you love. Regularly telling your family and friends about what you’re grateful for in life can help you and them be more thankful day to day—but do it humbly, and not to brag. For example, try going around the dinner table to have everyone share one thing they’re grateful for more frequently than just once a year at Thanksgiving.
  4. Hold yourself accountable to say thanks. I recently heard a lovely suggestion that’s specific to marriage: each night before bed, thank your spouse for at least one thing they did for you that day—something that made you feel more loved. It might also help to keep a gratitude journal, or to fill up a jar throughout the year with notes on what you’re thankful for each day, week, or month. The important thing is to set a goal and be consistent. It’s excellent for your mental health!
  5. Resist gossip. I find that gossip and judgmental thinking tend to become habitual—and that’s really too bad. The way we think and speak of others is influenced by paradigms. If my automatic reaction is to say, “Boy, that barista was sloooow today,” I might not even notice that the person behind me paid for a stranger’s drink while I was waiting just as a random act of kindness. I’d be too busy dwelling on my coffee’s delay.

There’s Always Something

Although certainly there are some trials in life that, when we emerge from them, remind us in no uncertain terms that we have a lot to be thankful for. Perhaps you’ve survived a horrific car crash. Perhaps your loved one beat cancer. Perhaps you got the job that makes providing for your family straightforward instead of stressful.

But if gratitude is truly a habit, then it’s the in-between times that call us to be most thankful—the times when no apparent miracle has occurred, but the simple pleasure of a 70-degree day in March left you feeling just a little warmer (inside and out). That’s something to be thankful for.

I’m Not a Feminist, But…

I am anti-abortion. I am also pro-life.

So when I hear politicians, super PACs, and activists say things like “women need access to abortion” or see blog posts like “10 Reasons to Have an Abortion – Illustrated by Adorable Cats,” I get sick to my stomach worrying about the value we place on healthy, happy, well-informed women.

The groups sharing those opinions often fight against informed consent laws that are designed to teach women in a vulnerable, emotional position the science behind their pregnancy. (A 14-year-old girl who’s frightened out of her wits—and uneducated on both pregnancy and the procedure of abortion—shouldn’t be denied a guaranteed opportunity to learn more about them before she decides to abort. Still, in many states, she is. If that’s not backing young women into a corner, I don’t know what is.)

Similar groups also fight against notification laws that are designed not just to protect young women from rash decisions and protect parents from losing influence over their children’s lives, but also to protect victims of rape and incest from continued abuse. They say they want abortion to be “safe, legal, and rare,” but they virtually never support initiatives that would make that last one true—and, in fact, they fight actively against those efforts. More than 3,000 abortions take place every day in the United States alone. The number of abortions that have occurred in America since 1973 exceeds the number of U.S. military deaths in every war we’ve ever fought combined. There’s nothing rare about that.

The most outrageous among them claim that pregnancy is an “unnatural” or “unhealthy” state, which is a direct insult to the biology of the feminine genius. To suggest that our anatomy makes us “unnatural” or “unhealthy” is the most perversely anti-feminist thing I’ve ever heard.

The fight for abortion uses the same shaming I’ve mentioned before: it forces women to feel their ability to open themselves to the physical intervention of scalpels, suction, and chemicals is what will protect their health and independence, and help them avoid social judgment. It makes pregnancy shameful and pushes women to make them fit society’s opinions of who and what and how they should be. The argument that “women need access to abortion” seeks to force women’s opinions with perceived normalcy and education. It pretends to be the smarter, more forward-thinking majority. It says: “Trust us when we say you need a reactive way to ‘solve’ your problem—and it is your problem, since you’re the one who’s pregnant. We’re here to tell you what’s best for you now that you’ve gotten here, because you can’t be responsible for proactive options, and you shouldn’t have to think of anyone but yourself. It’s not selfishness; it’s independence.”

I won’t even get into how much this hurts the men involved, who have played an equal role in starting a pregnancy—with total consent from both sides, the vast majority of the time—and yet have no weight in the argument over whether that pregnancy can continue. Removing fathers from the equation hurts women, too. It puts those women into a very lonely place, wherein one of the most impactful decisions of their lives must be made alone because society tells each of them that the man’s opinion doesn’t matter, and this must be her choice and hers alone. That makes it her ‘problem’ to solve, as if she’s solely responsible for both its creation and “cleanup.” It is isolating, terrifying, and unfair for her to endure that struggle on her own.

Those are the insults to womanhood that make me feel like a feminist. Those are the claims that devalue me as a female member of society, fully capable of understanding my body, controlling my impulses, and sharing my life.

We should be teaching each other to understand the way our bodies work. We should be encouraging each other to make the safest, healthiest decisions to protect our wellness and accomplish our goals. When unplanned circumstances come our way—even when they’re by our own actions—we should be supporting each other the whole way through, not shaming each other for the decisions that have gotten us there.

The vast majority of the time, women seeking abortions are healthfully pregnant by their own—and the father’s—shared choices. We are too smart to be telling each other that’s not the case. We all know that sex is a procreative act. We all know that birth control fails. So to say, “I consented to sex, but I didn’t consent to pregnancy” is a fallacy and an example of profound ignorance. And we are too smart to tell each other that abortion doesn’t end a life, or that its graphic violence is ever our best or only option.

We are all called to love and respect one another and ourselves. So why can’t we do a better job of helping each other do just that? Pro-lifers should support mothers and babies, as the sincere ones do, both before and after a decision is made. Even if a tragedy occurs, we should be there to hope for and help support healing. And advocates for abortion should welcome conversation, equal education, and support into the equation before a decision is made.

Women need each other as much as they need the men in their lives and as much as those men need women. We are social beings and should not isolate ourselves or each other. That’s not how we were made to be. Instead of subjecting ourselves to shame, objectification, violence, and ignorance, we should stand hand-in-hand in our toughest moments. Those are the moments of history that people remember, and that inspire us to be better. We must make a decision to support our most frightened, most vulnerable, and most unprotected—whatever that looks like.