Expectations in Marriage

October 17, 2014

Shortly after I was married an acquaintance of mine (also married) wrote to say that marriage was much harder than she thought it would be. She was a romantic-type and was of the mind that after they were married, her beloved would always think of her first, wouldn’t ever annoy her and would keep up the same degree of affection and devotion that he showed her while they were dating. These friends are strong Catholics and they are devoted to one another, but lets just say she hit the wall of reality pretty hard when she realized just how unexpectedly un-romantic life can be living with another person. She couldn’t quite reconcile the reality of an imperfect husband with the fanciful notion she’d had of love and marriage while she was still single, and it took her some time to realize that perhaps she, herself, wasn’t perfect either.  It was understandably a rocky first couple of years.
Although I've certainly been there at different points in my life, I think I might have had it a bit easier than my friend. I’m not a hopeless romantic. I don’t particularly like overly sentimental gifts like cards (I throw them out after reading) or jewelry (I don’t wear a lot) or even flowers sometimes (usually overpriced and they don’t last long). In fact, I dislike Valentines Day so much so that one year I told my husband that if he absolutely had to buy me something, that he should buy it on February 15th. At least then the droopy flowers and waxy chocolate would be half the price. And lest you think I’m this miserly, heartless stoic, my husband is usually of the same mind – we’re miserly, heartless stoics together (a recipe for true love, eh?). Our love for each other runs more in the vein of taking the garbage out when asked, concert tickets for Christmas or surprise picnic lunches. Those are the things that speak love to me much more than any card or earrings ever could, but it’s certainly something that could have caused a ruckus in our marriage, had we not talked about it and worked it out early on. (See, I'm learning!)
I mean there’s nothing overly wrong with being a sentimental romantic or preferring diamonds to picnics. Whatever floats your boat, I say. The difficulty comes when our expectations and the cold hard reality not only don’t jive, but don’t even live on the same planet – like my friend's expectations of her husband.   It’s a sad state of affairs when the disparity between our assumptions and the sensible world affects spouses so deeply that it threatens the foundations of their marriage. It makes me wonder if unrealistic expectation is one of the main reasons couples have such difficulty adjusting to one another in the first place. I remember a priest once implying that it’s quite normal to wake up one morning after marrying thinking, “What the heck have I done? Who IS this guy?” You know the honeymoon's over at that point, he said. Wow, really?  I don’t necessarily think it's good for everyone to be overly pragmatic and live without any hopes, dreams or flights of fancy, but I have to believe that, with a bit of work on our part, hopes and dreams can coexist, harmoniously nestled within the cocoon of reality.
There’s an atrocious movie out there called Hall Pass (for the love of all that’s holy, don’t watch it) which tells the story of two couples who are at varying stages of disenchantment with their marriages. Talk about disconnect, the two wives decide to “give” their husbands a hall pass – a week of “total freedom” from the bondage bonds of marriage, meaning both husband and wife can do whatever they want, with whomever they want, with no consequences.   The idea was that giving their men a little freedom from the “restraints” of marriage, they would "sow their wild oats" – or whatever – and then the guys would freely and happily choose to come back to their own wives again. 

While I could manage (barely) to overlook the nudity and sexual innuendo throughout the film, the underlying principles – that marriage is basically meaningless, that it fulfills all of women’s dreams and none of men’s, that men aren’t free to choose who they marry but rather are tricked or forced into it and that women love their husbands only out of a sense of duty – were hard to ignore, mostly because they’re unquestionably untrue. It’s movies like these that plant those crazy, whacked-out notions in our brains without our even knowing it – false impressions or opinions that make us unhappy with ourselves and with others. I mean, I thought choosing a person to be with is what people did before they got married, not after. And remind me again - how are women completely fulfilled by the office of marriage and men completely unfulfilled by it? That’s ridiculous on both counts! But it’s the collective thought of our society (and therefore present in movies, commercials and even the news) that marriage is bondage, that restraint can’t possibly equal freedom and that the minute life gets difficult you should move on or you’ll never be happy. And those ideas are just as pie-in-the-sky as a woman entering a marriage thinking her husband won’t ever be selfish, leave the cap off the toothpaste or the toilet seat up.

So don’t be fooled. Don’t let “The Man” trick you into thinking that true happiness is wrought by anything less than giving everything you’ve got and a mountain of hard work. The interesting thing is that those cockamamie beliefs we sometimes harbour about love and relationships (like the notions that our spouses were put on this earth to attend to our every whim, or that we need to ignore our responsibilities in order to be happy doing what we want to do) tend to be surprisingly selfish and self-serving.  And we’re not in this world to be served – to have every need met and whim satisfied - by those that surround us.  It’s this kind of selfishness that truly separates us from others, and from God.  Rather, we were made to forget ourselves and to freely and lovingly serve others: God, our spouse, children, family, even strangers on the street.  This is where contentment and joy and peace are found.  As Alice von Hildebrand put it in her book, Man and Woman: A Divine Invention, “…we need to acknowledge that we are responsible for the chains that bind us and turn to God’s grace for help. To humbly admit our guilt and turn to God for help is the way to change defeat into victory…” Can I get an amen?  

Harden not your heart: a remedy in the Cross

October 8, 2014

I’ve shared in the past about the lingering effects I experience of exposure to radical feminist thought – and by exposure I don’t mean I was a voracious reader of Naomi Wolf, and I certainly haven’t been keeping a page in my autograph album for Gloria Steinem (if I had one, it would probably be given over to long-haired rockers and footballers). No, by exposure I mean I came to maturity in the 90s. It was impossible to escape concepts such as “a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle” and the equal rights amendment.  The message I seem to have absorbed more than any other is: I don’t need anyone else.

Not only is that an isolating code to live by, but I realize it has resulted in me erecting walls and keeping people at bay. I don’t think I’ve done it deliberately to keep people away, rather it has been a sad consequence. It was a protective instinct. If I had to look after myself, on my own, well then, back off and let me get on with it! Maybe you can relate?

There is something, too, to living in our time as a Christian that can encourage a certain defensive hardness of heart – a spiritual callus. We’re wary of being slimed, and weary of being maligned, so we toughen up a little in order to keep ourselves safe.

But can I be a good Christian with those walls intact? Can I share God’s love when I am hard of heart? Am I able to share my gifts if I keep myself removed from others?

As I thought about this, I knew each answer was a definite ‘no’ but could find no solution. I’ve tried being softer, but how do you ‘be softer’? I’ve practiced asking for and accepting help over the years with varying degrees of success. Different initiatives I’ve adopted have addressed aspects of my disordered independence, but none have healed my hardened heart.

Then a few weeks ago, as if in answer to my question, a homily that started out as being about one thing turned out to be about my thing. Isn’t it wonderful what God will do in order to speak to us? I wonder if the congregation that day was aware they were hearing a message meant for me?

Here’s what Father said:

Angels take part in all our good works. But not in our bad ones – we are capable of them all on our own!  Likewise we are able to harden our hearts all on our own, but need help to soften it.

One of the greatest, most liberating promises God makes to us is this: “I will take away your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.”

But how?  What can we do to be rid of that heart of stone?  Father’s suggestions were these:

Best remedy is to think on the Passion of Jesus – often. 

Converse with God – not just daily, rote prayers, but frequent, spontaneous, honest conversation.

Slowly read the Passion narratives.

Read Isaiah, the suffering servant.

Pray the 15 passion prayers of St. Bridget of Sweden.

Meditate with the Sorrowful mysteries

Look lovingly on a crucifix (as told to St. Gertrude the Great)

Is hardness of heart really a big deal?  Isn’t it, maybe, a good thing to be a little tough? Might there be some validity to the notion of protecting ourselves?  Here’s what Father said about that:

Being hard of heart is sometimes a symptom of western life. The danger of it, though, and the reason we should monitor our condition regularly, is the condition can impede our ability to hear God, it muffles His voice in our ears, and confuses our priorities.

“Oh that today you would listen to His voice, harden not your heart” If we do harden our hearts, we are not able to hear God.

These remedies are still new enough to me that I don’t know yet what their impact will be on my life. I thought at first it was a little odd to prescribe the sufferings of Christ in order to combat hard heartedness, but it is making more sense to me now. I think humility, being aware of my own frailness, and facing the magnitude of the gift that Christ has given me in His own death is allowing for growth in meekness, surrendering control, accepting my littleness – all of which will certainly encourage a relaxing of the guard on that wall around my heart. 

There has been a good effect to Father’s advice. This year, for the first time ever, I looked forward to the feast day of St. Therese of Lisieux and felt real affection for her. Perhaps it was my own softening heart that was finally able to appreciate her childlike openness? I look forward to seeing other changes as time goes on.


Little flowers: the Feast of St. Therese of Lisieux

October 1, 2014

Confession time:

I used to have a hard time with St. Therese. Well, that doesn't express it very well, so let me try to find another way to describe our relationship:
We wouldn't have sat at the same table in the lunch room.

I wasn't able to see that we had anything in common. For example:
She is very holy.  I am very not.
She is very sweet.  I am rather sour (a bit of a pickle, I'd say).
During her life on earth she wanted to be nothing more than to be little; I was always looking for the 'big thing' I was meant to do.
She was able to rest in the knowledge that she is loved by God; I felt I had to prove I was worthy of His love before I could accept it.

It is very difficult to relate to someone if you two have nothing in common. It is difficult to like someone if you resent them for having figured out (and seemingly breeze through) whatever it is that is your stumbling block.  Marie Francoise Therese Martin knew how to open herself to God so utterly - not only giving herself completely, but also receiving His love without boundary or limit. I do not. Surrender is not an easy state for me to be in, nor is it an easy action for me to perform.

On first reading her Story of a soul, I groaned at her language and cringed at her sentiments. Perhaps I should have waited for greater spiritual maturity, because as a relatively new convert (newly catechized, that is) I was too hungry for hearty spiritual meat that I overlooked the truth, beauty, and goodness of Therese's example of littleness. I was enamoured of Catherine of Siena's larger than life Eucharist-only diet, childhood visions, and admonishing letters to Popes, or Teresa of Avila's ordeals with her order, and so I underestimated the heroic virtue required to allow oneself to be made small.

With time I have made peace with Therese. Perhaps it is that life has worn me down a little; very
definitely I am tired of fighting against myself. I may have finally surrendered some of my stubbornness, too. For any and all of these, I am grateful because now I try to live Therese's Little Way. I no longer look for the great thing I am meant to do, but rather want to do the every day, humble things with love - love for God and love for souls.

How many of us women have days full of opportunities to offer little sacrifices, little gifts of prayer, or little gestures of love? Every time I pick a book off the floor of the library, or tell yet another patron where to find that book about the thing, I remind myself this is exactly what the Little Flower meant when she talked about little things.  And if I join my little things with your little things - the co-worker who always takes your pen, the seventh poopy diaper of the day - what an offering we have for God and just think what He will do with it!

And so I have become a Little Flower novice. If she is a rose, then I am a daisy and I'm quite ok with that.

Women and Romance

September 19, 2014

Picture cred

I have a secret shame and it’s called “19 Kids and Counting”.  

I’m a big fan of the show.  Don’t judge me - there’s just something so intriguing about the private life of a family with 19 children, and even more so now that the older daughters have started courting and marrying young gentlemen.  I find myself waiting impatiently for the next episodes to come out because Jill’s courtship with Derick and Jessa’s with Ben are so adorably sweet.  They side-hug.  They go out on dates.  There are candlelit tables and jacketed dinners.  There are flowers and invitations and hats off for the women.  It’s all very romantic, even in spite of the fact that there is always a chaperone (the couple is never really alone together before they are married).  

And despite my slight discomfort with a few of their ideologies, I find their way of navigating the highs and lows of love and marriage counter-cultural and refreshing. You might laugh but it seems like the Duggar ladies are the only ladies these days that have REAL relationships, at least within pop culture.   There are beginnings and ends to each stage of their relationships – usually accompanied by a conversation with Jim-Bob and Michelle (the parents) – and then appropriate changes in behaviours from the couples themselves.  “Getting to know one another,” means the ladies get to talk more often with one man than they might talk to other gentlemen.  “Courting” means side-hugs, chaperoned dates and more talk time.  “Engagement”, for Jill and Derick, meant they could add holding hands to the mix.  And marriage means everything else.   There is no ambiguity or doubt as to what the lady or gentleman thinks or “where they’re at” in the relationship.  He states an interest to her father.  If she complies, they move forward.  If she doesn’t, they don’t.  It’s straightforward, simple and it takes the angst out of getting to know someone so that you can - you know – actually get to know someone. 

Yet the world at large has a real hatred for the Duggars.  Even a preliminary look at major news-site com-boxes turns up a surprising amount of hostility and malice for the family, their life choices and a special disdain for their “antiquated and archaic” approach to dating.  And it’s not surprising.  Since love has become synonymous with lust, there is no longer a need to get to know someone – to date or court or romance a lady.  Why bother?  If jumping into bed with them is all the knowledge you need, dates and romance are unnecessary, redundant and expensive.  I imagine watching a couple like Jill and Derick put the sexual aside for their time of courtship, for the untrained eye, must be like trying to communicate a happy feeling to a Japanese Monkey in German - foreign and ridiculous.   

But unfortunately the idea that romance is unneccessary is a prevalent one – and it’s not doing women (or men) any favours.  In fact, I’m noticing now that Generation Y (also called “Millennials” - referring to those born between about 1980 and 2000) is beginning to bemoan the consequences of their lot in life.  The worst part is that they’re not even sure why they’re so darned unhappy; they just know that something’s amiss.  This woman, especially, can’t figure out why there’s no more romance.  There aren’t dates or jackets for dinner anymore.  There’s no door holding or handholding or invitations or flowers or courtship.  There’s little more than a “hey baby, wanna hook up”.   Romantic, eh?  She laments the fact that men don’t ever take the initiative, that they care very little for the women they’re interested in and that they believe women to be replaceable and utterly forgettable.  Dating, in this scenario, means the women must do everything the man demands of her or he will simply move on to the next woman who’s willing and able (and the writer implies that there is a large pool of women from which every man can draw).   Of course, she blames men (and their mothers) – who wouldn’t – for the pitiable situation in which she finds herself and then ends her thoughts by citing a study from the UK, implying that men are immature little jerks that couldn’t approach (or respect) a woman “with half a brain” if they spent their whole life trying. 

I don’t think she could be more wrong as the blame cannot possibly belong entirely to men.  Masculinity and Femininity are so interconnected that if one is failing, the other is sure to be close behind.  Fulton Sheen once said that the “level of any civilization is the level of its womanhood.”  In other words, as Sheen points out, “the nobler a woman is, the nobler man will have to be to deserving of [her] love.”  If men are messing up, in one sense we have only ourselves to blame.  Women have the cosmic ability (and responsibility perhaps?) to set the standard for our relationships.  I’m not talking about controlling a man’s life but rather I’m talking about a woman’s responsibility to call her man on (or back) to higher morals and principals, to the transcendent truths that should be on his mind, but for whatever reason, aren’t.  We’re beautiful to behold, ladies, mesmerizing even, and that beauty is hopefully joined with a sense of propriety and morality that we must hold on to and cultivate – and then help our men to understand.  Perhaps we won’t change the culture at large by saying no to one guy, but that one guy might remember that one no, amid a hundred yes’s, and begin to wonder.  Wonder can sometimes grow into intrigue, and then a desire to get to know a woman.  And if the man has a healthy dose of humility, that wonder can grow further into respect for a woman, if good explanations are given and unwavering boundaries are set.  A woman is no longer replaceable or forgettable, but rather becomes much beloved and admired.   

And is it really surprising that men don’t take the initiative?  Really?  Feminism has done it’s worst in the realm of masculinity and femininity and has beaten down and ridiculed any man that puts himself forward as chivalrous or noble. This attitude is much more pervasive than you might think.  At the school at which I work the young 19 and 20-something ladies often refuse to be walked home when a young gentleman asks them, even in the dark.   The feeling that men with their strength and chivalry are unneeded and superfluous is prevalent, even amongst Catholic young adults.  And after a certain number of rejections, the guys just stop asking.  Men get tired of putting themselves out there and going unnoticed and un-thanked, yet women still want to expect men to continue to do so.  In other words, women do not want men to be men, yet they still want men to be men.  Hmm.  Tricky.  Our culture has had a big hand in this line of thinking.  Watch just about any sit-com that was put out in the last 30 years, shows like Three’s Company and the Cosby Show all the way up to Mike and Molly and beyond.  Men are the buffoons, tripping and lying their way through life.  Women are the all-knowing, all-seeing, patient, forbearing monsters that trick the men into thinking they get their own way and then pounce on them the moment they screw up.  It’s awful really.  I dislike the caricature intensely.   But it’s the steady diet we’ve all grown up with, and unless we’re vigilant about nipping the ideal in the bud, it’s easy to grow up thinking women rule and boys drool. 

I have no idea if Jill Duggar (now Dillard) and her new husband Derick are actually happy, or whether their marriage will last, or whether the way they courted and got to know each other was the “right” way.  What I do know is that their relationship was brimming with respect for one another, with romance, fun, surprises and interesting dates.   More importantly they made concerted efforts to delight and show love to one another, especially on Derick’s part.  I can just imagine how scared he must have been - having to approach Mr. Duggar to talk about Jill is one thing, but having to do it while surrounded by tv cameras?  That would take a bit of courage, but he must have believed Jill to be worth the trouble.   It just goes to show that there really are a few good men left in this world – they’re “still makin’ them like they used to”, Ms. Martin.  The question is, would you recognize a good man if you saw him?   

Sisters pray for one another

September 10, 2014

I had a lovely, cozy chat with a friend recently. Isn’t the internet a wonderful thing? Yes, to be sure it comes with its dangers and evils, but if we’re careful about how we use it, there are also many benefits, such as the wonderful ability to spend time with someone who is actually 415 km away.

We are girls, this friend and I (well, women, actually, as we are grown-ups, but ‘girls’ sounds friendlier and less theologically portentous) so our conversation ran from the silly to the serious, and from commiseration to encouragement. Having these moments to check in keeps our friendship going – relationship maintenance.

To someone seeing only the surface of our conversation it might have seemed trivial and bordering on gossip at times. We shared about other people in our lives, their interesting news, what they’ve been up to, their difficulties. During that conversation I realized that talking about other people isn’t always gossip.

Gossip is avaricious – it is concerned with gleaning information about others not connected to me in a meaningful way; it delights in prurient details; there is no empathy, no fellow-feeling, no charity. A gossipy conversation is full of exclamations, like: “No! Really?  I don’t believe it! Then what did she say?” The person doing all the exclaiming is stockpiling information, is happy the news is shocking, and is probably delighted that someone somewhere is behaving badly – but even more delighted that she knows all about it.

Here’s how the conversation with my friend went: “Oh no! How terrible! I will definitely pray for them. Oh, poor them!”  As full of exclamations as it was, the difference is easy to spot: my friend’s response was not to ask for all the gory details, but a promise to pray.

There it was – an act of charity, the impulse to help, the response of one loving heart to another in need. Right away I felt the communion we all have as the Body of Christ. Two people – they could be strangers – are connected in prayer through Christ. Though the one doesn’t know the other is praying for her and though they live far apart, God’s generosity is such that prayer is not bound by the laws of time and distance. One benefits from God’s promise to hear and answer our prayers, the other benefits from turning to God no matter how briefly.

Over a meal at Madonna House one evening, the conversation was about the blessing the poor - Madonna House in that instance - are in the world: they provide us the opportunity to give, to be generous, to respond. I think there is a similar dynamic to intercessory prayer in that those who are in need call others to be generous, to respond. If that is true, then it is a good thing to ask for prayer – don’t be miserly! Give your family and friends plenty of opportunity to be generous.

It is spiritually intimate to offer supplication on another’s behalf. We stand before God in their place, holding them in our heart. We may not know the details, but it is as though we had those details in our hands and we stretched our hands out to God, asking for His help. The beautiful thing is though we may not be able to be specific, God doesn’t need us to be. How many times do we pray for “a special intention”? Those prayers are as efficacious as the ones that give all the particulars. It isn’t the facts that are important, but the act of praying itself.

What struck me during that online chat was how concrete an act it is to pray for someone. My friend could have offered to think good thoughts or to send positive energy my way. She could have made sympathetic noises and laid on the usual platitudes – all of which would have been empty gestures, after which we could have moved on to another topic. But her promise to pray is a real thing, an action with profound effect.  We know God hears and answers prayers. Scripture is full of examples, from Abraham on through to the first Christians. Think of St. Monica praying for Augustine, or the roses of St. Therese. If we pay attention we see examples all around us, so it is no small thing to say, “Gosh, I’m really sorry to hear that person is having a hard time right now. I’ll pray for her.”

Here’s something I learned from a friend I consider to be quite a prayer warrior: when he promises to pray for someone, he does it right away. He doesn’t want to make a liar of himself, and knows he is likely to forget if he puts it off, so he says a quick prayer on the spot. Praying a novena or offering a Mass or saying a rosary are all really, really good… but only if you are able to actually do it! Life gets busy and intentions get waylaid, so offer a brief intercession immediately. If you have the opportunity later to do more, then do so with all generosity. Nothing is ever wasted in the Divine economy.

The heart of a woman is attentive to the needs of others. It is written into us to be concerned about the personal, the relational, the heart. When that instinct goes awry we turn to gossip and banter about the misfortunes of other people. When we are in right relationship with God, that instinct inspires true compassion and charity.

Sisters, pray for one another.



(I wonder if in heaven we will know and be able to thank all the people who have prayed for us. I hope so!)

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