Previously on the blog, I wrote a reflection on how the practice of NFP allows us to hone different virtues. Included in that list was prudence, which involves right judgment or discernment of what is the right thing to do. Prudence is one of the four cardinal virtues of classical antiquity. As Christians we also recognize three theological virtues faith, hope and charity (see: 1 Cor 13:13)
While the four cardinal virtues can be known, practiced, and acquired through the human action, the theological virtues come from and lead to the Triune God. They still require human action in order to be nourished and grow, but they are “the pledge of the presence and action of the Holy Spirit in the faculties of the human being (CCC #1813).
For Christians, the discernment which accompanies prudence must necessarily be informed by the counsel of the Holy Spirit, one of the gifts which is strengthened in the Sacrament of Confirmation.
Yet discernment is an often misunderstood and underdeveloped art in our modern world. Abundant distractions, a lack of silence in our daily lives, hyper focus on the future, and the myth of total autonomy all pervade our experience of the Western world today. Each of these is a hindrance to true discernment, but they can be recognized fairly easily and with some effort can be countered through our own good actions.
What is far more difficult and poisonous to our personal discernment are attitudes within the Christian community which distort discernment into a sort of divine mind-reading game, devised by a God who lays out a multitude of possible paths and expects us to pick the right one… or else. We tend to relegate discernment to an action taken only when faced with very big or impactful choices: like a fork in the road, where God is asking us to choose the one right path. Once we have chosen that, we can continue along the road relatively easily and without much thought until the next big decision comes along.
On the other hand, discerning the will of God can sometimes be seen as a constant stream of crippling choices. I've heard friends who have become so focused on doing the will of God “at all times,” that they worry even the slightest choice they will make will lead to a huge diversion from God's plan. They see it as a narrow road laid out specifically for them, which must be walked like a tightrope for their entire lives if they are to succeed in their journey towards heaven. Perhaps this is not an explicit belief of theirs, but it manifests when they are asked to make a decision, and find that it comes with crippling anxiety and scrupulosity.
We who use NFP are acutely tuned to the fact that the reality of discernment falls somewhere in the middle of these two extremes. It is not a one-time event associated only with capital-v Vocation questions. But neither is it something that must cripple us into thinking that every little decision must be scrutinized. There are a lot of wonderful books, guides and programs available which can teach us about discernment techniques. But so much of it can be pulled straight from the practice of NFP, which requires prudence, counsel, and a huge dollop of faith to keep us going.
So for our mutual benefit, I would like to present a few ways in which Natural Family Planning helps us understand and practice the Christian art of discernment.
NFP, Askesis, and the Four Cardinal Virtues: The Formation of "Warrior " Couples
THIS BLOG POST WAS ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN MY CLIENTS-ONLY NEWSLETTER FROM 2016. I'M DUSTING IT OFF FOR PUBLIC CONSUMPTION, AND WILL FOLLOW IT WITH SOME OTHER ARCHIVE ARTICLES AS WELL. ENJOY!
I don’t know about you, but I love watching the Olympics. Just knowing that God built the human body to perform such amazing, graceful and grueling tasks is a wonder in itself: that anyone would train so hard and dedicate so much of their life to pushing their bodies to these extremes is totally beyond me. If you’ve been watching in Rio, you’ll know that Michael Phelps has been the center of a lot of attention. At the age of 31 (a total geezer by Olympian standards), he is not only still competing on the world stage, he is better than ever. The secret to his success? Training. Lots of training, coupled with a renewed sense of purpose, something he attributed to the intervention of long-time friend Ray Lewis and a little book called “The Purpose-Driven Life.”
This combination of pure talent, perseverance in training and a reason to persevere all make Michael Phelps arguably the best Olympic athlete of all time.
In the ancient world (the world of the first Olympiad!), athletes were lauded not only as individual victors; they were celebrated as heroes of their entire families and city-states. The honor they won for themselves translated to honor for all. It is no wonder, then, that the warrior (the practical profession for an athlete) was lauded by Homer as the exemplar of virtue: to put it simply, the warrior was the greatest specimen of mankind. This is because the warrior-athlete not only relies on his natural talents, but he commits himself to training--to the cultivation of perfection. This training was called askesis, in the Greek, and was picked up in very interesting ways by the early Christian Church.
In his letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul writes:
“Therefore, I run in such a way, as not without aim; I box in such a way, as not beating the air; but I discipline my body and make it a slave, so that, after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified.” (1 Cor 9:26-27)
Here, Paul likens his Christian life to that of an athlete, who not only coaches others (through preaching), but also disciplines his own body so that he can emerge victorious in the test. He uses this metaphor again when he writes to Timothy towards the end of his life, saying, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” (2 Tim 4:7) Just as the athlete trains and then tests his preparation in a boxing match or in a race, the Christian trains body and soul and then is tested through the practice of the faith.
Yet again, another Facebook group I'm part of has descended into the depths of agony known as "The Grave Reasons Debate."
For those who are not yet initiated, let me sum up:
Someone says, "Does the Church say you can only use NFP for grave reasons?"
A number of folks chime in to say, "Technically that word was used in some translations, but it comes from the Latin and Italian, where grave has a different connotation. In English, the Church is now favoring words like serious reasons, or just cause."
Then everyone's Facebook avatar heads explode because they think sOmEonE iS wRoNG oN thE iNtErNeT
Conversation takes a nasty turn as everyone now debates whether or not NFP is just "Catholic birth control" and if you can use it with a "contraceptive mentality."
I just... don't have time for this anymore.
I address this directly in my NFP Masterclass and NFP Ambassador Training videos because it is important to know the answers to these objections. It is important for Catholics to be well-versed in what the Church teaches, and to understand the implications for how they apply NFP in their own lives. Discernment is important. Being able to extricate discernment about NFP use from what JPII calls "selfish reasons" is important.
So if you really want to to think about that topic, here's a fabulous article by Kevin Miller, PhD, that you should read. Have fun.
What I want to talk about today is actually the virtue of magnanimity and how I think it is so absolutely crucial to understand this virtue in order to be able to converse with with each other respectfully about NFP.
Part II: Thoughts on Validity, Consummation, and Navigating NFP on the Honeymoon
Yesterday, I responded to an email question which expressed a common issue couples may face when using Natural Family Planning: the possibility of a fertile honeymoon and wedding night. If a couple has serious need to postpone pregnancy, this may mean abstaining for a while when they first get married. And let's face it: that idea is no fun.
So I talked about how lack of sex doesn't make a marriage invalid, in case that's a concern.
Today, I'm going to offer some resources and tips for praying about and navigating the question of abstinence during the honeymoon.
When it comes to particular devotions, habits, or other resources to help couples pray together through difficult times, I sort of feel like the best method is to fling spaghetti at the wall and see what sticks.
In other words: what works really well for one couple is not going to work well for another, so as the resident "resource person" my approach is to give you various ideas and let you sort out which ones are meaningful for you. This means that if any of these suggestions is clearly not helpful, you not only have my permission but you also have my wholehearted blessing to ignore it!
Now, let's fling some spaghetti:
"I'm engaged and worried about the fact that my new husband and I might not be able to consummate our marriage for nearly 3 weeks. And I cannot shake this horrible knowledge that our marriage isn’t valid, isn’t complete until then. I’m worried I will really just feel like a glorified roommate. I don’t know if you have any writings or resources that might assist in praying through this."
Ladies and gents, I've been working as a Natural Family Planning instructor for over ten years, and I cannot tell you how many engaged Catholic couples I've worked with who have wrestled with the idea of a sexless honeymoon. If you have discerned a serious reason to postpone pregnancy at the beginning of your marriage, I just want to let you know that you are not alone in feeling anxious, worried, or even angry that you might need to abstain on your wedding night or even all through the honeymoon.
So this message I received recently was not unique, in one sense, but I thought I'd take time to address it here in two parts:
1. Is an unconsummated marriage still valid?
2. Recommended resources to help you pray through this situation.
Part I: Validity
NERD ALERT! This may be more information than you ever wanted about marriage, but I'll serve it up anyway because I find it fascinating. I'm not a Canon Lawyer, so... I offer this without authority on the matter beyond my formal theological training. The reader can decide how much that is worth.
When it comes to Sacraments, we talk a lot about "validity." This is because Sacraments require specific forms and specific matter in order to effect their unique graces. Do we believe that God can work outside these specific forms and specific matter? YES! God is God. But, as a Church, we operate under the assumption that for ordinary circumstances, we need to follow particular guidance in order to be assured that the Sacrament has been effective.
So, what makes a marriage valid? What is needed for us to be assured that Sacramental marriage, has, in fact, been effected?
Abstainers and Moderators in NFP
One of the concepts I’ve been wrestling with lately is how to assist couples who find the abstinence of NFP to be an impediment to their relationship. It’s no great secret that married people want to have sex with each other. And it’s a common criticism that NFP methods are a bad form of family planning because they rely on abstinence– which, by the way, is not very “natural.” I hear and understand and even appreciate these criticisms, because they challenge us in the NFP world to be honest with ourselves and with our clients. Without being heavy-handed about it, I try to prepare my engaged clients for the fact that abstinence within marriage can be harder than abstinence prior to marriage. If they choose to abstain from sex before marriage, they have effectively drawn an invisible barrier which they both promise not to cross, or to even approach too closely. But within marriage, this dynamic shifts– so I coach my couples that they will need to be intentional about communicating with one another early on in their marriage, as they discover new things about how they relate to each other sexually, and where those shifting boundaries may now be.
So I was struck recently when I heard a few nutritionists talking about the way they tailor diet recommendations to clients based on whether the client is an “abstainer” or a “moderator.” Apparently, the idea is not new. It has been around for more than a decade and was made popular by Gretchen Rubin, the author of multiple New York Times bestsellers including The Happiness Project. Gretchen explains the two traits through a simple questionnaire:
You’re a moderator if you…
Is it possible that these two categories could help couples navigate times of abstinence while using NFP? My experience as an instructor suggests that this might sometimes be a very valuable key for easing abstinence tensions for couples.
Take, for example, a couple whom I will call Kelsey and Keith.*
Christina has been an NFP instructor in the Boston Cross Check Method since 2013. She is on a mission to change conversations about body literacy and NFP within the Catholic Church, through innovative lifelong body literacy programming and support... plus apparently this blog.