By guest blogger: Steven Cottam
On September 29th, my wife and I will celebrate our first wedding anniversary. In honor of that occasion, I’ve prepared some reflections: what I’ve learned within the sacrament of matrimony. To be fair, it’s quite possible I’ve learned nothing. A year ago I was pretty sure I had the whole thing figured out but now … I’m not so sure. However, it’s possible—just possible—that my horizons have broadened a bit and these reflections represent the most important ponderings of that broadening. I hope you find them edifying.
1) Reconciliation and forgiveness are paramount
When I was single and preparing for marriage, I thought too many people emphasized the importance of forgiveness. I thought, “In a lot of marriages I’ve seen, this emphasis on forgiveness is just an excuse to be hurtful or careless–I’m not going to be mean to my wife. I’m going to work to serve her well so I won’t have to apologize very often. What a perfect plan!
I still do believe that all too often, we use the principle of forgiveness as an excuse to take our closest loved ones for granted. We know they have to forgive us because we’re family after all! However, I didn’t account for how often I’d end up unintentionally wounding my wife. Sometimes, I’m just a little careless or thoughtless: not mean, just not careful enough. Sometimes, we just miscommunicate. Sometimes, I think I’m doing something really great and it comes off all wrong. Simply by sharing a life with someone, we are bound to hurt them. We bump into each other in all sorts of ways. For that reason, we need to be quick to forgive and intentionally verbalize that forgiveness. Even if we’re careful to never commit mortal sins against the relationship, venial sins are inevitable. They add up if you ignore them; they need to be dragged into the light and healed.
2) What “love is a gift” really means
When I was preparing for marriage, everyone kept telling me that it’s a sacrament: our love for one another is a sign and manifestation of God’s love for us. Well yeah … of course! Every Catholic third grader knows that! Looking back, my understanding of what that meant was pretty juvenile. I thought “God loves me and because of that he gives me good gifts.” My wife is a good gift and thus a sign of his love for me. In this particular theology, my wife is like a really nice birthday gift from God; like a cool new video game. Thanks Big Guy, you always know just what to get me!
That’s pretty shallow though. Looking back, I didn’t realize even partially how my wife’s love would be a conduit for and expression of God’s love. Most importantly, she loves me even when I’m not particularly lovable. Since my wife hangs around me so much, she sees a lot of what I do that others don’t. Like in the car when someone cuts me off and I curse. Or when I receive an email asking for help with a service or ministry I don’t feel like doing and I groan and whine and complain. She’s seen me after I’ve had too much beer and (what’s worse) too much coffee. Or too much stress. And the thing is, she doesn’t stop loving me. She loves me in spite of the fact that I do bad things (like, all the time). She knows I’m a sinner and she loves me anyway. Just like God. And I’m not being trite here: if you reflect on this, it’s amazing. Having someone love you when your hair is slicked back and you’re in a tuxedo at the foot of the altar (and I look really good in a tux, after all) isn’t worth a second thought . Having someone love you when you’re cursing or nursing a hangover is something else entirely. It’s grace and it’s a gift; not because it’s something you want (although it’s that too) but because it’s unearned and it’s freely given.
3) I finally understand St. James (a little)!
Catholics are notorious among our Protestant brethren for being bad at grappling with the whole faith and good works thing. I’m especially bad at it. I believe in faith, of course, but when I read St. James’ “Faith without good works is dead,” I know what part of that verse I’m underlining in my head. You need good works!
However, I’ve noticed that when I’m with my wife, I often do good things for no other reason than I love her. For example, in any place I’ve lived, I’ve always done my fair share of the dishes. If you asked me why, I’d say “Fair is fair.” I do my share because it’s right to do your duty. However, with my wife, I often find myself doing them just because I don’t want to make her do them. I do the dishes when it’s not even my turn! I find myself wanting to avoid looking at other women, not out of abstract devotion to chastity (good in its way) but because it would hurt me to hurt her. This is how we are called to live out our relationship to God. We follow his good laws not because they are “the laws” but because our love of our neighbor and God compels us to do so. We don’t want to hurt those valuable relationships. It’s not good works or faith; it’s good works because of faith, because of hope, because of love. Being married has taught me more about the connection between faith and good works, between love and the law, in one year than a whole lifetime of study.
You can perhaps see these things don’t apply only to the married; while I have learned them from marriage, I imagine that any faithful life of discipleship might impart the same lessons. And in that vein, what I’ve learned the most is that I’m blessed beyond measure.
To my wife, when she reads this, I love you! I can’t wait to see what I learn from you next year!