Not only those who get married, but all human beings have the vocation to gift of self. Priests, religious, and consecrated make this gift of themselves to God; their celibacy is an expression of this total self-gift to Him. But also, those who remain unmarried without a vocation to the consecrated life are called to self-donation that can express itself in many forms. Human beings want nothing more than to be loved completely and unconditionally throughout their life. Original sin has made that difficult. We are often disappointed in our hope to be loved while falling short of it ourselves. Love since the Fall requires death to self. The Cross is therefore at the heart of love this side of eternity—and that is true for Christians and non-Christians alike. Otherwise, both eros and agape turn stale through one’s egoism, leading to anger, possessiveness, hatred, and separation (see CCC 1606, 1615).
Hence, the call to marriage is challenging. But through Christ’s institution of the sacrament of marriage, as John Paul II so beautifully stated, the spouses can return to God’s original plan, that is, the way marriage and sexuality were intended from the beginning. And what better setting is there than marriage for the begetting of children who need to be surrounded by love from the first instant of their existence? Their parents’ love is their cradle. Their vulnerability heightens their need for unconditional love. And which parents, whose hearts are overflowing when they first hold their children in their arms, don’t want to provide them with precisely that?
Yet the stress of life, our egoism, and our weakness often lead us to sin against that first love. And the culture of death frequently blinds us to what constitutes certain abuses. Interestingly, Karol Wojtyła—the future Pope John Paul II—pointed out in Love and Responsibility that another opposite of love (other than hatred) is using the other. Instrumentalizing another for my needs goes against love and against the dignity of the other person, for it means turning them into a means. And as the philosopher Immanuel Kant already stated, the person may never be used as the means to an end, but is always an end in their own right. Therefore, if I use another person for my sexual satisfaction, as an emotional crutch, or merely as a way of fulfilling my various needs, then I am objectifying them, going against their intrinsic dignity, sinning against them, and potentially wounding them deeply. This instrumentalizing can happen in any kind of relationship, be it between spouses, parents and children, or friends, for example. This is not to say that it would be wrong for the other to fulfill my various needs, but this is a gift arising from the context of mutual love and self-gift and should not be the purpose or “theme” of the relationship.
Gift of self is therefore the universal calling of all human beings, whatever their situation, talents, sufferings, and challenges. However, the way it expresses itself depends on the particular situation, personality, and vocation of each person. It is particularly frustrating, if spouses cannot experience the specific fruitfulness tied to their state of having children. Analogously, a diocesan priest would probably suffer from being prevented from celebrating the sacraments for the faithful or giving any pastoral care. But God still has an amazing plan for all those suffering, for those whose life seems to make little sense when human happiness appears to have become impossible in their eyes. From a natural perspective, suffering seems meaningless. But when God allows us to be broken, then He is calling us to something greater. The relationship between the spouses may be strained, perhaps even to its breaking point or beyond, because of the heavy cross of infertility. But the call to fruitfulness in their marriage remains.
In contrast to priests and religious, spouses suffering from infertility haven’t chosen to forego having biological children. Instead, they are being denied the visible fruit of their vocation and the parenting which is normally part of it. It can be jarring to them, therefore, when the spiritual fruitfulness of celibate saints is brought to their attention; for they did not choose it like the latter and spiritual fruitfulness can seem like a distant and meager consolation for an empty cradle. However, spiritual fecundity is something we are all called to, whatever our state in life; therefore, we can learn from celibate and married saints, even if the nature of our crosses may differ.
St. Thérèse of Lisieux, who was hidden away in Carmel for nine years, comes to mind. The “science of love” she developed has afforded her the title of doctor of the Church. She who would have loved to be a missionary has become the patron saint of missions. God honored her missionary zeal by giving her posthumously a worldwide evangelizing success which few others have reached during their life. It is hard to equal her in terms of spiritual fruitfulness; she must be surrounded by so many people in heaven who have grown, nay, even been saved through her help. Their relationship is one of children to their mother—no less real than here on earth, but much closer and more perfect. The deep love and joy they experience through this bond must be tremendous.
Because her love was so great, St. Thérèse would have liked to be an apostle or a missionary and go through all possible martyrdoms on earth. But then, reading St. Paul, she understood that the greatest of all vocations was love, and that by embracing her vocation of a hidden love, she would find herself at the very center of the Church. This is what she writes:
I understood that the Church had a Heart and that this Heart was BURNING WITH LOVE. I understood it was Love alone that made the Church’s members act, that if Love ever became extinct, apostles would not preach the Gospel and martyrs would not shed their blood. I understood that LOVE COMPRISED ALL VOCATIONS, THAT LOVE WAS EVERYTHING, THAT IT EMBRACED ALL TIMES AND PLACES. . . . INA WORD, THAT IT WAS ETERNAL! Then, in the excess of my delirious joy, I cried out: O Jesus, my Love.... my vocation, at last I have found it. . . . MY VOCATION IS LOVE! Yes, I have found my place in the Church and it is You, O my God, who have given me this place; in the heart of the Church, my Mother, I shall be Love. Thus I shall be everything, and thus my dream will be realized.
Though we may not feel capable of reaching the spiritual heights of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, her “little way,” which consists of abandoning ourselves to God in our very weakness, is at the reach of everyone. The detachment she reaches (from her own desire of being a missionary) may still seem unattainable to us who at the moment are so desperate to have a child. But this is because we still have much mourning to do. We’d like to skip over that part in order to experience the peace and joy of the saints, but we forget that they too suffered greatly. Rome was not built in a day, nor can we expect to achieve detachment and receive consolation quickly.
The Jewish convert, Roy Schoeman, who was an agnostic at the time, writes about his mystical experience during which he “fell into Heaven.” He experienced God’s love in an overwhelming manner. At the same time, he saw his life through the eyes of God and realized that the times he had deemed disastrous were really moments of grace. This is what he writes:
It is as though I “fell into Heaven.” Everything changed from one moment to the next, but in such a smooth and subtle way that I was not aware of any discontinuity. I felt myself in the immediate presence of God. I was aware of His infinite exaltedness, and of His infinite and personal love for me. I saw my life as though I was looking back on it after death, in His presence, and could see everything which I would be happy about and everything which I would wish I had done differently. I saw that every action I had ever done mattered, for good or for evil. I saw that everything which had ever happened in my life had been perfectly designed for my own good from the infinitely wise and loving hand of God, not only including but especially those things which I at the time I [sic] thought had been the greatest catastrophes.
Though we may never have this kind of experience during our lifetime, God has given us people like Roy to tell us about what happened to them. This is an encouragement to continue, even if it feels like we are stumbling and falling more than walking. The periods of excruciating pain where our life seems on hold and useless may turn out to be the most precious times in our life.
Marie Meaney is a specialist on the French philosopher and mystic Simone Weil, on whom she has written two books. She holds graduate degrees in modern languages and philosophy from Oxford University and the International Academy of Philosophy (IAP) in Liechtenstein. She taught at the University of Villanova in Philadelphia before the birth of her daughter. Since then, she has taught courses for the International Theological Institute in Trumau, Austria. Her previous work on infertility has been published in French, German, Croatian, Hungarian, and Spanish.
You Might Also Like
When a couple faces infertility, the intense suffering can be hard to bear–and to convey to others. In When Expecting Doesn’t Happen, Dr. Marie Meaney offers hope and encouragement to couples and advice for those who wish to support them.
With firsthand knowledge, Meaney helps couples navigate the experience of infertility and unpacks Catholic teaching on reproductive technologies. Outlining which licit approaches can be taken and the “dead ends” offered by reproductive technologies which undermine the dignity of the couple and their potential children, When Expecting Doesn’t Happen contains both practical and spiritual wisdom to guide couples toward deep peace and authentic fulfillment.