25 July 2008

Humanae Vitae, revisited

I recommend Mary Eberstadt's article, The Vindication of Humanae Vitae," (First Things, August/September 2008), as a well-written retrospective about what happened when Humanae Vitae was promulgated.

(And, if you haven't read it, you need to. Don't believe what other people say about it; read it for yourself.)

(OK, done? All right, let's go on.)

The Catholic Church is pleading, on behalf of your soul and everyone else's, for you to stop and consider the notion that love is what being human is all about. No other creature on God's earth can love the way we can, but we must learn to do it.

When we are young, self-absorbed, and foolish, we're impatient with any kind of restraint. When we shook off guiding principles in the 60s and 70s, we did not gain our freedom from anything except a reasonable chance for happiness.

This review of “Girls Like Us: Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon — and the Journey of a Generation” (Sheila Weller, Atria Books) by Stephen Holden from the New York Times back in May (free registration required) describes a book chronicling the lives of three singers who were icons in their day. The last two paragraphs are beautifully written, and strictly copyrighted, so I can only recommend you hop over there and check it out. The review concisely and almost lyrically conveys how the book depicts the consequences of life and love undertaken without the framework of centuries of Christian wisdom.

Innocence, youth, and virginity are precious because they are so easy to lose. Indeed, they're often thoughtlessly relinquished like Esau's birthright: for "a mess of pottage," or, worse, taken, by cynical adults.

I'm one of the victims of the sexual "revolution" of the 70s. (I prefer "regression." Be that as it may...) I was a staunch Roman Catholic, a convert who had read a lot of Scripture and spent a lot of time trying to figure out what the Church was about. My dear friend and I loved each other, but I was chaste. He was ignorant of my reasons, but accepted my explanation. Another girl decided she wanted him, and took the most direct and effective way to persuade a handsome, inexperienced 18 year old man to stay by her side without the tiresome process of discernment, building a relationship based on shared values, etc. They were married in a grand Catholic wedding a couple of years later.

OK, so he chose another. What's the big deal? It is this: he and I were long-time friends, and right for each other; our relationship was based on everything but inappropriate intimacy; and we had bonded to one another. She was entirely different from me. He never forgot me. After their divorce, he looked me up. Eleven years after that, after losing track of me, he drove wistfully around the streets of our old neighborhood during a rare visit, hoping against hope he'd see me.

In His mercy, after all those years apart, God has brought us together again. But, at times, around my dear one's kids, I am overwhelmed with the magnitude of my loss. Their mother is still part of their lives. Our exchanges are cordial. I am still tempted to anger towards her at times, but, by the grace of God, I think: No. I can let go of that, and leave her to God. He knows all. He knows what happened, and how and why it happened. I can repent of my part in it (not speaking up when my friend needed a good smack upside the head, back in the day) and be grateful for the renewed friendship and love I have now.

It would be dishonest for me to pretend I accepted Humanae Vitae. I did not. I was dismayed by it. Watching my own mother's struggles in the wake of divorce didn't help me feel any too confident about the permanence of marriage, so I wanted to get my degree and start working before I had children. I shouldn't pretend that it was easy to remain chaste while we were dating, either; when my dear one and I became friends, he was shorter than I, endearingly freckled, with a round face and smooth chin. By high school graduation, he had attained his full height and hirsute adornments and had filled out, with powerful neck and shoulders, a heart-stopping smile, and a quiet male confidence that completely undid me. We managed because he genuinely loved me and cared for me, not always because I was strong and resolute. So I could not imagine marrying him before I'd established myself in the working world. That was years away. And how would we live? Where would we live? etc. etc.

When I met him after his divorce (and he'd gone from merely devastatingly handsome to the picture of male perfection in the meantime, a devoted father to his kids, successful in his work, and as obviously fond and respectful of me as ever), I learned that his parents had pitched in to help to a great degree during his troubled marriage, even renting him a house of theirs. It was a painful but necessary lesson for me: God would have cared for me. I was wrong to let my fears guide my life decisions.

I did, of course, again and again. But, finally, I think God's getting through to my dim brain. I'm stepping out in faith more often, after due prayer and reflection, and He's blessed me beyond all telling.

Humanae Vitae isn't about telling people what to do. It's not about dried up little old single men who've never touched a woman trying to dictate to those in the real world. It is a kind of Cliff's Notes to the wisdom of Scripture, tradition, and reason in the all-important matter of personal love and relationships. God does expect us to trust Him. When it comes to building a family, He's given most of us women entirely natural means to space children, including breast-feeding and paying attention to our body's signs. But that does require that we relax into His provision, and it requires that we know ourselves - emotionally, mentally - and that we focus on what we're doing; in other words, it means we have to grow up.

The Holy Father spoke movingly of God as courting lover in his meditation on the Angelus before leaving Sydney (one report and transcript here).
As Mary stood before the Lord, she represented the whole of humanity. In the angel’s message, it was as if God made a marriage proposal to the human race. And in our name, Mary said yes.

In fairy tales, the story ends there, and all "live happily ever after". In real life it is not so simple. For Mary there were many struggles ahead, as she lived out the consequences of the "yes" that she had given to the Lord. Simeon prophesied that a sword would pierce her heart. When Jesus was twelve years old, she experienced every parent’s worst nightmare when, for three days, the child went missing. And after his public ministry, she suffered the agony of witnessing his crucifixion and death. Throughout her trials she remained faithful to her promise, sustained by the Spirit of fortitude. And she was gloriously rewarded.
I knew all that, all those years ago. I just couldn't step out in trust. I still have many cowardly moments. My ability to love is defective due to my own faults; that doesn't mean God is mistaken about how best to show love. Just because I cannot always believe He loves me enough to care for me through everyday miracles, that doesn't mean He won't do so.

Will I be able to trust this time? Pray for me, please, that I may know and do God's will in my life, for the sake of those whose lives mine will touch.

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