But 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