Childhood sweethearts, my husband and I married for the first time at Sts. Peter and Paul Russian OrthodoxChurch. After the beautiful, two hour long Liturgy complete with crowns and chanting, my mother remarked there was no doubt we had indeed been united by this sacrament. Unlike some modern weddings which focus on flowery arrangements, self-appointed roles and individually crafted vows, ours followed tradition with its focus on the sacramental and not so much the selves. Of course, at 21 and 23 we’d have a lot to learn about life and marriage in the years to come.
|our 20th Anniversary
Having married outside of the Catholic Church, our pre-cana consisted only of a few short meetings with the priest, who was to marry us. I remember only his encouraging me to convert and little else. We missed the boat, so to speak, on so many crucial lessons, but thankfully God always has a back-up plan.
Totally unaware of the Churches’ teachings, we contracepted early on until the time when we deemed ourselves ready to welcome another family member. What joy it seemed then to ask God to create a new life on our terms, in our time. However, after the death of our firstborn we began to realize that life was far more fragile than we’d considered and our well-crafted life plans disappeared with his heartbeat. We desperately wanted more children and so I suppose our hearts were ready soil for God to plant a different kind of seed.
An Attention Grabber
Browsing through a bookstore’s discount bin at the mall, I happened upon a thick book that grabbed my attention. Fertility awareness was the topic, and seeing as our attempts to conceive had taken much time and effort the first time around, it seemed the perfect read. I gobbled up that book and eagerly applied the newly found knowledge about my basal body temperature, mucus and cervical changes.
Fast forward six years and many changes later, my husband converted to the Catholic faith and we married for the second time in a little chapel at Immaculate Conception Catholic Church. In truth, standing there surrounded by a few friends and flanked by a toddler and a baby, we had our marriage, which was already considered valid by the Catholic Church, blessed.
Marrying For the Second Time
While our “first” marriage had united us together in that permanent bond of marriage, endowing us with the gifts to live out that vocation, I believe that “second” marriage made us evermore conscious of our need to rely on Divine Providence and our responsibility to actively grow together in our faith. Like too many other young people, after our wedding ceremony we had created all too many excuses for sleeping in on Sundays and relegated Christ to Easter and Christmas those first few years. Thankfully, once our family size increased, so too did our knowledge of the necessity for faith, but still missing were those hard truths.
Though my eyes had been opened to the beauty of my fertility, unfortunately that initial method of fertility awareness was void of theological truth and thus allowed for contraceptive behaviors and devices during the fertile phase of the cycle. It also didn’t challenge us to include God in our family planning, though at the time we felt an internal stirring to openness. Thankfully, our Lord is patient and so He nurtured that sapling and in time He would redirect its growth.
Standing On The Precipice Of Divorce
By the time we were celebrating our tenth anniversary, we’d been blessed with one son through adoption, two more birth sons, and our first daughter had entered the world. By all accounts our cup was overflowing, but in reality we were standing on the precipice of divorce, contemplating the looming pit of broken vows and broken dreams.
Well-meaning friends and family worried about our children and about divorced parents trying to raise them apart, so they encouraged us to protect ourselves. Protect ourselves, especially, against the possibility of anymore conceptions. Really, with four children already, many people couldn’t understand why we’d ever want more. Their advice seemed reasonable, so we took it and reverted back to contracepting during the fertile time.
We chose to work through our trial with a Christian therapist, who instructed us in reading the Bible. Little did this faithful, Protestant therapist know, not only was he helping to heal our broken hearts, but he was leading us deeper into our Catholic faith. For the first time, we began reading God’s Word separately and together. A deeper and more intimate relationship developed between the three of us (Christ, my husband and me) and we developed a thirst for more.
Truthfully, I knew something wasn’t right in our contracepting, but I couldn’t quite figure out what that “something” was. When I’d contracepted in our early years, I struggled with a myriad of physical and psychological symptoms as a result of the synthetic hormones. Contracepting without hormones, I still felt unsatisfied mentally, physically and spiritually.
A couple at our parish introduced us to The Mary Foundation, a fantastic organization that gave away free audio tapes (now CDs). For two people still emerging from the “modern theological” desert, hungry and parched, these tapes were our manna and rain. After listening to “The Mass Explained,” we ordered a box full of all their titles. My husband listened during commutes to work and I listened while cleaning the house and pushing kids on the swing.
Perplexed By My Husband’s Command
Then, one day my husband came home and handed me a tape. Entitled “The Key to Happy Families,” he wouldn’t divulge the contents, but simply instructed me to listen. Perplexed by his secrecy and intrigued by his command, I readily hit the play button. By the time the tape reel had run its course, my head was spinning.
The Pill is an abortifacient, so we could have aborted our own children? Contracepting is a mortal sin? A pope wrote a whole encyclical on this subject and prophesied abortion on demand, increased divorced rates, infidelity in marriages, and more. The Catholic Church actually has a teaching on this subject?
As a cradle Catholic, why had I not heard this before? And what was I going to do now?
From that day forward, my husband and I agreed, we could not contracept again, not with our bodies, not with our minds, not with our hearts. A dramatic turning point for me, I was working through my pain and was now more confused than ever.
Making The Vow
Alone in my bedroom, on my knees, I gave it all over to the Blessed Mother. I told her of my fears, my desires, my weakness and I asked her specifically to align my heart to God’s Will. Pledging my fertility to Jesus through her hands, I surrendered in a way I never had before. For the first time, I recognized and accepted my smallness. I promised to allow Jesus to have total control over my fertility, so long as Our Lady would wrap me in her mantle of comfort and protection.
I didn’t hear any voices, I didn’t see any heavenly lights, but I knew that she heard me, that she’d swaddled me in her motherly embrace. Of course, it was still a process, learning to completely surrender and trust. A process that we are still working through ten more years later and one that I think we will be trying to perfect for the rest of our lives.
This passed June, we celebrated our 20th anniversary in the company of our 7 children. Certainly, our married life has not been without further crosses. We’ve endured the losses of five more children, we’ve revisited old weaknesses, we’ve faced the judgment of others, but, contrary to the world’s idea of love and freedom, we’ve discovered that surrender, forgiveness and self-sacrifice are the source and summit of true love.
At 41 and 43, we recognize that our marriage includes a third partner, God. He was there on our wedding day and He has been there every day since, even when we relegated Him to the back seat. Through His Word and His sacrifice on the cross, He taught us the meaning of love and He showed us how to manifest that love toward one another.
Freely, faithfully and fully, we give ourselves, our whole selves, to one another and to Christ, inside of our bedroom and out. Today I understand, with a new perspective, my mother’s comment on our wedding day. Truly, the three of us were united by the Sacrament of Marriage.