In Marriage, Joys Are God's Gifts and Sufferings Can Be Holy Sacrifices

Pascal Dagnan-Bouveret, “Blessing of the Young Couple Before Marriage” (c. 1880)
Pascal Dagnan-Bouveret, “Blessing of the Young Couple Before Marriage” (c. 1880) (photo: Public Domain)

Last week my husband and I (plus the wee baby) snuck away for the day to attend a marriage retreat, hosted by our parish priest. We’re fortunate because living in Colorado, any and all retreats are inevitably located in breathtakingly beautiful settings — although being a native of Southern California, I must also confess that even the most majestic of mountains is no substitute for the ocean. Sniff, sniff. Oh, Pismo Beach, with your sparkling shores and delectable clam chowder, how I miss thee.

But anyway.

It’s funny because in spite of living a mere forty-five minutes from the ranch where the retreat was being held, we had a real heck of a time getting there. By that I mean that we got terribly lost, and showed up an hour late. I’m still not even sure why or how it happened, although I do know that two of my kids had just returned to school that week, we’d been running in a million different directions, and also my cell phone charger had developed a disease of sorts the night before, one that involved a lack of charging IN SPITE OF THE CHARGER LIGHT BEING ON. Then that morning we left the house late, I suddenly realized in the car that I had forgotten to bring along my beloved Legal Addictive Stimulant (otherwise known as coffee), and then somewhere along the way we discovered we had gotten bad directions off the interwebz. We could not find Singing River Ranch Road, no we could not.

The beach would have been easier to spot. We would have been on time if we’d been going to the beach. Just sayin’.

So back and forth, back and forth we drove, over the winding roads and past the many cyclists taking up too much of the lane. While scanning barely-visible street signs and unmarked dirt paths, we muttered about how we Heldts really don’t belong in mountainous Colorado, and lamented my phone’s bout of anemia rendering GPS navigation impossible. We argued. We eventually stopped at a golf course, where my husband went into the restaurant to ask for help, and which resulted in his being taken to the kitchen to speak with the cook — which is where someone mistook him for a restaurant employee, and told him that he needed to take care of a “toilet paper issue” in the restroom.

You just can’t make this stuff up, folks.

But eventually we were on our way again, and after one last brief detour to the wrong house (“Where are all of our friends’ cars?”), we did indeed, finally, arrive at our destination.

During the “personal reflection” portion of the morning, there were questions about whether or not you’d hardened your heart, how that might affect your relationships, and also a question about God’s dream for your family. As my husband and I sat by a creek in the sunshine while I nursed the baby (who had mercifully remained sleeping throughout the morning’s many mishaps), we laughed about the ridiculous past few hours, and the reality of living life in the trenches of raising nine children. My husband remarked that it is, it seems, the daily grind most prone to wearing him down. I agreed. Life and its various cares just never seem to stop. There is always SOMETHING. Sometimes it’s as simple as the general drudgery of getting dinner on the table every single night, and sometimes it’s the more complex issue of navigating a thing (medication, academics, problems that accompany special needs, behavior, extracurricular activities) with one of the kids. Occasionally it’s a season of my husband working mandatory long hours, or a period of time where we feel distant from one another for no good reason at all.

And, those “somethings” can add up. Even if nothing particularly traumatic befalls us, we grow weary. We slip into bad habits and cease being intentional about pursuing things like radical love and faith in our family. Time passes and we notice that we have gotten off-track (not terribly unlike how we did on the way to the retreat), and we make some corrections, but still I feel frustrated and defeated. I wonder why the best of intentions so often fall by the wayside — why is it so hard to keep up with nightly family prayers, to regularly set aside a specific time for the children to do an examination of conscience, to sit and read the Catechism or Sacred Scripture together?

Later that morning, my priest shared the following gem from Saint Bernard: 

Through these sacred wounds we can see the secret of His heart, the great mystery of love, the sincerity of His mercy … Where have Your love, Your mercy, Your compassion shone out more luminously than in Your wounds, sweet, gentle Lord of mercy? More mercy than this no one has than that he lay down his life for those who are doomed to death.

My merit comes from His mercy; for I do not lack merit so long as He does not lack pity. And if the Lord’s mercies are many, then I am rich in merits. For even if I am aware of many sins, what does it matter? Where sin abounded grace has overflowed. And if the Lord’s mercies are from all ages for ever, I too will sing of the mercies of the Lord for ever. Will I not sing of my own righteousness? No, Lord, I shall be mindful only of Your justice. Yet that too is my own; for God has made You my righteousness.

It made me think, really think, about how so many of my problems are the unfortunate result of not fully trusting Jesus or resting in His mercy. I think I somehow have to earn my own merits as a wife and mom, or do everything just-so, or check off a bunch of boxes to be a “good Catholic”. Instead of fixing my eyes upon a loving and merciful savior, I shoulder more than I ought — no wonder I occasionally grow weary and discouraged!

Pursuing a life of holiness through the vocation of marriage is obviously long, hard work. With lots of twists and turns. And it absolutely requires a commitment to keeping a soft, open heart — in my case, not losing sight of Jesus in the many small but necessary things I do each day. Whether it’s getting kids ready for school, emptying the dishwasher, or brainstorming with my husband about how to set an easily-distracted child up for success in the classroom, I can be mindful of Christ’s love for me. When, in spite of my best efforts, things don’t go the way I wish they would, I can offer that up as a sacrifice in union with Jesus’ sacred wounds on the cross. God is a loving Father wanting to bring hope and healing to not only the world, but also my family. And yours.

So as my husband and I finally reflected upon what God’s dream for our family might be, we considered that it is, ultimately, to keep running this race. To accompany these precious kids on their respective journeys through life, and to accompany one another on our journeys toward Heaven. Any successes are purely a gift from the Lord, and any discouragements or failures we encounter along the way can be offered as imperfect sacrifices. And, there WILL be discouragements, because the daily grind of marriage and parenting will never be easy. But we can remain open to love, life, and the occasional unexpected, coffee-less detour. All because we humbly place our hope and faith in the mercy and merits of Jesus.