Does God get off on seeing us suffer?

A Facebook friend posted this status:

Rule of thumb: Use NFP as often as you must forgo Sunday Mass.

His point was this: Just as we have to have serious reasons to miss Sunday Mass without sinning, we should have serious reasons to postpone pregnancy.

First, the obligatory clarification: When he said “use NFP,” he meant “use NFP to avoid pregnancy.” In fact, infertile couples trying to get pregnant may also “use NFP,” and even abstinent women use may “use NFP” to diagnose and treat a whole host of health issues.

That being said, the statement he made is technically true, but disastrously misleading. Here’s what I mean:

We have an obligation to go to Mass on Sundays unless there’s a serious reason not to do so. The catechism says:

2181 The Sunday Eucharist is the foundation and confirmation of all Christian practice. For this reason the faithful are obliged to participate in the Eucharist on days of obligation, unless excused for a serious reason (for example, illness, the care of infants) or dispensed by their own pastor.119 Those who deliberately fail in this obligation commit a grave sin.

We go because we are obligated to go; and we are obligated to go because it’s good for us to be there. Okay.

But some people believe that you must be at death’s door before you’d even consider foregoing Mass, and it never occurs to them that it’s selfish and wrong to drag your germy, spluttering, sneezing, infectious self into a building full of babies and old people. You shouldn’t skip Mass because you have a slight headache or you’re not in the mood; but you shouldn’t force yourself to go to Mass if your physical presence would be bad for other people. Some of your fellow parishioners are medically fragile, but, unlike you with your flu, they won’t be stronger next week. For their sake, out of respect for their desire to be at Mass, you need to consider staying home for now. If you make a decision in good faith to stay home, then you are not sinning by skipping Mass, even if you could physically survive the hour.

In the same way, choosing to forgo conception is not just about your personal willingness to suffer. You have to take other people’s legitimate needs into account. You may be willing to have another baby now, but is it just and fair to the rest of the people you’re responsible for? If one of your other kids in in crisis and needs attention badly, is there anything holy about deliberately becoming barely functional for several months? Can you ask your already-overburdened husband to unwillingly take up even more slack, and call that “being one flesh?” Or can you ask your already-exhausted wife to unwillingly do even more than she’s already doing, but somehow call it “generosity?”

Sometimes selfishness masquerades as piety. I’m not afraid to suffer! Well, that’s nice for you, but what about the suffering you’re causing to other people as you pat yourself on the back for your selfless heroism?  You don’t live alone in a hermit’s cell. Your choices affect other people, and you’re not allowed to ignore them because it strokes your spiritual pride. You’re not entitled to be generous with other people’s lives. You can ask them to be adaptable (and oftentimes, that’s all that another baby requires: adaptability); but their lives are not yours to sacrifice.

So that’s the first complication to what seems like a tidy little aphorism. It’s true that we need a serious or just reason to postpone pregnancy or to skip Mass, but those reasons are not all about us.

The second problem is that the “Try harder! Suffer more! Lemme see you sweat!” approach has to do with how we perceive God, and goes beyond NFP. The “agony = holiness” approach assumes that God is only truly pleased when we’re in horrible pain all the time, and the only way to tell if we’re following God is if we’re falling apart. If life is tolerable, we must be doing something wrong.

This is, if anything, worse than the first problem. The first problem shows that we don’t have sufficient love for other people. The second problem shows we don’t have sufficient love for God.

The second problem, the “agony = holiness” approach, portrays God as barking, sadistic drill sergeant of a deity, hellbent on whipping us into shape by smacking us down the minute we blink like the sniveling, puling weaklings we are.

God.
Is.
Not.
Like.
That.

He doesn’t despise us. He’s not out to get us. He’s not itching to see us squirm between the screws of the torture device He calls “morality.” I understand that the 21st century is not chock full of Catholics who are too strict with themselves, but neither is it chock full of Catholics who truly look to Christ as the source of love and solace in our sorrow.

God is not a sadist. God doesn’t relish watching us torment ourselves. He sometimes lets us fall into suffering — and make no mistake, pregnancy, or going to Mass, can be a form of suffering!  But when we do fall into dark times, He jumps down into that pit with us, to help us dig our way out, to help us become stronger, and to keep us company while we’re there. He doesn’t stand at the edge looking down, jeering and cheering as we writhe in pain below. He is the Lamb who was slain, not the drill sergeant who gets off on pain.

We must be willing to suffer, but we’re not required to seek suffering out. We’re not required to constantly ratchet up our own pain. 

We are required to seek love out. We are required to constantly ratchet up our desire to see God in everyone and everything.

And guess what? Sometimes God looks like joy. Sometimes God looks like peace. Sometimes God looks like prudence. Sometimes God even looks like contentment.

So be obedient, pray often, and seek God and His love in obedience, rather than focusing on the rules themselves. If God is giving you a way to take care of yourself and take care of others, whether that’s making a spiritual communion while drinking tea at home, or whether that’s looking prayerfully at your family and thanking God for the size it is right now, then you are pleasing the Father who loves you.

Reassess your decisions as necessary. But don’t assume that the thing that appeals to you must automatically disappoint God. Obedience doesn’t always bring agony. Sometimes it brings relief. Be content to be loved.

The fowler’s snare

Today’s Christmas art is from my dear friend, Margaret Rose Realy, Obl. O.S.B., painter, gardener, and author of three books.  You can find more of her arresting art work here; and I want to return to her art at a later date.

But today is a hard feast day, the feast of the Holy Innocents. They are the first martyrs, whose blood became that terrible red carpet to lay before the coming king.

Here is the responsorial psalm for today, the feast of the Holy Innocents:

R. Our soul has been rescued like a bird from the fowler’s snare.

Had not the LORD been with us—
When men rose up against us,
then would they have swallowed us alive,
When their fury was inflamed against us.

R. Our soul has been rescued like a bird from the fowler’s snare.

Then would the waters have overwhelmed us;
The torrent would have swept over us;
over us then would have swept the raging waters.

R. Our soul has been rescued like a bird from the fowler’s snare.

Broken was the snare,
and we were freed.
Our help is in the name of the LORD,
who made heaven and earth.

R. Our soul has been rescued like a bird from the fowler’s snare.”

I don’t know what to make of this. So many of my friends are so ensnared, so longing for rescue, so overwhelmed by the waters. What is the answer? What kind of rescue is that?

The answer does not come from Christ, our brother, who somehow allowed Himself to be ensnared:

christmas-art-margaret-realy

 

The answer is Christ.

What this entirely means, I do not know. When Christ is the answer, I don’t always understand the answer. But I do stop looking elsewhere, when that is the answer I get.

Not long ago I found myself caught in an old, painful memory, feeling once again some wounds and gashes that I thought had been healed. They opened again because I saw a woman going through what I had gone through many years ago — but for her, there was rescue, there were sympathetic people rushing to her aid, there was help. I survived, yes, because here I am today; but I saw myself hanging there alone at that time, and I was angry. As I walked and remembered, I cried out to the Lord, “Where was my rescue?”

He answered, “Nobody rescued Me, either.”

And He had a choice. He didn’t have to be there, but He put Himself there, His sacred head surrounded by those thorns, that snare, that unspeakable trap of wood and nails. And that was what He was offering me: A chance to willingly be snared with Him. He is the answer. I don’t know what it means, but there is no other answer. I had no choice but to suffer, at the time; but now I do have the choice to place my suffering with His.

I stop looking somewhere outside that ring of thorns. There, caught, pierced, His heart bleeds for the brokenhearted, innocent and otherwise. I place the suffering hearts of my friends inside that snare of thorns with Christ.

Can we celebrate Christmas as Syria burns?

Trying to tamp down the guilt that rose like a cloud of evil dust, I mentally ran through my week, comparing it to the week that my brothers and sisters have endured in Aleppo. I shouldn’t have bought any presents, I thought. How could I even dare? How can we light our Advent candles and sing “O Come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel?” We are not captives. We are healthy, wealthy, safe, pampered. Our walls our intact. We are home. Our children are with us, safe and warm in bed. The Syrians, they are the ones who need rescuing, Lord. Lord, isn’t there something I can do?

Read the rest of my latest at The Catholic Weekly here.

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Image: By Ahill34 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

How to deal with the mixed metaphor of Christ?

Sometimes Christ says, “I am the way,” and when you try to follow Him, you find yourself alone in the world. Sometimes He says, “I will give you rest,” and when you accept, then the real work begins. Sometimes Christ says, “I am love,” and when you go to Him, the first thing you feel is a terrible pain.

Then what? What are we supposed to do then, when we are repelled or confused or hurt by these unexpected “mixed metaphors” of our encounters with a Christ who is all things?

Read the rest of my latest at The Catholic Weekly.

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Photo By Adam Jones, Ph.D. (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

 

 

 

 

My Aleteia piece on the suffering faithful…

gesu crucifix

 

 

is spotlighted today:

The Church is full of the obedient wounded. The flock who never strayed have troubles of their own, and some of these troubles come directly from original sin, the effects of which no doctrinal development, pastoral compassion, or rigorously trained professional can completely undo.

Poor family, they need to hear that their sorrows are known to God and to the Church. That the cross still hangs there above the altar because it must be faced, sooner or later, even when we’re inside the walls of the Church. Sacramental marriage is not a safe, cozy nest where no predators can find us. Every marriage includes some element of the cross.

Read the rest at Aleteia.

By the way, have you seen Aleteia lately? It’s gorgeous. They’ve revamped their whole site, and Elizabeth Scalia is bringing on lots of great writers.

Also, I’ve received tons of mail in response to the open letter to the Synod Fathers from Monica More that I posted last week (Married to an Angry Man). I am grateful that so many people took the time to offer responses and help. Please be patient while I work on responding.

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On complaining honestly about NFP (and other crosses)

carnivorous-575472_1280
Want to complain about NFP? Far be it from me to stop you! You could even go ahead and write a whole book about how hard NFP can be, and see where that gets you. (Psst, it’s still on sale! $5 paperback, $2.99 eb0ok)
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Couples who are struggling are very grateful to hear that they’re not the only ones who hate NFP. There’s nothing worse than feeling like, not only are you having a miserable time, but you’re the only ones who aren’t lovin’ every minute of it.
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Happily, the conversation about NFP has been slowly, steadily becoming more realistic, and fewer NFP promoters are resorting to sunshine-’n’-buttercups tactics as they sell NFP. Instead, we’re seeing more frank and honest discussions of the what NFP can (but won’t necessarily automatically) do for your marriage. (See a great reading list at the end of this post.) Honesty may  not be the most immediately attractive approach, but in the long run, it’s more helpful.
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However! There’s such a thing as too much honesty — or, rather, there’s such a thing as misleading honesty, honesty that is one-sided, incomplete, or even dishonest.
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Here are a few of the things I try to achieve when I talk about NFP, along with just being honest:
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1. NO CROSS-COMPARING.
I try not to make it seem like only couples who struggle are couples who are doing it right. I used to do this, and I’m sorry about that!  It’s kind of like the “real women have curves” sloganeering. Well, I’m a real woman, and I have curves; but I have skinny friends, and they are real women, too. Let’s not overcompensate and end up insulting people who simply have a different cross from our own.
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If those of us who really struggle with NFP are going to plead for or demand more sympathy and understanding from people who find it a light cross at worst, we should extend the same courtesy to people who are bearing up well under the cross of NFP. We shouldn’t imply, even jokingly, that couples who like NFP are probably just some kind of low-drive tea bags in the bedroom. Comparing crosses, and taking jabs at people with other crosses than your own, is a shitty game. Talk about missing the point.
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2. NO FALSE HOPES
I try to make it clear that, while Catholics can certainly improve the way they deliverthe Church’s teaching about sexuality, the Church is not going to change her teaching about sexualityIt’s one thing to say, “I feel comforted when someone in the Church recognizes that this is a hard teaching.” It’s quite another to say, “I feel comforted to think that the Church is getting closer to fixing this unreasonable demand she makes on us.” Certain things are simply not in flux.
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If we’d like an acknowledgement from the bishops or from the local marriage prep teacher that NFP is sometimes nothing but a cross for couples, then I agree with you. NFP is “challenging” in the same way that unmedicated childbirth gives you “discomfort.”  But let’s not encourage people to hope for some kind of change in the Church’s teaching. I know that as long as I was hoping for that, I was unable to look suffering in the face. Which is a bad thing.
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Which brings me to my third point:
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3. NO INSISTING ON HUMAN STANDARDS 
When we are avoiding or postponing pregnancy, we don’t use NFP primarily because of its magical marriage-building properties! We use NFP because it allows us to have sex sometimes instead of never. We’d be smart to pursue any benefits that we can, but they are not why we reject contraception. We reject contraception primarily because it is immoral, and we can thank the Holy Spirit if rejecting contraception also brings us various goods, like better physical health or better relationships with our spouses and with God.
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NFP is not necessarily going to “hurt so good,” with measurable payoffs for the ordeal. It might just plain hurt, without any discernible benefits or rewards, because of original sin. When we preach solely about the rewards of NFP — even hard-to-achieve spiritual rewards — and never talk about our duty to reject sin, we imply that suffering is only worthwhile when it has some immediate and obvious purpose, goal, or benefit, such as “marriage building,” or making couples happy or fulfilled, or giving life, or making our spiritual life more fulfilling. Is this what suffering is really like, though?
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Not that I’ve noticed. When Jesus was on the cross, I’m pretty sure that everyone around Him experienced His sacrifice as nothing but a cruel, senseless, loss. He had only been in public ministry for a few years, and now it was ending already, and they were all losing a teacher, a savior, a friend, a son — not to mention that they were seeing Him in pain and disgrace, and were all in danger of being arrested just for knowing Him. Plenty of people saw what was happening and ran away and lost their faith. There was nothing happy or fulfilling life-giving in sight with that sacrifice. I am quite sure it seemed senseless and intolerable — probably, if we listen to His words, even to Christ Himself.
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Oh my gosh, what a downer, right? But really, it’s a trap to use human standards (“Is this making me happy? Is this making life better? Does everyone around me agree that this makes sense? Does it seem like I’m making progress?”) to make judgments about what kind of suffering is tolerable. When we do this, then really serious suffering, the kind that doesn’t make sense, will seem like a sign that something is wrong — that something has to change, that we deserve a pass of some kind (see point #2).
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If we look at a crucifix, suffering may or may not make sense, but at least we can’t claim that God couldn’t possibly expect us to choose that path just because of religion.  Look to Him. Look at Him. See Him hanging there, abandoned. Sometimes there is no answer — not for you, not right now. That’s not a good reason to stop.
Don’t get me wrong: I believe in redemptive suffering. It’s just that I no longer expect it to feel redemptive.
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***
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For further reading, do yourself a favor and check out the invaluable Jen Fitz’s series:
What Is the Point of Pointless Suffering?
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I want to be Jen Fitz when I grow up!
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And also don’t miss Greg Popcak’s helpful advice specifically about NFP in his series from this year:
and a good reminder to those of us with big families that hyperfertility is a cross, but it’s not the only cross, so watch your words.

Only a rightly-ordered heart feels grief

Fra_Angelico_053

 

 

e know some couples who don’t fight very much, but they don’t seem to really enjoy each other, either. They more or less leave each other alone, with a sort of low-level, courteous disdain for each other’s enthusiasms and flaws alike. They never experience the agony of rupture because they’ve carefully cordoned themselves off from any passionate unity. They are indifferent, because it’s easier. And this indifference is a tragic waste of marriage.

Read the rest at the Register. 

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Other people’s blessings

I’ve had to remind myself, over and over again, that couples who really do love NFP aren’t just lying. The “Oh, how I love the monthly cycle of courtship and honeymoon!” crowd haven’t drunk any Kool-Aid. They’re not necessarily undersexed, brainwashed saps who have never encountered true suffering.

 

They’re just different from me, and if I expect them to respect my struggles, then I need to learn to respect their joy.

Read the rest at the Register. 

Love, Blame and Hope in the Movie MUD

PIC Mud poster

This movie wasn’t about what is wrong with women, or what is wrong with men. It was more about how difficult love is, and how little it helps when we lie to ourselves. It was a sorrowful movie, but not a depressing one; and it left lots of room for at least some of the characters to learn from their suffering and to forgive the people who failed them. Yes, the snakes that have been waiting will get you in the end. No, you will not die. But don’t let yourself get bitten again — unless it’s for someone you love. And around it goes, and the sun keeps shining off the open waters ahead.

Read the rest at the Register.

What About Behavioral and Spiritual Arguments Against Vaccines?

PIC vaccine

As we can see from Tuesday’s post and the response to it, it’s not necessarily clear what we mean when we say “science” or “medicine.” So let’s put science and medicine aside entirely for a moment, and let’s focus on two arguments against vaccines that I keep hearing — arguments which don’t appeal to science at all, but which are spiritual and behavioral.

Read the rest at the Register.   Note: any snark, condescension, lack of charity, arrogance, self-pity, logical fallacies or otherwise insufferable behavior in this post is unintentional. If you think I’ve missed the mark, please pray for me and respond with as much kindness as you can, because I really am trying here.