Who doesn’t love a good, bracing, honest, personal essay, especially one that tells about awful struggles and times of darkness? We love them, that is, as long as they have a happy ending. I suffered this, we endured that, and now we’ve come out of that dark time and happier, wiser, stronger, and more fulfilled than ever. This is nothing new: In ancient Greece, theater audiences couldn’t get enough of plays that dragged them along with the protagonist through incredible grief, calamity, and pain, only to emerge with them on the other side with . . . something. If not a happy ending, then at least a lesson, or at least justice. We want to come out the other end exhausted but satisfied.
When reviews started to come in for my book about how to navigate the day-to-day reality of natural family planning, many readers were enthusiastic about my honesty — but a few were not. Some thought I was too blunt, even obscene; but some thought all that openness and honesty didn’t go far enough: it didn’t answer all their questions. It didn’t tell them what they really wanted to hear. If they were going to be dragged through a story about the struggles, sorrows, and frustrations that can come along with obeying the Church’s teaching on human sexuality, then they sure as hell wanted to know where their happy ending was. She seems to understand the problem, went the complaint, but offers no real solution.
And I really didn’t. I talked about insights and strategies and attitudes that can help us love our spouses and God better. But I didn’t “solve” the problem of the difficulty of NFP, and I didn’t explain how to get a free pass out of sorrow and pain.
Instead, I talked a lot about the cross.
I don’t blame people for not wanting to hear it, or for not wanting to understand that this is the unanswerable answer. But oh my friends, any essay that purports to lead you through some great spiritual suffering and doesn’t mention the cross? That is not a Catholic essay. The cross is at the heart of who we are, why we do what we do, where we can turn when there is nowhere else to turn. The cross doesn’t make any sense; but nothing makes sense without the cross. Take it away and we’re truly lost, truly wandering in a howling wilderness of pain, not for 40 years but for eternity.
And if you do turn to the cross and then say, “Yes, yes, but what should I do?” All I can tell you is, turn back. It’s what I tell myself.
This is a tremendously roundabout way of introducing you to an important essay by my friend Ellen, who’s created a blog for one specific purpose: to talk about her marriage, in which she and her husband have never had sex and may never have sex.
Ellen has vaginismus:
a condition where the muscles of the pelvic floor involuntarily contract whenever touched, closing sphincter muscles and preventing intercourse. Sometimes it can be the result of past sexual trauma, sometimes the result of injury in delivering a child, and sometimes, as in my case, it happens for no immediately apparent reason.
No one has been able to solve this problem for them; no one has been able to take it away. There is very little information out there for people who struggle with this rare but not unheard-of condition, and even less information for couples who want to approach their marriage with a Catholic worldview.
Ellen speaks of their struggle and where they are now, a year after they realized something was wrong. She speaks of what they have learned about God and love.
Please do read her essay (there may or may not be more to come), even if you haven’t experienced anything like what they’re dealing with. Read it not to find out how they triumphed over their difficulties, but to find out how they’re learning to be happy through their difficulties. As with every story about love and marriage, it’s about so much more than sex. Ellen says:
Not everything has to change, and many of our dreams are still the same, and still possible. But the heart and soul of it has had to change substantially. For as long as I can remember, I thought I’d be the mother of a large and healthy family. I thought that that would be the main work of my life, and I was eager and impatient for it to start. Now, realistically, I know that there is very little chance of that happening. The “fruit of our love” will not be in sweet fat faces and sweaty blonde and red curls and utterly dependent, clingy, sticky hands. And it hurts to think that might never happen, and that even if it does, it will surely never be as much as it might have been.
But you want to know something? I see the fruit of our love every day. Love has to produce, you know, or it dies. So when I was realizing that children might not happen, I panicked. What the hell kind of a marriage would that be, anyway? But oh my word, the ways God has let our love bear fruit . . .
This isn’t a “We’ve gone through the darkness, and here’s how we solved it” kind of piece. Not all questions get answered to our liking; but that doesn’t mean there is no answer.
The essay is not only honest about pain and suffering, it’s full of hope and generosity. That, too, is what you will see when you look at a cross: not only true suffering and total, painful giving of self, but a doorway into a new world that we must pass through.