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

First Anniversary

This past Sunday — June 22 — was a special day for my husband and me. It was our 1-year anniversary of coming into the Catholic Church. This past year has been one of unspeakable joy and amazing grace, as we have learned through practice what it means to be Catholic and what a treasure our faith is to our young family. At so many points in the last 12 months I have noticed God’s attention to detail, as significant events seem to have been punctuated by artistic expressions of His grace. Sunday was no different.

Not only was it extremely fitting to be sitting in weekend mass on this special day, but it was even more beautiful because that day was the first mass of our parish’s own Father Christopher Seith, who had been ordained in the Washington Archdiocese just the day before. Every detail of the mass was so special, done according to traditions that set the occasion apart. There was incense, special robes were worn, most of the mass was chanted, and several priests from the parish and co-seminarians celebrated the mass along with Fr. Seith. There were tears in the eyes of some parishioners — ones who had undoubtably watched Fr. Seith grow from childhood and prayed for him as he discerned God’s call to the priesthood. I can imagine what a blessing it was to those people in the congregation, as they were about to receive communion from the freshly anointed hands of their new priest.

As I half-knelt in my pew — my sweet baby sleeping peacefully on me in the carrier — during the Eucharistic blessing, I found my own eyes filling with tears. How special. How beautiful. I thought, God, the detail of your love is overwhelming! I was already filled with joy at being in mass today and remembering that first mass for our family one year ago. I am so touched that today would be the first mass of a young priest, and that the imagery such an event entailed would so poetically mirror my own conversion and first time at the Eucharistic table.

But God is good that way.  He gives us the markers and signposts we need, and then he gives us more to bless us with his love. In response to such blessing, I would offer up a prayer for all priests. In fact, I think that in years going forward I will not be able to think about my “Catholic anniversary” without thinking of and praying for our priests. Pray with me, and pray for our priests whenever God brings them to your mind:

“O Jesus, Eternal Priest, keep your priests within the shelter of your Most Sacred Heart, where none can touch them. Keep unstained their anointed hands, which daily touch your Sacred Body. Keep unsullied their lips, daily tinged with your Precious Blood. Keep pure and unworldly their hearts, sealed with the sublime mark of the priesthood. Let Your Holy Love surround and protect them from the world’s harmful ideas and practices. Bless their labors with abundant fruit, and may the souls to whom they minister be their joy and consolation here, and their everlasting crown in the hereafter. Amen.” ~ St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus

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June 22, 2013

Vocation Rhetoric – Part 4: Men and Women in the Workplace

In closing this discussion on vocational rhetoric, I have some observations on gender equality in the workplace that I think relate to this discussion. I have argued that what is lacking in many Christian (specifically protestant) communities is a vocational paradigm. I think that more often than not Christians have identified themselves more by their occupational role in society, rather than by their vocational role as followers of Christ. I see much of the rhetoric to be occupation-centric.

This kind of paradigm has permeated Christian mindsets and rhetoric within the workplace for decades, but I don’t know that it was always obvious. Our rhetorical paradigms function subconsciously, because they become ingrained over time through ritualistic, habitual practices. I think the problematic nature of this rhetoric has only been exposed in recent decades, as gender equality has transformed the workforce and challenged paradigms of societal roles for men and women. While the terms “occupation” and “vocation” have been used synonymously for decades, it used to be that men were generally the ones in danger of mistaking the terms as interchangeable because they composed the workforce. Before the feminist movement, before women had the right to vote, before society accepted women working in the same occupations as men, women didn’t have to worry about confusing the two. They were traditionally supported (monetarily) by their husbands’ occupations. The meaningful work to which they devoted their lives — raising their children, caring for family and household needs, civic participation and volunteer work  — was all unpaid; they were considered occupation-less with the socio-economic system. Until relatively recent history, I would argue that women were in less danger than men of confusing meaningful or vocational work with monetary compensation.

As a woman, I am exceedingly glad that we have evolved as a society to recognize that women and men are equally capable within the workforce, and I hope for continued gender diversity and equality within the every sector of the workforce. However, as the workforce has continued to diversify, I am concerned that women have bought into the socially constructed  notion that occupation holds some sort of primary significance to, or is synonymous with, vocation. I had rather hoped that as more women entered the workforce they would bring with them their sense of what makes work meaningful and significant within society, which (I believe) is historically more balanced and vocation-centric than the modern perspective men have operated under in the previously male-dominated workforce.

I don’t think that it is too late for women to resist the pressure to conform and be the force that offers a deeply needed corrective to the occupation-centric narrative in American culture. We already see plenty examples of women demanding that their companies be more “family focused,” arguing that employees that do not have to sacrifice time with their families due to unfair work constraints are happier, more productive, and more loyal to their companies. We see women continuing to reject “mommy-wars” rhetoric that cycles in and out of the media and blogosphere from time to time. I think that intelligent, Christian women understand that the important discussion is not about whether a woman has a paying occupation; rather, it is about holistically approaching the work that we deem to be important in various areas of our lives from a vocational perspective. (On a side note, plenty of men operate under a vocational perspective and advocate for such a perspective; yet it is not the narrative that permeates our socio-economic culture or workforce.)

I believe that Christian men and women of this generation have an important role to play in our faith communities and secular culture. We need to recapture a deeply ingrained understanding of our vocation — for ourselves, for our children, and for the coming generations. Our children need to be approaching adulthood with a clear and vibrant understanding of their vocational call as Christ-followers. As I indicated earlier, a rhetorical paradigm shift like this takes place over time and through the purposeful construction of symbolic narratives that become second-nature. While our generation may not see the fruit of this paradigm shift, we are the ones who must construct the narratives that will birth a vocation-centric paradigm for future generations of Christ-followers.

Vocation Rhetoric – Part 3: Career Satisfaction vs. Satisfying Your Vocational Call

I came across a really helpful visual on Michael Hyatt’s blog today. His post this morning addressed the issue of job satisfaction, and he laid out an argument for why job satisfaction (for Christians and non-Christians) occurs at the intersection of three vital components: passion, competence and marketplace value. Here’s the visual he used in his post:

Hyatt (former Thomas Nelson Chairman and CEO, bestselling author, and leadership consultant) focusses his mission and his writing on helping individuals become successful leaders in their chosen occupations. From what I know and have observed from his writing, he seems to have a keen understanding of effective leadership within the marketplace.

I share his diagram here, not because I disagree with it or his principles, but because it helps to illustrate the distinction I have been arguing for between “occupation” and “vocation.” As Hyatt illustrates, “career satisfaction” (occupational fulfillment) requires one component that fulfilling a vocational call does not — marketplace value.  Sometimes our vocational callings as Christians may benefit the marketplace, but they certainly exist irrespective of the marketplace. Hopefully this visual helps clarify the distinction I have been getting at in earlier posts on vocation rhetoric (parts 1 & 2).

I have one more post planned for this series on vocation, and then we will move on. Here’s a teaser…the last part on vocation rhetoric has to do with gender diversity in the workplace and how the growing number of women in the marketplace have the opportunity to help shift our cultural focus from a occupation-centric paradigm to a vocation-centric one.