Tuesday, August 28, 2012


What is beauty?

The philosophers say “id quod visum placet” – that which, when seen, pleases. Beauty is complete, proportional, and radiant, they say.

It’s easy to see what completion and proportionality are. If my left eye is missing or swollen out of proportion, I’m less beautiful.

But what is radiance?

My mother knew. Not so many years ago when I was a child, she read me the story of Cinderella from a picture book. She pointed to a drawing of Cinderella in her rags helping the stepsisters, dressed in their finery, on their way out the door to the ball. Cinderella, of course, was much more beautiful than the stepsisters.

“Do you know why?” my mother asked her melancholy daughter. “It’s because she has a smile on her face.”

I looked, and of course it was true.

Maybe that’s what philosophers mean by “radiance,” that elusive and undefinable characteristic of beauty – maybe they mean joy.

Monday, August 20, 2012

On Weddings and Elopements

Luke and I considered eloping.
Planning a wedding is hard work, we found. Our decorations were relatively simple; my mom planned the reception almost entirely; I gave the green light to my bridesmaids’ dresses and let them decide on their own jewelry, shoes, and hair. Even so, Luke and I were fighting for time to just hang out and be friends together, like we used to when we were dating. What do we want for music? Readings? Have we sufficiently included family members? Where can I find shoes?
On top of the work and stress, I became increasingly frustrated with the wedding culture. I didn’t know why I was supposed to be the star and center of attention that day. I didn’t think everything needed to be perfect. I didn’t see why it was important to register for four different types of wineglasses. I couldn’t figure out what was up with this constant word “bliss” – wedded bliss, marital bliss, happily ever after bliss. In most marriages I’ve seen, the living room is sometimes messy, dinner requires work, lightbulbs burn out, cars need maintenance, and children are born without great control over their own bodily fluids. I wouldn’t attach the word “bliss” to any part of earthly reality, and marriage is part of earthly reality. Wedding culture didn’t seem to have a great handle on reality.
Eloping was a way to escape all that, maybe start our marriage off a little closer to reality. But I’m glad we didn’t.
First, I am not advocating large, grand celebrations that break the bank and leave young couples with first-year salaries and student loans in ridiculous amounts of debt. We were fortunate to have parents who were able and happy to fund the ceremony and celebration, and we let them. For those who have tighter budgets or unhappy family members, it’s possible to work something else out. I’ve heard of couples marrying during a regular Saturday vigil Mass, the way you might see a baptism at a Sunday Mass. I’ve heard of couples skipping the reception entirely, or having a small cake reception in the parish hall. I am all for people spending within their means and having a celebration that is reasonable, given what they have available.
Second, I am not advocating unnecessary worry about silly details. I was fortunate enough to have a mother, sister, and cousins who delighted in making things look nice, so I mostly let them. Shortly after Luke proposed, however, someone told me of a bride who was in tears over what kind of plates would be used at her reception. Some things just don’t matter very much, and I think a bride in tears over plates probably did not have the right focus.
The wedding, my dad told me, is a prelude to the marriage. It should be beautiful and joyful and holy, but grounded in reality. In real life, not everything is perfect and not everything runs smoothly, and we’ll be much happier if we can accept that. The wedding should be that way, too.
And we’re glad we chose to invite a crowd to the church.
Wedding planning provided a helpful transition from dating to marriage. I noticed this first when we tried to register for kitchen knives. Kitchen knives may not seem like a big deal, but our moms had different kitchen knife practices (drawer vs block, differing acceptable levels of sharpness, etc.) and we had to decide how we would do things in our kitchen. The same was true through much of the wedding planning – we can only pick one entrance hymn, one gospel reading, one way of processing down the aisle.
When we were dating, we made a point of not making any decisions of consequence together (“Should I take this job or that job?” Or even, “Should I put the couch against this wall or that wall in my apartment?”) because our lives were separate and it wasn’t healthy to think of them as together. Now that we’re married, we barge into each other’s lives and make almost all our decisions together.  (“That coffee table is free and exactly the right height for my art projects.” “But our living room feels crammed already, and we don’t have room for a coffee table.”)  Planning the wedding helped us figure out how to make those decisions together before they really mattered.
Also, my mom wanted to celebrate. I complained frequently during our preparation that “this isn’t that big of a deal; I don’t see what all the fuss is about.” My poor mother. Her daughter was reaching a milestone in growing up. She was welcoming a wonderful man into the family as her new son. We were opening for her another avenue toward grandchildren. She wanted to tell all her friends, and all my dad’s friends, and everyone she knew. I remember, when my second brother married, my mom (who has two daughters besides me) looked at me and said “I have five daughters.” She was thrilled. “Weddings are the easiest way to get new daughters,” she said.
And it’s only natural to gather family to celebrate such an occasion.
Most importantly, however, marriage isn’t just for us. It isn’t even just for us and our children, if God so blesses us. It’s also for the world. At our wedding, we stood in front of about 150 people, many of whom I didn’t know, and vowed to love and honor each other all the days of our lives.
If I pack up and leave, I’m breaking a promise not just to Luke and to God, but to the rest of the world. I’m failing in my life’s mission and harming society.
If I neglect our kids and do a terrible job raising them through my own fault, it’s not just bad for the kids – it’s bad for the rest of society. If my kids become thieves, they might steal your GPS. Or, worse, they might hang out with your kids and encourage them in bad behavior.
If I stay married to Luke but treat him poorly and refuse to honor him, our children will grow up in a terrible household. They will have a hard time learning what love is. Our sons won’t see a need to treat women with respect, and our daughters won’t see a need to hold out for good men.
If family is the fundamental building block of society, our wedding vows are a promise to that society that by the grace of God we’ll hold up what we’re building; that we’ll keep this building block strong and not let it collapse.
Making our vows publicly reminded us that our marriage isn’t just a life together, but a mission.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Mission: Perspective

A version of this article was published at Ignitum Today.

It’s interesting how different reality looks when it’s on paper, in neat paragraphs, all in the right order. There, I am a powerhouse. I am strong; I am adventurous; I am embarking on a mission with eternal consequences and not looking back.

But for all my talk of heroism and mission, I’m often tempted to throw in the towel, despair, and give up.

I wrote earlier about how marriage is a mission, and how Christian married couples, if they shine as beacons of virtue, can take the world by storm and save the world from its sexual dysfunction.

But right now I don’t feel like taking the world by storm, or shining as a beacon of virtue. I feel kind of sullen and selfish. I’m mad at my husband (of just over a month) for asking me to leave the dishes for him when he gets home from work. I’m mad at him for buying a stick shift (the former bachelor thought it was manly) instead of an automatic. I’m mad at him for owning four coffee makers when I don’t drink coffee and our counter and cupboard space is cramped.

And, after spending much of our engagement preaching loudly about how stupid it is to expect a flawless wedding day, I’m still trying to compose the perfect toast for the occasion, and trying to make myself have given it.

When I start writing, I start trying to take the world by storm again. I start thinking I’m better than everyone else, as if putting heroism and virtue into paragraphs was the same as living it. (I am virtuous. You can tell because I’m happy. Admit it – I’m just oozing with irresistible joy, and you’re about to convert because of it.)

It isn’t enough to say these things. We must live them. And yes, marriage is a mission, and it requires hard work and discipline, just like marathons and Amazon explorations. But I’m on duty even when I’m not feeling strong and adventurous.

Some days I’m ready for a fistfight or wrestling match with whatever power of evil would tempt me to love my dear husband less. Some days I’m ready to climb mountains and soar. But some days I’m just tired.

Some days I have a bad cold, or a stressful afternoon, or not enough sleep last night. I’m a woman, and some days my hormones do weird things. Some days I don’t feel like cooking, and some days we don’t have leftovers. Sometimes my sense of adventure just has to wait.

But I have to love anyway. My mission doesn’t change, even on days when I’m just not feeling it. I don’t have to feel strong and powerful in order to love deeply and steadily.

Maybe instead of wielding a sword and forcing myself to be happy, darnit, about the coffee makers, the stick shift, the offer to wash dishes, I should just shrug and look the other way. I’m annoyed about some petty things. Okay. I know that, in the past, I’ve laughed about the coffee makers, felt proud at how far my stick-shift driving has come, and been grateful for his offers to help with housework. Those were emotions, too, and they’ll come back.

I never promised to be passionate; I didn’t vow inexhaustible energy or permanent cheer. When I’m not in the mood to deliver a powerful blow to the enemy’s face, when all I can do is sigh and return to my work – that’s what I must do. That’s my fidelity and commitment. That’s the love and honor I did vow.

And, for the days I don’t feel like doing anything heroic – that’s my job. And I can do that.