Jennifer Fulwiler is a writer and speaker who converted to Catholicism after a life of atheism. She’s a contributor to the books The Church and New Media and Atheist to Catholic: 11 Stories of Conversion, and is writing a book based on her personal blog, ConversionDiary.com. She and her husband live in Austin, TX with their five young children, and were featured in the nationally televised reality show Minor Revisions. You can follow her on Twitter at @conversiondiary.
It's been an interesting year here at the Fulwiler household (and by "interesting" I mean "absolutely insane, mostly in a bad way"). First, I was diagnosed with pulmonary embolism (blood clots) in both lungs while I was 24 weeks pregnant, which left me hospitalized for the better part of a week and extremely tired and short of breath for the rest of the pregnancy. Then, as the baby's due date approached, I was back in the hospital to have a filter put in a major vein to prevent any clots that might form during labor from traveling to my lungs and heart; to everyone's frustration, especially mine, the doctor realized midway through the procedure that it wouldn't be possible, so it was all for naught. The labor was difficult, in part because I had a heparin drip and a bunch of other blood thinning craziness going on and, long story short, I had to have more than 10 blood draws from the same arm over a 12-hour period. Then, after five healthy babies, our sixth child was born with tears in both lungs, and had to be transported immediately to a Level III Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at a different hospital only hours after he was born. He had tubes in his chest that meant that nobody could pick him up for a week. He stayed in the NICU for almost two weeks, and just came home late Thursday night.
Like I said: Interesting year.
Now that we've had a few days to settle in with the new baby, I've finally had some moments to reflect on the whole situation. When I began examining what I've learned in the past few months, part of me expected to have a thunder-and-lightning moment of realizing that my old priorities were entirely askew -- after all, there's nothing like going through a life-threatening medical situation, then having a child go through one, to see your life through fresh eyes. I did indeed find that I now have a fresh perspective as a result of our tumultuous year; however, to my surprise, a drastic reordering of my priorities was not part of it. I didn't have any moments of saying to myself, "Boy, those things I was worrying about six months ago sure don't matter now!" At first I thought that this was perhaps due to insurmountable spiritual immaturity combined with deep denial on my part. Maybe that's part of it but, the more I think about it, the more I think that I already had a pretty healthy outlook on life, and have ever since I converted to Catholicism.
I started this week full of inspiration to shake up my life and Focus on What Really Matters!, yet when I actually took some time to take stock of how things have been going in recent years, to my pleasant surprise I found that I pretty much have been focusing on what really matters. Certainly, very little credit is due to my own wisdom or fortitude: I have 26 years of evidence to show that, left to my own devices, I am more than happy to waste my life in the futile pursuit of seeking happiness in the things of this world. If I've been living a well-ordered life in recent years, it's only because I've been living a Catholic life.
It's amazing, in fact, to see how naturally your priorities fall into proper order when you make even a basic effort to follow the ancient teachings and traditions of the Church. Every single Mass reminds you of the gravity of the crucifixion, and the cycle of readings ensures that you'll hear all parts of the Bible, even the ones with hard teachings that we might want to overlook. Even a passing effort to observe the liturgical year gives you frequent opportunities to take stock of your life: Advent leads you to ask if your heart is truly prepared to receive the Lord; various saints' feast days show you what a life devoted to Christ really looks like; and observing Lent gives you forty long days to do some hard thinking about all the things you put before God.
Most impactful of all, at least in my experience, is forgoing the false sense of security that comes with contraception in favor of Natural Family Planning and openness to life. Natural methods of child spacing require that couples evaluate their feelings about having another child on a month-to-month rather than long-term basis, and the sacrifices involved require that they regularly act selflessly for a greater good. This system naturally leads you to a more family-centric frame of mind, and the short-term nature of your childspacing decisions means that you're incentivized not to make long-term life choices that would take your focus off of your family, since you may need to care for new life at some point in the future.
Until now, I had never realized just how drastically my outlook on everything had changed since my conversion, and how easily and naturally it had happened once I made even the simplest efforts to live according to my faith. It's only been in these past few days -- when I set out to live the rest of my life focused on what's truly important, only to realize that I pretty much already was focused on what's truly important -- that I've come to appreciate just how much the Catholic life is an inherently well-ordered life.