Sunday, July 11, 2010

spiritual direction, installment two

Can you believe this is my 300th post? That seems a little excessive, doesn't it? And it's not like many of them were short! Really, I run off at the mouth in quantity. (A charming new commenter said the other day that she was going to go back and read "my whole blog" - I am sure she was cured of that notion in the first few minutes! It would probably take DAYS!)

Anyway, unfortunately, I think this post will be no different. I'm not even going to try to get everything down here, but there's so much I want to cover. In fact, I'll just go ahead and break it into chapters.

But first, I have to note that my spiritual director is a saint. Seriously. So holy, and amazingly insightful, and unbelievably kind - plus he deals with ME. And I rant. I try not to rant, and I still rant. And what would prepare a man and a priest - and a sane person! - to deal with a ranting infertile woman? He is going straight to heaven. I got to visit him for the second time on Friday (twice inside of two weeks! An embarrassment of riches that I really don't deserve), and I tried to give him the rest of the information (that I could think of) on my struggle with infertility, and he had a lot of really wise things to say.

Victim Souls

Maybe the first topic I brought up was - oddly, something I've never raised here. I haven't wanted to, and I'm not sure I want to now, but heavens, I talk about my CM all the time, I should cope. So here goes. My first year out of law school, I worked as a judicial clerk. One of the cases I was assigned arose when this man, who was sentenced to death, attempted to secure a stay of his execution at the last minute. He actually obtained one from the court (which is not that common), so when I called the clerk's office at 5PM, they said that everyone there was going home, and I should too. (Executions are typically scheduled for very late at night - 2AM in this case, I think. Therefore, judicial clerks typically stay at work all night - sleep on the floor in their offices - if an execution is scheduled and there are still motions or appeals for their judges to decide.) Once a scheduled execution date and time have been missed, it has to be rescheduled, which takes a while - so there would be plenty of time to work on getting decisions on the rest of his filings.

The next morning I got to work as usual and started reading some files for a memo. At about 10AM, an older clerk walked into my office, and said, "So I hear your guy is dead." I had no idea what he was talking about. He explained that, in a very unusual move, the U.S. Supreme Court (yes, that Supreme Court) had convened late in the evening after I went home the previous day, and reversed the stay of execution. No appeal lies from their decision; the defendant had absolutely no legal recourse. During the night, while all the trial and appellate judges were sleeping, expecting to resume work on his file later in the week, he was executed. I was absolutely shocked. I had spent the previous afternoon reading the (extremely disturbing) article about his life to which I linked above. Sitting on my desk an inch from my hand was a thick file covering all the litigation he'd done since his conviction. His fate was one of my assignments. And he was dead.

That next Saturday I went to Vigil Mass. I was early in my second year of marriage, and I prayed every day for God to bless our marriage with children. (I continued to pray for that intention until my ill-fated novena to St. Anne a few months later.) But that day saying my prayers before Mass, I realized that it might not be a day on which my prayers for a baby should be at the forefront of my mind. My pressing intention should be for mercy for that man's soul. So I decided not to pray for a baby - I wanted God to focus on my prayer that he somehow be saved.

Some time later - I don't remember when, but I imagine it was after my novena to St. Anne went unanswered and my diagnosis subsequently got worse, which I took very hard - it crossed my mind that I might, inadvertently, have phrased my point in such a way that God could have interpreted it as, "I don't want or need ever to have a baby, if this man could make it to heaven." I didn't say that, I don't think. I didn't mean that. It would never, at that time, have occurred to me that one could bargain away an essential part of one's vocation for any intention whatever; I understood vocation as what God was calling you to, and not negotiable - you could answer or not, but not alter the call. But I started thinking that that might have happened. In law, that's referred to as "snapping up" a deal - if someone advertises a $500,000 house for $50,000 by accident, for example. And no court will honor a snapping-up. If you sue the poor seller to try to give you his house for $50,000 just like he said, you'll lose.

But I decided that God might well be less just and less merciful than the American common-law system. Maybe He took my babies away. And what could I do about it? Pray that the man's soul be consigned to punishment for eternity? If it was possible to barter away one's family, was I not morally bound to do so for any soul in jeopardy? Salvation is more important than any other blessing. Isn't it selfish to want not to have something as relatively inconsequential as my vocation taken away? Was I even within my rights to argue? In fact, if I hadn't already handed over any future children, wasn't I obliged to do so? I thought maybe I was. But I refused to. Now, if I offer anything up, I hem it all in - out loud, to God - with every restrictive clause I know (I know several). "This is not to indicate, request, consent to, or otherwise encourage that the suffering hereby offered up should in any way be augmented as a result of the offering up, even if that should be necessary to obtain the blessings requested for the person for whom this is offered up, or that I should endure any duration or amount of suffering I would not already have endured had I not offered this intention."

I know this means that I am a crazy person. And I had never told this story to another living soul, before my spiritual director, because I can't bring myself to explain that I've spent that much time being that crazy, and that miserable. But, as may not be hard to imagine, here began my real anger with God over my infertility. It wasn't just that God had taken away my future children in a nasty, underhanded trick - it was that He had maneuvered me into the position of feeling guilty and wretched for wishing I could take it back. And I didn't know how to explain the quandary to anyone else. So for over a year - maybe multiple years - I wouldn't pray for children. No double-dipping - I knew my prayer wouldn't be heard anyway. And outside of infertility, I could deal with God insofar as necessary, but there was no being friends any more; He had set Himself up as my enemy and the author of my misery.

Some time after I moved to DC and got back into treatment, I had a chat with myself and realized that, whether I had phrased that fateful prayer ideally or not, God was in the business of working with intentions, not bad drafting. I never contemplated abandoning my intention for children forever, and the God revealed in the theology I know wouldn't have trapped me into something like that. I had miscalculated; whatever crosses I carried with infertility had most likely not been changed by my prayer for the salvation of this man's soul. But probably, by then, the damage had been done. I don't trust God; I don't turn to Him as my comfort in this suffering, but turn away from Him, as one who wanted me to suffer out of some divine malice. Father asked - fascinatingly - whether I had forgiven God, and I had never thought of it in those terms; but I said that I hadn't, and haven't, and don't know how. I'd love to stop being angry with Him, but I've no notion how to accomplish that.

Anyway, when I explained this back-story to Father, he said, "Oh - a victim soul." I was delighted (of course) to hear there was a technical term for this little theological pickle. How I love matters that are already defined and explained! He said that though there aren't bright lines in the spiritual life to the degree that there are elsewhere in theology, it's known that God doesn't accept a person's offer to suffer extra for another unless it's the person's true and considered intention (rather than the heartfelt notion of a moment); and even then, won't accept it if it would be to the person's real harm or inconsistent with His will. This makes sense - the same way God doesn't answer prayers that would be harmful. He agreed with my later conclusion, that God wouldn't have tricked me into giving up my children for life. (I also told him - as you will imagine - about TCIE. His eyes got very big when I told him how hard her life had become since her intention to St. Gianna, and how many of her IF-veteran friends now have babies!)


I know this post is already long, but really I've only covered one point so far...

The first time I met with him, I had mentioned how I become so angry about the ill-considered things people say about children around me, and he brought it up again. He asked whether I forgive them. I said that I usually decide that they are just too stupid to know better, and try to let it go, which is not charitable, and he said (he's funny) that this isn't all that different from "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do." Apparently, assuming people are morons is charitable, in some circumstances. But there are people I won't give the "stupid" pass, and those people I deem malicious, and I do not forgive them. Ever, usually...he pointed out, as should be obvious, that I need to forgive them, and pray for them. (Karen, I know you said this already! God bless you!) And that this would lighten the cross of listening to their comments. He also confirmed that revenge was not the appropriate response (I had to ask).

We talked for a bit about the meaning and value of suffering. Why do people have to go through rotten things like this? I had a pet peeve a while back about bloggers being blessed with children saying that "everything is worth it" and "they shouldn't have complained" because in light of their current blessings, everything is transformed. I couldn't articulate my problem with this well at the time, but explaining it to Father, I figured out what I meant: the problem with this line of thinking is that not only doesn't it help anyone who doesn't end up with a baby, but that it actually implies that if you really aren't going to end up with a baby, you should put the pistol in your mouth now. If only getting the baby prize at the end makes it worth it, and there are people who will not end up with babies...see how that doesn't work? You do.

It's entirely human and natural to view past sufferings in light of later blessings and say that "it was worth it." Deciding that joy is enough to swallow all the pain is a noble thing. But the "worth it" analysis implies that the blessing is a result of the suffering, which in a case like this is not true. Obviously, we know plenty of people who are blessed with beautiful children who haven't endured five minutes of infertility. In some cases they may not appreciate their children as much as former infertiles - but clearly some fertile parents appreciate and love their children as much as humanly possible. Misery is not a causal prerequisite to joy, and it isn't from later joy that it derives its value.

Instead, as Father explained, the reason for the infertility suffering isn't related to a later child. We suffer because suffering is part of the earthly life. Some people may suffer more than others, but our brokenness and eventual death are a part of the fall. The infertile woman's suffering is redeemable not insofar as she later ends up with a baby, but insofar as she perseveres in faith, despite her crosses, and allows God to sanctify her losses and her pain in the fruitful and joyful life to which she is called.

Good Things to Do

Father reiterated what he said previously - that "my motherhood" (he said - I find those words extremely distasteful, and will not use them again) would find itself fulfilled, assuming I never have children, in some other purpose for my life. Not something that will make it a good thing that I don't have children, but something that will given me an opportunity to find joy even in sadness. The two types of maternal service that leap to mind, he said, are adoption and work with the poor. I explained my concerns with adoption (but noted that something may yet change my mind), and said that while I knew I should spend more time in service of the poor, I felt no particular draw to make that the focus of my life. I think I'm still looking for what I should do.

He also said that dealing with people's comments is likely much harder now than it will be even a year from now. Because (not the reason I was expecting) when I find what I (or we) should be doing instead, instead of answering the "Do you have children?" with "No," and audibly refusing to offer the excuse or apology I know the questioner wants to hear - what I do now - I would have an answer. "No, we're not able to have children, but we have been able to ____________." This is an interesting and important point of which I had not thought. Obviously, this works beautifully with adoption - I have heard many bloggers say so, and it makes a graceful and joyful way to say, "I'm infertile, you bastard, but it turns out my life is worth living after all, so f#$% you."

I need to come up with my appropriate way to say that - because right now, my answer is more along the lines of "I'm infertile, you bastard, and my life may really not be worth living, but f%&$ you, anyway." At least, that's how I hear my own "No." And this also answers the question I put to him of how I address the fact that I am always in a position of defending my infertility when in fact I loathe infertility. This was God's choice, with which I always have disagreed and always will, and I have nothing nice to say about it; and nevertheless I'm in the position of explaining it and making it OK for other people. It's not OK.

Part of the reason all this was interesting and relevant was because it says that the other option I'd come up with, continuing to work and doing all the things that make sense to prepare for kids (building savings, enjoying my marriage), indefinitely without any kids or anything to prepare for, is not going to be enough. While slightly annoying - because part of me wants to argue that I've earned the right to be shallow and selfish - I think this is pretty clearly right. The life I have is not going to be enough for the long run.

Perseverance in Faith

Father also said something else interesting, and I will try to render this without giving a misleading impression. He said that the essential thing in suffering is to persevere in faith - to remain loyal (my word) to God and follow His will even though life is very hard. I've maintained only the basics, for some time - weekly Mass and some, often weak, effort to keep the commandments. (I'm petty and I gossip, among other things, and I need to work on those especially.) I haven't considered or undergone treatments I believe are morally unacceptable in hopes of having a baby. (I've never believed they would help me in any case, but no, I wouldn't consider ART.)

What he said was that perseverance in faith may be the most that we can do, in some parts of life. Just surviving and not giving up is sometimes an entire victory. I am very mixed in my reactions to that. I don't know whether to err toward too proud to believe that I couldn't have done more, and maintained the joyful and devoted witness of some of the other infertile gals; or to err toward lazy enough to accept happily that what little I've done is all that I needed to do. I accept his point in the abstract; for another person, I would absolutely believe that just surviving, not turning and running, can be heroism itself. I'm certain that's true. But can I say that I did everything that could have been asked of me? That with all the time and all the energy I've had available in the last several years, I could have accomplished no more? I don't know. But I'm inclined to doubt it. (And when I said that I wasn't sure that I'd persevered, Father said - "You're here, aren't you?" God bless him.)

Spiritual Reading

The first time I met with him, Father told me I should read the Bible (or maybe some other spiritual reading) for 15 minutes a day - as I think I mentioned. A couple of days ago, I flipped idly to Psalm 51, which I read over and over. I wanted to share part of it with you here:
A clean heart create for me, God; renew in me a steadfast spirit.
Do not drive me from Your presence, nor take from me Your Holy Spirit.
Restore my joy in Your salvation; sustain in me a willing spirit.
My sacrifice, God, is a broken spirit; God, do not spurn a broken, humbled heart.
Sorry this is so long. I feel that I'm learning so much that I want to record it, and to share it - but, even if too long for anyone to read now, maybe this will someday be useful to someone who stumbles upon it.


  1. I, for one, enjoy your long posts, and thoroughly enjoyed this one. I loved your questions for Fr., and I thought his answers were very interesting! Thanks for sharing this with us, and I'd love to hear more.

  2. I don't have much to say (I suppose I need time to absorb a lot that is written here), but I'm thankful that you write these long posts and that you're sharing all of this with us (me). Keep it up.

  3. I sounds like you are getting a lot out of your time with him. I, too, love your long posts.

  4. Can i just say that I love you!lol i love your posts, no matter how long they are, you have such an amazing way of writing out your thoughts and it makes for a great read! Your posts really do help put some of my own thoughts and questions out there. I love this part "My sacrifice, God, is a broken spirit;" Thank you!

  5. There is so much in this post that spoke deeply to my heart, thank you for sharing your heart! By the way, you are not crazy. I think all of us who have suffered IF have always wondered if there was some reason the suffering persisted and what it could have been that we contributed to our suffering. At least I struggled with this for a few years, especially after our first loss. We sort of skipped the IF stage before our first loss and then faced many years of suffering!
    I am so happy you are finding some support, sound wisdom that lets you know that you are completely NORMAL!!!! My heart is so excited for you as you are finding some peace in your relationship with God.
    The following line -
    "We suffer because suffering is part of the earthly life. Some people may suffer more than others, but our brokenness and eventual death are a part of the fall. The infertile woman's suffering is redeemable not insofar as she later ends up with a baby, but insofar as she perseveres in faith, despite her crosses, and allows God to sanctify her losses and her pain in the fruitful and joyful life to which she is called. " really captures the truth of embracing the cross of IF.
    You will remain in my prayers and I look foward to hearing more of your updates!

  6. Food for thought for me. My relationship with God has ground to a halt over the things you've identified. You are taking stands (against ART, for instance) that I was unwilling to make. I hope this is not a lame thing for me to say but I can't tell you how I admire your perseverance and your dedication to uncovering truth.

  7. I love your long posts and the depth of thought and honesty that you share with us. My posts seem so shallow in comparison. Your conversations with Fr. are so interesting and I'm learning and thinking about so much from reading them. Thank you for sharing them.

  8. Thank-you for sharing. This post was beautiful, and I am praying that your cross gets lighter, either by conceiving or by finding that which you are meant to do and be as "Father" suggested. I love the Psalms, and especially like the passage you included. It is my prayer many days.

  9. I don't think you're crazy. I felt in your boat once not long ago, and I have to say I still have problems trusting completely in God. I think that trust will take a lifetime to achieve. All we can do is try.

    Like you, I also don't believe the suffering of IF was all worth it even given the result of our impending LO. I could have done without it. Easily. I appreciate the people I've met and the things I've learned, and I enjoy the appreciation of what I have and will have, but I do not appreciate the suffering in any way. I realize it was necessary so that I could achieve that appreciation of what I have, but I didn't enjoy it and hate to think back on it now. I cringe at the thought of ever having to face it again.

    You ahve a good person in the form of your spiritual director. He makes some decent points. And the fact that he doesn't seem to lecture you: bonus.

  10. wow- 2 sp. direction appts in that span of time- what a treat!
    These discoveries are amazing, and in reading your blog for almost a year, I always thought- there must be some reason or event that has damaged your relationship with Our Lord, and I think that was at least partially revealed in this post.
    Thank you for sharing, and you may not realize it, but as you write about this spiritual direction there is some hope in your tone, some glimmer of a respite from your suffering.
    Praying for the fruits of these meetings with this awesome priest.

  11. I just wanted to comment too that I read and enjoyed learning alongside you. You are very blessed to have this spiritual director and thank you for sharing him with all of us!

  12. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and conversation so openly. I wish I had a spiritual director now (I did go to a wonderful woman a few years ago, but haven't been able to continue) - and you have some incredibly challenging and important insights in here.

    re: mass and its significance - a book that made a BIG difference to me was called "the lamb's supper: the mass as heaven on earth" by scott hahn. I think I actually have 2 copies - if you'd like me to send you one, please be in touch at my blog (I won't publish your comment but can e-mail or mail you??)

    Praying for you!


  13. Your discussions with your spiritual director are fascinating, and I would imagine that they're beneficial, too. Your post has given me a lot to think about, so I can only imagine how these discussions are for you! Thanks for sharing them - I really enjoy reading your thoughts on this.