Conversion Memoir Entry #4: Discovering My Marriage as a Sacrament

wedding-rings-photo-2013-wedding-ring-on-hand-670x350But for one particular individual, I may never have become Catholic; without this person I may never have experienced the amazing graces that have flooded my life in the last two years. That person is my husband, Mike.

Mike and I came into the Catholic Church together, with our two children at the time (ages 2 and 2 months). Not only did we convert together, but the journey of inquiry into Catholicism was a shared experience the whole way. It seemed that God was moving our hearts simultaneously, and to have the support and companionship of your spouse during such a process was a great blessing. It is not often the case. Many converts journeys, such as Scott and Kimberly Hahn’s story, involve different timelines for spouses entering the church — if the experience is even mutual at all.

We had most of the same questions and concerns in common during our investigation into Catholicism, but Mike was the one who started seeking first and kept pushing us on along the way. Sometime in 2010, after finishing a one-year period of study at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California, he read Christian Smith’s How to Go from Being a Good Evangelical to a Committed Catholic in Ninety-Five Difficult Steps, and then he passed it on to me. When I finally finished it, I realized that I resonated with every single step. In fact, Smith had given words to inclinations that I never had words for regarding certain problematic aspects of Protestant doctrines or practices. Reading that book started a dialogue between me and Mike, and from that point on Mike would keep us moving forward with the question: Okay, what do we do with that?

I wasn’t reflective of it at the time, but looking back I realize that my marriage was the main vehicle bringing me into the Catholic Church. I was seeking truth and seeking God’s will, but I was less aware until after the fact that it was my marriage that was aligning me with God’s will for my life — making me holier. I was living sacramentally; I just didn’t know it yet — because evangelical Protestant denominations do not profess a sacramental theology or speak of marriage as a sacrament. Monsignor Charles Pope is the priest that celebrated our confirmation mass, bringing us into the Church and baptizing our boys. During our preparatory meetings with him he explained the seven sacraments of the church, of which marriage is one. Of course the Catholic Church recognizes (valid) Protestant marriages and baptisms. We didn’t get “re-married” or “re-baptized” when we entered the church. So my marriage always was a sacrament, and I always had the opportunity to receive the graces from that sacrament, but I was going along without conceiving of it that way.

Now, as a Catholic, my perspective of my marriage is so much richer; I understand the ways in which my marriage creates opportunities for God’s grace in my life. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states:

“This grace proper to the sacrament of Matrimony is intended to perfect the couple’s love and to strengthen their indissoluble unity. By this grace they ‘help one another to attain holiness in their married life and in welcoming and educating their children.’

Christ is the source of this grace. ‘Just as of old God encountered his people with a covenant of love and fidelity, so our Savior, the spouse of the Church, now encounters Christian spouses through the sacrament of Matrimony.’ Christ dwells with them, gives them the strength to take up their crosses and so follow him, to rise again after they have fallen, to forgive one another, to bear one another’s burdens, to ‘be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ,’ and to love one another with supernatural, tender, and fruitful love.”¹

God is using my marriage to help me get ready for heaven, to prepare me for being in His presence. My marriage is not just some accessory of my life; it’s my vocation. My marriage does’t exist to make me happier (in terms of base-level happiness), but to make me holier. Many would rebuff at this statement; it goes against our society’s consumeristic and individualistic frameworks. One of the reasons that sacramental marriage in the Church is not the same as conceptions of marriage by the state is that they exist for different ends. The state emphasizes contractual language in the relationship; the Church emphasizes covenant language in the sacrament. Civil unions create partnerships and agreements based on one person fulfilling the needs and the expectations of the other, and–as with other contracts–when one end of the bargain is  not fulfilled the other is released from obligation, and the union can be dissolved. (Actually, it can be dissolved for no reason.)

The sacrament of marriage in the Catholic Church is indissoluble; it’s not a contract created by human law. It is the mystical union of two souls by God that creates a covenant relationship, the purpose of which extends far beyond my own personal wants and needs. The Catechism puts it powerfully:

“The purpose of the sacraments is to sanctify men, to build up the Body of Christ and, finally, to give worship to God. Because they are signs they also instruct. They not only presuppose faith, but by words and objects they also nourish, strengthen, and express it. That is why they are called ‘sacraments of faith.'”²

When in faith I come to the sacrament, it is my own faith that is strengthened and nourished. Moreover, not only does my marriage exist to sanctify me and my husband; it also edifies others within the church, and my faithfulness within my marriage is an act of worship to my God — the one who created me, redeemed me, and sanctifies me.

There is a great temptation — I have experienced it and fallen prey to it — for the married individual to look everywhere other than his or her spouse for a method of spiritual renewal. Perhaps there is a new book, perhaps more prayer, perhaps many things. Of course these all are worthy pursuits. Yet, God in his wisdom designed an avenue by which we can obtain holiness as married individuals — union with our spouses. My husband is the best mirror I have for revealing my sinful flaws and selfish inclinations. Quite honestly, if he wasn’t in my life — if I was running solo — there would be many flaws that I could easily ignore. There is a wonderful grace that God gives in the gift of a spouse, because your spouse doesn’t need to be perfect to help you reveal your flaws and the ways in which your faith needs to grow. Each in their own shortcomings husband and wife reveal the other’s deepest brokenness and provide opportunities for personal holiness, opportunities for blessing other believers, and (most importantly) opportunities for worshipping our great God.


¹ Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) 1641-1642

² CCC 1123

Put Your Hands to It

An interesting and surprising realization hit me the other day — I hardly ever write things. No, I’m not referring to my rather long postpartum absence from this blog, and I’m not talking about the craft of writing. I type emails on my computer, grocery lists on Apple’s “Reminders,” updates on Facebook and Twitter apps, and texts on my phone. But other than the rare (unfortunately) thank-you note to a friend, I don’t actually write much. Writing — the act of using pen and paper — we are still familiar with this, correct?

We type into virtual notepads, notebooks, journals and stationary more now than physical ones. Writing has become a mediated form of intrapersonal and interpersonal communication. Okay, so what? Many things have moved into mediated or electronic forms because it is more efficient, right? Yes, that is true. In economic terms, it takes less time, can be better preserved, and takes up less physical space. We may have gained efficiency, but I wonder what we lose by not taking pen and paper in hand.

If a practice starts to lack in utilitarian function, it often goes the way of the buffalo. In some schools in our country administrators have either done away with handwriting in the curriculum or seriously considered removing it. They argue that the time would be better spent focusing on typing and computer literacy skills that students must have to be successful in life. (It boggles my mind that the issue is either/or and not both/and.) It seems the shift away from physical pen and paper serves as one illustration of a larger cultural push to be ever more efficient and conceptualize the worth of many things monetarily.

Should utility be the only or primary measure of something’s worth? If so, why is it that I started thinking about all of this when I realized that I missed the way a pen felt in my hand? Why is it that the physical formation of letters and words on a piece of paper starts to unlock my creativity and generate meaningful thoughts? Why is it that I miss the tactile nature of my handwriting.

I believe that it has everything to do with the way we are made as embodied spirits. We are made to put our hands to things, not just our minds. In fact, it is in the act of putting our hands to things that they often become meaningful or help us create meaning. But putting our hands to things — involving our bodies in the semiotic process — is not always useful. In other words, it may not increase our net worth or save us time in our busy day.

For example, when I am in mass and physically participating in the liturgy, I am not accomplishing a task. Yet, my physical actions are full of meaning, and there is a mystical connection between what my body is doing and what my spirit experiences. Father Robert Barron, in his documentary series Catholicism, has described the liturgy of the mass as a useless activity, one that has no utilitarian purpose.

I think the push toward efficiency and economy in our lives (a result of modernist cultural influence) actually robs us of some experiences that would open our minds and make us more contemplative people. When we put our hands to things we are participating in what they represent. I recently experienced this in getting ready for the birth of our new son this past spring. I decided that I would make a few things for the nursery and for the new room into which my two-year-old was moving.

I confess, the initial decision to sew some basket liners and paint letter tiles for the wall was the result of not finding what I wanted online. So I bought some chalk board paint and borrowed a friend’s sewing machine. It started out as a “nesting” project, but then it became much more. With the hum of the sewing machine and my hands guiding the fabric, I found myself imagining playing with my boys in this space that I was creating for them. With every stroke of paint, my thoughts turned to contemplating motherhood and my role in my kids’ lives.

I suddenly had a desire to create more things — not because there was some need of them, but because of the space the physical activity allowed for contemplation.  I now understood why people love sewing, or quilting, or gardening, or painting, or smoking their pipes. These physical activities  (hobbies, as they have been labeled in our modern age) involve a tactile activity that opens up a contemplative atmosphere in our lives. I think that is one aspect of what happens in mass; I think that is the substance of my inkling to take pen and paper in hand.

We have been created as contemplative beings, but much of our daily activities in modern life do not draw us to contemplation; they drive us from it. After a while, our souls start to feel parched — the way our physical bodies feel when going too long without water. We need space in our lives for contemplation; so we need to put our hands to things more often. Grab a pen, pipe, needle and thread or your garden hoe; and let that physical activity open up space for contemplating life.

Labels are Symbols: Denominations as an Illustration

Christians use a lot of labels for themselves, for each other, and for other people. They do so to identify themselves with particular sub-cultures and distinguish themselves from others. Denominational labels are some of the most common, and given the fact that the protestant tradition in America is highly fragmented (Christian Smith makes some good observations on this topic),  we end up with a lot of denominational labels floating around in the rhetorical atmosphere.¹

You may ask, isn’t it good to be able to clarify and distinguish between theological differences? Well, maybe. But packaged in those denominational labels is much more than theological differences. These labels function as symbols, verbal vessels carrying a lot of associations, cultural stereotypes, and divergent meanings for both the senders and receivers of communication messages. Because of this, denominational labels that we use to describe ourselves often have very different meanings for us than the meanings attributed to them by those with which we are communicating, especially if they identify with different denominational labels.

I am always on the lookout for narratives that help illustrate this phenomenon. This past week I came across a great one in Jamie Smith’s book, Thinking in Tongues (which my husband had been telling me to read for months). The following is an excerpt that provides a humorous and poignant example of how one denominational label can function as two (or more) very different symbols, based on who is using (or interpreting) it:

The oak-paneled walls of the McGill Faculty Club glistened with privilege and prestige; the room felt like it incarnated the university’s global influence and vaunted heritage. The space was abuzz with the quiet, sometimes affected, chatter and conversation of scholars and fawning graduate students, awash in dark jackets, khaki trousers, and an inordinate number of bow ties, it seemed to me. My first foray into the environs of the Canadian “Ivy League,” I felt like an early anthropological explorer making first contact with an “exotic” world. This was a long way from Bethel Pentecostal Tabernacle, perched on the edge of Stratford, Ontario — five hundred miles east but a world away. My discomfort, tinged with just a hint of a thrill, was a product of that cultural distance — as if the trip from Bethel to McGill has stretched taut a rubber band now full of energy, but also prone to snap.

I found myself here due to the hospitality of the Canadian Theological Society (CTS). Each year, CTS sponsored a graduate student essay competition and the winner enjoyed travel and accommodations to present the winning paper at the annual meeting. In 1994 this had given me the opportunity to attend my first CTS meeting in Calgary, Alberta; having won the competition a second time, I now found myself at McGill. The smaller academic world in Canada yields a kind of professional life that seems more familiar and intimate, more widely suffused with friendship and collegiality, and so the annual banquet of CTS was a charming, lively, chatty affair. It was at this banquet that my award was announced, and upon returning to me seat a distinguished Canadian theologian sitting next to me graciously struck up a conversation. So where are you studying? Who is your adviser? What are you working on? Slowly these questions, in response to my answers, migrated to matters of faith and ecclesial identity. Since I was studying at the Institute for Christian Studies in Toronto, my interlocutor naturally asked: “And so, are you from the Dutch Reformed Tradition?”

“Oh, no,” I replied. “I’m a Pentecostal.”

It’s amazing how much human emotion and communication can be crammed into a nanosecond. By the time the word had come to the end of my tongue, I knew I had said something wrong. And before I had even finished the word, a strange brew of academic alarm and snobbery flickered across the face of my conversation partner. I can’t remember if he actually coughed and choked on his dinner at that point, or whether that detail is a creation of memory, a pictorial place holder that captures the response conveyed more covertly. In any case, the good professor could not mask his surprise and bewilderment. “You mean you grew up Pentecostal?” he further inquired. This was clearly a strategy that would allay his cognitive dissonance, as if saying to himself: “A graduate student in philosophical theology, engaging Heidegger and Derrida and Moltmann, can’t possibly be a Pentecostal. He must have meant he was a Pentecostal.”

“No,” I replied. “I mean I worship in a Pentecostal church every Sunday. I even preach a little bit.”

His strategy for resolving the cognitive dissonance denied, the conversation quickly devolved into awkward pleasantries and a final “Would you excuse me?” Left at the table to process what had just happened, I felt farther away than ever from Bethel Pentecostal Tabernacle. And yet, it was in that experience that the seeds for this book were planted.²

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1. Christian Smith, How to Go from Being a Good Evangelical to a Committed Catholic in Ninety-Five Difficult Steps (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2011).

2. James K. A. Smith, Thinking in Tongues: Pentecostal Contributions to Christian Philosophy (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010) 1-3.