Monday, May 19, 2014

Book Review: The Sinner's Guide to Natural Family Planning

I don’t have a habit of doing book reviews on this blog, although I’m thinking I might start, since there are so many really good books out there, and to recommend a good book to another person is (in my view) one of the great works of mercy anyone can do for another.

The Sinner’s Guide to Natural Family Planning by Simcha Fisher is a very good book indeed. Aimed at the couple who are committed to the Church’s teaching but finding it, as it turns out, to be awfully difficult, Fisher’s book is a thoughtful, witty, poignant exploration of just what this journey of fertility within marriage is, where the struggles and tensions, frustrations and tensions of it can take a couple, and ultimately how the sometimes simplistic ways NFP is taught and promoted in Catholic circles are true, but like anything else worth doing in life, only at great cost and effort.

It is this latter point that is Fisher’s primary target. Too often, in the effort to promote this method of family planning that is little understood or sought, proponents will highlight the pluses of the method to a point of painting an unrealistic picture of it. NFP will make your marriage stronger, and is super easy to use. The monthly abstinence (which is no big deal!) will produce a monthly honeymoon effect. The times of abstinence will foster greater intimacy between husband and wife, and help them learn to communicate well. Couples using NFP have a substantially lower divorce rate. And so on and so forth.

This way of presenting NFP is, to say the least, problematic. There are couples for whom it is all true, and who experience it all just like that, immediately. But for many, it is anything but easy, anything but blissful, and the immediate experience of the method is (frankly) just awful. An overly rosy presentation, in the face of the fairly normal degree of struggle NFP typically entails, can lead couples to conclude that either the method is totally wrong or they themselves are totally wrong.

Fisher’s book is written precisely from and for this experience. Married with nine children (her blog is a good introduction to the woman, her personality, humor, and general style of presentation), she writes, as she says, ‘from the trenches’. The book covers a wide variety of topics in a short space, from how to talk to your doctor who may think you’re nuts to how to talk to your husband who knows you are (as you know he is), to how to talk to your kids about sex.

The meaning of chastity in marriage and the painful journey towards it is well treated, as is the delicate subject of discernment around the choice to have another child. The judmentalism that can sometimes pervade NFP circles is squarely and forthrightly condemned, and the overall theme of the book is the need for mercy, humility, gentleness, sympathy, and kindness to surround everything to do with sex, babies, marriage, and fertility in our hurting world. All written with much humor and poignancy.

I recommend this book highly, especially for younger married couples themselves in the trenches, but really for anyone who wishes to deepen their understanding of the vocation of marriage, its dignity and sublime meaning lived out in the nitty gritty of daily life and toil.

Here is a small excerpt, to give a taste of Fisher’s prose:

“You’re not going to get away from the Cross. This is true whether you’re male or female or single or married or deployed or divorced or gay or impotent or several of the above. There is no way of arranging your life so that you will be free of suffering.

“Sometimes, things don’t turn out the way we like. Being an adult in the faith means desiring the good of other people more than your own satisfaction—even if they themselves don’t want that good for themselves. It can be helpful to realize that it’s a conscious choice to embrace the Cross. After all, a woman can easily go on birth control, with or without her husband’s knowledge.

“A man can get a vasectomy without his wife’s approval. Anyone can turn to porn or online flirtations for relief. Couples can masturbate, mutually or alone, so that you get at least some fun out of those days of peak fertility. You have chosen not to… recognize that it’s a choice, and own it.

“Here’s the thing: God doesn’t give us crosses because he wants us to be unhappy. He doesn’t say, “Carry your cross and shut your mouth.” He says, “Shoulder my yoke and learn from me.”

“Suffering, but also learning. What we learn from the Cross of NFP is how to give ourselves to each other, and how to give ourselves, as a couple, to God. At a wedding, this looks lovely: the groom and bride in black and white, a pair of golden rings, each speaking in turn, both being toasted by a happy crowd.

“In everyday life, giving yourself over to each other sometimes means giving over your body, or giving over your desires in favor of your spouse’s desires. It also means giving up your ideas of what your spouse wants. It might mean giving up your idea of what sex is for, or what love is for. It might mean giving up your idea of what you’re actually working toward, when you work on improving your sex life.

“Most of the time, giving these things up in no loss. Most of the time, they are replaced by something more solid—and often, by something more joyful. But sometimes, a sacrifice just plain hurts. That’s what makes it a sacrifice. But even then, it is not for nothing. How could it be, when any pain can be united to Christ…

“Mother Church never sends us away empty when we follow her commandments. But like any good mother, she doesn’t give her children everything they want—and this is true for men and for women. We all want to be satisfied. But sometimes what we crave is not what we need.