The Weight of Bells

It is an honor to be there, inside the church, under the steeple. But not all honors are easy to bear.

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly.

Photo via Maxpixel (Public Domain)

Marriage advice that’s great . . . for toddlers

Ah, June, when the internet is awash with advice about marriage — most of it lousy.

Either it assumes that men and women are puppets in a simple story, rather than complex human beings who are learning how to love each other; or else it applies to some marriages but by no means all; or else it’s really good advice . . . for parents dealing with toddlers.

Here are a few bits of marriage advice that work great for a toddler-parent relationship, but is awful advice for a marriage:

Never go to bed angry.

For little kids, sure. I believe in soft landings at bedtime. No child learns lessons when he’s exhausted — and most parents don’t teach good lessons when they’re exhausted, either. Bedtime is time for a hug and as much affirmation as you can muster. If your kid has been a louse all day long, bedtime is still time to say, “I love you,” and maybe remind yourself that your kids isn’t always an irrational demon. Tomorrow you really can start again.

But marriages are more complex. If you suffered a minor annoyance before bed, then yes, you can decide, “Meh, I’ll shake this off and give my love a kiss, because the major good in our marriage overrides the minor bad.” Sometimes the reason you’re angry is because it’s time to go to bed, and a good night’s sleep will set everything to rights.

But if there’s something actually worth being angry about, you’re not going to work through it after a long day when you’re both exhausted and not thinking clearly.

Most marriages go through rough spells, and going to bed angry isn’t the end of the world. Sometimes, spouses will wake up in the morning, feel rested, and decide to apologize, or at least they feel more ready to address the problem in a constructive, loving way.

Or sometimes they will realize, “I’ve been angry for twelve years, and I don’t want to live like this anymore. Time to make some changes.” This can’t happen if you paste on a contented smile just because you now have pajamas on.

Just open up and express what’s bothering you if you want things to change.

For little guys? Oh lort, just tell me what is wrong and I will fix it. Or if I can’t fix it, I will read you Frog and Toad so you forget about it.  Here, have a bit of chocolate from my secret stash. I’m glad you told me what is wrong. I would be upset, too. I love you.

It’s not that simple between spouses, though. Oh, don’t suffer endlessly in silence. No one, husband or wife, should offer themselves up as an open sewer for whatever the other spouse wants to dump.

But it’s also not useful to allow an endless stream of complaint to flow from your lips. Listen to yourself. Do most of your words reflect the true nature of your experience of your marriage? Or are you super devoted to being “honest and open” when it comes to the bad, but suddenly stoic and self-contained when it comes to the good?

Expressing anger and frustration day in and day out is more likely to shut down communication than to open it, whether your unhappiness is justified or not. One of the reasons I finally started seeing a therapist was because I didn’t know how to tell the difference between big problems and little problems, and even when I could tell, I didn’t know how to adjust my response accordingly.

Being honest isn’t the same as opening the floodgates. Honesty is also about discernment. It’s less stream-of-consciousness blather and more poetry, in which words and ideas are carefully chosen and balanced to express something true.

Also, some bad spouses just don’t care. You may be doing your level best to express, in as truthful and balanced a way as possible, that your marriage has serious problems, and it may just not work. Communication is vital in marriage, but it’s not magic. It’s only useful when both spouses are willing to listen and willing to make changes.

Just submit to the head of the household and all will be well.

In most toddler-parent relationships? Absolutely. Dear child rolling around on the floor like a maniac, I am bigger and smarter, and I am in charge of you. Just obey. Put clothes on, because it is snowing. Do not put your head in the dentist’s aquarium. Forever forsake the idea of eating that lightbulb, ya little dummy. Submit, and all will be well.

But in most marriages, this crap advice leads to unhappiness, resentment, and even abuse — and it often expands to abuse of children, too, which the wife feels unable to stop, or unwilling to acknowledge. Unquestioning submission lets insecure, immature, un-self-controlled men to treat their families like garbage in the name of godliness, which is just as bad for men as it is for women and children.

Couples who obsess about wives obeying husbands tend to gloss over the extraordinarily heavier burden God lays on men, which is to love their wives as Christ loves the Church (and no, not even St. Paul says that men have to do their part after women do their part, but if she’s being a lippy dame, you are off the hook, being-Christ-wise.)

In loving, functional relationships, it’s not even on the radar, because husband and wife will both be focused on working out what’s best for the family and best for each other, rather than on who’s obeying whom.

Unpopular opinion: Wifely obedience is occasionally useful in loving relationships in times of some forms of extreme crisis. It’s like when the government declares a state of emergency and suspends habeas corpus. It’s not a long-term plan; it’s to get the union through until things can function the way they’re supposed to again; and it’s only a good idea if the leader isn’t a tyrant.

And then there are other forms of extreme crisis that call for the wife not to submit, but instead to extricate herself, at least temporarily, from the idea that she’s in a marriage. When the husband is being abusive or otherwise dangerous, obedience would be wrong; and she is required to simply protect herself and her children.

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Next time you hear some bit of marriage advice that’s popular but rubs you the wrong way, maybe this is the problem: It’s good advice for a parent-child relationship, but completely inappropriate for a marriage between equals who love each other.

What would you add to my list?

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Image: Kewpie bride and groom on Ebay

The lady of Medjugorje is not your mother

In the Gospels, she says, “Do whatever He tells you.” In Medjugorje, she snickers and says, “You do you.”

Forty-seven thousand times.

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly.

Does God get off on seeing us suffer?

A Facebook friend posted this status:

Rule of thumb: Use NFP as often as you must forgo Sunday Mass.

His point was this: Just as we have to have serious reasons to miss Sunday Mass without sinning, we should have serious reasons to postpone pregnancy.

First, the obligatory clarification: When he said “use NFP,” he meant “use NFP to avoid pregnancy.” In fact, infertile couples trying to get pregnant may also “use NFP,” and even abstinent women use may “use NFP” to diagnose and treat a whole host of health issues.

That being said, the statement he made is technically true, but disastrously misleading. Here’s what I mean:

We have an obligation to go to Mass on Sundays unless there’s a serious reason not to do so. The catechism says:

2181 The Sunday Eucharist is the foundation and confirmation of all Christian practice. For this reason the faithful are obliged to participate in the Eucharist on days of obligation, unless excused for a serious reason (for example, illness, the care of infants) or dispensed by their own pastor.119 Those who deliberately fail in this obligation commit a grave sin.

We go because we are obligated to go; and we are obligated to go because it’s good for us to be there. Okay.

But some people believe that you must be at death’s door before you’d even consider foregoing Mass, and it never occurs to them that it’s selfish and wrong to drag your germy, spluttering, sneezing, infectious self into a building full of babies and old people. You shouldn’t skip Mass because you have a slight headache or you’re not in the mood; but you shouldn’t force yourself to go to Mass if your physical presence would be bad for other people. Some of your fellow parishioners are medically fragile, but, unlike you with your flu, they won’t be stronger next week. For their sake, out of respect for their desire to be at Mass, you need to consider staying home for now. If you make a decision in good faith to stay home, then you are not sinning by skipping Mass, even if you could physically survive the hour.

In the same way, choosing to forgo conception is not just about your personal willingness to suffer. You have to take other people’s legitimate needs into account. You may be willing to have another baby now, but is it just and fair to the rest of the people you’re responsible for? If one of your other kids in in crisis and needs attention badly, is there anything holy about deliberately becoming barely functional for several months? Can you ask your already-overburdened husband to unwillingly take up even more slack, and call that “being one flesh?” Or can you ask your already-exhausted wife to unwillingly do even more than she’s already doing, but somehow call it “generosity?”

Sometimes selfishness masquerades as piety. I’m not afraid to suffer! Well, that’s nice for you, but what about the suffering you’re causing to other people as you pat yourself on the back for your selfless heroism?  You don’t live alone in a hermit’s cell. Your choices affect other people, and you’re not allowed to ignore them because it strokes your spiritual pride. You’re not entitled to be generous with other people’s lives. You can ask them to be adaptable (and oftentimes, that’s all that another baby requires: adaptability); but their lives are not yours to sacrifice.

So that’s the first complication to what seems like a tidy little aphorism. It’s true that we need a serious or just reason to postpone pregnancy or to skip Mass, but those reasons are not all about us.

The second problem is that the “Try harder! Suffer more! Lemme see you sweat!” approach has to do with how we perceive God, and goes beyond NFP. The “agony = holiness” approach assumes that God is only truly pleased when we’re in horrible pain all the time, and the only way to tell if we’re following God is if we’re falling apart. If life is tolerable, we must be doing something wrong.

This is, if anything, worse than the first problem. The first problem shows that we don’t have sufficient love for other people. The second problem shows we don’t have sufficient love for God.

The second problem, the “agony = holiness” approach, portrays God as barking, sadistic drill sergeant of a deity, hellbent on whipping us into shape by smacking us down the minute we blink like the sniveling, puling weaklings we are.

God.
Is.
Not.
Like.
That.

He doesn’t despise us. He’s not out to get us. He’s not itching to see us squirm between the screws of the torture device He calls “morality.” I understand that the 21st century is not chock full of Catholics who are too strict with themselves, but neither is it chock full of Catholics who truly look to Christ as the source of love and solace in our sorrow.

God is not a sadist. God doesn’t relish watching us torment ourselves. He sometimes lets us fall into suffering — and make no mistake, pregnancy, or going to Mass, can be a form of suffering!  But when we do fall into dark times, He jumps down into that pit with us, to help us dig our way out, to help us become stronger, and to keep us company while we’re there. He doesn’t stand at the edge looking down, jeering and cheering as we writhe in pain below. He is the Lamb who was slain, not the drill sergeant who gets off on pain.

We must be willing to suffer, but we’re not required to seek suffering out. We’re not required to constantly ratchet up our own pain. 

We are required to seek love out. We are required to constantly ratchet up our desire to see God in everyone and everything.

And guess what? Sometimes God looks like joy. Sometimes God looks like peace. Sometimes God looks like prudence. Sometimes God even looks like contentment.

So be obedient, pray often, and seek God and His love in obedience, rather than focusing on the rules themselves. If God is giving you a way to take care of yourself and take care of others, whether that’s making a spiritual communion while drinking tea at home, or whether that’s looking prayerfully at your family and thanking God for the size it is right now, then you are pleasing the Father who loves you.

Reassess your decisions as necessary. But don’t assume that the thing that appeals to you must automatically disappoint God. Obedience doesn’t always bring agony. Sometimes it brings relief. Be content to be loved.

My Aleteia piece on the suffering faithful…

gesu crucifix

 

 

is spotlighted today:

The Church is full of the obedient wounded. The flock who never strayed have troubles of their own, and some of these troubles come directly from original sin, the effects of which no doctrinal development, pastoral compassion, or rigorously trained professional can completely undo.

Poor family, they need to hear that their sorrows are known to God and to the Church. That the cross still hangs there above the altar because it must be faced, sooner or later, even when we’re inside the walls of the Church. Sacramental marriage is not a safe, cozy nest where no predators can find us. Every marriage includes some element of the cross.

Read the rest at Aleteia.

By the way, have you seen Aleteia lately? It’s gorgeous. They’ve revamped their whole site, and Elizabeth Scalia is bringing on lots of great writers.

Also, I’ve received tons of mail in response to the open letter to the Synod Fathers from Monica More that I posted last week (Married to an Angry Man). I am grateful that so many people took the time to offer responses and help. Please be patient while I work on responding.

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Does it matter if Medjugorje is real or not?

Maryja_02

I would say that Mary, my mother in heaven who knows me and loves me, would not be happy to see her children duped into following around a sock puppet that looks like her, even if it makes them say the rosary and go to Mass more often. I would say that, as the eternal queen of Heaven and earth, Mary can work to convert the hearts of sinners without the help of a tour guide agency.  I would say that no one should dare muscle past my Holy Mother and say, “Looks like you need some help with these pesky kids, little lady. You sit back, and I’ll put on a really convincing show, and we’ll have them peaceful and docile in no time!” I would say that no one must dare to lie to Mary’s children, especially in her name. There are some things you don’t mess around with.

Read the rest at the Register.

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“Well, excuse me if I care more about innocent babies than criminals!”

st peter square

Catholics who are in dissent from the Church  – those who reject Church teaching on contraception, or male priesthood, or whatever — often say that the Church is right about everything else, but regrettably wrong about this one issue.

And those of us who are not in dissent respond incredulously, “How could that be? How could the Church be right about the resurrection, and transubstantiation, and eternal life, but wrong about this one issue? How do you even swallow that idea?”

But it’s just as senseless to say, “I care so deeply about this one important moral issue that I refuse to even acknowledge that there are other important moral issues.” And yet this is exactly what we’re hearing in the wake of the four paper’s joint editorial condemning the death penalty in the U.S.  The comboxes are pretty much wall-to-wall reiterations of this argument: “Death penalty for criminals? Who cares? What I care about as a Catholic is ending the slaughter of the innocent unborn!”

This attitude displays a deep and disastrous misunderstanding of the consistency and interconnectedness of Church doctrine. The Church is consistent. Utterly consistent. All of her teachings spring from a unified understanding of what God is like and what human life is for.

So if we are going to pish-tush at some teaching of the Church — like the teaching that the death penalty is only to be used as a last resort when there is no other way of keeping society safe* — calling it “marginal” or “liberal,” or saying that we just can’t get ourselves to care about it? Then we are very close to being in dissent. At very least, we have what I might call a “dissenting mentality”: pretending to submit to the guidance of the Church, but actually only adhering to and defending the doctrines which appeal to us, while ignoring, scorning, or even openly defying the ones which we don’t like.

[the following paragraph added at 11 eastern for clarity:] I’m not talking about people who truly believe that the death penalty is, in some cases, the only way to keep society safe. I believe they are wrong, and that in this country, in this century, there is no compelling reason to execute any prisoner. But who I’m talking about is people who openly reject what the Catechism teaches:  who say, “The hell with that. Blood demands blood. Some people are just scum of the earth, and justice demands that we wipe them clean.”

If some doctrine makes us uneasy, and we admit that we don’t like it or understand it? No problem! That’s just being honest, and we all have some catching up to do. So pray, pray, pray, turn it constantly over to God, beg for understanding and the grace to submit, and have passionate arguments with people you respect. That’s fine. God never commands us to be instantly calm and happy about All the Catholic Things.

But for your own soul’s sake, if you have reservations or doubts, don’t be flippant or nasty about them, or, God forbid, proud of them.  Belligerently parading around with a “dissenting mentality” is like going to a friend’s house, greeting the host nicely, displaying perfect manners during dinner, — and then going to the bathroom and crapping all over the floor.  And then writing a gracious thank-you note for a lovely evening.

Guess what? It’s all one house. If you want to be a good guest, you have to behave yourself in every room.

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*2267 Assuming that the guilty party’s identity and responsibility have been fully determined, the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.

If, however, non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people’s safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means, as these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and more in conformity to the dignity of the human person.

Today, in fact, as a consequence of the possibilities which the state has for effectively preventing crime, by rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm – without definitely taking away from him the possibility of redeeming himself – the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity “are very rare, if not practically nonexistent.”68

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Obedience Gives Us Jesus

Icon_of_jesus_baptism

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons 

Why tell us that Jesus is the Son of God as soon as He does the one thing that the Son of God doesn’t really need to do? What does this tell us?

Read the rest at the Register.

Why it’s all right to say I “have” to go to Mass today

This morning, I was stunned — stunned, I tell you! — to realize that today is the feast of the Immaculate Conception, which is always a Holy Day of Obligation in the United States, even if it falls on a Saturday or a Monday. I posted something on Facebook about “yes, you HAVE to go to Mass today.”  I felt a familiar qualm about using that language, “have to go to Mass.” As someone inevitably points out, we don’t have to go to Mass; we get to go to Mass. If Catholicism were outlawed, or if we had to walk four hours through the tundra to get to the sacraments, we’d probably realize pretty quick that our “obligation” is more of a privilege!

And yet, there is a sweetness to simple obedience, too. Here are something I wrote back in May of 2013, when I was stunned — stunned, I tell you! — to realize that Ascension Thursday is a Holy Day of Obligation.

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Humblesse Oblige

 

On Thursday morning, I had the following thought process.  Raise your hand if you can relate:

Let’s see, Thursday, Thursday.  Almost done with the week.
Let’s see, Facebook, Facebook.  Ha, look at that cat . .  Oh, poor lady, gotta pray for her . . . Ugh, MSM hypocrisy . . . Ha, look at that other cat . . .
WAIT.  Holy Day?  Of obligation?  Today?  Wait, no, they changed it to Sunday!  Or did they?  No, not in my diocese!  Phew.
Okay, but we really should go, even if we don’t have to.  I should go because I want to and because it’s a privilege, not because I have to!
But wait, I can’t, because I already made that appointment, and we were on the waiting list forever, and we already missed the morning Mass, and if we go at night, when will we eat?  Okay, we’ll have to find some other way to commemorate it.
But wait, I guess my diocese is in a larger ecclesiastical province, whatever that is!  I think it is a HDO!  But why didn’t they say anything about it last Sunday??

As it turned out, Ascension Thursday is a holy day of obligation where I live – and that’s kind of rare in the United States.  Most bishops of have moved the feast to the following Sunday, so you can fulfill your HDO obligation and your Sunday obligation at the same time.

On Holy Days of What-Was-Formerly-Obligation, we very often hear cries:  It shouldn’t feel like an obligation to go to Mass, anymore than it’s an obligation to eat a delicious feast!  If we truly understood what was happening at the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, we’d be breaking down the door to get inside,and not hoping we get let off the hook.  Why, there are seminarians in Nigeria who live inside abandoned detergent bottles.  Tell them why you ‘can’t’ make it to Mass today, just because you aren’t obligated to.”

These things are all true.  And yet people who say them are glossing over something central to our existence as children of God:  the sweetness of obedience for the sake of obedience.

It would be wonderful if we simply always wanted to go to Mass.  It would be Heaven on earth if we enjoyed doing all the things we ought to do.  And sometimes it really does work out that way.  As we increase in holiness, our desires become more and more aligned with God’s desires, and there is less and less of a struggle between what we want to do and what we ought to do.

But knowing how you ought to be is not the same as being that way. The Church gives us obligations because she knows we need them.  This is an idea which sets the Church apart from so many other religions:  the much-derided “rules and regulations” that the Church lovingly imposes show that the Church understands human nature.  If we were only ever invited or encouraged, we’d hardly ever turn up.  I’d like to think I’m different, but I know I’m not.

And so we have our obligations:  go to Mass, confess your mortal sins, fast and abstain, and so on.  These obligations are in place because they confer grace to us.  They force us to do the things that are good for us.

But the obligations are there for another reason, too:  they give us a chance to obey.  We obey even if we’re crabby, we obey even if we have a headache, we obey even if we feel tired or bored, or if we feel guilty or unworthy.  We obey, in short, because we know who we are:  we are children of God.  We are under His protection, and that means we’re also under His authority.  What an uncomfortable concept for the 21st century American!  I do what I’m told, because that’s my job — it’s who I am.  Obedience for the sake of obedience acknowledges our imperfect natures, and God receives this obedience joyfully.

If obedience for the sake of obedience seems shabby and pathetic to you, think of it this way:  Sometimes, I delight in shopping for nutritious food, in preparing it in a delectable and attractive way, and in watching my children happily nourishing themselves.  It would feel odd to say I’m feeding them because I’m “obligated” to.  I want to!  I like it!  And that’s how it should be.

But sometimes, when dinner time rolls around, I’d rather just grab a bottle of wine and go hide in my room.  But I gotta give them dinner, and I’m really glad I totally understand that it’s my obligation to do so.  Now, it would be great if I always had that marvelous feeling of satisfaction and delight when feeding my kids.  But I suspect I’m working more time off purgatory when I feel nothing of the kind, but I do it anyway.  This is what motherhood means:  sometimes being the one who delights in working for your kids, and sometimes being the one who works for kids despite a complete absence of delight.  I know I’m a mother, so this is what I do.

It used to be that high born people were bound by a sense of noblesse oblige.  Because of their social rank, they felt themselves obligated to behave honorably and responsibility.  You could say that modern Catholics ought to cultivate a sense of “humblesse oblige” – the notion that we are obligated to obey because we’re sinners, because we’re fallen, because we’re children.  We obey because God is God, because the Church is the Church . . . and because it doesn’t matter if we’re delighted about it or not.  We obey because we willingly gave ourselves over to obedience to God the Father and to the Church, our Mother.

I’m grateful for the obligations the Church imposes.  And deep down, I wish she would impose more, because I’m lazy.  I’d like to see some Holy Days of Obligation moved back to weekdays, and I know my Lent would be more fruitful if my sacrifices weren’t optional.

All the same, it’s a good idea to remember that I obey, it’s because the thing I’m doing is good for me . . . but also because obeying itself is good for me.  Obedience for the sake of obedience isn’t everything, but it isn’t nothing, either.  At least it reminds me of who I am.  Humblesse oblige!

How I learned to stop worrying about wifely obedience and love my husband

s and d wedding

Ephesians 5:22!  Ephesians 5:22! Let’s all panic about Ephesians 5:22!

Nah. I’m not afraid of it anymore. But it’s not as big of a deal as I thought it was, either.

I’m not going to tell you what a Catholic marriage ought to look like. I’m just going to tell you what our marriage looks like, now that I’ve stopped trying to make it TheCatholic Marriage and started letting it be Our Catholic Marriage.

 

When I was first married, I was dying to leap feet first into the perfect Catholic relationship. So I took a deep breath and prepared to Ephesians 5:22 the heck out of my husband. He would tell me to do something, and I was going to obey him, by gum. (Like many couples, I yeah-yeahed my way past Ephesians 5:25-28, where the husband is supposed to treat his wife like Christ treats the Church, which is approximately ten krillion times harder than just obeying your husband.)

So I waited. And dammit, he never required me to obey him. Sure, he expected things of me — some reasonable, some unreasonable. We were just married, and we had a lot to figure out. But in general, the issue of obedience just didn’t come up. I was afraid this meant that we had a spiritually inferior marriage — that we were limping along with some kind of second rate modern system which would get us through the years, but which was keeping us from . . . something. I don’t even know what. Spiritual fruit of some kind, which I didn’t even know enough to recognize the lack of, because I hadn’t sufficiently molded myself into an obedient wife.

 

Where did this idea come from?  Wifely obedience is portrayed in many Catholic circles as the main feature of marriage — more important than prayer, more important that personal formation of any kind, more important than caring for children, more important than anything.  Just wifely obedience as a state of being.  Gotta submit, gotta obey, gotta be meek, gotta acknowledge your husband’s all-encompassing domination over the family with every breath, every word, every gesture, every thought, every decision. Without wifely obedience, we have chaos, we have the feminization of men, we have divorce and bitterness and unhappiness of every kind. When the wife isn’t panting to obey, marriage becomes a black hole into which, with a faint scream, the domestic Church as a whole is sucked, never to return until the Second Coming, when Jesus comes back for the main purpose of yelling at all those lippy dames.

But here’s the truth: If marriage is in a shambles, it’s not because of wifely disobedience. It’s because of a very old reason: selfishness. Sometimes it’s the woman who’s selfish, sometimes it’s the man. Sometimes it’s both of them.

When my husband and I got married, we were both young, and he would readily admit that he didn’t have any more life experience or wisdom or inside information about anything than I did. He’s better at some things; I’m better at others. There are some things we’re both bad at, and  need to hold each other accountable for. The “he decides, she complies” model? What for?  Our relationship had never been like that when we were dating, so why would it change when we started a family and things became complicated?

 

We fought a lot, and sometimes still do; but gradually, we started to realize that when we disagree about something, it’s usually because we aren’t listening to each other, or don’t believe yet that the other person understands something that we don’t. Usually, when we really start to listen (and sometimes we have to have the same fight over and over and over again before we can really hear each other), it actually becomes very obvious that one of us is right and the other one is wrong. And then it becomes easy to know what to do: you do the right thing. We’ve been through enough crap together to know that neither one of us is going to push hard for something that would be bad for the family. If he really, really wants something, I trust that he has a good reason; and vice versa.

In general, the person who bears the brunt of the decision at hand is the one who gets to make the call.  So if he wants to make a career move that I’m not crazy about, it’s ultimately his call, because he’s the one doing the job. If I want to make a major change in the kids’ education and he’s hesitant, it’s ultimately my call, because I’m the one who spends more time with the kids, and the I’m one who deals most with their daily schedules.

But here’s the thing: even if there’s something that affects one of us more than the other, there are zero decisions which only affect one of us. Even little stuff. That’s how it is when you’re one flesh, for better and for worse: nothing is just about you. What is the point of joining together if you behave as if one of you is more important than the other? That would be bad for both of you.  One spouse making autonomous decisions without considering the other person is like trying to set a course if you know your latitude, but not your longitude. You’re gonna get lost.

 

Here’s what everyone needs to understand about the grace of the sacrament of marriage. One of the main ways you receive it is . . . guess how . . . through your spouse. It’s not as if the husband can just go about his husbandly business being a good husband by standing in a shower of Husband Graces once a week. No, he learns how to be a good husband by drawing closer to his wife.

Many years ago, my husband was going through a really rough patch. He had tons of serious problems all at once, and he couldn’t sleep for the anxiety. He lay in the dark, begging God to help him out. And then he suddenly realized that I was there, in bed, next to him. And that was the answer. Not that I could solve his problems — I really couldn’t — but I was there to help him. That’s why I was there.

 

Authoritarian husbands often point to Mary and Joseph to illustrate “He decides, she complies” as the true Catholic model. But what do we actually know about St. Joseph? Mainly that (a) He utterly failed to stand on his rights and get rid of that seemingly disobedient, seemingly sinful, seemingly rebellious young chit of a girl who turned up pregnant without his say-so, and instead he (b) cared for his wife and child.

And what about that idea that a husband should love his wife as Christ loves the Church? What do we know about Christ? Mainly that He served and gave and served and gave, and then He died for her, and then He came back to life so that He could serve and give some more. That’s what we know.

In our marriage, obedience is an emergency tool. My husband uses it when I am being truly insane: when I’m delirious, or exhausted, or too overwhelmed with guilt and self doubt to think clearly. Then he asserts his authority and insists on . . . taking care of me.

I can also see obedience being useful if a man simply has the kind of personality where he needs to have his way; or if the wife has the kind of personality where she simply doesn’t want to deal with things. Obedience would help the marriage survive, in the same way that a tourniquet might prevent you from bleeding to death — but it’s hard to imagine that that kind of system isn’t fostering selfishness and childishness. It’s like what Fr. Longenecker said about gender roles, only more so:

Rigid gender roles are subjugated to the law of love. Loving our spouse and children in a free and generous way is what it’s really all about. Gender roles are not law; they are there to help us achieve complementary love.

There you go. Don’t worry about whether or not you’re fulfilling Ephesians 5. If your marriage is loving, then you’re doing it right.

How does it work in your marriage? Do you and your spouse — or you and your peers — have conflict over how the issue of obedience? Have you come to understand Ephesians 5 better over the years?