Friday, April 24, 2015

7QT: Seven Quick Takes (Volume X)

I'm linking up with This Ain't the Lyceum to bring you seven quick takes from my world this week.

Why are all my favorite bloggers moving to podcasts now?!!  So annoying!  I love podcasts, and I listen to them daily on my commute and when I'm doing tasks or errands, but I prefer blogs.  I can read them at work and refer back to them much more easily.  I always seem to be one step behind.  Once I resign myself to losing my favorite bloggers to podcasts, everyone will start doing something else.

God gives us grace for today, not for hypothetical, worrisome situations in the future.  I have to remember this.  Especially as I consider how my current life circumstances are not conducive to what I think I want in the future - children.  One step at a time.  We must deal with what is.    

After a lifetime of almost no dental problems and nary a cavity, I now have multiple cavities and have to either get a bridge or an implant for one tooth.  I don't know what happened in the last 6 months (aside from getting married), but I'm falling apart now.  It's expensive and frustrating.  Getting old ain't for sissies.    

I recently discovered the work of Deacon James Keating.  This discovery, combined with the work of Father Timothy Gallagher on discernment has really, really helped me with a lifelong problem that I didn't even know I had.  Did you know that the mean voice in your head that condemns you, blames you, hates you, attacks you, and generally makes you feel like crap is not from God?  Maybe everyone knew this but me, or maybe not everyone has that "voice" as a constant companion.  I just have gotten so used to that voice over the years that I basically heard it as my own.  You know, the "taped messages" you replay to yourself?  Part of the negativity and hatred came from my parents and the way they talked to us, taught us to treat ourselves, their view of God as judgmental, and their view of humanity as totally depraved.  Gradually, I have been able to weed out their voice in some respects, but my own voice to myself was not much better.  I didn't realize that God is not the one who condemns you or hates you.  I confused my desire for more holiness, my desire to be better and to do better with a mean voice in my head that reminded me of how far I had to go.  But, you must question your thoughts - even the thoughts which come in the first person.  If they discourage you, condemn you, remind you of your mistakes in a way that is not helpful, they are not of God.  It's that simple.  Again, maybe everyone knew this but me.  I could have told you that the Holy Spirit doesn't condemn, that "there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus," (Romans 8:1) or that the devil is referred to as the accuser of the brethren, but at the same time, I put up with this voice as a constant companion, thinking it was God.  In moments of despair or panic, this voice screams the loudest.  It's part of my hardware.  But now, I can't explain the relief I have found from recognizing that it is not of God and dismissing it summarily.  There is freedom, clarity, and peace in my mind that is totally brand new.  

Fr. Gallagher explains that when one is moving from sin to holiness, God will "prick" you by convicting you of your sins (not condemning you).  Once you are on a path of holiness, but trying to do better, it's not God, but the devil who "pricks" you, reminding you of your mistakes, telling you that you'll never succeed, and generally discouraging you.  One has to discern which stage on the journey they are in, and know whether or not you're listening to the voice of your best friend or your worst enemy.  Deacon Keating explains that the accuser often comes in the form of a "You are..." statement, such as "You are such a loser, you can't do anything right," or "You are such a hypocrite, who do you think you are?"  Whereas God often comes in the form of an "I am" statement, such as "I am the God who heals you," or "I am love, I will never stop loving you."  You can find the work of both Deacon Keating and Father Gallagher at Discerning Hearts, or from other sources by doing a simple internet search.  That is my brief summary of what has been a major breakthrough for me.      

Speaking of such things, I have really gotten into the writings and story of Joseph Sciambra.  I am fascinated by conversion (or reversion) stories.  Joseph was raised nominally Catholic and gradually slipped into a deviant lifestyle in the gay community, getting deeper and deeper.  He writes from a perspective now of a man redeemed and living out the call to chastity.  Pray for him, for others like him, and for those who could be reached by his story for their own conversion.  Our world needs more people who are this brave. 

I think part of the reason I am drawn to Joseph is that Theology of the Body was a life-changer for me.  I have yet to explore the depths of TOB, but I feel like it is an encompassing truth which explains our fundamental nature and destiny in light of natural law and gospel truth.  (I write a little bit about my encounter with Theology of the Body and Natural Family Planning here.  I also touch on it in my conversion story, which is in four parts here: I, II, III, IV.)  

Joseph also reminds us that the demonic is at work in the sexual perversions of our world.  We are so accustomed to it that I think many of us open ourselves to spiritual oppression by accepting or acting upon these base desires.  You turn on the TV, and jokes about porn and masturbation abound.  They are treated as normal behaviors.  Gay couples are depicted on TV as if they are about half of the population (not the 3-5% estimated by sociologists).  Not to mention that promiscuity, fornication, and the like, are just seen as normal.  I am guilty of all of this.  I swallowed this mindset hook, line, and sinker when I left home for college.  I was indoctrinated by the Sex and the City lifestyle throughout college, and fell into deep sin for the majority of my twenties, despite being raised in a Christian home.  

All that to say, considering the high percentage of persons involved in pornography (by consumption alone), both gay and straight, and those involved in sexual sin, both gay and straight, our world is in the devil's hand, doing whatever he wants.  This isn't something insignificant or to be taken lightly.  This isn't just another sin, this is a sin of the body, which is crucial to our being - eternal and temporal.  Our bodies proclaim the gospel.  Our bodies are not just something we are "stuck" in, housing our "real" selves.  Our bodies are the embodiment of our souls.  (I have to respectfully disagree with C.S. Lewis on the point, "You do not have a soul.  You are a soul, you have a body."  No - we are an embodied-soul or an en-soul-ed-body, you cannot separate the two.  A soul without a body is a ghost.  A body without a soul is a zombie.  We will have bodies in eternity.  We believe in a resurrection of the body.  I want to write more on the connection between near-gnosticism by some Protestants and liberal humanism, both believing the body is unimportant.)  I digress.  All this to say that Joseph's story has reminded me that "we wrestle not with flesh and blood." (Ephesians 6:12)  Also, we can pretty much draw a line in the sand - that which is not life, and life more abundantly is not of God.  Satan comes to steal, kill, and destroy.  (John 10:10)  It's very black and white.  I am trying to be more vigilant in this and realize that you can't dabble in or mess around with this stuff.  We have to stay pure, go to confession, receive the sacraments, and fight this war.  

Tomorrow (God willing), marks the last day of a lay catechist training program I've been taking through our diocese.  It consists of three semesters of work, over 90 hours of instruction and 3 days of reflection.  I felt like, as a convert, I had a somewhat limited understanding of the faith.  I had done lots of reading when I converted 9 years ago.  I continued to read theology, but RCIA was a long time ago.  I felt extremely knowledgeable in some areas of Catholicism (specifically about areas of apologetics that differed from Protestantism), and I felt extremely ignorant about other areas of Catholicism.  I wanted to fill in the gaps.  While it was difficult to give up so many Saturdays over the last year and a half, I'm happy to be almost done.  I have learned a lot, and I'm considering getting a Master's in Theology.  It's one of the only things that interests me anymore - our Catholic faith, that is.  

Like I say every time I do this post, seven sure seems like a lot of "quick" takes.  I have over 10 drafts of blog posts, 451 notes to myself on my iphone, and 16 email drafts to myself of blog ideas.  I want to explore all of these thoughts further (and I did blog a little more than usual this week), however, when it comes to writing seven things down, I seem to be at a loss every time.  

May the peace of Christ live always in your hearts.  

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Love and Marriage

I'm a newlywed.  I will restate that I was not really ever told how wonderful marriage was before we got married.  I was scared, on some level, of such a big commitment.  Everyone told me how hard it was, how I shouldn't look to marriage to solve my problems (for the record, I did not), and how maybe it'll be easy at first...but just wait until you had kids.  Marriage is referred to as "the old ball and chain" and a bunch of other unhelpful metaphors.  My husband said he didn't really hear those messages from anyone, but neither of us were exactly encouraged in the sense that others told us what a blessing and how wonderful marriage is.

Sure, you can blame this talk on how wonderful love and marriage are on me still being a newlywed...however, I have to say that if God created marriage and if marriage is a sacrament that gives grace...AND if marriage is to be an icon for the love of the Trinity... shouldn't it be wonderful?

My husband I were talking the other day about how, just in the ~6 months we've been married, we already love each other more than before, we know each other more than we did then, and how awesome marriage is now that we're living it, as compared to just dating or being engaged.

Marriage is a great ailment for pride and the ego.  I will acknowledge that death to self is not easy.  That makes marriage difficult.  But, what a wonderful school for learning that lesson.  Marriage itself is not the problem in that equation, it's our own selfishness that makes it hard.

My husband is so easy to love.  I feel like God took such pity on me.  He knew that I was like a scared child - scared to trust and open myself up, scared to love.  He knew that I had been so wounded that it was going to be really, really hard for me to love and to commit, especially to a man. And so, he gave me someone who is very easy to love.  My husband is nearly always kind, patient, and gentle.  He forgives easily.  He is so intelligent and also insightful about the human condition. He seeks God, he prays.  He is creative, artistic, interesting, AND handsome.  I told my sister the other day that being married to him is what being married to Jesus might have been like.  Most the time, if there is a problem or strife in the relationship, I am the one who brought in.  But, my husband helps me work through things, and he is in it for the long haul.  He never minimizes my concerns.  He makes our marriage a safe environment for dealing with my problems in context.

Sure.  What do I know about marriage?  Not much, at least not yet.  But, I do know that marriage is a gift.  And that God really does give us His grace to make it day to day with another human being. And, if you are willing to lay down your life in love, there is a great reward for that.  I live in gratitude for the time we've had together, and I pray that we have many more years.

Marriage is so good that I have to be careful not to idolize it - to turn the icon of God's love into the end itself.  If we can experience such great and deep love on earth, how much more does God love us and want to show us that love?    

And, speaking of how awesome marriage is, here is a great article by Carrots for Michaelmas about the connection between Coffee and Marriage.

INTJ who practices NFP is a HSP has OCD and SAD and is an ACON seeks BFF... LOL, IDK, HMU, OK?*


We all have a few we'd probably rather not have - divorced, survivor, autistic, drop-out, thirty-something, other, four-eyes, fat, loser.

However, it has really helped me to label things at times.  Naming our pain, naming what we're dealing with, calling it what it is.  There is power to bringing truth and reality to our problems.  As they say, admitting it is often the first step.    

When I discovered Meyers-Briggs personality types and took the test, I felt like someone had spied on the contents of my brains and written it down (I'm an INTJ to the max.)  In some ways it was a relief to feel so understood.  I could then read about how to maximize my strengths or work on my flaws as an INTJ.

When working with a therapist last year, I was able to identify that (God bless them), my parents (especially my father) have Narcissistic Personality Disorder.  It was as if a puzzle I'd been staring at my entire life finally looked like something and created a picture.  It was a relief to put a name to the various manifestations of NPD and move on to the healing phase and how to deal with that specific issue.

Last weekend, I discovered the work of Deacon James Keating.  He has fabulous insights to the human condition and healing.  He spoke about the necessity to bring our pain to the love of the Trinity.  And to bring that pain in all honesty.  We have to be real with God.  He talked about the need for silence in order to be in touch with our pain - we have to name it in order to overcome it.

When I think of the labels that have stung throughout the years, or the labels that help me name my pain so that I can heal from it - there are quite a few.  Satan often labels us in an accusing way, pointing out our flaws.  We need to label what pains us, and take that to God.  Then, we need to claim only what is helpful and reject the accusatory labels.

A recurring theme in Catholicism and in recovery has been bringing the pain to the light - naming it, being brutally honest about ourselves, living in reality - and taking that pain to the cross for healing. Naming it is not enough - we can get stuck in the analysis and diagnosis.  However, it has to be named. God can't heal what we don't acknowledge.

God is big enough to love us in spite of our labels, to take the name of what ails us and put it under The Name which is above every name, to see us for who we truly are, to call us Beloved, Child of God.  Those are labels that supercede all others.


INTJ - introverted/intuitive/thinking/judging person who practices
NFP - natural family planning is a
HSP - highly sensitive person has
OCD - obsessive compulsive disorder and
SAD - seasonal affective disorder and is an 
ACON - adult child of a Narcissist seeks
BFF - best friend forever ...
LOL - [laughing out loud]
IDK - I don't know
HMU - hit me up
OK - okay?

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

NFP and Me

I have lamented publicly and privately about the lack of conversation regarding NFP (Natural Family Planning, sometimes called Fertility Awareness Method (FAM)).  So, I thought - why not write about it on ye ole' blog?

I've been Catholic less than one decade, and I've been married less than one year.  In all this time as a Catholic, I knew one couple who practiced NFP, and I thought they were crazy at the time.  Everyone else I knew was either sexually active outside of marriage and/or contracepting.  That one family with 8-10 kids in the parish was also crazy in my book, and no other Catholics seemed to take the Church's teaching seriously, including me.  I used the fact that most Catholics I knew didn't follow the Church teaching on sexuality to be a sort of implicit approval of my behavior.  They weren't following it, why did I have to?  Catholics don't really believe that stuff, right?  I could be a good Catholic, believe in trans-substantiation, pray to Mary and the Saints, but still do what I wanted to with my own body, right?  I didn't want to be a prude, one of the annoying religious types.  I saw nothing wrong with gay relationships.  I was indoctrinated on the Sex and the City lifestyle.  My friends and I all watched the show regularly and compared it to our own lives.  I was "enlightened," so I thought, but honestly, I wasn't happy.  I wasn't free.  I was lonely, and I didn't feel as liberated as I was supposed to.  I had a few pregnancy scares, which led me to take the "morning after pill," so, essentially I may have had medical abortions.  How's that for freedom?  Broke all 10 commandments, but great is God's mercy.    

Finally, by the grace of God, I repented and came to my senses.  While I wasn't as promiscuous as I could have been (I was in a few long-term relationships in succession), I threw out the birth control and condoms.  I stopped committing mortal sin.  I had a conversion of heart, or re-conversion.  I realized that, although it was difficult, it was possible to accept the Church's claims on what is right and wrong in this area.  God gives us the grace to do it.  By the same token, for the first time in my life, I remember thinking that it was therefore also possible that the Church could be right on what it asks of my gay friends - abstinence.  I had the wonderful experience of hearing Christopher West speak live at some point about a year after my re-conversion.  It only convinced me further that I was on the right path.  I learned a little bit about Theology of the Body, and with that, I found the intellectual tradition and natural law/philosophical arguments that made so much sense.  It wasn't a matter of Bible verse debates, but a matter of the whole - the whole person, the whole society, the whole intellectual and anthropological tradition.  (Hmm....Catholic comes from the Greek: Kata and Holos - concerning the whole...)  These arguments made much more sense to me than the Sex and the City liberation I was fed in college.  I also went to confession again and again, each time I messed up, each time I remembered something else to confess.  It was not only healing, but it gave me the grace I needed to live this life.  Truly.  

So, fast forward, and here I am, an actual practicing Catholic who not only believes everything the Church teaches, but who is trying to practice it, even in the area of sexuality and Natural Family Planning.  And there is NO ONE I know in the same position.  I live in quite a large metropolis, so I'm sure there are some couples out there who do practice NFP or believe the Church's teachings on sexuality, do you strike up that conversation?  We need couple friends, and I've been praying about it.  But for now, I just read tons of Catholic blogs.  (We have Catholic friends who are not married or who are older, married one in the throes of NFP or family building right now.)

So, that's the short version of my conversion story as it applied to Theology of the Body and sexuality.  (Read a summary of my conversion stories here in Parts I, II, III, and IV.)

As for NFP, we were taught the Sympto-Thermal Method in marriage preparation.  I'm pretty sure that the Catholic church defaults to teaching this method most of the time because it is the least expensive.  I will also say that in our course of about 20 couples, I was the only person who took notes in the class.  Either all these people were experts in female reproductive knowledge, or they totally were only there because they had to be in order to be married in the Church (or so it seemed). Now, it's also entirely possible that I was simply the most vastly ignorant person about my own body in the class.  My parents really didn't explain much to me when I was growing up, except that sex outside marriage was wrong.  I had older sisters, so I did know about "the curse," but I never knew you could also read signs of ovulation.

Here is a crash course in what we learned, in case someone has stumbled upon my blog without knowing what I'm talking about and needs to know how amazing the female reproductive system is.

The Sympto-Thermal Method of NFP or FAM looks at symptoms and temperatures to determine fertility. Symptoms mostly include the presence and type of cervical mucus - stretchy mucus (similar to egg whites) indicates that ovulation is coming or near; clumpy mucus (similar to toothpaste) indicates that ovulation has passed.  If one so desires to check, the position of the cervix is another symptom.  A S.H.O.W. cervix (Soft, High, Open, and Wet) indicates ovulation is near.  The temperature readings are done with a basal body thermometer.  It's important that the temperature is taken at the same exact time each day upon first waking up, without even getting out of bed or elevating your heart rate with motion or activity.  This will show that after ovulation, your temperature raises at least 0.4 degrees and stays there.  You're looking for "3 over 6" - 3 days of high temperatures (at least 0.4 degrees higher) over 6 days of lower temperatures.  When your temperature shifts upward, you can bet that ovulation occurred, if it stays there.  Your temperature will then dip the day your next cycle begins, and you start all over reading the signs (or symptoms) and looking for 3 over 6 in your temperatures.

NFP uses the Sympto-Thermal method to teach you that you are "reliably infertile" on the day after 3 days of high temperatures.  (Basically this means the evening of the 4th day after the temperature shift).  Before ovulation occurs, it really depends on the person when you're fertile or infertile.  The egg can be fertilized up to 5 days before it's released, but not after.  You wait 3 days to confirm ovulation (the temperature will stay high).  Also, you wait 3 days because there is a slim chance you release more than one egg, and if you do, it'll always be released within 24 hours of the other egg. So, you're fertile the day you ovulate and the 5 days before.  The problem is that you don't usually know you ovulated until after the fact - you've got the symptoms, which tell you what is coming, but the temperature doesn't confirm ovulation until after it has happened.  For those who ovulate later in the cycle, you'd have some reliably infertile days early on.  For those who ovulate early in the cycle, you'd have few, if any, infertile days early in the cycle.  Menstruation may overlap or directly lead into the "fertility window" (day of ovulation and the 5 days before).  You are also reliably infertile during early days of menstruation, but it also depends on the person - if you ovulate on day 10, menstruation and the fertility window will overlap.  Plus, some people don't like to mix menstruation and the intimate marital act.  It's a matter of comfort and choice between you and your husband.

So, I learned so much doing the Sympto-Thermal method.  After trying to do it for several months, I realized that you can observe signs of fertility that I had never really understood or paid much attention to.  The body is really amazing.  However, ST method didn't work too well for us because my temperatures were off the charts low.  Like, the charts we were given to track my cycle didn't even go low enough to catch my waking temperature (which was usually 94 something).  Because of this, I started taking tons of multi-vitamins to raise my temperature, which did help.  However, I also had a hard time figuring out the 3 over 6 rule.  I take allergy medicine every single day, which dries up mucus of all kinds in my body, so the fertility signs were harder for me to read.  Since so much is at stake with NFP, I opted to look at other methods to see if something might be easier for me to discern.

Enter, the Marquette Method.  After learning and trying the Sympto-Thermal method for a few months, I read online and taught myself the Marquette Method of NFP, which utilizes the Clearblue Fertility Monitor (CFM).  This method is more expensive up front - the monitor is about $150.  It's also more expensive as an ongoing cost - you have to purchase the test sticks every few months ($30-$50 for a box of 30).  So, you set the CFM to day 1 on on the first day of your cycle.  You turn it on every day, to check in.  Eventually, around day 6-10, it will ask you to use one of the urine test sticks for about 10 days per month.  You pee on a stick (or pee in a cup and put the stick in the cup for 15 seconds).  Then, you put the stick in the CFM, which is testing for an increase in estrogen and lutenizing hormone to see if ovulation is coming.  You'll get readings of either low, high, or peak to indicate your fertility level.  Once the CFM finds a peak reading, you can stop taking tests because it will automatically say you're still at a peak level the next day.  At the beginning of your next cycle, you set the CFM back to day 1 and begin it all again.  It starts to learn your body and ask for a urine test about 6 days before the average first day of your peak.  It takes 6 months (or 6 cycles) to get an average.  

For NFP purposes, the same rules apply after ovulation - basically wait 3 days if you're trying to avoid pregnancy.  Instead of 3 days of high temperatures, it's 3 days after the CFM finds a peak day.  You're reliably infertile on the evening of the 4th day after the first peak reading.

I found with the CFM that sometimes I would jump from a low reading to a peak reading, with no high reading in between.  One month, I didn't get any peak reading whatsoever.  I don't know if the sticks were faulty, or if it just missed it.  (I was not pregnant, and I do believe I ovulated.)  The Marquette Method was and has been good for me because I don't have to worry about random temperatures.  It is nice to trust the science of a urine test, even though it has been wonky or wrong a few times.  However, knowing what I do from the Sympto-Thermal method, I can cross-check/verify the CFM.  Usually I can sense that peak is coming based on cervical mucus observations or temperature observations, even casually.  In the future, I think I will start taking my temperatures in conjunction with the CFM urine tests, just to confirm a 3 over 6 shift if the monitor doesn't pick up a peak day.

I am considering making another big purchase and switching from the Clearblue Fertility Monitor to the OvaCue fertility monitor.  It would be expensive, but there wouldn't be the costs of urine test sticks every few months.  Also, we aren't trying to conceive just yet, but I wonder if the CFM is reliable post-partum or during breast-feeding, so I'm already thinking of something that might be more versatile in that respect.

Concluding thoughts:

1)  Umm, why didn't we learn this stuff in the 7th grade when we learned everything else?  I'm serious! Why are we only teaching girls about "that time of the month" without teaching them what happens in between?! - ovulation is extremely significant, and it can be tracked!!  The more I learned about NFP and Theology of the Body, the more angry I am at the contraception industry and culture - it just medicates away a natural process of our bodies and leaves people dependent on pharmaceuticals and ignorance.  I really never thought I'd be one of "those" people, but it is the only thing that makes sense to me.  It's so cool to me that I learned all of this in my beloved Catholic Church.  I just wish it hadn't taken me so long to come around.

2)  There are two good books out there if you want to dig a little deeper into FAM or nutritional helps.  (I am not paid to endorse either of these, this is simply my opinion.)  They are Taking Charge of Your Fertility by Toni Weschler and Fertility, Cycles, and Nutrition by Marilyn M. Shannon.  TCOF is not written from a religious perspective at all.  It simply explains the body and how to track fertility signs and symptoms.  FCN is written from a Catholic perspective.  It's good for looking up any issues or problems you might have (like low body temperatures) and she gives nutritional advice on a natural way to heal the body.  (The book does not replace medical advice for deeper problems, but just general good health practices and natural approaches to typical problems with our diets and nutrition.)

3)  God knew what he was doing.  I have found that I am most attracted to my husband around the time of ovulation.  Go figure that our bodies are actually designed to come together, and that they give us signals to this effect constantly!

4)  NFP is difficult.  NFP is not a cure-all.  If you are experiencing infertility, NFP can help point that out sooner because you'll be in touch with your body.  If you are extremely fertile or have wonky signs, NFP can be frustrating.  It's also really frustrating to sleep next to someone you love and have promised your life to...if you're trying to avoid pregnancy.  No one wants to abstain from a good thing with the one you love, but sometimes there are reasons for that.  Having said that, NFP is worth it.  I don't want to ever go back to contracepting.  In particular, I had a bout of UTIs right after we first got married.  I don't know if NFP contributes to this - times of abstinence, followed by times of coming together might irritate the body in that way.  I can see how NFP could also be very difficult or frustrating when trying to read post-partum or pre-menopausal signs.  I suppose I will cross that bridge when I get there.  While difficult, NFP is a great way to discipline yourself, to remind yourself that God is the one in charge of your fertility, to respect that the marital embrace is oriented toward reproduction (duh - but that fact is trained out of us in this culture), and NFP helps you learn to fast in a new and different way.

5)  One more time, for good measure - for all the difficulty, NFP is worth it.  I know more about myself.  I am able to live out my Catholic beliefs.  I feel more respected as a woman than I ever did when contracepting.  I feel like we honor and respect the actual marital act itself - the fact that it creates life.  We are open to life, but just not planning on it quite yet.  We are learning to deny ourselves and subject ourselves to God's will in our sexuality.  It is empowering and beautiful.