In talking with many who practice NFP, there are two ends of the family planning spectrum that can present huge crosses for couples, situations that often make them question the goodness of God and the sanity of Church teaching. These two are hyper-fertility (continuing to have children even when following the rules of a fertility awareness method perfectly to avoid) and infertility (defined as trying to conceive for 12 consecutive cycles and being unable to do so).
While suffering is never caused by God, we know that he uses suffering and the difficult questions it presents to draw us closer to him. The crosses he gives us are uncomfortable primarily because they bring us face to face with our own selfish natures and force us to deal with them. As Ven. Fulton Sheen once noted, the cross exists when our will (the horizontal member) intersects with God’s will (the vertical member). It is that tension and conflict in the crossing of the two wills that makes us suffer, but also gives us an opportunity to grow in virtue.
In the spiritual life, it is common that pain and joy walk hand in hand. The lives of Jesus and Mary perfectly exhibit this truth for us. Though without sin, they suffered greatly, Jesus through his mission as savior of us all, and Mary through her mission as mother.
Talk to just about any Catholic, and one of the things that marks us distinctly is our love for Our Blessed Mother Mary. For us, she embodies everything that a mother should be, even though she is not a mother in the traditional sense at all. Even Jesus was conceived, not through the bodily union of man and woman, but through the spiritual union of her soul with God.
Though a Virgin, she gave birth to God. Though a physical mother only once, she has infinite children. It is in Mary that women from both ends of the fertility spectrum – hyper-fertility and infertility – can find solace and hope in the lives God has asked of them.
The Virgin Mother.
Luke’s account of the annunciation gives us the greatest insight into Mary’s perpetual virginity. When Gabriel approaches her to tell her she will conceive a child, Mary is confused. The prospect of children would not have been foreign to an engaged woman on the eve of matrimony, and the angel used future tense when telling Mary of her impending motherhood.
When Mary asks, “How can this be since I know not man?” (Luke 1: 34) she is not asking the Heavenly Messenger for the birds and bees talk. She knows how babies are made, which is precisely why she doesn’t understand. Mary had consecrated her virginity to God, and as such had never planned on being a biological mother. How God would give her a child and maintain her consecrated virginity was beyond her human understanding.
In a way, biological motherhood was thrust on her, not forcefully, but with a gentle request: Will you give me a man so I may save the world? Mary knew Scripture. She knew that Isaiah foretold of a virgin would conceive and bear a Son. She knew that this Child would be a sign to be contradicted, the cause of the rise and fall of many nations, a Man who would be marred beyond human appearance. Mary knew that by saying yes, the Child she had never planned would be the cause of her greatest pain.
Our Adoptive Mother.
At the foot of Calvary, Jesus looked at Mary and John and said to his mother, “Woman, behold your son” (John 19: 26). It is the moment her mission changed from the Mother of the Savior to the Mother of us all, making her the most fruitful woman to ever live.
It is the first time that two wrongs made a right: the wrong of the death of God and the wrong of our sin together brought about the right of our salvation through adoption. Though she did not bear us physically, Mary experienced the deep pains of labor to bring us new life by sharing in the sufferings of her Son. It was a labor so intense that she rightfully claims us as her children, loving us even more deeply than our earthly mothers.
This reality is reenacted every time an infertile couple is called to adoption. The wrong of infertility and the wrong of a mother who cannot raise her child together bring about the right of an opportunity for healing for the two.
Despite the undeniable good, the wrongs do not completely go away. The fact remains that Jesus suffered and died in a horrific manner, and we persist in our sin. Joy and pain cannot be separated in a fallen world. It is a paradox captured perfectly by the words in the Easter liturgy: “O Happy Fault, that won for us so great, so glorious a Redeemer!”
Thinking of Mary’s fiat used to bring to mind images of a perfectly serene woman, veiled and immersed in prayer as commonly portrayed in art, shielded and protected by her goodness from the stuff of life. But the more I get to know Mary, the more I put myself in her shoes as a mother, I see that the opposite is true. Her life shows us that goodness and faithfulness do not shield us from pain, rather, they give us a hopeful and beautiful way to enter into it with surrender and trust.
Mary’s yes wasn’t static. It wasn’t something she did once, and that was it. Her yes was living, something she had to constantly renew, a response that took on new meaning as she grew and the circumstances of her life changed.
Saying yes to God doesn’t always turn out very well in temporal terms. This woman became a mother when she had never planned on it, and gained many less than perfect children in return for losing her Divine Son. It was not a life that anyone would call fair, and there were many twists and turns Mary never expected.
It is that fact that makes her life give both the hyper-fertile and the infertile – those whose family plan didn’t work out the way they expected – such tremendous hope. There is always beauty and limitless possibility to be found in our pain when we place it in the hands of God.
A Prayer for the Infertile
Raise a glad cry, you barren one who never bore a child,
break forth in jubilant song, you who have never been in labor,
For more numerous are the children of the deserted wife
than the children of her who has a husband, says the LORD.
Enlarge the space for your tent,
spread out your tent cloths unsparingly;
lengthen your ropes and make firm your pegs.
For you shall spread abroad to the right and left;
your descendants shall dispossess the nations
and shall people the deserted cities.
Isaiah 54: 1-3
A Prayer for the Hyper-Fertile
O afflicted one, storm-battered and unconsoled,
I lay your pavements in carnelians,
your foundations in sapphires;
I will make your battlements of rubies,
your gates of jewels,
and all your walls of precious stones.
All your children shall be taught by the LORD;
great shall be the peace of your children.
in justice shall you be established,
far from oppression, you shall not fear,
from destruction, it cannot come near.
Isaiah 54: 10-14