The Marital Call for Life-Giving Love Part. 2

In Part 1 of “The Marital Call for Life-Giving Love” I discussed the primary means of “fruitfulness” in marriage, which is mutual acceptance of new life. Today, I’m discussing the Church’s plan for fertility.  

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A big question people often have upon hearing the Church’s teaching on contraception is the following: Does the Church seriously think that married couples are always called to engage in the sexual act with the intent of having children?

The answer: Absolutely not.

Being open to life in marriage is not to say that a married couple cannot responsibly and prayerfully regulate the size of their family, but rather that husband and wife do not thwart God’s design for sex, love, and marriage by artificially blocking fertility during a naturally fertile time.  Mirroring God’s love in the marital act means never rejecting (or placing barriers between) the possibility of bearing forth children.  Openness to the possibility of new life is key; not specific intention to procreate in every act. Through periodic abstinence, a couple is able to have control over their bodies and make a total and complete gift of themselves to each other.

This is why the intrinsic goodness of marriage isn’t altered or changed when couples are unable to have children, for reasons of age or natural infertility.  Unintended infertility is not an impediment to marriage; intended infertility is.

When Procreation is Entirely Excluded from Marital Love

When man and wife intentionally reject the possibility of children, the fundamental character of their sexual relationship drastically changes.  Openness to new life means being readily accepting of the expansion of love through parenthood.  When this openness to new life is removed, the will in the sexual act may no longer be wholly concerned with the other person’s good, and affirming of their inherent value.  Rather, the spouses (intentionally or not) begin to look at the other person as something to use and be used by.  Contraceptive love is not entirely concerned with the good of the other, because it excludes an entire gift of self.

The contraceptive mentality is not constricted to the medicated realm alone.  This similar mentality is taken in marriages that seek to remove the procreative aspect of their union through coitus interruptus (i.e. the “pull out” method), mutual masturbation that does not lead up to the sexual act, and the avoidance of children through abstinence for an unjust reason.fruitful

The Call for Chastity within Marriage 

This is why chastity in marriage is so essential. Chastity in marriage is not merely abstaining from sexual intercourse during periods of fertility.  It means following God’s plan for sex, love, and marriage.  This is not a negative thing, but it is an entirely positive thing motivated by authentic love.  As Jason Evert says, “Chastity gives you clarity of vision.”  It trains faithfulness, and frees us to love with full hearts so that we can make an entire gift of ourselves to our spouse.  Chastity does not mean oppressing all sexual desires, but calls spouses to properly order their desires so that they may be able to make a full expression of love and unity.

Living a chaste life in marriage opens up a deep level of communication and respect, and prompts man and wife to work together as a team, in all areas of their marriage. It also calls them to realize that there are more ways to express love than just the physical.  During periods of abstinence, they are called to get creative, finding ways to express their love to one another in different ways: through words of affirmation, spending quality time with one another, and performing acts of service for each other.

Seriously, the Solution is Natural Family Planning?

Natural Family Planning  is the means by which couples can avoid pregnancy if they have a just reason to do so.  So many people argue against NFP, claiming it is an old-fashioned, oppressive, and unworkable solution to human sexuality, but these claims are primarily based on misconceptions of what it is.

NFP is a means of regulating birth, through the observation of the woman’s natural fertility.  It relies on the science of a woman’s body, helping a couple identify when a woman is fertile or not.  This is not to be confused with the outdated, calendar “rhythm method,” but is an effective (99% method effective, and 96% user effective) and reliable means of avoiding pregnancy, and also of achieving it.   During fertile periods (in the case when a couple is trying to postpone pregnancy), man and wife are called to abstain from sexual intercourse.

NFP is different than contraception, because it isn’t a barrier method, meaning nothing is being done to prevent conception.  The sexual act is left the same–man and wife do not frustrate God’s plan for love in the act–and nothing changes in either of the spouse’s bodies. By watching the woman’s basal body temperature, cervical fluid, and hormone levels, the couple is able to identify when a woman is fertile or not, in order to achieve or postpone pregnancy.

Doesn’t This Method Have a High Failure Rate? 

Method effectiveness in each of the different methods of NFP is incredibly high (99% effective), but user effectiveness does vary.  How a person typically uses these methods vary in circumstances, and all of these play a huge role in how effective their method of choice is.

For example, a couple who isn’t following protocol strictly or is lax about keeping track of their signs of fertility will have a harder time postponing pregnancy than a couple who is very diligent.  Also, a woman who has irregular cycles or lower/higher levels of hormones than most, will probably need some assistance (an NFP instructor) to help guide her through her fertile periods.

The Strange and Difficult Way 

Many people think the Church’s stance on contraception is oppressive, but in reality, ordering sexuality according to God’s plan is actually entirely freeing.  This reality is hard to explain, because the nitty gritty of practicing NFP really does require a lot of work, discipline, and sometimes even heartache.  In all honesty, I’d be lying if I didn’t say that practicing NFP wasn’t hard.  It can be very difficult at times.  It calls for discipline in charting, open communication with my husband, periods of abstinence, and learning to live chastely in marriage.  It means asking ourselves, before entering into the marital embrace, the following: Are we prepared at this time (financially, spiritually, physically, etc.) to bring another life into the world, if God so wills it?  If we are, and I am fertile, then we are free to engage.  If we aren’t, and I am fertile, we have to hit the pause button on expressing our love bodily for a few days.  This requires a ton of self-control, and also certitude in our love.  NFP doesn’t require me to ingest chemicals or insert devices into my body in order to achieve sexual “liberation” in my marriage.  In our times of abstinence, we are reminding each other of the great responsibility that comes with marital love–and this is incredibly freeing.  As Jason Evert said,

“NFP beautifully contradicts such a [contraceptive] mentality, because it does not treat a woman’s body as if it needs to be subdued by drugs or shielded behind barriers in order to function properly; it just needs to be understood.  This invites the man to treat the woman’s fertility with reverence instead of disdain.   He learns that his wife’s body has been perfectly made.  This is true sexual liberation.”

Following God’s plan for sex, love, and marriage is very counter-cultural, and oftentimes very difficult.  Practicing the love God has in mind for marriage puts marital love to the test, calls man and wife to give a total gift of themselves to each other, and reminds them to always put the promise of their love in God’s hands.   In this way, love is not harmed or oppressed, but rather, strengthened and freed.

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The Freedom in Living Chastely Before Marriage

When examining the element of “freedom” in my marriage, it is clear that there was nothing impeding me or my husband from entering freely into a union with one another. There wasn’t anyone holding a gun to my head when I made my vows and I didn’t feel forced in to marriage for any reason.  I knew with my full heart that I wanted to marry Joe, and I know that he felt the same.  I remember putting on my dress that morning, anxious more from lack of sleep at the excitement of marrying my best friend, than from stress or fear.  I knew that day, that I was exactly where I needed to be: saying yes to a union with the man I trusted with my whole life.

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However, getting to this point of full freedom of heart wasn’t entirely easy.  The road that paved the way required a lot of work and sacrifice, both in my personal life and in our relationship up until the day we made our vows.  I think the only way to really express the freedom Joe and I felt at our wedding, is by honestly telling you about our path and the choices that we made that lead to that day.

I made the conscientious decision to save my virginity for marriage when I was 16 years old, signing a chastity card with the intent of living out my sexuality with God’s plan in mind.  It was a decision that I reaffirmed with every passing boyfriend and with every passing year (even signing 3 more cards which I would later give to my husband Joe on our wedding day).  Throughout my life, this proved to teach me two things: to keep my eye on a love that was authentic and real (not based primarily on utility), and to place my trust and love in God before anyone or anything else.     

With every boy that I dated from then on, I put it in my heart to remember God’s plan for love and marriage.  But this was not always easy.  Probably the first and hardest thing I faced with my vow of chastity was the persecution.  Countless people (both guys and girls) made fun of me for my decision, and basically dumbed down my vow to a “lack of hormones,” or an immature understanding of passion and human sexuality.  “You’ll know when you fall in love,” they told me.  Or they’d say, “You’re so cute,” patting me on the head mockingly.  The names I was called by my boyfriends and their friends, the pressure I endured, the many cheating and uncommitted guys I had to wade through…all of these things were incredibly painful.  It was eyeopening to see how many guys weren’t willing to stick around very long or commit to me when they found out I wasn’t going to be giving them that one thing.  As I faced these challenges, I had to learn from a young age to place my trust in God, and to give him my heart first before handing it away to another person.

This was a challenge in itself, though.  Due to impatience and imprudence, there were still many times that I threw my heart into my relationships, giving certain pieces of myself away freely.  I am not proud of some of the things I’ve done in my life.  I wish that I could erase some of the encounters I had, and all the times I tried to take things into my own hands rather than allowing God to lead me in life and especially in love.  In my impatience, though, I nonetheless felt God very near to me, urging me to look into my heart and examine whether or not my actions were truly making me happy.  By being honest with myself, I realized overtime that anytime I fell short of God’s plan for love and for my life (physically or spiritually), I never felt fulfilled or real love.  On the contrary, I felt used and empty.  Even with the boyfriends I knew loved me

This was not a path I wanted to take, and I learned that in order to get to where God wanted me to go, it would require a lot of sacrifice, patience, fortitude, and ultimately, a man willing to wait for me.  Moreover, I had to put my desires for love and for marriage in the hands of God, and give him the room to send me the man I was praying for.

And he did.  He sent me Joe. 

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I could tell from the beginning that Joe was someone who wanted to get to know me for me. Right from the start, it was so refreshing to meet a guy who was invested in me and my heart, looking for nothing in return.  He was patient and kind, loving and devoted—and all these things proved later to be essential qualities I needed in the man I was going to marry.

As we embarked further in our relationship, we were faced with having to decide what it was we were wanting from one another.  We both knew we weren’t just looking for a “good time” or something of the like, but we were ultimately desiring something more. Something deeper.  Though marriage wasn’t something we actively talked about in the first year and a half of our relationship, I think we both knew, ultimately, that’s what we wanted.  Whether it was with each other or not…well that was for time to work out.  However, in order to get to know each other with clear eyes and to more easily discern whether or not we truly were the right people for each other, we decided early on that we had to take on certain crosses.  We agreed from the very beginning that our relationship would not be guided merely by our passions, and as such we chose to sacrifice engaging in premarital sex and living together before marriage.

I refer to these as “crosses,” because essentially, that’s what they were. Waiting to bodily express the love that was unfolding between us was incredibly difficult, and there were countless nights we would’ve preferred to spend together, rather than apart.  The decision not to live together was a huge sacrifice for us, primarily because we were in a long-distance relationship.  It would have been way easier for us to spend our weekends living together, than for Joe to rent an apartment where I was living.  However, living together would have made it extremely hard for us to temper our desires, and we both knew that if we gave in to them we would be changing the dynamic and direction of our relationship.  Ultimately, with our bodies, we would be lying to one another.  This probably sounds incredibly dramatic, but that is because the call of chastity is starkly contrasted by the modern distortion of the true meaning of sex.  The reality is that the meaning of sex goes much deeper than the modern interpretation of it says it does. Sex is not some act you participate in simply because it feels good, or to express just any kind of love.  As human beings, we are comprised of both body and soul, so the language of the body and the language of the spirit have to be in harmony for this language to speak truth and beauty.  Sex is a gift given by God and what makes it so beautiful is that it is the means by which the wedding vows become flesh.  It is the physical expression of the invisible, unbreakable bond between man and wife.  As Jason Evert once beautifully said, “When a husband gives his body to his bride, and a bride gives her body to her husband, their bodies speak the truth: I am entirely yours.”  Thus, he says, “Sex anywhere but in marriage would be dishonest.”

free-total-ffI look back now at all of the relationships I had before Joe, and see how easy it would have been to give in to temptation and my fleeting desires.  However, if I had, I would have missed out on the gift God gave me in Joe.  I know that the small amount of regrets I have from the mistakes I made in my past would have multiplied intensely, had I given all of myself away to guys who didn’t deserve it–to guys who I had not entered into an unbreakable bond with.

As for me and Joe, as hard as it was to wait, neither one of us regrets it for one second.  We know that the choices we made early on gave us a freedom in love in our marriage that we otherwise wouldn’t have had or would have had to struggle to obtain.  Waiting gave us the ability to clearly answer in our engagement whether or not we were ready to take on the task of loving as Christ loves, and further, to practice the kind of love that could endure times of great trial and sacrifice in our marriage.  By waiting for one another, we were learning what it means to love through the good times and the bad and to always will each other’s good.  We were learning early on what it means to love freely, totally, faithfully, and fruitfully.

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I want to emphasize that I am not here to tell you how to live your life, or that you are a bad person for choosing things that we actively avoided.  I am speaking about these incredibly personal things now, primarily because there are so many different interpretations of what “love” and “sex” are out there today, and very few people talking about what it means to protect the sanctity of your marriage before you ever even enter into it.   It is a tragedy that our culture perpetuates such an enormous lie about human sexuality, because sex does have a deep inherent purpose.  Our culture’s idea that love must be “test driven” only hinders what love can be when it is given freely, without expectations or qualifications.  Real and lasting love takes a lot of sacrifice, patience, and mutual self-giving, and learning to approach sex with it’s inherent purpose in mind (i.e. expressing the marital vows in the flesh) is one of the greatest gifts you can give to the one you love.  Despite contrary belief, following God’s plan for sex and marriage doesn’t make for a sterile, boring, or awkward love with another being, but rather, an incredibly profound and freeing experience of love and vulnerability with your beloved.

If you have made mistakes, or are engaging in premarital relations, it is never too late to say yes to God’s plan for sex and love.  Making the sacrifice to keep yourself pure (whether single, in a relationship, or engaged), is entirely worth it.  While, of course, the Church calls us to avoid the more obvious impediments to entering freely into marriage, it also calls us to a deep freedom of the heart.  There is a great freedom that comes in following God’s plan for love, and the gift given is lifelong romance without regret.

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What is Marriage?

Today is World Marriage Day!  In honor of the day, I wanted to write a little bit about the purpose of marriage, especially since there seems to be so many different interpretations of what it is in our world today.

It is clear that purpose of marriage in today’s culture is confused.  The rate of divorce is incredibly high and people are more often than not opting to forego marriage altogether, choosing instead to live in non-marital monogomous relationships, become serial daters, have casual sexual encounters, or to merely cohabitate.  People often question if marriage is even worth it, and believe that a valued, committed relationship is just as good as a signed document declaring a marital union is in effect.

Even though there are many different interpretations of marriage out there today, the reality is that marriage is not merely a signed document, nor a human institution based on certain social structures or personal attitudes.  It has embedded within it, particular spiritual and permanent characteristics built upon the well-being of the individual persons in the union, as well as society as a whole. 

In order to understand the inherent meaning of marriage, it is important to begin with God, the author of authentic love.  In his infinite Being, God is a Trinity of Three Divine Persons: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  These Three Persons partake of an indissoluble unity, marked by a deep fidelity to one another in mutual self-giving.  Their gift of themselves is one of totality, unity, and faithfulness: for all eternity, the Father loves the Son, the Son loves the Father, and their love pours out into a third person, The Holy Spirit.  In the union of marriage, man and woman–who are created in the image and likeness of God–are called to most perfectly mirror the image of the Trinity and to love as God loves.  Since the Holy Trinity is the highest and supreme example of familial relation, marriage should thus reflect some of these same characteristics.

Marriage is the means by which man and woman live out a familial relationship, mirroring the relation of love between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Man and woman come together and share in an intimate life marked by their indissolubility, fidelity, and mutual self-giving.  It is through the permanent commitment of marriage that man and woman are most fully able to live out their deep and abiding union, and pour forth their love by procreating, and by sharing the fruits of their love with the world.   

We also gain insight about the inherent meaning of marital love by examining it as Christ lived it.  Christ fully exemplified for us what marriage is all about.   He is the great Bridegroom, whose love for his Bride, the Church, is marked by four chief characteristics: that it is free, total, faithful, and fruitful.

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Though Christ was fully divine, he freely entered into human nature so as to reconcile God’s people to the Father.  In his perfect obedience to the Father’s will, he offered himself totally on behalf of his Bride, withholding nothing from her, and choosing to endure injustice, mockery, chastisement, brutality, and ultimately death—all for her sake.  He knew, despite suffering and pain, that his great love and sacrifice for her would ultimately unite her to God the Father and lift her up–sanctifying her–so that she may obtain eternal salvation.  He was completely faithful to her until the moment he breathed his last breath, and through his faithfulness, he opened the gates of heaven allowing the flood of mercy and compassion to wash over his beloved. Lastly, he gave her the gift of The Advocate that so that his love and hers could flourish and bear great fruits, bringing forth the light of love to the world.

Through his life and love for his Bride, we gain insight into what true and authentic love in a marital union is to be like: it means always willing the good of the beloved.  It is not merely contractual or based on personal interpretations, but rather, is covenantal.  Marriage is an exchange of persons, who vow to love one another as Christ loves, with a love that is free, total, faithful, and fruitful.  In the vocation of matrimony, we are called to love one other particular person, and be a living sign of Christ’s love for the Church and for the world.

The purpose of marriage, as designed by the Creator, was further raised by Christ the Lord to the dignity of a Sacrament through the merits of his Passion, Death, and Resurrection. When two baptized children of God come together in marriage, he pours out special graces upon them so that they may live out their vocation to love one another in marriage, not merely in a natural way, but in a supernatural way.  In this Sacramental reality, the bond of marriage becomes a sacred promise between the man and the woman, that by the gift of their free, total, faithful, and fruitful love, they may move each other towards sanctification and union with God in heaven for eternity.

While it is true that marriage can at times be difficult, it is important to remember that it is primarily because it is the coming together of two imperfect people.  Successful marriages are not the result of finding the perfect person who makes you perfectly happy, but of loving the imperfect person you have married.  Difficulties may arise, but in the end, when both partners seek to work them out with the sake of their spouse in mind, these obstacles prove overall to affirm their marital love. As Saint John Paul II said in Love and Responsibility“One who truly loves does not then withdraw his love [when difficulty arises], but loves all the more, loves in full consciousness of the other’s shortcoming and faults, and without in the least approving of them.”

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Marital love is a beautiful gift, and when lived out according to God’s plan is entirely worth it.  The inherent meaning of marriage can not be reduced to merely personal interpretations, but it must be shaped according to God’s great plan for marriage as he designed it to be.   

 

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