Learning from Marriage

The sacrament that just won't quit

When I started to think about getting married some eleven years ago it hardly felt like a natural step. I was thirty years old, and I had been in a steady, reasonably contented relationship for nearly two years. Diana, I don’t hesitate to add, was (and still is!) an intelligent, athletic, and attractive woman. Clearly it was time to make some decisions about our future together. I sensed that if I was ever going to marry this was the time and this was the woman. Still, I was somewhat hesitant to make a commitment. To help me sort things out, I sought out a good friend who had been married for several years. Having exhausted our sports-related "guy talk" over a Wendy’s hamburger, I awkwardly broached the subject.

"Tim, was there any one particular thing that was significant in helping you decide to marry Ellen?"

I immediately felt embarrassed for posing such a personal question in such an abstract way. Yet before I could backtrack, Tim shot back his answer with a confidence that made me wonder whether he had been waiting for me to ask. "She was my salvation," he said simply and emphatically.

At the time, Tim’s response made me even more uncomfortable and I dismissed it. Now, after more than a decade of marriage, I understand what he was trying to say in a way I couldn’t have imagined as a young single man.

I am a theologian, so I will not hesitate to put an explicitly theological spin on what marriage has taught me. In short, I am increasingly convinced that my relationship with my wife, and with our children, is the spiritual "place" where I will work out my salvation. Authentic married life, I think, has a salvific character that is not merely psychological or emotional. As a Christian I believe marriage is a place where I am invited into the dying and rising of Christ. Let me try to explain.

I can recall a period early in our marriage when the salvific nature of marriage impressed itself on me. At the time our twins were only two months old and I was just completing my doctoral studies. Foolishly, I agreed to teach in a summer program at a university some four hundred miles away. We packed up all of the baby paraphernalia, clothes, books, and my computer, piled into our little Toyota, and headed off to live in a dingy building that appeared to have once been an army barrack. Concrete floors, few windows, and broken-down furniture greeted us as we walked into our apartment. I was teaching all day, and preparing for my dissertation defense in the evening. Diana was stuck in the apartment with twin infants and no friends or extended family to support her. I would leave at 7:30 in the morning as Diana sat on the couch with two screaming babies in her arms. I would return at 4:30 p.m., to find Diana in the same predicament, if not in the same spot. I had best not describe the glare she would give me. The evenings were spent in petty bickering as Diana pleaded for some well-deserved "time off," while I complained about needing to prepare for my dissertation defense. The nights were an endless succession of interruptions as each baby needed to be fed at three-hour intervals. Neither of us slept more than four hours a night. Both of us resented the other if only because we dared not resent the children. Marital "intimacy" was the last thing on our minds as each of us fought off exhaustion. Somewhere during those four weeks the thought began to creep into each of our minds that this whole marriage project might have been a horrible mistake. This is not what we bargained for, or what we stayed up until the wee hours fantasizing about in the heady days of our engagement. There, little more than two years into our marriage, we found ourselves staring into the abyss.

We survived that summer, though to this day I am not sure how. There was no great epiphany or profound experience that constituted the clear turning point. Call it the grace of the sacrament if you like, all I know is that we began working harder to voice our resentments and frustrations. The image that comes to my mind for what began to happen is drawn from a childhood memory of being at the stern of a large river boat, mesmerized by the soothing movement of the paddlewheel churning up the murky river water and propelling the boat upstream. As the vessel approached the dock the pilot shifted the engine into reverse. The paddlewheel’s steady rhythm diminished, slowly coming to a stop, and then, after a discernible pause, the wheel only gradually and with the utmost effort began to turn in the opposite direction. That summer saw a gradual but real reversal in the cycle of our own relations. The pattern of caustic complaints and sarcastic responses slowly gave way to a new pattern of care toward one another. The difficulties did not disappear, but each of us seemed to recognize, beyond our own pain and frustration, the effort the other spouse was putting forth, and that mutual recognition triggered a reversal.

The biblical word for conversion, metanoia, means not just a shift in one’s views or opinions but a fundamental change in direction. My marriage, I am convinced, was calling me to such an interior change. I was being called to a life of care and concern for another that seemed beyond my own powers and resources. Was this the "salvation" that Tim had in mind? Salvation is always the work of God and yet Catholicism insists that there is a kind of cooperation in our free response to God’s grace. Put simply, while salvation is always God’s work in us, it often feels like our work as we struggle to dispose ourselves to God’s saving action. In any event, I have become convinced that my "salvation," the spiritual transformation that God wishes to effect in me, transpires within the crucible of my relationship with my wife and children. This interlocking set of commitments that constitutes our family is both burden and blessing, cross and resurrection; it is an invitation to a truly ascetical vocation. But it is an asceticism that a good deal of church teaching has yet to fully understand.

In the adolescent fantasies of many (at least for us testosterone-charged males) the benefits of marriage began and ended with the prospects of sex without guilt. It is surprising how much theological reflection on marriage (usually by celibates) still focuses on marital sex. For example, in his younger years our present pope once wrote some rather provocative things about conjugal relations, offering perspectives that would have made his papal predecessors blush. Unafraid to discuss the sacramental significance of sexual union, the young Karol Wojtyla even wrote of the value of married couples learning to achieve simultaneous orgasm!

This is pretty racy stuff from a future pope, and knowing something of our church’s dubious history where valorizing sexual pleasure is concerned, I gratefully accept his view as a welcome corrective. I do worry, however, about a latent romanticism in the Catholic tradition regarding marital sex, perhaps in response to more austere views drawn from our past. In this regard, I recall during my doctoral studies participating in a seminar on contemporary issues in moral theology. At the time we were reviewing church teaching on artificial contraception and recourse to reproductive technologies. One of the women in the seminar was an ordained Methodist minister and at one point in our discussion she exclaimed in exasperation: "I don’t get it with you Catholics! All of this talk of marital sex as the ’sublime expression of the marriage covenant’ seems so much nonsense. When I think of those events in my marriage that symbolically evoke the spiritual meaning of my marriage I think of my family at worship together receiving Communion. For my husband and me, sex is more about joyful play than about making some symbolic gesture."

It was a telling remark. I am not prepared to abandon altogether the spiritual significance of conjugal relations but, as time goes on, I am inclined to believe that the distinctive blessing of sexual intimacy is more a gentle seal ratifying precious moments encountered outside the bedroom than the symbolic summit of marital love. There is no doubt that a moment of conjugal intimacy and a moment Diana and I spend together with our children in our weekly family meeting or by ourselves late at night discussing the events of the day are related. That the moment of conjugal union is intrinsically more significant than the others is not as evident.

It is bedrock biblical wisdom that the human person was not created for isolation; the way of the hermit has always been the cautious exception rather than the rule in the Christian tradition. We are made for communion, not because we are each half-selves looking for a mate as our completion, but because we find ourselves in giving ourselves to another. The dynamism of giving and graciously receiving, I am now inclined to believe, lies at the heart of the salvific character of marriage. I can receive so many of the graces of my marriage only as pure gift. I am blessed when a night ending in argument is followed by a day begun anew with a kiss. I am blessed when I return home from work venting frustrations and petty grudges yet still find myself loved and accepted by Diana. There is a joy found in the moments of celebration in one another’s personal achievements. I remember the unadulterated pride I felt when my wife finally received her graduate degree as I recalled all of the late nights I would go to bed while she stayed up studying. Surely these moments, when we find ourselves drawn out of our own world to delight in our beloved’s accomplishments, shape us in unseen ways.

Shared plans and dreams, dashed or fulfilled, and the confidence that we can recognize one another’s idiosyncratic "tells"-those slight facial expressions and characteristic postures that reveal much about the emotional state of our partner-contribute to the spiritual cement that binds us together. I am awash with gratitude for this one person who knows my deepest fears and stands ready as a "balm for my wounds." I remember early in my teaching career when the annual ritual of reading students’ course evaluations would be met with dread. I might receive twenty positive evaluations only to be devastated by the two negative critiques. My colleagues would often laugh at my consternation. Then I would call my wife and read them to her, sensing with relief that at least she knew of the hidden wounds I carried that inclined me to give a disproportionate weight to the few negative comments.

It is a blessed comfort to know that this other person, whose own story began long before I appeared in her life, has chosen to weave her story inextricably into mine. Certainly, chief among marriage’s blessings are children. We are parents of four young boys and in part because of them our married life has taken on a mood and a texture that we could not have anticipated. In Catholic teaching there are three ministries within the one sacrament of holy orders (deacon, priest-presbyter, and bishop) and there are times when I think the church would have done well to create two degrees of marriage: one with children and one without! Theoretically the children are distinct from our marital relationship yet they are often the most visible sign of what our union has come to be. Many of us could secretly confess a dark and desperate time when it was the faces of our children that made us try harder to heal whatever rift threatened to become an unbridgeable chasm.

Our children’s faces are canvases upon which a wondrous world of emotions and discoveries is painted as if solely for our enjoyment. They laugh, and something long dormant stirs within us; they cry, and our hearts break. They grow, and we discover, as we nurture that growth, the most sublime of vocations. We are blessed in acknowledging their dependence upon us, and blessed again when they grow out of that dependence from children to adolescents and, thanks in no small part to our parental ministrations, become mature, capable, caring adults.

Our twins, David and Andrew, are nine and I have already begun to recognize some subtle changes in our relationship. We are an affectionate family, but the older boys are no longer as much at ease as they once were with my displaying affection in front of their peers. I recently visited them at their school, and though they were visibly excited to have me at the lunchroom table with them, they were less so when I gave them a parting hug. I knew well that what was happening was simply a healthy developmental process. Still, I felt a sadness that I could not dispel. Yet two weeks later, the three of us were going to an Astros baseball game when both of them spontaneously grasped my hands on each side as we walked through the parking lot. I acted nonchalantly, holding their hands firmly, while uttering a silent prayer of gratitude.

Such seemingly mundane moments are but a few of the blessings of marriage and family. Seen in the right light, they are also profound intimations of resurrection; the new life that is promised us. And yet, as with that first Easter event, this resurrected life comes only out of loss and death. There is a kind of "dying" that also happens in marriage and family life. Consider the relatively common experience in marriage of being misunderstood. If the sexual intimacy of marriage is a tender grace, the experience of sharing a marriage bed with one who at this particular moment may not understand me, can be terrifying in its loneliness. There are ways in which, in spite of our closeness, my wife and I view our shared world in notably different ways. It is not that our values are different, but rather that we construe events differently and give a different priority to the tasks we face. Let me offer an example. My own penchant for order leads me to take on systematically the least pleasant projects first. I have to complete all outstanding tasks before I can allow myself the pleasure of relaxation. I must unpack all of my bags after coming home from a long trip before I can flop on the bed and rest. This attitude runs headlong into my wife’s unique capacity to enjoy the present moment, putting aside all but the most necessary of tasks for another time (she’ll unpack her bag when she actually needs those clothes!). It would be easy to speak of this as the wonderful "complementarity" that our differences bring to our marriage (one tends to hear this kind of thing in annoying marriage preparation/enrichment talks!), but in point of fact we usually experience it as an irritating difference, pure and simple.

Another example emerges out of our different families of origin. I was raised in a family governed by the principles of reward and punishment with very little unconditional affirmation. The classic "first-born" child, I was raised to be responsible and to perform in order to obtain my parents’ approval. Yet I was first attracted to Diana because she did not seem much interested in my accomplishments. I was intrigued by the possibility that she saw something deeper within me. Since we have been married, however, I have often found myself looking for her approval and affection as if she were my parent. When she refuses to respond in that way I become wounded and can be reduced to adolescent pouting. Yet it is precisely in Diana’s refusal to conform to the emotional expectations I brought into our marriage that our marriage becomes salvific for me.

The vocation of marriage is an invitation to be stretched, drawn out to an emotional and relational "far country." There is a biblical term for what can happen here, kenosis. Saint Paul used the term to describe what it was for Christ to abandon all divine prerogatives in order to enter fully into the experience of being human. For those of us who fulfill our baptismal call to follow Jesus in and through the sacrament of matrimony, kenosis is the call to a self-emptying or dying to our needs, hopes, and expectations. This is one of the great secrets of marriage-a relationship shamelessly marketed for the hope of intimacy it offers, in fact, confronts us with the shocking otherness of our spouse. One’s marriage partner is not a cipher to be decoded but an inscrutable person to be embraced as mystery. The alternative to this acceptance of each other’s individuality-and God knows I have made occasional forays down this road-is a venomous bitterness and resentment that ultimately dooms the marriage. Marriage, like all sacraments, is paschal to the core and consequently it is as much about dying as it is about new life. We do not get much of this reality on television. There is plenty of marital dying, to be sure, but it is usually a foreshadowing of some quick marital exit. Paschal "dying" is an altogether different matter.

Similarly, the children also call me to a "dying." I derive an almost inexhaustible delight from our children, yet I am easily overwhelmed by the emotional demands of parenting. I keep trying to "manage" the relationship with my kids the way I do with my students. Why can’t I establish parenting office hours? Yet it is not just the chaos of a noisy household and the emotional demands placed upon me by four growing boys that call me to a relinquishment of self, it is the children themselves. Whatever Jesus meant when he suggested we must imitate the children, it had nothing to do with angelic innocence! I love my children in ways that can never be put into words, but there is no hiding the fact that they are imperfect creatures, capable of the same pettiness, resentment, and mean-spiritedness that sets us adults to warring. I am learning, haltingly, to seek out in snatches of prayer and solitude an inner equilibrium to ground me amidst a hurricane of youth and emotion and chaos beyond my control. Kenosis, again.

Like most parents, I find myself projecting onto my children a lifetime of my own insecurities. I become frightened that I am passing on some quasi-genetic personality flaw that (please God, if I could just have a bit more time!) I have not yet purged. Yet the vocations of spouse and parent simply do not wait while I "work things out." Here the kenotic movement is mostly one of letting them be. If I am honest with myself, there is a hubris in overestimating my impact on their still young lives. For they too are sturdily, resiliently other, a mystery unfolding that I may feel compelled to nudge along but can never wholly direct.

Indeed, the children shape me as much as I shape them. Exuberant in play, fierce in anger, yet, paradoxically quick to forgive, I see in my children an emotional clarity that has long since become jumbled and even duplicitous in me. My son Brian has a temper that I keep trying to attribute to his mother’s side of the family! When I deny him a request, I am often startled by the emotional force of his anger. Yet ten minutes later he will be sitting on my lap telling me about a school project undertaken with his favorite preschool teacher. From a distance I gaze upon my children and long to know the "cleanness" and purity of their emotions. I lack the confidence in my own emotional life to dare to give it such open and honest expression. And, yet, there are moments when I shed my status as an emotional bystander-wrestling with boys or singing a song with them in the car-that I think I may indeed be recapturing some great lost thing.

After eleven years of marriage I now realize that our household is indeed, as my friend Tim so aptly named it, my salvation. Here in this home that we Catholics rightly call an ecclesia domestica, the church of the household, I am being drawn to a different place. Here the hammer strikes hot iron often and I flinch as by God’s grace I am being forged into something new.

Published in the 2000-09-08 issue: 

Richard R. Gaillardetz is the Joseph Professor of Catholic Systematic Theology at Boston College. His books include: Keys to the Council:  Unlocking the Teaching of Vatican II (co-authored with Catherine Clifford, Liturgical Press, 2012), When the Magisterium Intervenes (editor, Liturgical Press, 2012), Ecclesiology for a Global Church:  A People Called and Sent (Orbis, 2008) and The Church in the Making (Paulist, 2006). 

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