Lately, the readings of the liturgical cycle have been focusing on the parable of the sower. And since last week was Natural Family Planning (NFP) Awareness week, I wanted to follow up with some reflections on sowing the seed of NFP.
In it’s essence, NFP is fertility awareness. It’s a way of planning your family and spacing your children. But really, it’s a way of life. It’s trust in God’s plan, it’s training in virtues, it’s a lifelong commitment to communication and sacrifice. A woman’s cycle has phases of fertility and infertility, and so the responsibility is to track those changes in fertility and decide as a couple whether you have reasons to engage in intimacy and be open to a child or abstain for a while to space your children.
The unitive and procreative meanings of sexual union (aka babies and bonding) can never be separated or they will destroy the meaning of sex. Therefore, all forms of contraception (barrier, sterilization, hormonal contraceptives) are harmful to a marriage and a relationship with God. If a couple has prayerfully determined the need to space their children, NFP is the only way to preserve these two meanings of sexual union.
Now, that doesn’t mean NFP is easy. For many, NFP can be a source of struggle within their marriage. But struggle, sacrifice, and pain do not imply that something is bad. It means that it’s refining, like gold tested in fire.
In my experience as a marriage prep instructor, when people hear the seed of NFP, they respond in the same ways as in the parable of the sower. The following is not meant to be a judgment on anyone, but rather a prayerful reflection of where our hearts lie on the message of NFP.
1. The Seed Sown on the Path
The one who hears the word of the Kingdom without understanding it, and the Evil One comes and steals away what was sown in his heart.
These are the couples who hear about NFP during marriage prep, but have gone to Catholic school their whole life having never heard of NFP before. They are likely already living together and using contraception comfortably when the teaching on contraception/NFP is first explained to them. Because it is foreign and the culture enshrines the notion of contraception, they choose not to look into NFP. Although they have been warned that using contraceptives will hurt their relationship with God and each other, these are the couples that are usually asking the Church to get with the times and change their teaching instead of asking the Church what they can learn from these teachings.
It’s not my place to judge couples, but if you don’t have an active prayer life and are already separated from God in other areas of faith and morality, it would be even harder to take the leap into the NFP lifestyle. You are afraid to trust in God’s plan and I get that. But the seed can’t grow if it hasn’t had a chance to be planted. And you can’t really make an informed decision whether or not to use NFP when you haven’t taken an NFP class. This soil needs to be watered with the grace of the Sacrament of Reconciliation, Sunday Mass, and perhaps a retreat or RCIA class, to soften the heart through evangelization and catechesis to receive the word.
2. The Seed Sown on Rocky Ground
The one who hears the word and receives it at once with joy. It has no root and lasts only for a time. When some tribulation or persecution comes because of the word, he immediately falls away.
I think this is where a lot of people are. These are the couples who say “yes” to using NFP during our marriage prep course. They will plan on taking a class as soon as they get married or may be already taking one. It sounds beautiful and great for marriage because you were told it will increase your communication and intimacy. And best of all, you can plan for children on your own time frame when you want, and there are no bad side effects like with contraception. It’s natural!
But after you are married, it’s hard to find time to take a class and you don’t want the periods of abstinence. Or, after being on contraception, you can’t make sense out of your cycles because they are too irregular. Or, (like me!) you forget to take your temperature or record your observations. You struggle to get pregnant or you have high fertility and keep getting pregnant, or your charts are difficult to interpret and you have long periods of abstinence. What was supposed to be a joyful and intimate experience with your spouse becomes a source of confusion and anxiety.
NFP is hard work! Sometimes one spouse needs to speak up and say, “we are not in a place to get pregnant this month,” even when they are afraid to disappoint their spouse who thought they were going to have a romantic evening together. Sometimes, you have health issues that make intercourse painful. Sometimes, you thought you had a few more days of infertility and yet you get pregnant anyway. And sometimes, no matter how diligently you chart and time intercourse, you get another negative pregnancy test. You’ve seen a NaPro doctor and take your supplemetanl progesterone but your body is not cooperating. The Church teaches that IVF is immoral, so you feel stuck in your infertility.
So yea, I see why you might be the seed on the rocky ground. Practicing NFP in this day and age is hard. The culture doesn’t accept it, the pulpit is not preaching on it, and our hormones are all out of whack. I know few people with consistently regular cycles who can get pregnant exactly when they plan on it. Still, that doesn’t mean NFP isn’t worth it! We’ll get to that rich soil in a minute.
3. The Seed Sown Among Thorns
The one who hears the word, but then worldly anxiety and the lure of riches choke the word and it bears no fruit.
These couples are the ones who have bought the world’s view on marriage and family. It’s not the right time for kids. We want to save up more money, travel the world, and build our own business first.
Therefore, you grow your careers, travel the world, and have kids later in life. When you have kids then, you have only one or two and don’t even consider the possibility of any more. You give them all the toys they could ever want and take dream vacations to Disneyland. You have your kids scheduled in 3 sports and 2 extra-curricular activities so they can get into a good college. Religion is for Sundays and Catholic school, but you don’t pray in your home. The most important thing in life is to be successful, therefore you started your kids’ college fund the minute they came home from the hospital. After two kids you pat yourself on the back for being open to life and then proceed with contraception or sterilization.
Working at our jobs, going on vacation, and giving our children gifts are not bad things in and of themselves. If you can afford Disneyland, then great! It’s when we get caught in these material standards that we get lost. From what I’m reading, too many toys and too many choices give children anxiety. What they need most is the attention and presence of their parents, not fancy vacations each year. The two aren’t mutually exclusive, but if we put our careers and consumerism over the souls of our children, the whole family suffers.
4. The Seed Sown On Rich Soil
The one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields a hundred or sixty or thirtyfold.
Aaah, the rich soil. The couples who are still in love after 40 years. They trust in God, have rich spiritual lives, and are fruitful either literally with children or spiritually through their friendships and community. But, here’s the catch that gets everyone hung up on NFP: the rich soil requires sacrifice.
“Amen, amen, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit.” John 12:24
In order to bear fruit, we must die to self and love our spouse with the love with which Christ loves his church and gave his life for us. We must take up our cross, which comes in many forms. The way of the cross in married life is through NFP. The cross could be practicing NFP when the rest of your friends are contracepting. The cross could be infertility, or high fertility. It could be long periods of abstinence, multiple miscarriages, children with special needs, health issues, or more children in a row than you expected. If you are practicing NFP, there will be a cross. Yet that’s how we are fruitful. NFP is how the seed is sown in rich soil that will result in a joy-filled marriage that flourishes.
Because, after all those trials, that seed of selfishness dies and produces a lovely flower of self-gift. True happiness is found in giving your life away, casting your burdens on Christ, and trusting God to give you what you need. We must cultivate the good soil through prayer, Sacraments, and sacrifice. Here is a good article to get you started on praying as a couple.
Some other ways to cultivate good soil for NFP:
Join a Facebook group of other NFP users, subscribe to Family Foundations magazine, or start a group in your town with other Catholics using NFP. Surround yourself with support, read books on Catholic marriage and Catholic parenting. Find an NFP or NaPro doctor even if it means driving an hour each way.
Lastly, I hope you found this reflection helpful. Only you can know what kind of soil you are. If something was stirred in you to look more into NFP and Catholic teaching, here are some links to get you started:
Jason Evert does a great job explaining why the Church is against contraception: https://ccli.org/2017/07/why-is-the-catholic-church-against-contraception/
Mama Needs Coffee- Jenny writes candidly (and often) on NFP and contraception: