“So, you’re Catholic, but you’re married to a Lutheran pastor. How does that work?”
I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve been asked this question in my seven years of marriage. Depending upon the inquirer, I have a few canned answers that easily roll off the tongue, but the simplest and most genuine is this: “By the grace of God!”
When I boarded a plane bound for Notre Dame 13 years ago, I could never have imagined that the journey would…
Nicole Steele Wooldridge has been a friend of Sister Julia’s since they were neighbors in Chicago several years ago. Having majored in Theology and International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame (Go Irish!), Nicole shares Sister Julia’s passion for Catholic Social Teaching. Though her goal is to travel the globe (five continents and 24 countries down … everywhere else in theworld to go!), she is happily rooted in the Seattle, Washington area for now while she and her husband raise their two young daughters. Nicole’s columns for Messy Jesus Business tend to focus on the intersection of faith and parenting, particularly as it relates to the radical call of Gospel living. When she’s not working part time at a local college or chasing her girls around the house, Nicole enjoys reading spy novels, visiting microbreweries, and discussing black holes. She is extremely grateful to be a part of the Messy Jesus Business family!
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!
I’m getting married in a couple of weeks, and so naturally I’ve spent a lot of time recently meditating on what it means to be a good husband. One thought that keeps coming back to my mind is that I’m surprised I’m getting married only because it seems like such an adult thing to do; in my mind’s eye I’m nothing more than a big kid. In a few weeks I will be entrusted to protect and nurture the well-being and happiness, the fragile hopes and dreams, of another human being. In a few years’ time after that when, God willing, kids come along, a number of tiny humans will rely on me for their very survival. Me! The guy who still spends his weekends playing video games and eating sugary cereal in his boxers… until well after noon; the same guy who zoned out for a good ten minutes at the last Parish Council meeting because he was wondering how exactly he might most effectively utilize Batman’s utility belt if a zombie attack broke out.
It’s enough at times to make me think that I should grow up. St. Paul even seems to suggest as much when he tells us that “when I was a child, I used to talk as a child, think as a child, reason as a child; when I became a man, I put aside childish things,” (Corinthians 13:11). Is it time for me to let go of my childish things: my Star Wars lunch box, my Lord of the Rings action figures, my glow in the dark Green Lantern ring!? However, it’s interesting to note that the words St. Paul’s using to describe his childish self aren’t things at all: they are ways of being – talking, thinking, and reasoning. And in reflecting on that, I realized that I maybe have kept some things from my childhood that are far more sinister than my drawer of dinosaur toys, things that just won’t do in a marriage.
Sometimes I’m childish when I need to be praised and acknowledged when I do good, rather than doing good for its own sake. I’m childish when I insist on hurting someone back when they are mean to me (he started it!). I’m childish when I throw a tantrum and get all huffy just because circumstances don’t go my way. I’m childish when I refuse to share what’s been given to me with those around me. I’m childish when I insist that I am responsible in every way for my success (I did it! Me!) and that others are responsible in every way for my failures. I’m childish when I refuse to give any more because I’ve already given my fair share, gosh golly, and asking me to give more is just not fair! These things are childish, and acting toward my wife this way just won’t do: they need to be put away.
But St. Paul’s verse isn’t the only one in the Bible about children. Jesus tells us that if we are not like children, we will not even be able to enter the kingdom of God (Mark 10:14-15). And so I see that there are a lot of good and holy qualities I’ve kept from my childhood as well—things that make me childlike. I’m childlike when I trust someone without reservation. I’m childlike when I forgive someone even though I know they’ll probably do the same thing again. I’m childlike when I take joy in simple routines. I’m childlike when I laugh or run or jump for no reason in particular. I’m childlike when I depend on God and others more than on myself. I’m childlike when I make new friends and invite them to my clubhouse (dinner table?). I’m childlike when I say my nighttime prayers before bed and then tuck myself in for another big day. These things are some of the best parts of me, and I hope to keep them until the day I die (and maybe even then).
So rather than resolving to grow up, for the good of my marriage and my soul, I’ve resolved to try and live in that razor thin margin between being childish and being childlike. It’s a narrow path for sure, and will require a lot more thought and prayer and self-examination to get right; but that’s ok, for I hear that narrow paths come highly recommended. I mean, I’d have to be pretty childish to avoid doing something worthwhile just because it was hard.