Several years ago, a young man who wasn’t even dating earnestly told me that NFP can hurt marriage, because what would happen if it was Valentine’s Day, and your chart said you can’t have sex?
I’m afraid I did not respond with grace. I had been married for several years, and was well aware of the unpleasantness of abstinence. Well aware. I wasn’t using NFP to avoid pregnancy because I simply didn’t understand how neat sex can be, or that I wasn’t romantic enough, or didn’t love my husband enough, or didn’t love babies enough, or didn’t understand what marriage was for. It was that I was staring down the barrel of cold reality: Valentine’s Day is fun, but it doesn’t pair well with unemployment, homelessness, and Irish twins.
At least this fellow was just naive. I’ve encountered men and women who are more experienced with marriage, but still say that avoiding pregnancy may be sensible and prudent, but love calls us to something higher: Boldly accepting suffering.
And this is true. Love and suffering very often go together in this world. Cf: the crucifixion.
But here’s the key: Out of love for us, Jesus took on suffering for himself. That’s what we’re supposed to imitate, when we learn how to love: Being willing to personally suffer because of love.
You’re not allowed to crucify other people and call that “love.” If the thing you call “love” is voluntary and makes other people suffer, then that’s not love. That’s something else.
Imagine the man who would love another child despite the responsibility it brings, but he thinks, “My wife the one whose body is getting torn up each time. If she says she needs a break, and I say I love her, then I need to listen.” So they wait. That’s love.
Or take a woman who’s dying for another baby despite the pain it brings, but she thinks, “My husband is the one who’s working eighty hours a week and can’t sleep at night with anxiety over the future. If he says we need a break, and I say I love him, then I need to listen.” So they wait. That’s love.
Or take the parents who are ready and willing to add to the family, but they also have a toddler in the ICU, or a teenager who’s having a mental health crisis, and they know another pregnancy would take time and attention that’s already in short supply. So they wait. That’s love.
This is what love sometimes looks like. You know when something is good, and you know that it’s good to want it, but you tell yourself to wait, because you don’t want to hurt other people. You cannot voluntarily choose to hurt someone else and call that “love.” If we’re truly willing to suffer for love, then we should be willing to choose the suffering of waiting.
Maybe you guessed this is my roundabout way of talking about missing Mass and forgoing the Eucharist during the pandemic.
I’ve heard more times than I can count that Catholics who are content to stay home from Mass simply don’t love and want Jesus enough; that those who willingly forgo the Eucharist because of the pandemic are doing so because they are lukewarm.
I’ve heard over and over that Catholics who truly understand what an incredible thing the Eucharist is will be willing to go to Mass and risk catching the virus because they are not cowards. They are willing to take this risk of suffering because they are so on fire with love for Jesus in the sacrament.
Since I keep hearing these things, I’ll say it again:
You’re not allowed to crucify other people and call that “love.”
If the thing you call “love” is voluntary and makes other people suffer, then that’s not love. That’s something else.
A pandemic is, by definition, a shared risk. Very few people are so radically isolated and independent from other people that they can take on a personal risk that isn’t also a risk to someone else.
An asymptomatic person may feel his heart burning with love for Christ in the Eucharist, and unknowingly pass on the virus to the priest, who goes on to infect everyone he touches, in and out of Mass. Or a healthy person may catch the virus from the priest, and then pass it along to the next three people they meet at the grocery store.
We know this can happen. We know this is exactly how it happened, causing hundreds of thousands of people to suffer and die. When people come into contact with each other, those who had the virus and passed it to others, who passed it on to still others. Taking steps to avoid the transmission of the virus to others isn’t cowardice. It’s not lukewarmness. It’s not a sign of weakness or fear or selfishness or a lack of love. It is the very thing that people do when they love each other: They make sacrifices. They forgo good things. They take care. They wait.
This is what love sometimes looks like. And we are commanded to love one another. If we’re truly willing to suffer for love, then we should be willing to choose the suffering of waiting.
Here’s the strangest part of all:
When, out of love for someone else, you make a habit of patiently forgoing something that is good, then you will more and more readily recognize that good thing as a gift, rather than as a right. And when we conceive of it as a gift, rather than a right, it becomes easier to bear the pain of waiting.
It’s true for sex and babies, and it’s true for Mass and the Eucharist. When someone tells you, “You can’t have this,” you may feel angry and deprived. So instead, tell yourself, “I choose to wait for this, out of love.” See how you begin to feel about the thing you must wait for. Immerse yourself in love, and see your sense of entitlement dissolve, even as your ardor grows.
Try it. Try telling yourself, “I am staying home because I love my fellow man.” Take your name off foolish petitions. Remove the self-serving protest frame from your profile picture. Above all, refuse to voluntarily hurt other people and call it “love.” Take care that, when you say “I would die for Jesus,” you don’t really mean, “I’m willing to kill for him.”
Remember that Jesus is always a gift, and in no way something we deserve or are entitled to. Recall that we are called to love. Out of love, be content to wait.