Thursday, February 20, 2014
Sinner's Guide to Natural Family Planning
I was feeling blue about NFP when I picked up Fisher’s Sinner’s Guide to Natural Family Planning. Everything I read previously, and the testimonies from couples I had heard on my Engaged Encounter retreat, sang nothing but high praises about how using NFP drew them closer together as a couple and fostered marital bliss. But I had difficulty charting using the Creighton method my first month of marriage and felt frustrated at the number of days of abstinence, and even had an argument with my husband over our choice of NFP. I needed advice from someone in the trenches, from a married woman who had been there, and tried NFP for many years, and knew that it can be difficult. I needed reassurance that I wasn’t a failure for having problems in the first month or two of trying it and encourage me to continue with practical advice. Sadly, I have few married Catholic friends who could speak to me from this perspective, so Simcha Fisher became my stand-in for a friend in this book.
The book reads like a casual but intimate conversation with a dear friend, who isn’t afraid to bare all and tell you about her own struggles with NFP, while consoling you with very useful and heart-warming advice. She does so in a way that is non-condescending or judgmental, but she meets you where you are with kindness, a smile, and gentle jokes to make you laugh at yourself and realize you aren’t alone.
The slim book (124 pages) is broken into three parts. I read it in one sitting, as I was so desperately needing the help. The parts are: “NFP and Your Spiritual Life,” “NFP and the Rest of the World,” and “NFP in the Trenches.” Although the first part is titled “NFP and Your Spiritual Life,” for me, the real gems of spiritual advice came in Part III. Because in this part Fisher spoke concretely of how this spirituality plays out in your relationship with your spouse. Fisher ties in practicing NFP to love and Love, the Love we encounter from God who is Love. She makes a witty comment that NFP is called “natural” because it reveals to us our human nature, which is fallen. When practicing NFP we may see our weaknesses, and if we don’t practice NFP with love and cooperate with God’s grace, we can use this system to even hurt our spouses. If women berate their husbands for getting frisky in the bedroom when it is the wrong time of the month, and do not acknowledge that their husbands are simply in love, attracted to their wives, and have a need for affection, it can result in a hurtful comment, or pushing away an opportunity for expressed love. If husbands leave the full burden of charting NFP to the wives, and do little to understand or take part in sharing the responsibility, the woman may become bitter and resentful, losing motivation to chart and communicate about it. These things have been known to happen. Fisher, in both serious and light-hearted ways, always draws the reader back to foundation of love that is really the basis for the whole system, no matter what method of NFP you chose. If it is not done in love, no matter how scientifically accurate your method is, you may wind up damaging your relationship through this type of family planning.
Sometimes we have very practical questions about NFP that the Church does not answer for us. Just as unmarried couples practicing chastity may as, “How far is too far?” and there is not a completely black and white answer, married couples may wonder, “Just what can we do on fertile days, if trying to avoid pregnancy?” “Is this or that act okay?” Fisher deals with these and other gray areas well, she counsels us that we are adults, and the Church left this undefined for a reason. Because what is considered loving expression of affection, and what each couple can handle within the boundaries of chastity will vary from couple to couple. Some couples may choose to sleep together naked during periods of abstinence to still feel bonded sexually, but that may simply be too uncomfortable or inviting trouble for another couple. Fisher emphasizes communication between spouses and a strong prayer life as the solution to possible moral quandaries that may arise. From the big questions of, is now a good time to get pregnant? To how to please your spouse and make him or her happy in bed, to whether or not your are comfortable with certain actions, all can be brought before the Lord in prayer, and discussed with your spouse in loving conversations of mutual respect, and this will be the foundation for your answers.
Perhaps what was most refreshing for me about the book was simply the fact that it is for Sinners. There is an acknowledgment that we aren’t perfect, we may not like or even hate NFP at times, and we may not always adhere to it perfectly, and we may not have holy sex lives (just that phrase makes me laugh a little), but it is okay to laugh at ourselves sometimes and pick ourselves up and try again. Confession, conversation, openness in communication and revisiting questions with our spouses, and a prayer, will give us the graces necessary to find the moral compass to guide us in our sex lives and family planning.
Thank you Simcha Fisher for the kind advice and picking me up during a low point and giving me the courage to confront my sins and keep trying to do the right thing, knowing that I am not alone in this journey. Thank you for the reminder to do all things in love, most especially that which we call “love-making” and all the complicated conversations and decisions that act entails!