Just this morning I delivered some oranges to the good Dominican Sisters. The oranges were from the tree in my mother-in-law’s front yard in Florida. It’s a pitiful little tree, deformed by many years of persistent growth, sometimes in the face of adverse circumstances and household neglect. Its trunk is twisted and some of the branches have died off, giving it a barren, tragic sort of look. The leaves are covered with sooty mold and so are the crabbed fruits. As I handed them to the Sisters this morning, my groom remarked, almost apologetically, that they are full of seeds, too. At once came the responses: I had one yesterday and it was so good! and I think fruits with seeds taste better, the way God made them.
The Sisters are right. These tiny little oranges, from an ugly little tree, neither tree nor fruit beautiful by the standards of the world, are amazing. You’ll never see them in a posh, upscale gift basket, but you’ll never taste anything better, either. And oranges aren’t made for looks so much as for taste and nourishment. Keep that in mind…
Which brings me to your discussion with the panel of professors (may I call them the Pops?) Good for you for getting athwart them on this topic! I would be worried if you had not….
So they told you you can’t possibly understand that artificial contraception is not only permissible but a positive moral good to be encouraged because you haven’t yet had to deal with the rigors of having a family? I’m not sure you can appreciate the irony of that statement. Those Pops—of my own generation, I suspect—were the first when they were your age to howl in outrage against anyone giving them advice out of life well lived: You can’t possibly understand! You have no idea how hard it is. You haven’t had to live in my world….
Sigh. They really can’t have it both ways. Maybe what you need to tell them in reply is this: They haven’t had to be a young woman trying to make her way in a world made a moral cesspool by their wholehearted embracing of moral relativism and their establishment of a personal magisterium. And a good deal of it started when too many American Catholics (shamefully led by too many American Bishops, priests and religious) rejected the wisdom of Paul VI in Humanae Vitae.
If you haven’t read it, do. In many ways it is a prophetic document. Pope Paul VI predicted the moral mess we would find ourselves in once we decided—yet again—to commit that age-old sin of pride, become like God, and manipulate life to our advantage. Or what we saw as advantage. It wasn’t, of course. Not in the long run. It never is.
I lived through that time and only now, looking back, do I see the many, many ways our embrace of artificial contraception distorted life, mostly, I think, by changing our view of the goodness of family life from a spiritual one to an economic one. From an engagement of life to an engagement of commerce. From viewing children as a blessing to viewing them as an inconvenience. And it was such a lie, but it was one of the better ones the Father of Lies has ever told for it has been embraced so completely and so unthinkingly by so much of the world, even that world that calls itself Christian.
The rallying cry for contraception was freeing families from the stress and poverty of having too many mouths to feed. The Anglican Communion was the first of the Protestant denominations to publicly endorse artificial contraception in 1930—prior to that it was the Christian consensus that artificial contraception was sinful. At the Lambeth Conference that endorsed artificial contraception for the first time, the Anglican Communion stated its opposition to contraception for convenience or luxury, though the discussion endorsed the use of it in limited circumstances because of the need to limit family size for moral reasons, including poverty. What we forgot is that family size is not the cause of poverty. The failure to embrace our brothers and sisters in Christ as brothers and sisters is. There’s plenty to go around, just not enough will to share it.
That notion unleashed in the Christian community at the Lambeth Conference—that artificial contraception would free us from poverty—has worked out really well, hasn’t it? More contraception and abortion than ever these days, and no less economic poverty. Perhaps even more than ever. Certainly greater spiritual poverty…
Now, Sarah, you and I both know that this is ultimately not an argument to be made on social and economic grounds, but even there, it’s pretty obvious that artificial contraception is a losing strategy. It cannot have escaped your notice that the economic debt you will inherit from these Pops—due to Medicare and Social Security—is astronomical. One of the many reasons for our current fiscal crisis is the fact that we have contracepted ourselves out of a workforce. When Social Security was instituted, there were 24 workers for every retiree. Today, just under 2. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that is unsustainable. And it is your future, not that of the Pops, that is being mortgaged.
All those big houses with empty bedrooms and too many baths that we bought ourselves, now that we could afford them, given that we don’t have so many children? Those nest-eggs of bricks-and-mortar for the future that kept appreciating? If the mortgage crisis didn’t wipe them out, who, pray tell, will be around to buy them and at what price? Laying up treasure in banks and houses hasn’t served us well at all. But then again, Jesus warned us about that.
Not only have we contracepted ourselves out of a workforce, we have left ourselves at the political mercy of cultures that don’t embrace out view of the primary value of a limited family size. Orthodox Jews have, by sheer dint of demography, influenced the course of Israel. In like manner, Europe is at great risk for becoming predominantly Muslim in your lifetime; Muslims still believe in having babies. The next generation will shape the world and the Pops haven’t left many in their stead to take up that task. The reality is this: if you want to help shape the future, have lots of babies and raise them to be strong and secure in the faith.
But I reiterate: it’s not about economics, it’s not about politics and it is not about ecology. It is about that faith. Our resistance to that faith all boils down to pride and fear. Those two always go hand in hand. They certainly did for me. Pride—I can do it better than God can; fear—I don’t really believe God loves me and provides for me, no matter what seems to be going on at this very moment. For what it is worth, I still struggle with these, but I think I am getting better at seeing them at work in my life. It’s a start.
One thing I have learned: Holy Mother Church has a better grip on this than I do. She ought to—she’s had a long time to work it out, and she is, after all, working it all out for my good with the Father…and the Son…and the Spirit…in my old age I have learned how important it is to listen to the wisdom of my Mother.
When you get right down to it, I made too many choices as a young woman not really thinking at all about what God wanted of me. I’m not sure I asked that question and if I did, I did not, at that time, have the benefit of a loving Church who would instruct me, raise me up in the way I was to go. And if I did given token consideration either to God or to Church, I also made the mistake of listening to the culture around me that said God wants you to be happy and prosperous. Too often, that is what I heard from the good Christians around me, too—who, like me, were bereft of a Mother’s love and advice to tell them otherwise. Is it any wonder we made so many mistakes?
Well, yes, God wants me to use my gifts and be happy but on His terms and according to His plan, not mine. Looking back, I realize that I took it for granted that what I wanted was what God wanted and believed that the things that maximized my personal potential (the catch-phrase of the day) were in accordance with His will.
I forgot to look at the cross. I too often chose comfort over challenge; too often took luxury over life. It was easy to do. If you don’t remember anything else about the Christian faith, remember this: Christ on the cross is a happy man, because He is doing what God asks with total abandonment. It turns out my personal potential is not for me, it’s given to the world through me, for everyone else. And it can only be maximized by trusting God and doing as He asks with complete abandonment.
Happiness isn’t for wimps.
Anyway, too often, our decisions in life are made for the present comfort: Making the mortgage payment without concern and having a bit left over for that vacation home (that I am too busy working to get to use). Saving for college at Harvard (now there’s a sound investment…). Having the personal satisfaction of being a big high muckety-muck at work (which is ever so more rewarding than changing diapers and cleaning house). Having nice vacations and a new car, not to mention that stock portfolio (that did so very well in the most recent crashes). Eating out (because we’re never home to cook anymore). I did it. We all do. It’s part of our fallen state. And these things-houses and bank accounts and vacations and cars-- are all good things that have given me great pleasure and been used at least now and again for the glory of God . But Sarah! Please remember—chose life over all else! For things are just things and life is life. Never confuse the two and never forget their proper priority.
So let me give you the other side—the side your Pops don’t seem to see. I do know how hard it is to raise a family. I do know something about dealing with children whose special needs take more time than is humanly possible. I do know about the desire to contribute to the financial well-being of the household and the ways in which fortune can change in a minute. I do know the itch to use my gifts in the marketplace of the wider world. I know all that. And I know that there really are families that can’t handle another child for a lot of reasons, financial or emotional. But I also know that those families are relatively few and far between and even those can deal better with the challenges of family life when they are supported by us and by God than they can when they see themselves as left to their own devices.
Most of us limit our families not because we can’t have another child, but because we don’t even want to try. We have decided that we know better than God how to balance all that we are and need and want. We want more than we need; we want that which we do not need; and we need that which we do not want.
And so, we decide to limit our family size with chemicals and barriers and surgeries rather than acting sacrificially in accordance with God’s design not because it works better (it doesn’t) but because we are lazy…and we do not trust Him. His system is, after all, so obviously flawed that we must correct it. We are still reaching for that apple.
The reality is that life might well be very different for me had I been more open to life instead of drawing back in fear after two kids. I’d probably not have such a big house or that vacation home. We certainly would not have traveled as much. I’m guessing that college would have been a different experience for the offspring. Certainly I would not have worked out of the home as much. I might have had a child—or children—with serious health problems given the age I started having a family. I might have one or another with serious social problems—that seems to be the lot these days. Who knows? It’s that uncertainty that makes people say I have two beautiful kids —why tempt fate? I’m done.
In a way, they are right. Having more kids definitely means great risk and the certainty of more suffering—and take it from me, there is no suffering like the suffering of a parent for a child. Ask God if you don’t believe me.
But there is no joy like the joy of a parent for a child, either. And no greater gift than life and no greater privilege than coopering with God in bringing into the world a life that will never end. And there is no way to holiness without suffering somewhere along the way. It seems to me Christ promised that as well. No cross, no crown. No Good Friday, no Easter Sunday. And if I recall correctly, that cross, the one that leads to glory, is real and present and personal and has to be embraced not just once by Christ, but daily by each of us.
We are called, not to business or economic success, but to holiness. The goal of life is not just to be a physician or businessman or artist or theologian. It is to be a saint and that is a supernatural calling. The argument that the Christian life is too hard is laughable because it is in some measure so true. Of course it is hard. And as Chesterton said: The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried. It is hard to trust God in the most intimate business of our lives, this having of children. But if we cannot trust Him there, why bother to trust Him elsewhere?
It’s all a risk, Sarah, the greatest risk of all, to trust God at the same time it is no risk at all. God designed a world in which—if we trust Him and cooperate with His will and His gifts—great good, beyond our wildest dreams, comes about. I began to learn this lesson—I have not mastered it—late. But I can tell you it is true. The Church in her wisdom teaches us how to go about this if we are humble enough to submit to what she teaches. And remember: God’s first recorded commandment to us was “Go forth and multiply.” In other words—cooperate with My grace, and I will bring forth new life, life you cannot even imagine, external and internal.
My challenge, now that I am past the years in which I can bear children of my own, is to take my life and by it to help make easier life for those still in the business of having children.
We tend to think of having children as an individual act, but no mother ever conceived a child alone. The very act of conception is a corporate action....and then, the mother who conceives a child in her body brings him into the greater Body, the Body of Christ. It’s up to the Body of Christ to nourish and support that vocation of parenthood as surely as any other. We are not in this alone. We are never in this life alone. That realization is both comfort and duty.
My call to holiness now is to use my gifts, personal and material, for the good of the Body, and the new members that faith will bring forth, not just to keep them to myself. That selfish call to comfort is still there but now it says You’ve done your part. Time to kick back and relax. Let them manage their own kids…you deserve a break… you have earned it….
Maybe. But then I look at that cross again…and ask God what He wants me to do. This time, instead of telling Him what my plans are and asking Him to ratify them, I sit as quietly as I can and I listen. Then I try to do whatever He asks, no matter how odd it may seem at the time. That’s one reason the family bedrooms these days are generally filled with life; not life I bore but life I am called on to nurture. Give God and opening and He’ll bring you life. I promise. And what else of value is there?
Back to those oranges.
That gnarled little tree with its sweet little fruit would never make it in our market economy. It would have been cut down long ago to make way for a bigger tree with better oranges, ones designed by man, not by God. Oranges, you see, are supposed to be big and round and bright and without blemish. They should be seedless, because those seeds are an inconvenience. It’s too messy to eat an orange with seeds. It’s too hard to make juice from them. Better just to get rid of them and so we did, we bred the seeds out. We improved the oranges and maximized their individual potential.
The only problem is: no seeds, no life. You cannot grow fruit from a seedless orange.
Always go for the oranges with seeds. You’ll never regret it, I promise.
In His hands and service and with love, Your Bonus Mom