A few years ago, we went to a retirement dinner of friend. He’s a great guy and a staunch Presbyterian, and one of my verbal sparring buddies. Asked to say a few words, he made the predictable comments about his career, then veered off into talking about his almost 50 year marriage. I’ll never forget my astonishment at how he talked about marriage being a hard, hard struggle. I’ll also not soon forget the amused look in his wife’s eyes. My pal is one of those folks who just can’t seem give himself permission to express unadulterated joy in public....and his indulgent wife knew how to read between the lines, even if we didn’t, at first.
Marriage as struggle is a common theme these days, and for too many it is: a knock-down, drag-out affair in which, the popular narrative (especially the feminist one) insists that one of the partners is lost in the will of the other one, never to be seen again. For too many of us, marriage has become an inconvenient convenience, a social and legal fabrication to be tossed away and refashioned at will. An institution, a mere convention, not a living, breathing vocation for which the partners are both called and shaped.
Thirty six years ago yesterday, I entered my vocation. My groom and I were married in a concrete block community hall decorated with billboards of Christmas cards, thanks to rain that made our outdoor plans impossible. Something of an omen--things often do not turn out like you think they will, but then again--wet knots hold tightest. We were married by the medical school chaplain, my groom in a rented suit, and I in a homemade dress. Unchurched at the time, we wrote our own vows that gave a passing nod to God, but it seems that’s all He needed of us.
I’ve read those vows over in the passing years and been struck by how insightful they really were. We promised to make a life together that was greater than either of our lives apart. We promised to laugh and cry and disagree with each other, knowing our love needed all those things to survive. We promised to make our commitment new every day. And we asked the prayers of our friends and family in doing so.
Our vows quickly evolved into a sort of Rule of the Order for our marriage. Having reached the point where I have been married far longer than I was single, I think it’s probably not too presumptuous to conclude that our rules laid the foundation in which God worked to shape us, to shape our marriage and to bring us closer to Him.
The rules? Not hard, and really, only three:
- To view our marriage as a being in itself, one we needed to nurture above all others, even our own lives: the unchurched, hippie version of sacrificial commitment to marriage and later, family.
- Never to go to bed angry. This was a doozy in the early years of working out the kinks of living together, especially given that my groom and I are in many ways polar opposites. When you add in the fact that we were chronically sleep-deprived medical students, it was a tough rule, but we never broke it. There were more than a few times we were up nearly all night wresting some issue to ground. After a while it adds a certain clarity to one’s stubbornness: am I willing to give up sleep for this position? More and more often the answer was no, and when it was, I was amazed at how we managed to find common ground that we never saw before. We still differed in our perspectives, but disagreement wasn’t the source of separation. It was the first time I realized I could love, really love, someone I disagreed with. Let God in that crack in your defenses, and no telling where that will lead.
- To recommit to our marriage first thing every morning and before going to sleep at night. To this day, we repeat a portion of our vows on rising and retiring, and text each other the abbreviation ilyacytbmh/wtdaed when absent one from the other.
We’ve had an ordinary-extraordinary marriage with all the usual peaks and valleys. Infertility, then a miscarriage and finally an uninsured preemie who came two full months early at a time in our lives when we literally collected soda bottles to tide us over from paycheck to paycheck. Financial pressures, including one memorable time when we had four mortgages and would have had to borrow money to sell one of the houses we “owned.” Chronic illness and death of three parents. Estrangement and reconciliation with parents and children and siblings and friends. Adolescents, including the seemingly obligatory brush with John Law and deep, terrifying depressions. Good business deals and bad. Accidents and adventures. Fear, uncertainty, conflict, sorrow, anger, doubts, special needs, PMS--all there. More than enough rocks in the river to wreck a marriage--most of our medical school cohort are on their second--or third--marriages, with lives not so very different in stress and experience than ours and some much more placid.
But the strange thing is that, from where I sit today, I don’t experience any of that as hard or as a struggle, even when I remember the pain that I experienced--physical and spiritual--in the midst of them. To borrow a phrase from St. Paul, I count it all joy.
Joy because our marriage has truly become what we wanted it to be: a living entity, a “two-become-one person” in whom the threads of my life have become so intwined with those of my husband’s that they can no longer be separated. Joy because I understand that getting to where I am required going to all those places, pleasant and not, in the past. Joy because marriage imagery is all over the New Testament, and I understand better that my marriage journey on earth is meant to be a mirror of my journey with Christ. Same peaks, same valleys, same intertwining of threads that happens so slowly and so delicately that I don’t even know it is happening until I take a moment to look back and am amazed and humbled. I don’t understand it with my intellect, this process of growing through the journey, but I know it in my heart and it sustains me even when I am unaware of it.
Two cocky, secular, second year med students decided to marry thirty-six years ago, and because of their parents and families and guardian angels, they left the tiniest crack in their well-constructed, theoretically perfect life-plan and God sneaked in, as He is wont to do. Give Him and inch, and He’ll take it all.
This morning, I got a note from a friend asking God to bless us on our anniversary. He has. Oh, He has!
Thanks be to God.