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First Comes Love, Part 1
Healing as a grace of the Sacrament of Marriage
This article is the first in a two-part series.
An important caveat: The dynamics we discuss below depend on a marriage founded on mutual self-gift. If you think you might be in an abusive marriage, I would encourage you to reach out to Jenny at Create Soul Space: Domestic Abuse Support and Healing, as she is doing incredible work to build up the Church’s support for survivors of domestic abuse.
First Comes Love
When my husband and I got engaged, we went through a fairly standard marriage preparation process: monthly meetings with a sponsor couple, a mediocre workbook that we half-heartedly completed, and a few touch-bases with the deacon at our parish who coordinates the paperwork and the ceremony. Through all of this, we were prepared to face arguments and conflicts, financial struggles, drama about holiday plans, and questions of basic spousal and family prayer. All in all, while I wish that our marriage preparation had been more thorough and more prayerful, I do feel that it prepared us fairly well for living out the day-to-day reality of marriage.
What I didn’t feel prepared for was the way in which the Lord would use our marriage to heal deep wounds in my heart.
Not, of course, that I wish someone had made a guarantee to me during our engagement: “Yes, by four years into marriage, these wounds will be completely healed and no longer tender at all!”
That would have set us up for unrealistic expectations, and in many ways would have risked closing us off to the very graces they were promising. But I do think that there is a way for us to teach couples how to tend the soil of their hearts so that those graces of healing can be gently expected, anticipated, and received fully. “Prepare the fields for rain.”
We all enter our marriage with wounds and bad habits—unless one is the Blessed Mother, this is an inevitable consequence of living in a post-lapsarian world.
Whether those wounds come from childhood, from friendships, or from previous romantic relationships, we bring them into our marriage along with the rest of our selves.
Likewise with our bad habits: whether they originated as survival behaviors, defense mechanisms, or simply (“simply”) vices we didn’t weed out, marriage will not “cure” those habits overnight.
However, if we truly believe that our married vocation is ordered to our holiness and the holiness of our spouse, then it follows necessarily that the Lord will give us the opportunity to receive all the graces necessary for our sanctification. This includes graces of healing and graces of virtue. While these graces are offered daily in a myriad of ways, I want to focus today on two specific areas where the Lord has used the grace of our marriage to allow us to pursue holiness: space and security to work through wounds, and freedom to choose how to parent our children.
Then Comes Marriage
In the relationship at the heart of our marriage, we hope that we will always find love and affection in the form of mutual self-gift. St. John Paul II’s classic teachings on the Theology of the Body speaks of four qualities of married love: free, total, faithful, and fruitful.
The reason that these four “marks” are so critical to a healthy and holy marriage is that they provide a foundation of safety and security.
In other words, if I am confident that my spouse freely chose to love me (to the exclusion of any other woman) with his whole self until one of us dies, then I can be confident that he’s not going anywhere, that he has my back, and that he is prepared to spend his life working for my sanctification. (And I am, I hope, the same for him.)
If I can be confident in these truths, then I know that I have the space and the security to allow the Lord—the Divine Physician—to work in my heart, to remove infected tissue, clean and stitch up open wounds, and change the bandages regularly.
In other words, I have permission to be mentally, emotionally, and spiritually messy. Imperfect. In progress. I can rest in the certainty that I’m not going to “scare him off.”
Whenand I got married, I had a deep, deep wound around the Traditional Latin Mass and the traditional community in our college town. This was a wound that had begun years prior, but it had been exacerbated while we were dating for numerous reasons. His participation in our post-grad parish’s regular TLM’s as an altar server brought to the forefront of my heart so many fears and so much pain, and there were many times that I felt angry at him for, as it seemed at the time, choosing the TLM community over me.
Over the course of our first year of marriage, I began to realize that his love of the TLM wasn’t going anywhere, and that my own wounds were deeply infected, festering, and causing intense division between us.
He began to realize that all of his intellectual attempts to persuade me of the beauty of the Mass were only making things worse.
Eventually, the frequent, active fighting calmed down into a more-or-less uncomfortable silence on the topic.
I would occasionally attend a Mass at which he was altar serving, as a way of supporting him, and he stopped bringing up traditional or trad-adjacent topics around me. I can’t tell you how many Masses I spent crying silently, wrestling with the Lord as to why He would allow this. I’m convinced I gave myself a Bible cyst from shaking my wrist over and over and over again in an ill-fated coping mechanism for the intense anxiety I experienced at one particular TLM.
But, once this unspoken agreement had developed between us, I found that I was finally ready for the work the Lord wanted to do in my heart.
As our marriage grew and strengthened, and as I became more secure in our relationship and more sure of myself, I was able to welcome the healing that I thought I didn’t need, and that I certainly didn’t want.
Increasing familiarity with the rite of the Traditional Latin Mass decreased the anxiety I felt around it. Getting to know—and being known by—some lovely “trads” calmed the fear that James would, inevitably, grow to hate me for not being like “them”.
Eventually—over time and with an incredible, undeserved grace of humility—I came not only to tolerate the TLM but to love it, and to mourn it when our season of weekly attendance came to a close.
The Lord was able to free me from the vitriolic anger that so frequently consumed me, replacing it with a genuine joy and a desire to praise Him.
Furthermore, just as an understanding of the Latin language often strengthens the student’s grasp of English, the increased familiarity with the traditional liturgy offered (and still offers) a unique insight into the movements of the Novus Ordo. None of this would have been possible without the certainty (intellectual, if not always emotional) that James was not going to leave me for not being traditional enough. The security of our marriage offered me the space I needed to freely ask questions, wrestle with my own past experiences, and allow the Lord to work in my heart.
This is the grace of the sacrament of marriage. Our spouses are called to point us to Christ, and in so doing, they become backdrop and often the very instrument by which the Lord is able to work healing in us. Of course, there will be times when each of us fails to love the other in a way that mirrors and imitates the love between Christ and His Church, and we will inevitably wound one another in ways that require healing.
I would never try to claim that a human relationship, even one cemented and blessed by God, could perfectly fulfill and heal the human heart. But the overall trajectory of marriage is, by the grace of God, toward healing and wholeness rather than away.
This is the first in a two-part series on the challenges—and blessings—of marriage.
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