***Updated*** Other awesome retreat recaps are now linked at the bottom of this post.
There are moments in life when you have an opportunity to just stop and breathe and take in the bigger picture. To leave things with God. And to just be. This past weekend was a good example of all of those things. Granted, those moments don't usually offer you the chance to physically sit with Jesus and His Grandparents, but...this weekend amazingly did.
I attended a retreat this past weekend that was entirely dedicated to ministering to married Catholics experiencing infertility. It was an absolutely transformative experience. Most of that I attribute to the Holy Spirit, but I would be remiss if I didn't also credit the retreat's unique and human parentage. Thank you, Rebecca and Clif.
Over the past year and a half, life has taken more than a few unexpected turns. The result of that for me has been a very shaken faith, an illness-ravaged body, a destroyed sense of peace, and a very fragile psyche.... you know.... if we're being honest about this. The struggles of IF took an already introverted girl and turned her into a silent, broken, and completely interior-focused anti-social hermit with the occasional faceless online-interaction.
That's exactly where God had to meet me this past weekend. At the bottom of my broken-hearted pit of solitude and silence. And He did. Of course He did. My God is an awesome God and he already knew the directions to that mountaintop retreat before I started the ignition to drive there.
We met at a pastoral retreat center, where we were greeted by a wonderful
and humble group of people who selflessly hosted us, prepared a place for us to temporarily nest into, and cared for our physical needs. They made themselves scarce when emotions ran high and we needed privacy. They made
themselves present and accessible when we needed assistance. They prepared our meals with
dedication and deference to all of our individual allergies and sensitivities....and
as you can imagine with a group of infertile women and men... that was
not at all an easy or succinct task! We were loved in tangible ways this
weekend by each member of that pastoral center. And I find myself
deeply grateful to the Diocese that was responsible for supporting the
retreat and the location that hosted it. Making those kinds of resources
available to your flock... there just aren't even words to express how
important and necessary and fruitful that kind of ministry is. We have to praise it loudly when we find such grace and love bestowed on us, don't we? Here, here, Catholic shepherds.
There were about 30 people that gathered this past weekend to discuss and pray about topics related to spiritual parenthood, adoption, loss, all forms of infertility, and the path forward. Our time together began and ended with prayer. Three priests and a deacon devoted their clerical time, resources, gifts, and effort to the retreat this weekend and offered important spiritual guidance to all those in attendance.
We were given opportunities to adore and receive God. We were provided with unique moments to venerate a relic of Jesus' maternal grandparents and ask for their intercession with our Lord during these times of struggle and infertile desolation. Our spiritual needs were understood, acknowledged, heard, nurtured, and ministered to generously. It was balm for weary souls to have this kind of presence and interaction. Where there was hurt, we found refuge. Where there was pain, we found peace. We found a lot more than we bargained for - I think we can all agree about that!
Conversations that are difficult with priests just became not difficult. Confessions about the pains and sins associated with infertility were not just encouraged - there was time and space for it. There was spiritual direction that led us all to that well of forgiveness. There were clerics that heard our need, listened, and provided guidance that mattered. There were moments of deep reflection and healing penance. And there was a real sense that God was guiding these holy men in a unique way - just as the infertile were being supported in another way. It was a breathtaking and awe-inspiring few days to behold and I (personally) have never witnessed or been a part of anything like it. It was a truly special time for me and I left the refuge of that tiny mountain retreat with a renewed appreciation for the importance that was placed on my spiritual illness and needs by those priests and that deacon. Amen and Hallelujah.
As if what I've already recounted wasn't enough - the retreat was altogether better than I can really articulate. Perhaps I'm completely incapable of capturing the true essence or brilliance of the entire experience, so I am just picking it apart in a few different ways to capture some of the more salient aspects so that I can hold onto it all a little longer. That said, I'm also a slow processor. You could say I'm still running Windows 95 upstairs when it comes to how fast I process emotion...so don't expect me to have this all sorted out before Valentine's Day! Until then, maybe (just maybe) I will be able to express how important this specific aspect of the retreat was to me.
We were provided with infertile peers who ministered directly to our hearts by sharing their own experiences with the struggles we also faced. In a poetic way, it was the Christmas Carol of Infertility presented to us. Like a portal into a dark Dickensian view of the ghosts of infertility past, present, and future, they were all in front of us, living and breathing the testimony of childlessness and the different paths of life that can be taken to find fruitfulness in marriage through a variety of vocations. Yes, you can let infertility crush you. You can let the rage destroy you. There are other ways though - and we heard very concrete ideas and strategies to find those paths.
We listened to a couple with 44 years of marriage and infertility speak through tears about their experience. The ache they felt was real and present, no matter how many years in the past their fertile dreams may have seemed to others externally. We ached with them and their past endometriosis diagnosis and the full hysterectomy that followed it. We saw our future selves in them. And yet, we also saw a bold marriage that dared to be fruitful in so many relevant and beautiful ways. It was not defined by infertility, but by great love.
We listened to a couple who had never once spoken publicly about their fertility struggles. In fact, no one might have ever known about their situation if they had not shared it. On the surface, they would have just looked like a family in the pew at church. In reality though, the beginning of their marriage was defined by their infertility. They had sought NaPro treatment from Hil.gers back in the early 90's and they overcame their infertility to welcome two sons into the world. And yet somehow, the scars of infertility remained after their childlessness had been conquered. That was really hard to see and hear. Their tears were raw and fresh as if the pains from the beginning of their marriage were still in front of them. Their past burden felt like our current burden. Their hopes for a large family had been dashed and the sadness that caused them - even to present day - was palpable.
We listened to a couple who experienced male factor infertility and the deeply intimate and personal struggles that came with it. We attentively listened as a wife described what she called toxic rage at their situation with infertility and how robbed she felt of the family she craved so much. And we saw the still-fresh tears that her husband wiped from the corners of his eyes as she shared their dark truths and past with us. Maybe I've never heard a more compelling or raw or honest story about the circumstances surrounding infertility. Whatever it was about their situation - it spoke to me. I was deeply touched by it. I was sad to identify with anything I was hearing, but my whole body was silently screaming YES - THEY GET IT! THIS IS WHAT IT'S LIKE! And yet even that couple had so much radiantly blinding hope to share with us.
From the darkness of their profound loss - in the form of so many miscarriages and even a full term baby girl who was labored and birthed and died within 10 hours of taking her first breath, we learned about this couple's experience with Theology of the Body, snowflake adoption, the ethical Catholic discernment process they followed, and the adoptions that grew their family with Earthly children after that. We heard a husband express such deep affection and beautiful love for his wife as she bore her heart and soul to us. We saw them comfort each other as the emotion of all their pain was suspended tensely in the air around us. We witnessed the love of Christ's healing in the witness and testimony they shared. And more than one of us grabbed for tissues in the process.
We also listened as a woman shared her experience with infertility that ended before all medical options had been exhausted. We had heard nearly the whole gamut of medical treatment in the panel before us - and somehow there was something unique left to consider. I found myself thinking: how in the world did they find this variety of experience to minister to us? Someone's true heart could truly be seen in all of the preparation before us. This last woman speaking to us seemed to have an intuition (in hindsight) for what she could handle when it came to infertility and she trusted in what God would provide for when it came to growing her family. If it was part of His plan, then it would happen. Ultimately, she chose international adoption to grow her family. It could easily be argued that international adoption chose her though. She shared profoundly moving stories about the birth mothers to her children. She cried tears of sympathy for the loss her sons had experienced at the beginning of their lives. And she instilled hope in us that if we were called to consider international adoption....that God would indeed provide for it. We just had to trust in His ability to do so.
Even our fearless leader and organizer of the retreat gave a very
stirring concluding presentation about all of the confusing dichotomies of the
infertility landscape. Hope begets grief and vice versa - yet they also
coexist simultaneously; dreams and reality are at odds and yet bound
together; the unitive and procreative aspects of your marriage don't
depend on tangible physical realities and yet they do. It's a
seesaw and a swinging pendulum at the same time. We are called to
believe in a God that can transcend all obstacles and to simultaneously (and blindly) keep faith while our dreams seem dashed and our own obstacles seem to remain.
In my mind, there is no more powerful leader than an empathic one. These amazing people showed us their hearts and bared their infertile souls to us. They dug up old wounds and pain. They allowed their masks to come off. And because of it, we all somehow found the courage to do the same. Maybe even more amazing was that the panelists opened themselves up to us for questions. Have you ever shared the most intensely personal and painful thing that's ever happened to you...in a group setting...and then opened yourself up to questions about it? Dear-goodness-the-courage-that-must-take!
A retreat is only as good as what people put into it. You could easily be physically present and yet still withhold your heart. That's not how this past weekend was lived though. The success of our healing relied on our ability to be emotionally present - to be spiritually open to the pain and to be cleansed by it - to allow ourselves to physically and freely feel what came with this openness. And we each (in our own way) found the ability to do that. Some did it in the True Presence of Our Lord in silence. Some did it in group settings where we shared glimpses into our lives and our experiences with the anguish of infertility. Some did it in sacramental confession with humble and sympathetic priests. And some did it in compassionate fellowship with each other in social situations throughout the weekend.
It was an awe-inspiring thing to witness the different ways that people began to tackle their grief. We began leaving our pain at Christ's feet little by little. And eventually, despite the intensity and seriousness and gravity of it all... even joy was found to dwell among us. Laughter crept in - like the fog of Carl Sandburg's little cat feet - on silent haunches. It was an elixir for heavy hearts. In the quiet understanding of our shared struggles, we slowly gave ourselves permission to experience joy. We leaned on the trust that we built with each other and with the experience we were sharing.
Vale of Tears
Mourning and weeping in this vale of tears, indeed. Yes, I was that girl this weekend. I don't know *how* I was that girl. But I was. I challenged myself to make the effort to mourn the things that ache so badly and to try and find the courage to connect with others...no matter what form that took.
All I really wanted to do was cower in my room and hibernate through the experience. Emotionally, I wanted to get credit for grief already felt. Physically, I wanted my gold star for attendance. But actually going through the motions to mourn my infertility? To actually talk to God about this topic that has completely consumed and immobilized and crushed me...and come up with anything constructive in the process? That's not something I really felt capable of doing (or doing "well"?) Attendance was all I thought I had to offer - just an addition to the head count. How wrong I was.
I could write about the moment when grief sneakily consumed me in a giant seated circle of women and I found myself uncontrollably sobbing amongst infertile strangers about how the past two years have been spent collecting diagnoses and playing the role of death trap to children....but I'm not going to do that. I left that with God in the mountains and I want it to stay with Him. I can't carry that one anymore.
I could also write about all the gut-wrenching stories that I learned from my peers...or the recognizable pain I saw in their eyes, but those aren't my stories to tell.
Instead, I think it's pretty incredible that once the valley of tears filled completely up and the newly formed ocean ebbed with salty tides - we did what all humans eventually do: we floated. Laughter and joy and moments of silliness pervaded the loneliness and suffering and distress. Slap-happy ice breakers that people enthusiastically entered into set the tone for the interactions that defined our time together more than anything else. We weren't clinging to some unfindable hope.... we were welcoming the unscripted joy and hope that somehow surrounded us. I gave myself permission to be silly. And light. And to share in joking with others. And it was rewarded ten fold. My heart smiled for the first time in a longgggg while. Not the kind of smile that was painted on out of necessity or that came with a time limit - a real, honest-to-goodness smile that just happened on its own. It wasn't hiding anger or pain.
I'm grateful that people made it easy to interact, and in turn, I was able to keep my promise and challenge to myself. They respected my situation, my story, and my suffering. They thanked me for my effort and my courage to be present.
In addition to that, I met people that I've been interacting with online for almost a whole year now. We hugged. We shared mealtime conversations. We chatted the nights away.
It was a welcome change in my path on this journey. We're not alone in our infertility. Our marriages may be burdened, but they are not fruitless. We may not have answers, but we have faith. And at the end of the day, I believe in a God that is so much greater than any of my plans for my own life. I am His and He is mine. And that's where I left things in the mountains this weekend. The Lord humbled me and He exalts my struggle into something more beautiful than I can imagine when I let Him.
Some of the brilliant retreat attendees that I was privileged to meet and spend time with have written some wonderful things about their experience. They wrote about completely different details from the weekend than I have here - and I find myself so grateful that it's all been captured in the little time capsule of blogging so I can revisit it again. Linking to a few of them here (but feel free to throw your own retreat link in the comments if I've missed any!!):
Mrs. Ecce Fiat
Mr. Ecce Fiat