Draggin' your cross: NFP and the Sorrowful Mysteries
Updated: Sep 16, 2020
Yup. It's the rosary again.
I don't think anyone has to tell NFP users the obvious: it's a serious cross. Whether we're trying or avoiding, the seasons where life is just dandy in this department can be few and far between. When we're trying, it can be all stress and worry (anyone else have a "perfect baby timeline" in their heads? No? Just me? Okay, then).
When we're avoiding, it can be...all stress and worry! Our hormones are all over the place, we want but can't have, or when we have the opportunity for intimacy, it's usually late, you're dang tired from wrestling down toddlers with poop in their pants and dealing with a 4 year old going on 14. Nothing about sex sounds fun those nights (I never understood the term "touched out." Now I do. I so do. Just me again? Ooookay).
So, what can the Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary teach us about NFP? Well, I'd say it's probably the most beneficial set of mysteries to contemplate in this regard. Why? Because sacrifice.
The Sorrowful Mysteries walk us through Jesus' passion and death, ending in the crucifixion. It is the ultimate expression of love, vulnerability, and blessing.
Entering the mysteries, we start with Jesus in "The Agony in the Garden." His friends asleep and unaware of his intense suffering and pain, Jesus minces no words with his Father. He asks for the cup to pass -- his humanity does not want this coming trial, though in his divinity he understands it is what love demands. With perfect love, he presents his petition: “Father, if You are willing, remove this cup from Me; yet not My will, but Yours be done.” Lk 22:42
Did you catch that last part? It is the essential piece we must bring to our experience of NFP, and frankly, the entirety of our Christian life. Not my will, but Yours.
NFP is an opportunity for a couple to enter in with Jesus to the garden, kneel beside him in the dark, feeling that all the world is asleep, and uniting our desires to his, and also our will. How much trouble we forgo when we stop trying to DIY our lives and just let God direct it without fighting him.
I don't know about you, but that is a hard pill to swallow. Especially in our hyper-individualistic society, where we all like to be in the driver's seat. We like to tell God exactly how to make life right, according to our standards. It would probably be nice and cushy, zero hiccups, with a big bank account to boot. How difficult is it to practice humility, to say to the Lord with sincerity, "I trust you in this."
And actually do it. Actually trust.
The second mystery is the "Scourging at the Pillar." Ah... mortification. Penance. Those scary words. Yet, what is faithful practice of NFP other than a mortification of our flesh? We gain so much strength when we exercise our will and intellect over the natural desires of our bodies. And desire is good! It's not bad to want to have sex, or eat, or sleep. But when we cannot resist those urges when they arise, we are enslaved to them and we suffer more than we have to. I invite couples to stand in this mystery when they are feeling particularly sullen about having to abstain. See Jesus at the post, his back ripped open from the whip. He did this in full knowledge of just how sinful each one of us is. He knew us, and all our sins, from before all time. And yet...here he is, enduring a torment dreamed up by humanity at its cruelest. Think of the fact that he loved, deeply and intensely, the soldiers who beat him, spat on him, the pharisees who falsely accused him and garnered his death sentence, the crowds who had followed him that now cried, "Crucify him!"
Jesus understands how difficult it is. He invites you to enter into the discomfort anyway.
The third mystery is the "Crowning with Thorns." After he was beaten and whipped, the soldiers draped a rough purple cloak over his open wounds and forced a weaved crown onto his scalp, the thorns digging into his skin, blood running into his eyes. Then, they mocked him and bowed down, all the while not realizing they were bowing to the true King of all kings.
I have personally bound up my obstacles in the crown of thorns, in Jesus' authority. When I feel something is particularly hindering my path to holiness, I say "I bind this in your crown of thorns, Jesus, that it will not prevent me any longer from following you." There are a lot of things that hinder us in the NFP journey: our friends, family, our own children, struggles with fertility, abstinence, intimacy, charity, and the whole host of inner wounds that rise to the surface when we try to put someone else's needs before our own. Jesus is sovereign in it all. He is the final authority, and we can place all those hindrances within the circle of those thorns, allowing him to dispel their hold on us. We just have to actually bow down, worship him, and put ourselves under that authority. Is it easy? Heck, no. Is it worth it? Heck, yes.
Okay, we're on the road now with Jesus in the fourth mystery, "Carrying the Cross." You ever feel like, instead of embracing your cross... it's dragging behind you in the dirt and you are pouting like a little kid not getting her way? No? Just me? Oookay.
This always brings me to a vision that St. Faustina had about folks and their crosses (paragraph 446 in her diary). In this vision, she describes three types of Christians: the first group is actively nailed to their cross, the second is embracing it, and the third is dragging it behind them, looking glum all the while. Which type are you in your NFP journey? Are you pouring your entire self out in love of your spouse, uniting the difficult and frankly, awful, times to Jesus' suffering -- are you willing to be nailed to the cross in obedience to the Father who loves you?
No?...Me, either. Most of us cringe and pull away from suffering. Duh! It hurts! No one wants to suffer. Yet, a lot of life is just that: suffering, plain and simple. Hard seasons abound and we often feel like we will just crumple under the weight of it all. So many things completely out of our control and yet...we are called to pick up the cross of our daily lives anyway and keep walking.
Are we going to fall? Yup. Jesus did, too. The weight can be so heavy, and we are not supposed to carry it without him. Even Jesus had Simon the Cyrene helping him up the hill to Calvary. His body, physically exhausted from the sheer amount of torture it had already endured, could not do it alone. NFP is a cross carried by both spouses. When one has to bear the brunt of the work, the relationship will suffer. Why? Because we cannot do this by ourselves. We are incapable to picking this up and hoofing it of our own strength. We need our spouse, and we need Jesus -- he knows the way up the hill.
The fifth mystery is the embodiment of purest love - "The Crucifixion." I know...you ever look at a crucifix and think, "How do we get love from that?" It is such a paradox to try and grasp that Jesus' obedience to Father ended in death to save the very people who drove the nails into his hands. I mean... I don't know about you, but one of the hardest things to imagine is living with a heart this open. When you look at Jesus, he is utterly humiliated, but his arms are stretched out in blessing, in surrender, in a vulnerable display that is love itself. Love that is utterly self-gift, holding nothing back.
That is ultimately what NFP is about: total self-gift. It isn't "Catholic contraception." It isn't the Church trying to control our bedroom habits. What the Church has highlighted, though, is that authentic human love within marriage is putting someone else's needs before our own. It is acceptance of all that they are, and a sharing of all that you are. To do that, to truly live that out within a marriage, there can be no barriers. None. Physical, chemical, emotional, spiritual -- all those will ultimately destroy love. We cannot truly be loved if we are not truly known. Jesus held nothing back. Neither should we, from him or in our marriages. When we use contraception, we reject our spouse's fertility and say, "I don't want that part of you." But fertility is not evil. A healthy woman and a healthy man are fertile. To suppress our fertility or reject it says to God, " I'm in control of my life. I don't need you. I can do this without you."
Friends, we simply cannot. We cannot do anything apart from God or it ends in ruin.
NFP is understanding and respecting our fertility enough to work with it, even if it means we have to forgo sex sometimes. NFP is saying, "God, you made us and said we are good. We respect and exalt your creativity and your desire to have us participate in creation by our fertility." This is not a "go have ALL the babies" directive. Even Humanae Vitae, the definitive document in the modern era on how Catholic couples should use their fertility, called for prudence and discernment when it comes to having children. Not every good Catholic Christian family needs 5 or more children. There are serious reasons (emotional, psychological, physical) to avoid pregnancy. And NFP helps couples do that while still respecting that God has the final say. Even when we are choosing to only have sex outside the fertile window, there is still openness to life there, because we have no barriers.
There's so much more to say, so many crosses I personally am not carrying that I feel inadequate to speak about. I only want to say Jesus is in the midst of it with you. He is not a distant God who has no interest in your life. He has walked the difficult paths of our human experience specifically to show us how to do it. Jesus did everything in relation to his Father. All things he accomplished on earth were with and through God the Father, in the union of the Holy Spirit. So, let's go be like Jesus. Let's love like him, with hearts wide open.