One of the difficult things about being Catholic is figuring out “God’s Plan” for your life. What does He want you to do? How do you know? What happens if you don’t follow His plan? How does our free will mesh with the idea that there is a God out there who already knows what’s going to happen to us, but still also presumably wants us to do certain things and not others?
I am not going to try to answer all of those questions in this post, mostly because I don’t want to (perhaps I will give it a shot in a later post). What I do want to tell you about is how my plans for life were killed by the Virgin Mary, and how that led to the creation of my beautiful baby girl.
The story of my romantic life is an interesting one, mostly because people are interested in hearing about how others fail. I failed a lot with girls. I had no girlfriends in high school; as a matter of fact, I’ve only dated three girls ever, all within one year, and the third ended up being my wife.
But I wanted her to be the first.
I asked out the woman who is now my wife six times over three years. She shot me down every time. Why? She doesn’t know. I sure as hell didn’t know. She just knew that it wasn’t right, that we weren’t ready, that the timing was off. After finally giving up on ever being able to date her, I started discerning whether I was called to the priesthood. Almost immediately after beginning that discernment, I started hanging out with a young lady whom I really liked, and we eventually dated. I broke up with her shortly after, not because there was anything wrong with the relationship, but because there was something not right inside of me. I thought it was the fact that I hadn’t discerned the priesthood long enough to be at peace with that decision. I told her that. I don’t think she believed me. Cest la vie. Several months later, with discernment still cloudy to me, I started dating another girl that I really liked. After a couple of months, I broke up with her; again, something was unsettled in my heart. Again, I thought it was a need to discern the priesthood. Again, I don’t think she believed me when I told her that’s why I needed to end the relationship. I’m quite the charmer.
It wasn’t until I finally decided that I wanted to be a priest that I was really ready to start dating.
When I told the woman who is now my wife that I was planning on either entering the seminary or joining St. Benedict’s Abbey after graduating college, it opened up a whole new depth to our friendship that was not there before. Our talks were longer, and they were now about the important things in our hearts, like the future and faith and the difficulties we were going through. We started really seeing the other person in their entirety, and finally she was seeing how well we could complement each other. I think this is because I had let go of my plans. I was no longer trying to figure it out. I had told God that I was His, and He could do with me what He wanted. I was no longer grasping at what I wanted His plan to be, but I was open to what He wanted to give me. She could sense that, and whatever it was that was keeping her back from dating me before (the Holy Spirit, perhaps?) was now telling her this was right. It was time.
Our dating relationship had its ups and downs, to be certain; we had a lot of growing and even more growing up to do. But as we went down the road of our lives, we learned to start thinking about the other rather than ourselves. We got married, and it was after our wedding that I knew with 100% certainty that I was where God wanted me to be. It felt so natural, like what I should have been doing all along, like I was finally home in my own skin.
And then came the question of kids.
We decided together before we got married to use Natural Family Planning to determine, with God’s will always in mind, when we would have children. We planned on waiting about two years before trying: we were both beginning Master’s programs, and we thought it would be best financially and personally to have the degrees finished before bringing children into our family.
God had a little chuckle at that.
After being married a little over a year, I was a bit unsettled. I felt my prayer life to be stagnant, felt like there were still some parts of my selfishness that I wouldn’t let go of, like there was a part of me I was holding back. I was also concerned that my wife and I hadn’t done a whole lot of praying together since we had gotten married and was anxious to find some sort of jumpstart for our prayer life. I talked to a good friend about this, and he suggesting doing St. Louis de Montfort’s “Preparation for Consecration to Mary”. I confessed that Mary had never really had much of a place in my prayer life. I was very aware of the Protestant objections of Catholics treating Mary like another god, and while I understood that we were praying through Mary to Christ, rather than praying to Mary as a god, I was still hesitant. My friend shared the story of her role in his life, of how present her hand was in most of the major moments of his story, and of how well Christ had cared for him through Mary’s maternal love. He even went so far as to say, “If you do decide to pray the consecration, just be aware that Mary will almost certainly make big things happen in your life.” I was moved. I decided to talk to my wife about it and give it a try.
I did happen to forget to mention what he said about big things happening.
The “Preparation for Consecration to Mary” book consists of prayers and readings to be read daily for thirty-three days, with the actual consecrating of your life to be done on the thirty-fourth day. The book is broken up into four sections: The Spirit of the World, Knowledge of Self, Knowledge of Mary, and Knowledge of Jesus. We began going through the book together every night before bed, reading and praying nightly. After almost two weeks of this (13 days to be exact), we went to visit that same friend who had introduced us to the prayer.
Earlier that day, we had done some quick math and realized that my wife’s period was late. We mostly dismissed it, thinking that there was only one time we had fudged on our NFP plan (happy birthday to me!), and certainly that couldn’t have done the trick. After hanging out with my friend and his family, sitting on the porch, talking and laughing and drinking beer in the cool of the summer evening, we stopped at CVS and picked up a pregnancy test. Upon arriving home, my wife went to pee on the stick and I went to shame-eat the leftovers from dinner that night. Before I could even get a mouthful of food, she came upstairs, pale and wide-eyed.
We were pregnant.
Now, there were a lot of emotions that night. I was shouting, running circles around the house shirtless and jumping up and down. My wife was oscillating between crying and laughing and staring into space. It was a very confusing night. But when we had time to settle down and quiet our hearts, we realized several things.
1) We had gotten pregnant the night before we started the consecration.
2) We found out we were pregnant the day we finished the first part of the consecration, which was all about ridding yourself of “the spirit of the world”, forgetting about your plans and desires and trusting God to care for you.
That night, a veil was removed. For so long I had treated God as an intellectual problem to be solved, as a fascinating theory that provided direction for my life. That night I came to realize that He is so much more than that. He is personal, invested in my life, ensuring that the things I ask for, the deepest prayers of my heart, would be answered. He was immediate, tangible, unshakeable. He was real.
I don’t believe God swooped down on a cloud and made sure the sperm fertilized the egg that night. But I do believe He spoke to me through my friend, that His Spirit was stirring my soul to ask the right questions, that He was active in my heart so that I would be active in finding His. Perhaps He didn’t make us get pregnant in a physical sense, but I know that He prepared our hearts to be ready for it. Not ready in the sense of having all of our ducks in a row and all the plans laid out; ready in the sense of prepared to engage in this process and change with joy.
Joy. That is the real difference between so many people’s lives and the lives of good Christians. A lot of people have great jobs. A lot of people have wives and children. But so many people have lost the joy in their hearts, the deep spring of constant rhythm and pulse that feels always ready to overflow. He gave me that. He gave my heart what it needed to be ready for the beautiful consequences of the choices He knew I would make. And He chose to use His Mother to accomplish this.
So many people, and even Catholics, dismiss miracles. They demand a scientific explanation for the parting of the Red Sea; they scoff at transubstantiation; they mock those who believe in the supernatural actions of the saints. My God isn’t so gross as that, they say; my God is not the gods of the Greeks and Romans, walking about and making the thunder roll and the lightning strike; my God isn’t some man sitting in the clouds with harps and butterflies.
The Catholic faith is essentially based on one idea: “For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, so that whoever believes in Him might not perish but might have eternal life.” We believe the Infinite God became a man. I’m not sure how much more directly involved God could get in this world. And if He would dare deign to do such a brash and unabashedly risky move, why wouldn’t He move my heart if I wanted Him to? Why wouldn’t He change my life if I asked? Why wouldn’t He make the supernatural appear to our eyes?
We don’t want Him to be that kind of God, because then it gets messy. It gets real. But we, as Catholics, are a people devoted to the messy and real. Our masses have all the mystical humanity of an ancient pagan service: wine and fire and water and wood. We are a gritty faith. We believe, without shame, that our God is present, that we can taste Him on our lips and drink Him in like wine. And we believe, deeply, that He does all of this with our cooperation. That He acts through His priests, through His saints, through my friend. That He acts through Mary, to whom He refuses nothing (‘Woman, why do you involve me; it is not my time’…’Do as He tells you’). Until we realize the immediacy of our belief, we will be missing our God. Perhaps it is His very omnipresence that makes Him so easy to ignore; how many of us think about the air we breathe all day? But regardless of why we look past Him, we must learn to refocus; we must learn to breathe Him in; we must learn to trust those that He has trusted, His Mother and His saints and His holy men and women, and then we will learn what wholeness He has to replace our brokenness.
What better person to care for my family than the Mother of the Holy Family? What better confidant for the mother of my children than the Mother of The Child? How glorious her hand has been in ending the plans that I had, clearing the littered field of my weedy heart so that her Son’s plans could be given life. Why do I try to discern God’s plan in my life? Because it has always, always, ended up so much better than the plans I have for myself. Their death always makes way for a better life.