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If you are married like I am, most of us will be celebrating an anniversary between now and October.[1] This year, my husband and I will have been married for 15 years. We both happen to have an advanced degree in theology of marriage and family, and so, I’ve been wondering for all these 15 years about what makes “the best” kind of marriage, comparing the theology I studied to my lived experience and the marriages I’ve observed. I have always wanted—and I still want—to have the best kind of marriage, the kind of marriage that is an image of Christ’s love for the Church.

Throughout graduate school the phrase “marriage is a sacrament of Christ’s love for the Church” was repeated and invoked constantly. But what does it really mean? 

Let’s remember that sacraments bring about what they signify. So, marriage is making present Christ’s love for the Church? Maybe you’re thinking, This is happening in other marriages, pretty marriages—not painful marriages like mine. I promise that if the sacrament brings about what it signifies, we are going to see His love for the Church especially in the most difficult marriages, because Jesus “loved his own in the world and he loved them to the end” (John 13:1). We’re going to see heroic love—for Jesus loved those who were “his own” not just to the end of his life but unto their fulfillment.

Beginning with Baptism, the Christian’s whole being is immersed in Jesus. Because my being is “in Him,” my loving always draws from this source. I cannot have a genuine love for my spouse apart from Christ. And, when we marry, something yet more novel happens to us. God gives the married person a unique grace—a unique sharing in Christ’s own life and in His own intimate and spousal love. Marriage is an “efficacious sign” of “the covenant of Christ and the Church” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1617). “Efficacious” means “it’s effective; it’s really happening.” So, the grace of marriage brings about the intended result of Christ’s spousal union, His particular, intimate, and redeeming love. Marriage communicates this specific grace to the couple and gives them the power to enact this spousal love of Christ for his Church, each to each. 

It is not merely human affection that enables spouses to love one another with self-donating, life-creating love. For Christian spouses, “Christ is the source of this grace” (CCC 1642). So, if the affection I have for my beloved is true, it already is sourced from the one love of Christ for my husband. When we marry, we are infused with the power to love each other “with the love with which Christ has loved his Church” (CCC 1661). Christ in me loves the Church in my husband. When we beg the Lord to help us love our spouse, we beg, “Give me Your very own love for this man, my husband; fill me with Your love, that I may love him with that.”

So, for the last 15 years I’ve been looking for Christ. I’ve been looking for Him in the marriages I have known, seeking the face of the Lord who loves His bride the Church. And for us women, I think we need to see that grace is real. Christ has promised that marriage brings about what it signifies. Will we see Christ loving His spouse? Surely, where we see this, won’t we see the best marriages?

Joanna, a nurse, was living with her family in a remote location when she discovered her husband had been unfaithful with a younger, local woman. They separated. While he acted like he was single, she faithfully cared for their children. Then her husband had a near fatal work accident and hovered at death’s door. Joanna returned and cared for him, helping him to make a complete recovery.

Is her heroic fidelity Christ’s love for the Church?

My friend Elizabeth works so hard on her marriage. For a year, she prayed a special prayer just regarding her marriage. She’s sought out personal therapy in order to do her part for healthy relating. Recently, she and her husband went on a couples’ retreat that made a big impact and renewed their unity and joy. “But,” she says with a slow head-shake and a wry smile, “I think our marriage may always be like a bad back. It’s just the way it is; it’s not really anyone’s fault. It needs tenderness; it needs tending. Other people have other worries—health or money or children. We have our back problems.”

Is her loving tenacity Christ’s love for the Church?

My friend Hannah and her husband are givers, united in their approach to faith and family and united in enabling their large family and parish community to flourish. When she told me about the unity in her marriage, I thought, Oh, I guess I can see that. Hannah and her husband are not ostentatious people; they simply do the good thing, over and over. Sometimes, people take this quiet couple for granted, especially their own families. 

Does their humility make present Christ’s love for the Church?

I used to think that the best marriages would have the least conflict, the most transparent communication, with mutual respect and affectionate reciprocity. But, the Lord intends heroic virtue to be a feature of every marriage. Thus, perhaps the “best marriages” are not the easy ones. Perhaps the best marriages are the ones which can only be explained by Christ’s love, enacted for His beloved. 

In my 15-year marriage, my husband is just so good to me. The man brings me coffee every morning—a persistently tender habit left over from when I was breastfeeding throughout the night. What can I do in the face of such persistent love? I can be persistently grateful and receive it. And when he discloses to me that on the day we start our family vacation, he’s actually going to be returning from a business trip, and he wonders if it “would it be too much trouble if you load up the kids and start the 1,000 mile drive to Colorado by yourself, and…hey, could you pick me up in Dallas?” I can drop the resentful response and smile with something like the love that Christ has for the Church.

Every marriage is called to heroic virtue. The opportunities are here. The grace is here—though living the grace of your marriage is going to look as different as your face is different from mine.

[1] https://priceonomics.com/whats-the-most-popular-time-of-year-to-get-married/ accessed June 10, 2022.

About the author:
Charity Hill lives in the Austin area with her husband and four children, but she really dwells with them at the intersections of theology, literature, and culture. She holds a master of arts from the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family, writes on children’s literature for Well-Read Mom, and coordinates a WWP parish program. Charity exercises “planned neglect” of the laundry to produce her children’s literature podcast Bright Wings: Children’s Books to Make the Heart Soar. If you’re looking for her, check the van or behind the microphone.

Do you remember Linus, Charlie Brown’s best friend from the Peanuts comic? He was the one who carried his blanket everywhere. Well, I have a “Linus” in my own house—my youngest son. His blanket is named “BearBear,” and he goes everywhere with us. I mean everywhere. He attended ski school this past winter, nicely zipped into my son’s jacket as he went down the mountain. He’s basically a member of the Malik family—he’s in our family photo that hangs on the wall. My older kids know how to leap into action when BearBear is lost and can find him in a matter of minutes.  

Our collective vigilance on BearBear’s whereabouts did not prevent us from having a minor catastrophe a couple weeks ago. We went to Mass and accidentally left BearBear at home. In the shuffle and craziness of getting five kids out the door for church (on everyone’s favorite daylight saving Sunday), BearBear got left in the dust. We only realized this tragedy ten minutes into the Mass when my son noticed BearBear’s absence and began to wail. 

Now, I know kids love their stuffed animals, and it’s cute that something so simple can bring them comfort when they’re young. My older kids have all outgrown their old favorite stuffed animals, and I look back fondly on those memories. I’m sure the day that my youngest son doesn’t need BearBear anymore will be coming soon. (I do pray that it comes sooner rather than later because if any kid would bring a stuffed animal to college, it would be this kid.) 

In my 15 years of dealing with crying kids at Mass, I can usually handle the situation one way or another (ask me about “the look” or “the walk of shame” some other time). But this time was different. My son was heartbroken. I could see on his face that he didn’t want to cry; he was trying so hard to be tough, but he just couldn’t help it. He wanted BearBear and literally nothing else would suffice—no amount of comforting, bribing, or reasoning worked. 

I need to be honest—part of me became annoyed at this point. I wanted him to calm down, yes, but what struck me more was how much I didn’t want him to be so affected by something so trivial. The more I tried to calm him, the more I kept thinking how we were sitting in the (literal) presence of the Lord while focusing on the upsetting consequences of a missing blanket. 

I love the way the Lord works, though, because after Mass, my husband and I were talking about the “BearBear incident” (which we affectionately call it now), and our perspectives couldn’t have been more different. 

I explained to him my feelings about the “BearBear incident,” and how it made me think how we are similar to children in this regard. We all have something in our lives that our happiness is dependent on, even though Scripture warns us against this all-too-human inclination.[1] I started telling him all the trivial things that I felt were taking up space in my heart where the Lord should be (as I silently patted myself on the back for recognizing this divine revelation). 

My husband, however, had a much more paternal—and loving—perspective on the “BearBear incident.” He felt it revealed a deeper truth about the Lord and His goodness. He explained that as trivial as the blanket may seem to us, our son loves it. And how when we are lost, God is even more heartbroken than our son was about his lost blanket. God longs to be close to us at all times—much like our son never wants to be separated from BearBear. 

Talk about convicting. Thank God for the sacrament of Marriage. 

You may have heard St. Augustine’s quote, “Our hearts are restless until they rest in you,” but have you heard the beginning of that quote? He says, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” He made us for Himself because He loves us. Our Maker knows what our hearts need, and nothing this side of heaven will ever fully satisfy. He wants us to give Him our hearts, and in return, He wants to love us with the closeness of a loving Father. 

So, as we’ve crossed the halfway point of Lent, let’s take an honest look at our hearts. Joel 2:13 says, “Rend your heart…and return to the Lord.” What is your heart focused on? Is there something directing your heart away from the Lord? Have you thought about God’s heart for you, and how it breaks when we are separated from Him by sin? How can you return to the Lord with your whole heart?

My son eventually calmed down that Sunday as I listened to the end of the homily. The priest was talking about the Transfiguration story from Luke 9. He pointed out that Jesus wasn’t simply reflecting the glory of God. He was transfigured into the glory of who He is—from the inside out. He explained that we too can be changed from the inside out; that transfiguration can happen in our lives too. He finished by saying that bringing our hearts to Jesus in the sacrament of Confession is how this can happen. 

Rending our hearts prepares us to be transformed from the inside out. And when we are transformed from the inside out through confession, we draw ever closer to the heart of the Father. 

Can you take a moment to rend (examine) your heart today?
What treasure takes up space in your heart where God should be? Is it an expectation? A relationship? Something material?
How is the Lord calling you to return to Him these last few weeks of Lent?
Have you considered how God’s deep love and desire for closeness with you is possible through the sacrament of Confession?

[1] “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and decay destroy, and thieves break in and steal. But store up treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor decay destroys, nor thieves break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there also will your heart be.” (Matthew 6:19–21)

I always knew I would have a traditional Catholic wedding. It was what we did. My parents got married in the Catholic Church. My sisters got married in the Catholic Church. I, a cradle Catholic, would obviously get married in, yup...you guessed it... the Catholic Church. And so we attended pre-Cana, chose the readings, brought the family-friend priest in from out of town, and an incredible Catholic ceremony happened on a beautiful fall day on the Upper East side of Manhattan. And just like that, we became husband and wife.

We were so in love.

And yet, we had no idea what true love was.

Why? I think it's because I always held tight to this one moment in the courtship stage of our relationship. When I surprised him at the hotel where he worked on my way home from my job, his face would light up, giving birth to a smile that stretched deep and wide; I swear, in that instant, I had never felt more wanted for being just who I was.  Surely, this was true love. This being seen and joyfully embraced for doing nothing other than just showing up, it was all so easy that it must have been love.

But beware of falling into the trap of believing that love is a feeling.

Be sure to ground yourself in something greater than how someone makes you feel.

It took being anchored to nothing and drifting away to wake up to truth; that love is not a feeling but an intentional action, a choice. That love is not about how much I can gain, but how much can I give. It is not about how much you fill me, but how empty can I be. And because I have chosen to love you in all times, then I will also choose to die to myself and invite Jesus into this relationship without delay, because a marriage without Jesus in the middle is just as good as bringing your boat to dock and never dropping the anchor.

It will drift away.

As did mine.

But because God loves nothing more than stepping into our brokenness, if we let Him. He rescued me from my “quit and stay” attitude towards my marriage. And He didn't lead me down a  path of rose petals lined with scented candles. He didn't gently place me down on a soft lounge chair, beachfront, with a tropical drink in my hand. But He took my hand and He walked me to the foot of the cross. He led me to the wood that my own hands nailed Him to, the thorns that pierced His head, and He showed me that…. THIS. THIS is love. The betrayal, the scourging, the beating, the heavy carrying, the nails, the unfairness, all that He endured for me, was endured out of love. And He reminded me that while none of that felt good, while not a moment of it was easy, all of it, every single bit of it, was fueled by love. A love so deep, so life giving, that not even death could not destroy it.

I am still learning about this love. And it has not been through romantic dinners, or exotic getaways that my husband and I have come to know love. It has been by the cross we have been chosen to carry. The necessary hardships we have been entrusted with. The long suffering placed upon us. And it has been by His grace upon grace, that we receive it as a gift; a way to minister and intercede to and for those who walk the same path, who yearn for relief, who have been burdened by a similar cross. And in this sharing and uniting, we get a glimpse of the sorrowful heart of Jesus; the indescribable love that is let loose and takes over; the very thing that by its beating and breaking, miraculously holds us together.

You know, I hear my young girls talk about love. The world is trying to redefine it for them. Music lyrics write love off as an emotion, something you can throw away, a gift that's totally dependent on your looks and body. Social media wants them to believe that without a boyfriend, they are undesirable, alone, never complete. And they chase after this secular love…this lie...and they believe that love is something that will only make them happy, feel wonderful, and will free them of any pain, anxiety, worry, or problems. It is all so wrong and upside down and couldn't be a more inaccurate definition of what true love is.

You see, real love is messy, painful, hard, and risky. I pray that my children, in witnessing how their parents have lived through hard times and yet held tight to Jesus, recognize that the glue in this relationship has nothing to do with the occasional bouquet of roses or heart shaped box of chocolates, but everything to do with the cross.  Feeling in love is great, for sure. But if you want to feel great, go and eat a piece of cheesecake or watch Nacho Libre. But if you are seeking true love, run to the foot of the cross. Point your children, who are dying to be seen, known and loved, in that direction as well. Offer Him everything you are and have and invite Him into your heart. Hand Him your loved ones. Trust Him with your very life. Anchor yourself to Him, who is love; to Him, who joyfully embraces you for doing nothing other than just showing up.

 

With all my love,

Laura

Get your copy of Harmony, Part I of the Keeping in Balance Young Adult Series, here!

Laura Phelps author bio

I have tremendous hope for tomorrow. My hope lies in the power and faithfulness of God, the indestructibility of truth, and the youth I witnessed at SEEK 2019.

A year ago, Walking with Purpose hosted a booth at the FOCUS Student Leadership Summit (SLS 18). This was a high energy gathering of 9,000 young adult, Catholic leaders. I had the privilege of giving the closing keynote and we sold thousands of our new young adult Bible studies. We were scattering seeds and praying that they would take root. Our greatest desire was to pass on a passion for God's Word to the next generation.

January 3-7, Walking with Purpose hosted another booth at a national FOCUS event, this time at SEEK 2019. SEEK drew 18,000 Catholic college students to Indianapolis, IN, and we were excited to launch our newest young adult Bible studies series- Harmony, Perspective and Exhale. We experienced hundreds of conversations with young women who were back for more, because the seeds that were planted a year ago had taken firm root. These young women had been delving into our Bible studies, using them for personal growth and also leading small groups of other students all over the country.

The Holy Spirit is on the move on our college campuses. I know that depressing statistics abound, telling us that this next generation is walking away from the Church. And I don't deny that many are. But what I witnessed at SEEK was thousands of young people determined to chart a path to holiness, service, and intimacy with Jesus. I have never been more inspired and encouraged in ministry. What a mountaintop experience.

While having incredible heart-to-heart conversations with young people was the highlight of my week, it was also an enormous joy to give a talk titled “Saving Your Marriage Before It Starts.” I shared that after the decision regarding whether or not to follow Christ, the next most important decision we will ever make is who we marry. I challenged everyone to start thinking about their future marriages with their eyes wide open, and to pay attention to the ways in which our culture has lied to them about marriage.

We explored the following five lies and debunked them with truth:

~Getting Married will fix what's broken in my heart.

~It doesn't matter if he/she shares my faith if he/she is a good person.

~My porn use won't damage my marriage.

~Tinder and other dating apps are a good way to find a life-partner.

~Living together before getting married is a good way to see how compatible you are.

The lies make sense, but each one represents a pitfall that moves people farther away from a successful, happy marriage. It's my prayer that the openness I saw in the students is an indicator that they will grasp hold of truth and stay on the path to good and healthy future marriages.

As I came to the end of my talk, I acknowledged how hard it is to navigate the current “dating world”. But my belief in the strength and conviction within these students gives me great hope that they are going to make great choices, some better than the ones those of us in our generation have made.

What do I see within them?

I see an inner-strength, power, and desire to have a healthy, good life.

In a world that longs for comfort and often settles for superficiality, I see their hunger for truth, justice and holiness. It sets them apart.

I wish that their desire to grow closer to God meant that the enemy would just give up and leave them alone. But I know that nothing scares him more than young men and women who know their true identity as beloved children of God, and he is terrified of the ones who take their faith seriously. The more committed to God they get, the more the enemy will tempt them to settle for mediocrity.

Because of that reality…

I pray that we all would exhale any sense of powerlessness- the feeling that nothing will ever change. May we inhale the spirit of hope.

May we exhale any sense of complacency that wants to settle where it's comfortable. I pray we would inhale passion for holiness and a willingness to take risks and pursue greatness.

May we exhale any religiosity which might tempt us to equate outward religious appearance with inward conversion. May we inhale God's grace.

I pray most of all that God would have our hearts- that most precious part within. May He meet us in that hidden place, bringing balance, rest, and peace.

With you on the journey,

Lisa

Watch Lisa's talk at SEEK 2019 and share it with a young adult!

Lisa Brenninkmeyer

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