Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Daring to Wear White (Pre-Cana Post)

Every bride knows the symbol of the white dress and how harrowing the search for the perfect one can be.  Fortunately, I bypassed all of that.  My grandmother's wedding dress, folded up in blue tissue paper, had been carefully preserved for years waiting to be worn by another woman in our family.  More than 100 years old, the dress was worn first by my grandmother's aunt and then by my grandmother.  My grandparents had only one child, a boy, so the task of carrying on the cherished family tradition had fallen to me, the only granddaughter.  My parents felt so strongly about the dress, that I never looked for another one.

Our biggest worry was that the dress wouldn't fit, since my grandmother stood barely five feet tall in her stocking feet and weighed 90 pounds when she got married.  A comparative hulk, I measured 5"5' and 135 pounds.  Our friend, Valeria, declared she could take care of altering the dress without any problem at all.  Valeria, who specializes in restoration and repair of antique cassocks and opera costumes, said she collected pieces of antique silk and could easily find a panel to sew into the back of the dress.  When Valeria and I were at church choir rehearsal one day, she whipped out a tape measure and took three measurements -- bust, chest, and hips.  That was it.  A few weeks later, Valeria brought the dress back to choir rehearsal so I could try it on in the rectory bathroom.  It fit perfectly, and I couldn't see a single seam where she had added the extra panel.

At the wedding, my parents proudly confided in me, "You looked lovely, darling, of course, but that dress really stole the show."  And that was perfectly okay with me.   My parents had chosen my wedding dress, but I was carefully preparing a white garment of another kind, to adorn "the hidden person." (1 Peter 3:4).

In the Christian tradition, white symbolizes purity and sinlessness.  Babies wear white garments at baptism to symbolize being freed from original sin.  At First Communion, little girls wear white dresses to receive the Eucharist into their bodies for the first time.  And at the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony, the bride wears white.   When we approach the altar in white, we symbolize "the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband."  (Rev. 21:2).  We are like the Church whom Christ presents "to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle, ... holy and without blemish" before him. (Eph. 5:27).  But not everyone makes it to the altar without spots or wrinkles or blemishes.  Not everyone who approaches the altar can say that they have always remained pure.

Popular culture pushes people to have sex at ever younger ages, and ridicules those who don't.  It is sometimes easier to give in than to fight it.  Authentic Catholic culture encourages the opposite, but until recently that Catholic culture seemed drowned out by shouts of "sex is natural, sex is good, not everybody does it, but everybody should."  Growing numbers of young Catholics today are defying the pressure of popular culture and are living their single lives as virgin, chaste, and proud.  I hold immense admiration for these people; sadly, I did not have their strength.   Fortunately, the Church offers cleansing and renewal through the Church's beautiful sacrament of confession to all those who confess their sins with true sorrow and a desire never to sin again.

Growing up Episcopalian, I never had the chance to go to confession.  It's one of the things I cherish the most about my new faith.  My first confession took place in my late 20s.  It included the sins of a lifetime, the sins of more than twenty years. Recognizing and admitting what I had done wrong, and still being forgiven, made me exultant. I have loved the sacrament of confession ever since.

The Church requires anyone who is conscious of grave sin to go to confession before receiving the Holy Eucharist at Mass.  This is especially important to do before uniting yourself to your spouse at your wedding Mass.  What appears as a requirement is actually the best wedding present you will receive, better than the biggest box wrapped in the sparkliest paper and bearing the silkiest bow.  You can even make a general confession, which includes all the sins of your life, whether you have confessed them before or not.  A general confession can help you reflect deeply on any barriers you need to overcome to achieve ever more perfect unity with your future spouse.  In confession, Christ will cleanse you and present you in splendor, without spot or blemish.  So, the white dress you put on your body adds to your beauty, but the purity of your soul, cleansed from any stain of sin, is your beauty.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Fasting and Marriage: What's the Connection? (Pray-Cana Post)

This post is part of a larger series publicizing the USCCB Call to Prayer for Life, Marriage, and Religious Liberty, which started on December 30, 2012, and will continue to November 24, 2013.  You can find previous posts in the series here:  Day 1, Day 2 and Day 3.

In my previous posts on fasting, I carefully recorded the details of what I ate to show that Catholic guidelines on fasting are not unbearably onerous, and anyone can do it.  One reader objected, "the question is not whether anyone can do it, but why anyone would.  How can fasting help change society's attitude towards marriage?"

How fasting can change the outside world relates closely to how prayer can change the world.  The Church explains that our prayer "works" when it is united with the prayer of Jesus.  The Catechism tells us that Jesus "prays in us and with us.  ... If our prayer is resolutely united with that of Jesus, in trust and boldness as children, we obtain all that we ask in his name."  (CCC, secs. 2740-41).

Fasting unites us with Jesus and therefore makes our prayer stronger, morely likely to be heard and answered. Listen to what Pope Benedict XVI had to say about fasting in his 2009 letter:

We might wonder what value and meaning there is for us Christians in depriving ourselves of something that in itself is good and useful for our bodily sustenance. ... Denying material food, which nourishes our body, nurtures an interior disposition to listen to Christ and be fed by His saving word. Through fasting and praying, we allow Him to come and satisfy the deepest hunger that we experience in the depths of our being: the hunger and thirst for God.

In saying "no" to our good impulses, such as the desire for food, we learn how to say "no" to our bad impulses, our self-destructive impulses.  "Fasting assists us in getting our own house in order.  All of us have to deal with areas of servitude, whether in regard to smoking or alcohol consumption, misused sexuality, [or] uncontrolled gambling," stated the U.S. bishops in 2001.  The greater self-control we gain through successfully resisting our bodies' desire to eat helps us resist temptation in all other areas of our life.  Essentially, "fasting heals us of all that prevents conformity with the will of God," concluded Pope Benedict.  This conformity with the will of God is what makes our prayer stronger and more likely to affect the world. 

So when the bishops asked all the faithful to pray and fast for the causes of life, marriage, and religious liberty, they were asking us to make a difference in our society.  Because the fewer social supports for marriage that exist, the fewer role models of faithful, fruitful and forever love there are for the rest of us to follow.  Ultimately, without social support to sustain them or role models to inspire them, individual marriages fall apart because people's sense of belonging to something larger than themselves is lost.  Saving individual marriages matters deeply to me.  Fasting is a quiet, hidden way to help the cause.

So if the future of marriage matters to you, please join the bishops' new Call to Prayer event on facebook.  You can find the event invitation on the USCCB's facebook page in the recent activity section, or on the Marriage: Unique for a Reason page in the highlights section.  Let's make a difference.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Why We Don't Use Contraception (Guest Post)

This week features our first guest post, from the lovely Caitlin at Catholic Cookie Jar.  Caitlin is in her 20s and has been married for a year and a half.  This post tells about how Caitlin and her husband switched from contraception to natural family planning, and gives the top twelve reasons why she's glad they did.


Why We Don't Use Contraception: Natural Family Planning (NFP)

Yes, you read that title right! My husband and I do not use contraception. I have been debating writing about such a personal topic on my blog for months, but God has finally opened my heart to writing about this.

Many people know that the Catholic Church teaches against the use of contraception in marriage. Sadly, few Catholics follow this teaching. The church advocates Natural Family Planning (NFP) as the only acceptable method of family planning, but there are a lot of misconceptions about what it actually is. It is not the rhythm method, as many people think, but a scientific, evidence-based method of observing signs from a woman's body and recording them on a chart to determine when she is fertile or infertile, and using those times to either achieve or postpone pregnancy.

I want to share our experience of switching from contraception to NFP both because it has brought abundant joy to our marriage and because it was through hearing and reading about other couples’ stories that we prayerfully decided to make the switch. I'll be honest and say that I feel really vulnerable writing about this on the internet for anyone to read, but if this encourages even one woman to decide to use NFP, it will be so worth it.

Surprisingly, Thomas and I never learned about NFP at our Catholic high school. The first time we learned about it was at our marriage preparation retreat. They didn't teach us how to use the method, but we heard a couple speak about their experience and how beneficial it was for their marriage. Their love for each other was so evident we could just feel it in the room, and their excitement about NFP was contagious. I have to say, we were both interested and intrigued.

But. They were young. And they already had five children. They said all their children were planned through using NFP and that they wanted a large family, but I felt like they were just saying that to convince everyone to use it. I brushed it off as ineffective and outdated.

I didn't know anyone using NFP who could offer me guidance, and I made so many excuses to not use NFP in our marriage. I figured everyone I knew was using contraception, so it wasn't that big of a deal if I used it too. I was scared, and I was especially worried about having a baby in grad school. I talked to my family physician, who brushed off my inquiry about NFP, gave me a trial pack of birth control three months before our wedding, told me to come back when I needed more, and sent me off on my merry way. I finally settled on the fact that I would have to use the pill until I got done with graduate school, and then I would use NFP after graduating. I felt guilty about it, but I also (selfishly) felt like I had to do what I needed to do for myself to get me through school.

God did not give up on us, and he kept tugging on my heart. I can't say there was one big moment that made us decide to use NFP, but rather an increasing awareness of its effectiveness and the benefits for women and marriage. I also felt increasingly uncomfortable taking medication with so many side effects and health risks when I was perfectly healthy. I started reading Catholic blogs and found out about many women who use NFP. Women like Katie, who is married and in medical school, and who I greatly admire for the way she promotes NFP. Women like our NFP instructor, who we met through our Bible Study at church, another young, married woman who also had no children. I started to think that maybe NFP is a healthy and effective method if you need to wait to have children.

We met with the instructor at our church just to learn about it and get some introductory information. Thomas and I were both absolutely blown away. We learned more information about our bodies, reproduction, and a woman's cycle than we ever did from sexual health lessons in school. Just from that one class. After that, I started reading every single bit of information I could find on NFP and on the church's teaching about birth control and sexuality.

Thanks be to God we stopped using contraception almost a year ago, and have been using NFP since then. Making that decision has been the single best thing that has happened in our relationship. Because we have found this to be so positive, I want to share with you some information and benefits. I am going to do my best to give health, secular, and environmental reasons, as well as religious and moral reasons for why we stopped using contraception.

1. Natural Family Planning IS effective if you are trying to postpone pregnancy. It is not the rhythm method. Like I said above, it is a scientific method that uses the signs of a woman's body to determine when she is fertile. We use the Creighton Model, which has a use effectiveness (not method effectiveness) of 96.8% in your first year of use, and it only continues to become more effective as you become more confident and aware of the signs from your body. Compare that to other types which have a use effectiveness between 91-99%. Condoms? Only 82% effective.

2. There are NO side effects to NFP! Hallelujah! Have you looked at the list of side effects and possible health complications on the information sheet from the pill box? Many women have experienced a lot of those side effects from taking the pill. Thankfully, NFP is completely natural, so I don't have to worry about any of those awful side effects.

3. There are no health risks involved with NFP! Did you know that birth control pills are rated by the CDC as a type 1 carcinogen
(along with tobacco, asbestos, and arsenic)? Women have an increased risk of breast cancer until up to ten years after discontinuing the use of birth control pills. Also, after using the pill for ten years, a woman's risk of cervical cancer is doubled. And we were just learning in one of my classes about how oral contraceptives increase a woman's risk of stroke. You've also all heard the commercials that list death as a possible side effect. That is all scary. Very scary.

Furthermore, unlike men, who are fertile 24/7, women are only able to get pregnant about five days out of their cycle. Why should we women be subjected to medicine that comes with a slew of side effects and health risks, to the point of potentially dying, when our fertility is limited?

Being free from all that? An extremely good feeling!

4. NFP is completely natural, and it takes advantage of a woman's normal body functions, whereas birth control pills, IUDs, the patch, etc. act to stop the normal functioning of the body. With NFP there are no hormones, no devices inserted into your body, and no tricking your body into thinking it's pregnant. Again, why should we use something that messes with our bodies when they are healthy and functioning normally?

5. I feel empowered through using NFP because it is a comprehensive way of monitoring my reproductive health every day. I know SO much more about my body from using NFP. Just from charting my cycles, I know that I potentially have issues with my levels of progesterone which could increase my risk of having a miscarriage when I become pregnant. Having that knowledge is so powerful, and will impact my ability to seek help before or when that happens.

6. NFP gives solutions to women’s reproductive health issues. Unfortunately, many women are prescribed birth control pills to regulate their cycles or deal with other reproductive health issues. While it might eliminate their symptoms, all it is doing is masking the problem, not fixing the underlying cause of the problem. There is a health science called NaPro Technology that looks at a woman's cycles from her NFP charts, and doctors can give solutions to the problems she is facing, rather than just give her medicine that covers up the symptoms. Along with that, if a women develops an issue, say for example ovarian cysts, while she is on birth control, her issues will be covered up and she may not find out about the cysts until there is a significant amount of damage.

7. NFP is environmentally friendly, unlike the pill, which has been causing a lot of issues with the water supply and fish.

8. NFP is either FREE or inexpensive depending on what method you choose to use. With our method, we had an upfront cost, and it was $30 per session with our NFP instructor. We've had about five meetings with her so far, but now that we know the method there is really no need to meet with her, but we area always able to email her with questions. However, if you can’t afford to pay for it, your instructor will work it out with you.

9. NFP can be used to achieve pregnancy, as well as postpone pregnancy. If you decide one month you want to try to get pregnant, you can tell from your chart when you are ovulating and aim for that time to try to conceive. If you decide one month you want to postpone pregnancy and your circumstances change the next month and you want to try to have a baby, you can easily start trying without having to wait for hormonal effects to wear off!

10. Contraception has the ability to abort an unborn child. The pill typically works by tricking your body into thinking it is pregnant. However, if you happen to conceive while on the pill, the pill can act as an abortifacient through thinning the lining of the uterus so that the fertilized egg can't implant. IUD devices also act as abortifacients because they make the lining of the uterus inhospitable to implantation, so that when the egg and sperm join, they cannot implant. Don't believe me? Read the information sheet from Paraguard ("Possible mechanisms...include interference with sperm transport or fertilization, and prevention of implantation.") or the information from Mirena ("There is no single explanation for how Mirena works. Mi
rena may...make the lining of your uterus thin"). Essentially every single type of birth control has the ability to abort your conceived child. If you believe that life begins at conception, you may have a huge issue with this because the life of the conceived child is ended when the fertilized egg cannot implant in the uterus. For me personally, it is so deeply upsetting to think that we could have killed an innocent child through using the pill.

11. I absolutely believe in the church's teaching that unification and procreation should not be separated in the marital act. The church does not say that every act of intercourse should be aimed at trying to get pregnant, but every act should be ordered to procreation (as in barrier free) and open to life.

Furthermore, the church really wants all married couples to have the most fulfilling relationship possible, one that mirrors God's immense love for us. Husbands are called to love their wives as Christ loves the church (Ephesians 5:25). We can see the qualities of Christ's love in this excerpt from Christopher West's Book "Theology of the Body for Beginners:"

"But if "bodily love" is meant to express "the language of 'agape'" (TOB 92:7), we must properly understand this language. Christ's love seems distinguishable by four particular qualities. First, Christ gives his body freely ("No one takes my life from me, I lay it down of my own accord," John 10:18). Second, he gives his body totally - without reservation, condition, or selfish calculation ("He loved them to the last," John 13:1). Third, he gives his body faithfully ("I am with you always," Matthew 28:20). And fourth, he gives his body fruitfully ("I came that they may have life," John 10:10). If men and women are to avoid the pitfalls of counterfeit love, and live their vocation to its full, their union must express the same free, total, faithful, fruitful love that Christ's body expresses" (page 89).

The two of us have become so much more open to life because we talk about our intentions for a family, pray about God's will for us, and try to discern if our reasons are severe enough to wait to have a child (the Catholic Church teaches you should only postpone pregnancy if you have severe reasons, whether financial, physical, psychological, etc.). Using NFP has opened the door to constant communication about God’s will for us and our family because we are both involved in using NFP – I observe during the day, Thomas writes the information in our chart at night, and we both interpret the results together, so we literally talk about it every single day. Our instructor asks us to rate how we would respond if we were pregnant every time we meet with her, and it’s been funny to see how our answers have gradually changed from not very accepting to very accepting. We have come to see children as a precious gift from God that will only change our life circumstances, rather than a burden that will ruin our life circumstances.

The Humane Vitae says, "to experience the gift of married love while respecting the laws of conception is to acknowledge that one is not the master of the sources of life but rather the minister of the design established by the Creator." Using birth control causes us to think that the start of life is completely up to us, but in reality, God is the one who is to determine when a life should begin. He designed our bodies the way they are for a reason, and only He is the author of life.

12. I thought we had a wonderful marriage before we started using NFP, but Thomas and I both agree that our relationship has been a million times better after making the switch. I completely agree with this statement from the Humane Vitae: "Another effect that gives cause for alarm is that a man who grows accustomed to the use of contraceptive methods may forget the reverence due to a woman, and, disregarding her physical and emotional equilibrium, reduce her to being a mere instrument for the satisfaction of his own desires, no longer considering her as his partner whom he should surround with care and affection." Yes, yes, and YES. I really believe that contraception leads to the objectification of your partner (both ways). The more I study the church's teaching on sexuality, and the longer we use NFP, the more I find truth in that statement. I now understand why Pope John Paul II said that the opposite of love is not hate, but use.

We both feel like we are in a more authentic, true, self-giving, loving relationship than we ever have been in the past. I feel so loved, respected, and cherished wholly as a woman by my husband. We have learned how to respect each other more deeply, and the sacrifice of abstinence involved in NFP has have caused us to improve many other aspects of our relationship. We make a constant effort to show our love in more ways than physical. We strive to put the other person first in all that we do because we understand more fully that love is sacrifice.

In Summary:

Through living out the lifestyle of Natural Family Planning, I am able to fully see the beauty in the Catholic Church’s teachings on sexuality (although I'm sure it will solidify even more once we have children). I have heard many women say that the church oppresses women, or that they love the church, but they disagree with the church's beliefs about women's issues. Through using NFP and studying the church's stance on contraception, I have found the complete opposite. I have found that the church deeply, deeply cares about, and wants the best for, women, their health, and their families. The church respects and appreciates the body of a woman the way it was made by God, upholding her dignity and the essence of femininity.

Also, I just want to say that I have become so much closer to God through using NFP. There was a complete surrender to God and His will for my life and our marriage that came with switching to NFP, which has caused me to place my full trust in Him. I truly feel how much He is ALWAYS there for us, surrounding us, and looking out for our best interest as a married couple. We have seen His grace pour down on us in every aspect of our marriage after switching to NFP, and I feel His love more and more every day. NFP has been such a blessing, and we are so grateful that our eyes have been opened to the truth.

Friends, I hope this information was helpful! Please, please, please let me know if you want to talk more about NFP. I'd be more than happy to meet up with you for coffee or dinner, talk on the phone, let you borrow books, etc. Consider this post an invitation! I’d love to share some of the more personal details with you, answer any questions, and share the challenges. I am in no way trying to condemn anyone who does use contraception. I have been there, so I promise there is no judgment from me! I just want you to know that if you're not happy with birth control, or even feel the slightest bit uneasy about taking it, there is a healthier, natural option that is effective in postponing or achieving pregnancy.

Reprinted with permission from Catholic Cookie Jar.  To visit Caitlin's blog, click on

Sunday, January 20, 2013

News and Notes

To help the tech-impaired among us (myself included), I've added a new section called "News and Notes" on the right-hand side of the blog's home page.  This section will include news about the blog itself, like about the blog's logo or about the blog reaching its first 1000 pageviews.  It will also include news about any technical updates or changes.

The first technical update to the blog will be in the way it delivers posts through email and feed reader.  I don't anticipate any problems, but if you notice something in the next week or so, please let me know by leaving your comments on this post or by contacting me at the email address on my complete profile.

1000th Pageview (News and Notes)

Check out this wonderful article run by Lisa Hendey at about how the blog's readership is growing.  Thanks to all of you for making it happen!

New Blog to Support Catholic Marriages Reaches 1,000

By - Posted on

“Married people are looking for help,” said Karee Santos, when asked why she started the new blog Can We Cana? A Community to Support Catholic Marriages in December of last year. Now, it seems, they have a new place to find it.

The Can We Cana? blog celebrated its 1000th pageview in January, 2013, at less than two months old. It has attracted readers from Canada, Bermuda, Spain, Switzerland, and Lebanon, in addition to the United States.

Supporting Catholic marriage is an urgent need, said Mrs. Santos. “Divorce rates are at an all-time high, even among Catholics,” she lamented, “perhaps partly because married people aren’t getting the kind of help they require.” The new blog offers three kinds of assistance – marriage preparation tips in its Pre-Cana Posts, practical advice on marriage and family in its Post-Cana Posts, and invitations to meditation and prayer in its Pray-Cana Posts.

The most popular post so far is The One-Year Itch where Mrs. Santos describes the disillusionment that hits most couples about a year after their marriage. A combination of hot date night and adoration of the Blessed Sacrament got the Santoses past their one-year itch, she stated in the blog.
In its short history, the blog has already expanded its scope dramatically. “I originally envisioned this blog as a place where pre-Cana students and teachers could meet and talk ‘after class,’ so to speak,” Mrs. Santos said, “but the kinds of responses the blog received made me quickly realize that the need for marital support extended far more broadly than that.”

In addition to writing the Can We Cana? blog, Mrs. Santos is also working on a marriage preparation book based on the teachings of Blessed Pope John Paul II. “When my husband and I started teaching pre-Cana at Fr. George Rutler’s parish church in Manhattan, we couldn’t find a book that adequately combined practical advice on a wide variety of topics and rock-solid, in-depth catechesis. So I decided to try my hand at writing one.”

The hardest part about writing on these topics is the amount of raw honesty required, stated Mrs. Santos. “My spiritual director told me once, ‘You have to let people see you struggle.’ And I struggle a lot,” she admitted.

Reprinted from

Fast Diary Day #3 (Pray-Cana Post)

The third Friday of fasting was a little easier than the first two.  Coffee at 7 a.m. and water with a multivitamin helped me last all the way until 11:00 am, when I ate my first light snack -- a small, low-fat blueberry yoghurt.  When the hunger pangs hit, they were more manageable.  The fasting headache never appeared.  Grapefruit juice at 2 p.m., an orange snagged from kids' leftover lunch at 4:30, and fettucine alfredo with broccoli at 7 p.m.  Okay, some of the kids' fishsticks made it down my gullet for dinner, too.  I'm only human.

With my focus less centered on my belly, I started wondering why Christians ever fasted in the first place.  In the famous Bible story of Jesus' temptation in the desert, Jesus fasted 40 days and nights to prepare himself for his public ministry. (Mt 4:2).  But Jesus was not the first person in the Bible to do a forty-day fast.  Moses did it before Jesus -- when God revealed to Moses the Ten Commandments.  In Exodus, it says that when Moses went up to Mt. Sinai, "he was there with the Lord forty days and forty nights: he neither ate bread nor drank water, and he wrote upon the tables the ten words of the covenant." (Ex 35:28).  In the case of Jesus and Moses, fasting prepared them for the work of God.  But how exactly does depriving yourself of food (and water) prepare you for any work, much less the work of God?

For me, the first realization gained through fasting has been greater self-awareness.  Fasting has freed up more time in my day, time I now realize was spent on thinking how to please my own appetite.  As a wife and mother, part of my job is to plan healthy, tasty meals for the family.  But I have been using a surprising amount of mental energy to plan lunch only for myself in the middle of a weekday, or a late-night dessert after the kids go to bed....  Don't get me wrong, fasting hasn't made me opposed to the occasional bowl of ice cream at midnight.  But does quite so much mental space need to be occupied with yearnings for yumminess?

Fasting has also brought me face to face with the weakness of my own body.  Like most middle-class Americans, I am well-fed and well-nourished.  But on the second Friday of fasting, I couldn't wait to eat at the moment I woke up.  Many people here in our country and across the world don't have a choice of whether to fast or not to fast.  They are not taking a voluntary day off in the midst of plenty.  How do they have the strength to handle it?

On the flip side, fasting has taught me that even though my body complains, I don't need to give in to its clamors for attention.  One of my fears, before beginning the fast, was that I would snap at the children all day out of grouchiness.  My children frequently behave badly when they've missed a meal or a snack.  I always tell them, "It's hard to be nice when you're hungry."  There's a difference between children and adults, after all, it seems.  Self-control comes easier to adults.  I haven't snapped at the children more than usual during these Friday fasts.  If anything, I've snapped less.  Awareness of my own weakness has paradoxically given me strength to resist its effects.

I am by no means the first person to discover this.  The Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us that self-knowledge gives us the means to resist temptation (CCC, sec. 2340).  Self-knowledge, in fact, gives us even more.  "Being in the image of God the human individual possesses the dignity of a person, who is not just something, but someone.  He is capable of self-knowledge.....  And he is called by grace to a covenant with his Creator, to offer him a response of faith and love that no other creature can give in his stead" (CCC, sec. 357).  Knowing ourselves is an important step on our way to knowing God.  And that, in part, is how fasting prepares us to do the work of God.

Art from Cloudeight

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

The Source of Suffering (Post-Cana Post)

Last month, my husband and I got into three car accidents in three separate cars, including a rental (don't ask).  Although no one was hurt, I did finally break down and scream repeated obscenities.  But let's keep that between us.  It made a good story to take to the confessional, anyway.

"Somebody's after me!" I complained to my father-in-law.  "No," he disagreed, "someone is protecting you."  "Both!" was my rejoinder.  All this led to an interesting discussion with my online friends about the nature and source of suffering.  Does suffering come from the world, from God, or maybe from our not-so-friendly neighborhood demons?

We all agreed that there is plenty of suffering occurring naturally in this world.  We don't necessarily have to go looking for supernatural causes.  Whereas the Garden of Eden had no natural disasters, hurricanes, tornadoes, and blizzards abound after the Fall. (See Catechism sec. 400).  So, sometimes a car accident is just a car accident.  But what if it isn't?

Sometimes in the Bible, the Devil causes people's suffering, as happened to the Old Testament figure of Job.  In the Book of Job, God allows Satan to take away Job's prosperity, his health, and his family.  Job responds by saying, "the Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away : as it hath pleased the Lord so is it done : blessed is the name of the Lord."  (Jb 1:21).  In the end, "the Lord gave Job twice as much as he had before." (Jb 42:10).

Elsewhere in the Bible, God causes suffering as a correction or punishment.  In the Gospel of St. Luke, for example, Zachary was struck dumb because he disbelieved the angel who announced to him that his elderly and infertile wife, Elizabeth, would finally have a child. (Lk 1:13-20).  Zachary's punishment was lifted when his son was born, and Zachary named him John, according to the Lord's command. (Lk 1:63-64).  Zachary's son, John, became known as John the Baptist, who heralded Jesus as the Messiah. 

So it seems as though the source of suffering could be either the world, God, or the Devil.  How, then, do we know the source of our particular suffering?  And does it even matter?

My online friends and I agreed that our response to suffering matters much more than our ability to pinpoint the source.  Suffering can turn us towards God in our need, or away from God in our pain and disappointment.  Turning towards God, blessing him as Job did and accepting his will as Zachary did, is ultimately the only response that will bring us peace.

No one goes through this life without suffering.  We will suffer, our families will suffer, our children will suffer, our friends will suffer.  We cannot avoid it.  Fr. Stan Fortuna drives this point home in his rap song, "Everybody Got 2 Suffer," which is based in part on Blessed Pope John Paul II's Apostolic Letter Salvifici Dolores.  Yes, that's right, a rap song based on a papal document.  Love it!  (The video's on YouTube, by the way).  The question is not whether we will suffer, but how will we react to it.  Will we say together with Job, "Blessed is the name of the Lord"?

I'm trying to be more like Job, but it's hard.  So, God, bless you for sending us those three car accidents.  I think.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Fast Diary Day #2 (Pray-Cana Post)

My husband is much better at fasting than I am. He actually gained some notoriety among friends and family for his self-developed corn diet, which involved eating only corn on the cob for about a month. "How many ears of corn per day?" "Two." "With butter?" "With butter." (Don't try this at home. My husband is a corn-diet professional.) So, when someone hacked his Facebook account and sent out messages that my husband had lost 10 pounds eating only raspberries, a lot of his friends and family "liked" it.

Given his past history, my husband not surprisingly decided to join me in answering the bishops' call for fasting every Friday during this Year of Faith for the cause of marriage. Unfortunately, this caused a mild marital dilemma. I would prefer to eat my one meal in the middle of the day, neatly bisecting my hours of hunger. But my husband likes to eat his one meal at night. This difference in fasting preferences left me with a vexing choice. I could either wait until evening so we could dine together, or eat my meal earlier and then cook my husband a yummy vegetarian (or pescatarian) dinner and sit there and watch him savor it. I decided to wait to eat dinner together. Score one for marital unity through fasting.

Unfortunately, my first hunger pang started at around 7:15 a.m., a bit earlier than expected. Six pieces of dried apricot took care of that. In mid-morning, apple juice got me through. That fasting headache hit again around lunchtime. One hard-boiled egg to the rescue. Plus, coffee, of course. Only five or six hours to go until dinner.

My kids didn't notice that I was barely eating, even though they had a full breakfast, lunch, mid-afternoon snack, and early dinner before I sat down to eat my first full meal. My kids' attitude reminded me of the rich man in the Bible who "feasted sumptuously every day," while ignoring the beggar who lay at his door. (Lk 16:19-21). Of course, kids don't notice much. But sometimes adults don't notice much either.

In 2011, the U.S. bishops recommended that families fast on the First Friday of every month by eating only as much as one day's worth of food stamps would buy. They hoped that this fast would help people to "walk in solidarity with all those for whom access to adequate, nutritious food is difficult." More broadly, "voluntary fasting from food creates in us a greater openness to God's spirit and deepens our compassion for those who are forced to go without food. ...Fasting should bring to mind the sufferings of all those for whom Christ suffered." (USCCB, Penitential Practices for Today's Catholics, 2000).

Despite my honest desire to suffer in solidarity with the less fortunate, the smell of the seafood-stuffed tilapia that had already been baking in the oven for an hour was rendering me semi-delusional.  When my husband finally came home at 7 p.m., I was already waiting at the table, fork in hand.  After we said grace together, I ate like someone trying to win the famous international hot dog-eating contest, held annually in Coney Island.  Not very elegant.  Goal for next week: more self-control!

Free clip art from

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

When You're Expecting the Unexpected (Post-Cana Post)

My sixth child, Elisa-Maria, gets special treatment.  She is the first two-year-old I have ever parented without also parenting a newborn at the same time.  I'm finding it to be a surprisingly enjoyable experience.  Not being chronically sleep-deprived or prohibited from ingesting caffeine has definitely made Mama happy.  Everything Elisa-Maria does just seems so cute.  "Why do you love her so much?" my other kids ask me suspiciously.  "I've seen the way you look at her," my husband notes in an almost accusatory tone.

Of course, I'm not the only one head over heels in love with this baby.  Every family member takes the opportunity to slip her chocolate at the slightest opportunity.  No wonder she's always smiling.  And she's very helpful.  She helps me unload the dishwasher, claps when my four-year-old goes peepee in the pot, washes her sisters' hair in the bath, and drags fully-laden backpacks to their proper owners when we get ready for school in the morning.  A chorus of "Awww"'s seems to follow her around the house.  "Es allegre," says my mother-in-law, which, in Spanish, means not just "she is happy," or even "she is cheerful."  It means, "she is joyful." 

Another thing that makes Elisa-Maria special is that she was, shall we say, unexpected.  The word unwanted is far too harsh, and the word unplanned makes no sense in our circumstances, since we never "planned" any of our children's births.  The Catholic Church teaches that artificial contraception contravenes God's law because it substitutes our will for his will.  Contraception changes sex from a powerful unitive and generative force into mere entertainment.  Chemical methods, in particular, take a normally functioning fertile human body and render it non-functioning and infertile.  So, my husband and I never used contraception. 

After our fifth child was born, we did try Natural Family Planning (NFP), which required us to abstain from making love during my fertile times.  The Church allows NFP, in part, because NFP works with the body's natural rhythms instead of interfering with or suppressing them.  NFP remains open to God's will and open to life.  A common response to failed contraception is often abortion, said Blessed Pope John Paul II in Evangelium Vitae.  A common response to a mistake in using NFP, on the other hand, is a baby.  In our case, the result was a joyful baby named Elisa-Maria.

At the time, I did not accept my sixth pregnancy with complete happiness.  My simmering anger and resentment started to cause rifts with my husband, who took my reaction quite personally.  The first time I had to put back on my tent-like polka-dotted maternity t-shirt that I had worn through five other pregnancies, I cried bitter tears.  The circumstances of Elisa-Maria's birth verged on frightening.  In the delivery room, the doctor had to cut the umbilical cord, and then the baby's shoulders became stuck.  Crucial seconds ticked by as the doctor maneuvered the baby's wide shoulders out of the tight passageway.  Just when I felt that my energy had totally deserted me, the delivery room crew began shouting, "Push!!"  I firmly believe that the hand of God rescued my baby, because I had no more strength left to give.

Two years later, I can't imagine life without my baby Elisa-Maria, my unexpected little gift from God.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

New Logo for Blog

My husband Manny and daughter Lelia designed a logo for the Can We Cana? blog, since I have no artistic talent whatsoever and couldn't design a stick figure.  Manny first came up with a few different ideas.  One was interlocking marriage rings with the Scriptural quote, "Do whatever he tells you."  Many people would recognize these words as what Our Blessed Mother said to the servants at the wedding of Cana directly before Jesus performed the miracle of turning water into wine. (Jn 2:5)  Anyone who didn't catch the Scriptural reference, however, would probably not react well.  "Yeah," Manny acknowledged, "we wouldn't want people to think it meant to do whatever your husband tells you."  Cue screams of reader outrage.

When we stopped laughing over that one, we turned to the next idea.  Idea #2 was the word H2O with an arrow leading to a bunch of grapes.  Another water into wine reference.  It seemed too chemical and scientific to me, though.  My husband's medical background was definitely showing through.

Idea #3 was the winner -- a pitcher of water being poured over interlocking wedding rings, where the water transformed into wine before falling into a waiting goblet.  This image underscored the idea that, through marriage, the water of our immaturity and selfishness is turned into the wine of life-long love and forever forgiveness, compassion, and self-sacrifice.  Sold!

Then, Manny and Lelia got to work on the final product.  They used pencils from the art set that Lelia had won for selling a gargantuan number of chocolates and wrapping paper for a school fundraiser.  We all agreed that Lelia drew the best water pitcher.  The wedding rings didn't turn out too well freehand, so Manny traced various things until he got the best-looking circle -- my wedding ring, a Spanish coin, even a pacifier.  When Manny and Lelia completed the drawing, I took a picture of it and uploaded it into the computer, since the scanner and the computer were refusing to communicate with one another.

If you like our family project, please comment here and say so!  If you have any original artwork and could donate a digital copy to me for display on the blog, please do so (refer to above comment "I have no artistic talent whatsoever and couldn't design a stick figure").   Let's build a community to support Catholic marriages together!

Friday, January 4, 2013

Fast Diary Day #1 (Pray-Cana Post)

I don't have a very good track record with fasting.  But when the bishops asked us to fast every Friday during this Year of Faith for the sake of marriage, I decided to give it a try.  Fasting isn't in my background, since I grew up Episcopalian.  So, my first Ash Wednesday as a Catholic was a big deal for me.  I decided to eat my one meat-free meal at lunchtime -- salad, since that's a good vegetarian food.  At the salad bar near my office, I cheerfully loaded up on egg salad, tuna salad, shrimp salad, (you can see what's coming, right?) and ... chicken salad.  It wasn't until after all that salad had gone down my gullet that I realized that chicken salad is more meat than salad.  Oh, well.

After getting married, I gave birth to six children in twelve years, so the exemption for pregnant and breast-feeding mothers applied to me pretty much all of the time.  But now, neither pregnant nor breast-feeding, I am ready to fast.  My kids voted on whether I would make it through the day.  The girls voted yes, but my son voted no.  Out of all the kids, my son is the biggest eater, so perhaps his response was natural.

For my first small snack, I grabbed a handful of dry Cheerios, then rushed the kids off to school.  It's said that St. Teresa of Avila could survive for weeks at a time on the Eucharist alone, so my next stop was 9 a.m. Mass.  My second small snack consisted of an extremely tasty apple around lunchtime.  So far, so good.  A little before 3 p.m., my stomach started growling like a wildebeest.  Or like a wildebeest would, if a wildebeest could growl.  It occurred to me that Jesus died on the cross at 3 p.m. after not eating all day.  Thoughts of giving up came and went.  I drank a gingerale to try to fool my system into thinking it was being fed, but sleepiness swept over me anyway before a phone call from a friend jolted me out of it.

At 6 p.m., a headache threatened, but coffee staved it off.  Watching the kids eat their ooey-gooey mozarella-laden pizza, redolent with odors of tomato and oregano, was difficult, but not impossible.
Then, my darling husband arrived to whisk me off to our hot date night complete with fish filets (no chicken) and adoration of the Blessed Sacrament.  The night finished with me secure in the knowledge that I had not let our Lord down.

Preliminary Verdict on Fast Day #1:  Not too bad.  You should try it!

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

When Choices Hurt, Prayer Heals (Pray-Cana Post)

The upcoming anniversary of Roe v. Wade on January 22 puts abortion in the spotlight again.  But rarely do people make the argument that one way to reduce abortion is to support marriage.  Approximately 80 % of abortions are performed on unmarried women, according to U.S. Census statistics.  (  It's not that far of a jump to claim that one benefit of supporting marriage is that fewer women will seek abortion.

Chances are you know someone who has had an abortion, even if they've never told you about it.  Between 1973 and 2008, there were nearly 50 million legal abortions reported in the United States.  At current rates, one in ten American women will have an abortion by age 20; one in four will have an abortion by age 30; and three in ten will have an abortion by age 45.  Catholics are not exempt from these statistics.  Fully 28% of women obtaining abortions have identified themselves as Catholic.  (

It is undeniable that some women who have had abortions later regret their decision.  For this reason, the Church offers many healing ministries for those experiencing regret and sorrow as a result of their choice.  The Priests for Life, in particular, dedicate themselves to helping women and men who have been hurt by abortion.  Fr. Frank Pavone of the Priests for Life wrote the following prayer for those suffering from such a loss.

Prayer for Those Who Have Lost a Child to Abortion
by Fr. Frank Pavone
Lord of all Life,
You have entrusted us to the care of one another,
And called us to be one Body in Christ.
You call us to rejoice with those who rejoice,
And to weep with those who weep.
Hear our prayer today
For our brothers and sisters who have lost children to abortion.
Help us to understand
The pain that is in their hearts,
And to be a living sign to them
Of your welcome, your mercy, and your healing.
Help them to undergo with courage
The process of grief and the journey of healing.
Never allow them to feel alone;
Always refresh them with the presence of Your Spirit
And of their brothers and sisters in Christ.
Console them with the sure hope
That you love and care for their children.
Give them new strength,
That even while they grieve what they have lost,
They may look forward to all the good
That you still have in store for them.
Lord of healing and hope,
Give us all the forgiveness of our sins
And the joy of your salvation.
We ask this in the name of Jesus the Lord.  Amen.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

New Year's Lenten Resolutions (Post-Cana Post)

New Year's resolutions bear a certain resemblance to Lenten resolutions, and, for many of us, they last about as long.  But 40 days of good behavior is better than nothing, so there's no reason to give up trying on that account.

A wise priest once told me that, instead of making one or two big Lenten resolutions, I should pick six or seven small things to do every day.  After choosing these seven things, I realized that they all needed to be done anyway.  Making sure the kids got their vitamins, doing one load of laundry every day so it didn't pile up, fifteen minutes of washing the big pots and pans by hand since they never came out clean from the dishwasher.  These seven tasks turned from Lenten resolutions into year-long goals.  And essentially year-long goals are New Year's resolutions.

So now, every New Year's, I pick one resolution per family member -- for a total of eight. The kids are reaching a lot of milestones this year, so the bulk of my resolutions are to help them reach those milestones.  My eldest daughter has ADD, and the growing demands of  middle school require her to start on a medication regimen.   My son just began fourth grade and realized that to get good grades he can't wing it any more, he actually has to study.  My preschooler needs to learn to read, and my first grader needs to learn to read better.  The two-year-old needs to learn how to talk, which she has deemed unnecessary since usually a pout suffices for her to get whatever she wants.  Oh, and she has to be potty-trained, too.  My middle daughter is very organized and accomplished at school, so she doesn't need help with that.  She told me what she wants from me is more love.  My husband asked me to resolve to make the kids pick up their shoes (six pairs of shoes scattered around the floor is apparently not pleasant for him to come home to). 

As for me, my New Year's resolution is to pray more.  Just looking at what lies ahead for the year intimidates me.  It seems impossible for any human to accomplish.  For this reason, John Paul II told families that they needed to be strong with the strength of God.  That strength comes from prayer.  As the Bible says, I can do all things in him who strengthens me.  I surely can't keep any of my resolutions without his help.