21 He looked up and saw rich people putting their gifts into the treasury; 2 he also saw a poor widow put in two small copper coins. 3 He said, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them; 4 for all of them have contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in all she had to live on.”
This wonderful piece of scripture illustrated perfectly how I teach people how to fast. Often people approach fasting as a rule bound endurance test in which discipline reigns supreme and we all feel awful and end up just hating fasting – or simply give up.
The way I approach fasting is to encourage people to give up just 1 cup of coffee in the morning, but to do it out of pure love for God, in conjunction with a short prayer. You see, fasting is all about love. It is about how much we are willing to give. How much we are willing to joyfully suffer is the measure of our love (God never enjoys a grumpy faster! 😀 ).
Love and suffering go hand in hand and can never be separated. This is such a fundamental truth of Christianity, illustrated perfectly by Christ on the cross, that it can very quickly become overwhelming. My approach is very much based on the spirituality of St Therese of Lisieux: little things done with great love. If we can understand the concept of the indissolubility of love and suffering in the smallest thing, then we can begin to apply it to bigger things in our lives.
The absolute key element is that we must be very honest with ourselves about how much we are able to give at this point in our lives. If we are holding back, then we are holding back our love and we will never grow closer to God. If we are giving too much, then we are going to burnout and become resentful about giving any more. Both of these polarised stances are as harmful as each other. Balance is the key. Honesty, patience and compassion towards ourselves, and support from a faithful and experienced spiritual director who knows us and how much we can cope with.
The poor widow got this exactly right. She un-begrudgingly gave all she could give, and it was the right amount. Of course we don’t know this woman’s circumstances outside of this story. She may have had family or friends supporting her. She may have been relying entirely on God to provide for her needs. I very much doubt Jesus would have approved so strongly of her generosity if it meant she was going to make herself ill, or cause her not to be able to cope. She realistically gave all she could at that time in her life.
Some of my friends and family know that I fast. They don’t get why! I try explaining but their hearts are just not in the right place to understand about how I want to reciprocate the enormous love shown to me by Jesus on the Cross, with little acts of self sacrifice – and I respect that. Everyone is at a different stage. I’m sure they are stronger in other areas where I am very weak.
It struck me this morning that this story, and the way it relates to fasting can also be applied perfectly to the Catholic Churches teaching on married couples being open to life.
Of course the norm in our secular society is to use artificial contraception. We used artificial contraception for the first 5 years of our marriage. But the Church teaches that this way of having sex causes us to hold back our love. Love, in a Catholic marriage is about the entire self giving of ones self to the other – and to God. This is probably one of the hardest teachings we will ever face because it cuts down to the very core of who we are as people and our need to love and to be loved. Also, artificial contraception gives the impression that sex is something that we have the right to control and use as we please. This view is so normalised now within our secular society that being open to life and having a large family is sadly regarded as odd.
What I find so sad is that people using artificial contraception just don’t know what they are missing out on. Having lived both lifestyles, I can absolutely attest to the fact that being open to life is so, so much better. It is healthier, more natural, teaches you and your husband respect for your body and your fertility, empowers you to be able to discuss marriage, sex and babies in a much more open and giving way with God as the boss. But that is not to say that it is easy. It took me about 6 years to get to the stage where I could peacefully and happily be open to life.
Just like with fasting, I was struggling with how much I was willing to give – how much I could give at that point in my life. This is why I say it really is a lifestyle, rather than just a part of ones life. As I prayed about being open to life, I found myself beginning to prioritise different things in my life, giving things up, re-ordering things. I found myself deciding that at this point in my life, remaining open to life was more important to me than having a career. That is not to say that I gave up my job – but only that it now ranked less important on my list of priorities. Of course at this time in our lives my husband had a good job and there was not real need for me to work – so I was in a position to be able to give that up. I was also lucky enough to have a husband who was also keen to be open to life. Many people don’t have this. We were both in good health and had support from my parents. Many people don’t have this either. But most crucially, I wanted to give more – just like I wanted to fast. I was at that stage in my spiritual life where I could feel God calling me to do this.
The rewards that came to the marriage from us both giving more came as a complete surprise to both of us. Rather than “What am I getting out of this marriage?” it changed to “What more can I give to this marriage?”. All 3 of our children were planned. In fact our second and third child were conceived quickly using NFP to determine when I was at peak ovulation. Our first child took over a year because we hadn’t learned about my cycle at that point and obviously didn’t know what the heck we were doing! 😀
But it wasn’t always easy to get into the giving mindset. I don’t have easy pregnancies. I get very sick and very big and very tired. I really do not like being pregnant very much at all. My first experience of birth was very traumatising and I swore blind after that that I could never have another child because I could just never go through that again. The day after our first child was born my Father in law died, and my husband started a new job. We grieved all through our first days of becoming parents. It was awful. My husband was not able to get into the Father role emotionally for over a year. I had to do it on my own.
After my first two children I had crushing post natal depression. After my second I got 9 months of 24/7 tinnitus. We went through the most horrendous time as a couple. I really felt overwhelmed a lot of the time and that I wasn’t really coping or doing a good job as a Mum. I got mastitis after all 3 and couldn’t breastfeed – and I know that if I have another baby I will get it again because that is just how my body is made. And through all these times I struggled agonisingly with being open to life.
We often failed to stick to the teaching, not out of pure selfishness or greed or lust, but out of not being able to cope with the stress and the pressure of normal life, and the need to be loved and comforted by each other. I often felt like a terrible failure at these times – which was the totally wrong outlook. We are only human. Just as in fasting – you can only give your all. Any more than that and you start to make yourself ill, or resentful about giving more. And lets not underestimate for a second the damage that is caused by unchecked resentment in the bedroom, or the rest of the marriage. For some people, even giving up one cup of coffee is a struggle, and you simply cannot ask anymore of them at that stage in their life if they are truly giving their all. We are all at different stages.
IT IS OK TO STRUGGLE! Struggling means that the desire to live the teaching is there, even if you are not quite able to do it yet. My advice to this would be exactly what I would say about fasting: be patient and compassionate with yourself, take it to confession and let it go, and keep going 🙂 What would make it easier for you to be open to life? What would make it possible for you to be able to give more? Have you ever tried the Little Way Of Fasting?
There is one last thing…
The Catholic church teaches that “For just reasons, spouses may wish to space the births of their children. It is their duty to make certain that their desire is not motivated by selfishness” CCC 2368
It is possible to use NFP with an artificial contraception mindset. That is to say that there is no good reason why you should be avoiding having another child right now. Reasons for this would be based upon a couple preferring a smaller family and a more comfortable lifestyle. This totally goes against the philosophy of being open to life and certainly is not giving your all. In terms of fasting this would be like giving up your cup of coffee in the morning, but having a cup of tea instead – you really arn’t giving anything.
Of course that is not to say that people do have very real reasons to avoid pregnancy. The mothers life might be at risk from another pregnancy for example. In my case, my husband is sick and unable to work which has put me in the position of breadwinner. I can honestly say that I am at the limit of what I can give right now. And that’s ok 🙂
It is all about love. How much are we willing to love? How much are we willing to give? Be it fasting or being open to life, the same rule applies: We must never give begrudgingly, and just like the poor widow, God does not expect me to give anymore than my absolute all. We are all a work in progress 🙂
Keep giving! 🙂