The Catholic Church Saved My Marriage
Discovering Hidden Grace in the Sacrament of Matrimony
By David Anders
EWTN Publishing, 2018
240 pages, $17.95
To order: EWTNRC.com or by calling (800) 854-6316
A threefold cord, says the Book of Ecclesiastes, is not quickly broken. The prophet Solomon is speaking about the value of a friend; but often Ecclesiastes 4:12 is cited as an explanation of Christian marriage. The “Cord of Three Strands” is a symbol of the covenant union of a husband and wife, who are bound together in Christ on their wedding day. Only when a couple invites Christ into their marriage, when they join with him in love, will their relationship thrive and grow.
That effectively summarizes the story David Anders recounts in his candid recent book, The Catholic Church Saved My Marriage: Discovering Hidden Grace in the Sacrament of Matrimony. For years, David and his wife, Jill, had grown apart, each pursuing individual interests, until their marriage seemed on a crash course toward divorce. It was Jill who first acknowledged the depths to which they’d sunk, speaking the words that shook him out of his complacency. “I hate you,” she said.
Anders confesses that he had allowed brazen pride and ego to guide his actions, leading to the near-dissolution of his marriage. Today, David describes his marriage as “extremely happy”; but the Anderses’ love blossomed only after they had each recognized the truths to be found in the Catholic Church, and especially in the Church’s profound teachings on marriage.
A Recipe for Marital Failure
David Anders recalls when he had little time for his wife and family. He was a doctoral student who was consumed by his studies. Jill felt abandoned, handling the responsibilities of the household and childcare on her own. “Emotionally,” writes Anders, “I had left her for the library. I worked long, long hours, leaving my wife and children at home while I pursued my professional interests.”
The family was struggling financially, as well, after 10 years of David’s graduate school. And because they had moved frequently from one campus and from one state to another, they had developed no social network to help allay Jill’s loneliness.
But the deepest need, Anders realized later, was spiritual. They had married as evangelical Protestants and believed in the indissolubility of marriage; but that proved an insufficient framework upon which to build a lifetime of love. “I knew nothing about real prayer,” Anders admitted, “because I rejected the wisdom of Christian tradition and the transforming power of grace. All I needed was ‘faith alone,’ my own individual, self-sufficient, cocksure ‘faith.’ At the heart of my failing marriage, I had wrapped up and baptized my sins and vices in a religious veneer.”
Jill brought to the marriage problems of her own. Her own parents had had a troubled relationship, punctuated by drunken fights and screaming. They offered no leadership and no direction, no religious or moral instruction, but, rather, left her to fend for herself. She grew up with a conflicted view of marriage and sexuality — longing for love, yet distrustful, with only the weak example of popular culture to guide her.
Once their children were born, David and Jill brought their disparate views to bear in parenting, with David focusing on their children’s intellectual development while Jill, still deeply impacted by her own deficient family upbringing, stressed the physical health and safety of the children.
Looking back on the years of conflict and tension, Anders recognized two foundational problems: They lacked an understanding of marriage and a lack of personal virtue. Only later, in the Catholic Church, would they find the answers to important questions: What is the purpose of marriage? What is the purpose of marital sexuality? How is marriage related to one’s service in the Church and one’s relationship with God?
An Anti-Catholic Heritage
David grew up in an evangelical Presbyterian church; and while he met a number of ex-Catholics who complained about their spiritual upbringing, he had little contact with practicing Catholics. He had no Catholic friends, teachers or mentors. Catholics, he believed, were ignorant, superstitious and immoral, with a neurotic fear of damnation and little understanding of God’s grace. They were slavishly obedient to the pope, and they tried to climb their way to heaven by repeating empty rituals, he believed. In his secular high school and college careers, he was again exposed to blatant anti-Catholicism in his reading and through his teachers and professors. In short, David described himself as “an anti-Catholic bigot — a narrow-minded, cocksure, stupid bigot.”
Jill’s background was different, but her problems were no less severe. Jill had been raised Catholic, but her parents were not devout, and she viewed Catholics as mean and unlikeable. “They show up at Mass on Sunday,” Jill said, “but they don’t talk to one another. They fight to get out of the parking lot first.” She had long since abandoned her childhood faith.
David was in graduate school when he first met Catholics who didn’t fit his low expectations — Catholics who were sincere, well informed and prepared to engage the culture. First was his friend Dave, a pleasant young man who didn’t judge and got along with everyone, but who wore a crucifix around his neck and railed against society’s preoccupation with sex. Later, a professor, although himself a nonbeliever, expressed his profound respect for the Catholic Church and sparked in David a renewed interest in faith. A fellow graduate, a specialist in New Testament scholarship, argued that it was the Catholics who got it right about justification. David began reading Catholic theologians, studied the lives of Catholic saints, and explored the robust writing of St. Augustine of Hippo. Through Augustine’s eyes, David discovered the Church as a living body united across time and space by the connective tissue of sacraments, joined in a transcendent vision of divine love.
But perhaps one of the strongest turning points was a presentation by a visiting scholar, ethicist James Gaffney, who explained from reason alone the objective value of the unborn child. Professor Gaffney wasn’t proselytizing — he didn’t use religious arguments at all. Instead, he demonstrated how science can prove the humanity, hence the intrinsic value, of the unborn.
A Change of Heart, and NFP
After that presentation in early 2000, David went home and asked Jill whether she would attend a natural family planning (NFP) class with him. (NFP is the Church-approved means by which a married couple, observing the woman’s natural cycles of fertility, can avoid or achieve pregnancy.) At that point in their marriage, the couple were barely speaking to one another, and Jill refused; but undeterred, David found a local chapter of the Couple to Couple League and began attending classes on his own. As his marriage was falling apart, he was attracted to the ideal of spiritual friendship.
What followed was a journey of discovery, as David drew wisdom from the saints, peace from prayer and, finally, comfort from the confessional. By this time, the Anders family had moved to Alabama, and David found his way to the chapel at EWTN. There, he found an insightful teacher and a gentle confessor in the late Capuchin Father Angelus Shaughnessy. In November 2003, at the same time his youngest son, Justin, was baptized, David made a profession of faith in the Catholic Church and received the sacrament of confirmation.
For the next four years, Jill did not share her husband’s faith. A family trip to France and a visit to the relics of St. Thérèse of Lisieux proved an important step, as Jill prayed for the saint’s help in healing their broken marriage and broken family. David Anders explained: “Jill dates her own conversion to January 22, 2008, six months from our visit to Lisieux. She went from no interest in the Catholic faith to an overwhelming desire to give herself completely to Christ in the Church.”
Back at home, it was Father Shaughnessy who helped Jill to finally overcome the hurts of her past, heal her marriage and return to the Catholic faith, this time with renewed vigor and commitment.
Together in faith, David and Jill Anders still faced struggles in their marriage; but through prayer, they learned to love one another again. As Father Shaughnessy’s wise counsel had been instrumental in David’s conversion, so he helped Jill to understand her past and present circumstances in a new way and helped her to think in a different way about the likelihood of future suffering. She learned to join her sufferings with the sufferings of Christ and to follow the example of St. Teresa of ávila, embracing contemplative prayer.
David and Jill Anders’ journey is one that has been shared by countless other couples, husbands and wives who find marriage too difficult without the gift of sacramental grace. This story will be an inspiration to those who seek peace in their marriages and to those who seek to know the truth that Jesus revealed to us in his Church.
Kathy Schiffer writes from
Seneca, South Carolina.