I found myself particularly emotional during a Sunday mass in Lent of this past year. I went up to receive Jesus in the Eucharist and then came back to my pew and sobbed. Nicholas held me tight, as I cried out to God in prayer, “Lord, the cross is too heavy. I cannot carry it.” Saying this over and over was the only way I knew how to pray in that particular mass. I felt my brokenness and need for Christ deeply. I was humbled and as I looked at the image of Christ on the Cross, and slowly my prayer became “But not my will but thine be done in me, O Lord. Not my will, but thine.”
There are moments in my prayer and life when this cross feels senseless. These are the moments when Christ allows me to feel more fully the weight of the pain I am carrying, though I know He still carries most of it for me. Christ allows this cross to be felt more heavily so that I can be broken. I have noticed that all of my struggles have allowed me to feel broken and helpless so that God can enter into my brokenness, break down my pride, and flood my heart with needed grace.
I don’t want to be broken.
I want to be in control. I want to be able to fix my own problems. I don’t want to have to rely on anyone. I don’t want to need anyone. I want to be fiercely independent, channeling my passion into healing all those around me.
But I am not in control. I don’t have the ability to fix my own problems. I desperately need others in my life to help me on the path to holiness. And I can’t focus on healing those around me while neglecting myself.
To break down my independence and pride, God allowed me to carry the cross of anxiety. I felt so little and small during the worst moments of my anxiety. I saw my brokenness, and I wanted to run from it. I wanted to deny it. One of the most difficult steps in healing from my anxiety was admitting that I couldn’t do it on my own. And so the Lord broke down my wall of fierce independence so that I could rely on others, especially my husband, and let other people into my heart.
Now Christ is breaking down my illusions of control.
I have tried herbal teas, different diets, researched different supplements, all in the hopes of optimizing my fertility. Nicholas calls it trying to make “super baby”. I have stressed myself out about not doing everything I can to help increase our chances. And yet, none of this can guarantee that we will have a baby.
When and how we have children is in God’s hands. I can’t control it. It is the letting go of control, letting go of my plans, and the patient trust in Christ’s will that has been the most challenging for me.
I have struggled with feeling that because Nicholas and I do not have children yet, that our love is not fruitful. I have struggled with feeling handicapped in living out my vocation. And yet, our love is fruitful. And since my primary vocation is to be a sign of Christ’s love to Nicholas, I am certainly living out my vocation. Infertility has become a part of the way that Christ calls both of us to fruitfulness and to living out our call to be Christ to one another.
Fruitfulness in marriage should not be limited to procreation. Yet, this is a common view, held by many faithful Catholics. I have heard Catholic radio announcers greet a caller with a large family (usually five or more children) with the following statement: “Thank you for your ‘yes'”. This is deeply hurtful, as we said ‘yes’ too. We said yes to being open to children, and yes to trusting in the Lord while carrying this cross. My husband and I give life to each other through daily love and support. Nicholas pours his heart into his work at the seminary, and I know that he couldn’t do that without my support. He serves all the seminarians and students there joyfully, and I am so proud that my husband is working at an institution that forms priests and leaders for the Church. I work with preschool through high school age students. When I work with the preschool children, I teach them, pray with them, show Christ’s love to them, and tend to their hurts. I try to let them know that they are deeply loved. And I know that part of the grace and patience to do this stems from my marriage and the love that Nicholas shows me daily.
We recognize the fatherhood of priests. We recognize the motherhood of sisters, or nuns. We even honor those single individuals in our community that have participated in the formation of young children and youth on Mother’s Day and Father’s Day. In other words, the Church openly celebrates paternal love that is beyond the bounds of biological procreation. Why then, is it a different story with couples who have not yet conceived or have suffered miscarriages and have no visible children?
Infertility is not merely a cross. It is an opportunity to witness to the deeper reality that we as married couples do not get to decide how our marriage is lived out. It is a witness to a motherhood and fatherhood that is lived spiritually rather than physically. It is a witness to the fact that fruitfulness is not limited to procreation. Infertility, understood in this way, is a charism. It is a call to live out fruitfulness even in the midst of barrenness.
“The infertile give their suffering unto God. They lift it up to the Father in Eucharistic love, asking that it may be transformed. For some, they give their suffering over to become adopting or foster parents. For some, they bestow their diminishment upon the Eucharistic altar, discovering there a new mission in the world to love those on the margins. The infertile couple fulfill the mission of marital love whether they have children or not.” -Timothy O’Malley, The Charism of Infertility
Children are a supreme gift. They are not guaranteed in marriage. They are a blessing, and yes, they are the primary sign of a couple’s fruitful love. They act as a visible sign. Infertile couples have the opportunity to witness to the invisible reality of spiritual paternity. In placing their Eucharistic love for one another at the foot of the altar, they offer up their sufferings and unite themselves more deeply with one another and with Christ. Infertility has caused me to take my role as my youngest brother’s godmother more seriously. It has allowed me to see myself as a spiritual mother to the children with whom I work, for I strive to love them with a Eucharistic love and pray for their well-being. I rejoice with them and thank God for the joy that they bring me daily. If we are open about our struggle with infertility and break the silence around this cross, we can witness to a deeply spiritual love. We can serve as a sign to other married couples of the deeper spiritual realities of marriage and the call to participate in the suffering of Christ. Infertile couples can serve in a particular way to remind those with children that “the goal of marriage is not the production of a happy family alone. Procreation itself can become an idol if it is treated as a measure of our own success as a sexual being, as a couple in love, as a form of ‘Catholic identity'” (O’Malley). We often measure a family’s “catholicity” by the number of children they have, and when we do so, we make procreation an idol. We pass judgement on those families that could not have more children. We claim that one family is more blessed than another.
When we invite others to journey with us in carrying the Cross of infertility or early loss, we serve as a reminder of the supreme blessing of children, a reminder that children are an undeserved gift. We serve as a reminder that parenthood must not only be a physical parenthood, but also a spiritual parenthood. We become witnesses of the fruitfulness of Christ’s love in the Church.We witness to the communion of saints and the reality that it is God who “[determines] their relationship with him, their relationship to one another in him, and their relationship as parents to the spiritual and bodily children they receive from the Creator Spirit, the Sanctifier” (Cardinal Ouellet, qtd. in O’Malley). We call other families to more deeply unite themselves to the Cross. Rightly lived, this witness to families with children can become a sort of spiritual paternity in which each family, both fertile and infertile, more deeply recognizes the unique blessings and fruitfulness Christ has given to them.
At times, the cross is too heavy. But then I realize that I have been trying to carry it on my own. And so in those times, I turn more deeply to Christ. I open up my heart to my husband. I reach out to friends and family. When the cross is too heavy, I begin to realize how I can more fully live out Eucharistic love in my marriage. I allow Christ to show me how I am living out fruitfulness and saying ‘yes’ to his call to be a wife and spiritual mother. I start seeing how in carrying my cross with Christ and Nicholas, that we can witness to others, showing them that the primary goal of marriage is transformation through the Eucharistic love of Christ. It is perfection through suffering. And though I may not understand why Christ has chosen the suffering of infertility to lead my husband and me toward a deeper love and perfect holiness, I can take comfort in the knowledge that this cross is not without purpose.
Properly lived, this cross is a gift to the Church that allows us to live more fully with the communion of saints and the Church Militant. And for that, I will praise the Lord even in the midst of my sorrow. I will surrender my will to Him, knowing that the Lord is good and His Mercy endures forever.