In Defense of May (and Marriage)

Tra la! It’s May! The lusty month of May! That lovely month when ev’ryone… Guenevere belts exuberantly. Everyone, what? The fantastical composer of Camelot would have us believe…

It’s mad, it’s gay, alive, a lust display
Those dreary vows that everyone takes, everyone breaks
Everyone makes divine mistakes.
The lusty month of May.

Spectacular? Yes. Glamorous? Yes. Over-the-top? For sure? But there is absolutely nothing about May — compared to any other month — to justify the disparaging suggestion that it is a time when dreary vows everyone takes, everyone breaks.

Quite the contrary! I’m honored to have been asked to officiate at a couple of weddings in the next few months. My considered assessment based on interaction with these couples suggests something beautiful, wonderful, singular and sacred.

Officiating is being invited to get up, close and personal with the intimacy shared by a couple. But we all witness the same mystifying magic when two people commit to loving their one-and-only unto death. It’s not as rare as cynics suggest. However, it’s more precious than even we can imagine.

My husband and I enjoyed dinner with one such couple this weekend. Below is my thank you to them from the next day. I share it here in the form of an open letter with the hope that its contents express something worthwhile for others as well.  Of course, names have been changed and descriptors generalized to protect this precious couple’s privacy:

Dear Ginny and Peter,

It was wonderful to reconnect and renew friendship last evening. We had a really enjoyable time with you over dinner and covering a broad range of topics in conversation. Thanks for your warm and generous hospitality — the prep time it took to prepare such a feast (homemade pasta!!!!) is recognized and appreciated!!! We also love Willow and cannot wait to introduce him to Jeb the Dog.

Savoring our time with you, a few more thoughts have come to mind. For example, I cannot say often enough, prepare for your marriage every bit as much as for your wedding. Yes, you’ve got great experience of living together as a couple and significant knowledge of each other. Don’t take that for granted, build on it!

You might simply reflect — personally as well as together — on the question, “What does it mean for me/us to make a public, permanent ‘I’m-not-going-anywhere-without-you’ commitment?” Make a point of talking with each other about the details of, and dreams for, your relationship even more than the specificities and practical details of your wedding.

Take advantage of the wisdom that surrounds you in your families and communities. You might say to people and couples you admire and respect, “We look forward to our marriage as much as our wedding. We really appreciate the way you live your life and believe you have tried and true wisdom to share. What good counsel would you care to share with us based on your experience?”

The sort of people you’d want to ask that question would be deeply honored — and probably humbled — that you’d seek their confidence. Then listen, listen, listen! Engage them with questions that further plumb their wisdom. These conversations may turn out to be more valuable than any wedding gift you receive from them.

Another thing occurred to me this morning while walking with Jeb the Dog at the creek… The link between spirituality and intimacy. A crude but accurate way of expressing it is, “Sex and love-making is not just about our bodies!”

Intimacy — deeply satisfying, other-centered, life-giving connection — is not just about being physically naked but by being emotionally and spiritually transparent, received and treasured by your one-and-only. In this way, your lives will deepen and your ongoing commitment will be greatly enhanced — both on your wedding day and all the years to come. Begin cultivating now this desire and capacity to actively engage each other spirituality.

That might sound pretty abstract, even disembodied. Here’s a practical way it might take shape for you… Today I am ordering for you a copy of Joan Chittister’s most recent book, Radical Spirit: Twelve Ways to Live a Free and Authentic Life from Barnes & Noble. Not because it’s about marriage, it’s not! I’m sending it because anything Joan Chittister writes is worth reading.

I propose that you read it together and talk about it as you go. It’s not “homework” from the guy officiating at your wedding. It’s simply an explicit invitation to you as a couple to develop the habit of continuously deepening your capacity to share intimately about your spirituality — to be transparent, received and treasured in this core part of who you are personally and together. You both seem to like books. Perhaps sharing some spiritual reading is a practice you will want to continue in the years ahead.

Do this, or something more to your liking, because you want to as a lead-up to your wedding day. Keep doing some practice of explicit sharing of your spiritual selves as an ongoing enrichment to your lives throughout your marriage. It’s then that you will enjoy the cumulative gifts of deeply physical, emotional and spiritual love-making — the greatest proof for, and most intimate encounter with, the love of God we can experience this side of whatever else is next!

This sort of marriage will be my heartfelt desire for you as I officiate at your ceremony but also all the while we are enjoying a great celebration of fun, family and frivolity.

Again, thanks for a most enjoyable dinner and conversation last evening. The two of you, together, are a blessing.

Richard

Grandma had a Grandma, Too!

Going to Grandma’s house was never much fun. I didn’t have the words then but now I’d describe her as austere, rigid, stoic, an old woman for whom life had been a disappointment. Memories make me wonder if she was ever truly happy.

There are no photos of her smiling, no family stories of joviality, no warm hugs like those we enjoyed from our other Grandma. A snapshot taken in front of the house on their 50th wedding anniversary in 1954 shows a couple standing at attention, conspicuously separate from the other, Grandma taller than our retiring Grandpa.

Dad always sympathized with his Dad. He’d recall from time to time, “There was no question who wore the pants in our family.” More than once, Mom said, “It’s really a shame that a son would feel that way about his mother.” Well after Grandma died in 1967 Dad would rehash such memories. For a long time they seemed to still hold him bound.

One account suffices to capture how these memories could slide into resentment. At the height of the Depression, Mom and Dad were struggling farmers trying really hard to hold on to the farm (they succeeded). Grandma, on the other hand, made a big production of buying a new fur coat. Mom and Dad were buying the farm from Grandpa and Grandma and knew they dare not be late with a payment. Dad was desperately trying to feed an ever-growing brood not buy his Mom a new fur coat! Really, what kind of Mother or Grandma would act like that?

Well, this week — fifty years after Grandma’s death — a flood of insight, compassion and affection has taken me off-guard. It came in the form of an even older family story unknown until it seemingly appeared out of the blue through the wonders of the Internet. It’s an obscure story recorded in her native German by a Franciscan Sister from LaCrosse, Wisconsin that tell of events from 1826. The story is about Grandma’s grandma!

Sister Colomba, OSF tells how her mother, Anna was born to Johanna Druffner on July 26, 1826 in Rottweiler, Schwarzwaldkreis, Wuerttemberg, Germany. Her father is listed as unknown on birth records. The family would dismiss his anonymity with the facile explanation that “he had an accident in the forest.” But Sister Colomba tells more!

Citing a man with knowledge of that time and place, Sister’s story recalls “a rover who would work for a farmer, get a daughter in trouble, and escape into the woods.” According to her source’s account this happened on numerous occasions with numerous young women. When area farmers concluded this was the same man perpetrating these crimes, “they went searching for him in the woods.” There is no report that they found him, just a curt note simply stating he was never seen again.

Other genealogical sources combine to profile a woman who knew a lifetime of hardship, sadness and loss. Grandma’s grandma would leave her homeland, marry at 23, spend seven unsettled years with her husband in Philadelphia, all before moving on to rural Iowa. She would bear ten children, five of whom died in infancy. The sole photo we have of Anna and Wilhelm presents a sinewy, intense, tough woman peering somewhat blankly into the distance.

Widowed at 60, Anna lived for a time with her son, William on the home place. The story further explains that she “kept wandering away because she wanted to go ‘home’.” Eventually, Anna found her way to LaCrosse where her daughter’s Franciscan community reserved seven rooms on the top floor of their hospital “for people who needed a home.” There she died in 1908 and was buried, a final resting place separate from her husband who was buried near their farm in Iowa. She was 81. Grandma was now 24, married, had just given birth to her second child, building a home with Grandpa in Nebraska.

Scripture says the transgressions of the fathers are visited upon their children to the third and fourth generation. We say this more colloquially, “An apple doesn’t fall far from the tree” or “He’s a chip off the old block.” It’s been nothing short of revelatory for me to discover that the Grandma I didn’t like very much had a grandma, too!

A kind of liberation comes with this deeper appreciation for why Grandma may have been the way she was. What is still reverberating is the realization that I am alive as the consequence of a rape. Still unsettling is the awareness that one of my distant grandfathers likely killed the father of his granddaughter, my Grandma’s grandma!

Driving down the wintry parkway yesterday, ruminating over these new-found facts, sifting through sundry emotions, a fresh warmth and unforeseen love began to take hold. That previously tedious and obscure Gospel account of Jesus — the one about so-and-so being begot by so-and-so — came to mind. Jesus’ own genealogy contains harlots and murderers too. Ours is precisely the humanity God chose to embrace.

In retelling the story of our salvation, it remains essential that these accounts and people be remembered, named, and in so doing, embraced. I’m coming to believe this is what real love looks like!

For Better, For Worse

My marriage vows are meaning much more to me these days — not “wedding day” vows but the promises we live daily through the ups and downs of the everyday. Yes, I’m talking about “for better, for worse; for richer, for poorer; in sickness and in health; until death.”

This deepening appreciation was set in place by a nasty sprain and ankle fracture two months ago. No weight-bearing use of the leg and inability to drive for nearly seven weeks almost drove me crazy. The hardest part was accepting my powerlessness and dependence on others, primarily my husband. I rued the day tables would be turned and questioned whether I’d be able to match his patience, generosity and kindness.

Well, the fates have a wicked sense of humor. The very day after I got out of my “boot” and was able to transition to a Velcro brace to support my fledgling mobility, my husband fell on an icy sidewalk just outside our house when taking Jeb the Dog for his daily afternoon walk.

The tables were more than turned — with a nasty sprain, two fractures and an actual break he will have surgery to implant a plate and numerous screws as soon as the swelling is sufficiently reduced. His injury was far worse than mine! As if the fates wished to place a huge exclamation point on the coincidence, his surgery is scheduled for the precise day and hour I was previously scheduled to begin physical therapy on my healing ankle. My injury? His injury? Distinctions collapse in marriage.

“For better, for worse; for richer, for poorer; in sickness and in health; until death.” Familiar words, often expressed as a naive wager that things will always be okay if not easy. Words often spoken as an either/or, as if life proffers a dualistic one-or-the-other. Rather, we learn that what we profess is actually the warp and the woof of a single fabric and it’s our gift to weave it all into a seamless tapestry.

And there is more! From the cruel depths of this Minnesota winter — with the two of us hobbling around begrudgingly needing others for help, depending on the incredible generosity of neighbors, with Jeb the Dog thoroughly confused and bodily inconvenienced by disappearance of any semblance of routine — the worse, poorer and sickness part of the formula takes precedence. All the while reminding us that the horizon of death can not be ignored.

And, still more! The begrudging admission of powerlessness, the icy starkness of winter, our cruel fate and dependence on others, all yield another gift — the truth of love, the safe harbor of relationship, our reliance on one another. Who would know if the risk is not taken, the promises not made?

Strange, isn’t it! Love surely shines forth in the easy and happy times. Yet we discover an unplumbed depth, find an untested resilience, desire to affirm what we have vowed when we discover the face of love from that place of need, poverty and dependence. Such is the nature of love, it’s most sublime gift.

Amid the depths of winter we are taken off guard by the gift of Love, the presence of Love, overcome by the Presence of One who chooses to be with us precisely when and where we need love most.