I’m not the type The Sinner’s Guide to Natural Family Planningwas written for. I mean, I’m a sinner, but I don’t hate NFP. I’ve never struggled with it or resented it. Jules and I had so much happy exposure to Dietrich von Hildebrand and John Paul II before we got married that we were never even tempted to use artificial contraception. We saw too clearly that it’s a destroyer of life and love.
We did fall under the influence of Providentialism for a little while. But it wasn’t long before we detected its error. It isn’t the teaching of the Church; it’s a rigorist “adding to the law.” The actual law is much more merciful and sympathetic to the real challenges and stresses of family life in the modern world. So, my main attitude toward NFP throughout marriage has been one of immense admiration and gratitude for the gift. Which isn’t to say there aren’t moments—of course there are—when having to stick with it is frustrating. But that’s true of everything worthwhile, isn’t it?
I don’t think of myself as one of those “sunshine and buttercups” NFP boosters either. I’ve defended it in the public arena against Providentialist aggression, but I don’t gush over it. I’ve never taught it—because I can’t bear to discuss my sex life at all with strangers (it’s hard enough to discuss it with my husband) and I can’t bring myself to say “mucus” out loud in mixed company. But I have generally taken it for granted that couples who use it must love it as I do—love the awareness it brings of the mysterious workings of the female body, love the transcendence over selfish desire that it inculcates in both spouses, love the sense of freedom and responsibility that goes with the conscious stewardship of the procreative power of our union. I love that I regularly experience my husband denying himself out of loving concern for me and our family. I love that I’ve been married nearly 25 years and I still am given to feel month by month a kind of impatience of ardor, and the goodness of delayed desire finally fulfilled. I love that I remember exactly where and when each of my five children was conceived…
Whenever I think about NFP I feel like I so often feel when enjoying a great meal, or a piece of chocolate, or a glass of wine. “God didn’t have to do this! He could have made us to eat grass. He could have had it so that we don’t eat at all. Instead, He spreads out this fabulous, endless array of deliciousness for us to enjoy day by day.” God didn’t have to design the female body with detectable rhythms of fertility and infertility. He didn’t have to make it so that the same act that engenders new persons draws the spouses to each other in love and desire, transporting them with pleasure, filling them with consolation, and deepening their union, whether or not a child is conceived. But He did, praise Him. “Behold what manner of love the Father has given unto us!”
Maybe that is a little sunshiny buttercups. But anyway, it’s my experience.
Until I read this book, I honestly didn’t know that there were so many couples out there who really struggle with NFP. I knew it calls for some discipline, which of course nobody loves. I knew that you can get confused about where you are in your cycle—especially when you’re nursing a baby or a toddler—and end up with an unexpected pregnancy. Or, you can just cave in to the want of the moment against your better judgment. But that’s just life, right? “Failure” happens with contraception too. And if a baby comes in spite of your intention to postpone pregnancy, well, the general life-affirming attitude of NFP makes it easy to remind yourself that God will provide, and you’ll never regret it afterwards. (Also, it helps to get you more serious about that discipline part the next time around.)
I didn't know that for some couples, NFP can be a serious hardship and a strain on the marriage. I hadn't noticed that for those people, the NFP happy talk can be depressing and aggravating—a stumbling block, not a help.
Simcha has opened my eyes to human suffering going on all around me that I had been totally oblivious to. It’s good to be healed of obtuseness. It opens us to Truth and to others in a new way, at a new depth.
Her book has changed my understanding of the Faith the way it works in the world, and the way we ought to be communicating it. It has helped cause in me exactly the shift I think Pope Francis is calling for on the part of the Church as a whole. If we want the world to hear our message of hope, it’s important that we don't offer it like self-appointed and self-satisfied instructors explaining what others need to do to be more like us. We have to present ourselves as fellow sinners who understand and sympathize with the miseries of being human, because that’s us.
The Sinner's Guide to NFP is funny and warm, utterly human, and completely down to earth, without being too crude. If you struggle with NFP, get it so you know you're not alone and can be encouraged. If you don't struggle with NFP, because it's easy for you, or because you're a priest maybe, get it to get real.