I once heard the sacrament of marriage compared to a tree. At first glance, I barely took notice of this because the concept of a “family tree” is familiar to most of us. Upon reflection, however, I discovered a depth and richness to this analogy that surpassed any notion of ancestral lineage.
I’d like to ask you to take a minute and close your eyes in order to visualize the moment that you and your spouse spoke your vows to one another before your priest, family and friends. With each word solemnly uttered, imagine two trees slowly growing more closely together, with the branches of both trees reaching out and becoming entangled with each other. Look below the surface of the ground— can you see the roots travelling throughout the soil, a complicated system going deeper and deeper into the earth? Two different root systems now so enmeshed with one another that they have become, without shadow of doubt, one tree.
The subsequent births of children become new branches that spread further and add to the strength and beauty of the original tree. With each new branch, the roots sink even deeper into the ground, anchoring the tree with increasing stability. Each new branch contributes to the ecosystem of the tree and everything works in harmony as it stands strong through each changing season.
Now imagine divorce.
This tree cannot be divided into separate segments without inflicting permanent damage upon it. There can be no other way. Many have argued and will continue to suggest that with slow and deliberate cuts, guided by experts, the damage inflicted by the hewing of the trunk can be minimized. The truth is that branches will still fall and crash. Wood will splinter and break. Parts of the whole will die off, never to sprout new leaves again.
There are some who will tell you with well-meaning hearts that perhaps it is better to cut down a sick tree rather than attempt to fix it. It is not hard to imagine someone looking out the window upon a tree in their backyard thinking, “Oh this old tree? It used to be full and beautiful when it was young but now all I can see is how it blocks out the sunlight! I am sick of cleaning up the leaves that it drops everywhere! Perhaps it’s time to see what the backyard would look like without this tree.”
I blame this mentality on Oprah.
It was during the popularity of Oprah’s daytime talk show that the narrative that people needed to remake their lives because they deserved better was overwhelmingly popularized. Don’t like your house, hair, spouse? Change them! And everyone gets a car! You owe it to yourself not to waste another moment unhappy! Change your life! Seize the day and walk away from the job that has paid your bills for over a decade and pursue your lifelong dream of selling artisan lemonade because now is your moment!
This mindset almost broke my young marriage. Infatuated by a culture that informed my husband and I that we were holding one another back from the pursuit of true happiness, external happiness, we found our marriage gasping for air on many occasions. We bought into the lie that deliberately limiting personal freedom for the sake of the other was the anathema of individuality and identity. Everything that surrounded us, the movies, the books, the commercials, the billboards and the magazines, all reinforced the lie that there was something better for us individually just around the corner.
We lived separate lives in the early years of our marriage. My husband had a very long commute every day and he worked tiresome and unusual hours. When we got married, he agreed to settle in the city in which I had been born and raised. My life remained mostly unchanged when we said, “I do” because I was busy all the time with the career, friends, and family that I brought into our marriage. To be brutally honest, I didn’t need my husband in those early years, and likewise, he was living a life in which I was just a supporting character. The truth of the matter was that we didn’t miss one another when we were apart; we were living together, but not as one. We went weeks without a single day off together and we were so conditioned by the fear of giving up our separate lives that it never even crossed our minds that there was something abnormal about not desiring to spend time together. We were so modern! The couples that had to do everything together were just so old fashioned and needy!
Needless to say, ours was not a healthy relationship at the time. And yet, however insufficient or wounded our love for each other was, it was still a marriage. While the memories of our beautiful wedding reception remained fresh in our minds, we seemed to have forgotten that the priest concluded our vows with the words, “The two shall become one flesh. Let no man divide what God has united.” The concept of a covenantal relationship was something unknown to us, but our ignorance of this reality did not annul its existence.
Can your physical body be separated in half without succumbing to a mortal wound? Would one hand not expect the other hand to reach out in unison for something long after the amputation of said other hand?
For the first four years of our marriage, we weren’t living Christian lives at all. In fact, I was a cradle Catholic who had never really practiced my faith and my husband hadn’t yet converted. We had zero understanding of what sacramental marriage looked like. We had an Anglican ceremony and the church that we were married in didn’t offer us any premarital counselling. We dated for over four years prior to our wedding and we both approached that marriage brainwashed by a society that pushes the idea that we are to satisfy every desire, that we are to experience every pleasure possible. We believed that we should let our hearts be our guide, that we should leave no adventure unexplored. A life with no regrets, after all, was the only life worth living — or so we were told repeatedly by the culture around us. We know now what we didn’t know then: that a marriage cannot survive when you listen to the whisper in your ear that you deserve so much more than this.
Time passed, and there were wonderful memories and our first two beautiful children were born…but our marriage was empty. Our symbolic tree was very, very sick. We believed — like so many other people — that if we were going to call it quits, it would be better to make a clean break while the children were still very young. Sadly, we seriously considered this. And it was not everything it was cracked up to be in Eat, Pray, Love. The reality of divorce for most people is the rupturing of an entire family. The ripple effect caused by divorce leaves casualties in its path for generations to come. Its downfall is contagious as the children of divorce justify the collapse of their own future marriages by placating themselves with the erroneous belief that their parents made it through it just fine and so they will be alright as well.
So there we were, phone book open on the table with the number of a divorce lawyer circled — and then my husband did something that I didn’t have the strength to do… he prayed. I had no idea that my husband, a man who was at one time incredibly close to being ordained as an Anglican minister, had been inching towards Catholicism. Before that moment, he had never confided in me that he had been asking God for a sign that he should convert — specifically, that he would be given a rosary out of nowhere as a symbol that God wanted him to become a Catholic. And then one night, only two weeks after he began asking for this, a family member handed him a rosary seemingly out of nowhere. Never in his thirty plus years had someone offered him a rosary.
His jaw dropped open, and he immediately grabbed me and brought me to another room where we could be alone. With a tone of breathless with astonishment he told me what he had asked for, and said that he knew he was supposed to become a Catholic.
A sign like that is hard to argue with, and I had nothing left to lose. I agreed to go with my husband to our local parish to meet with the new young priest there. We sat across the desk from him and let it all pour out. The years of brokenness and blame were met with no judgement, just love.
God took our miserable offering, which was simply two demoralized people who took the risk of carving out an hour from their busy lives to meet with a priest. All we could give Him was this tiny glimmer of hope. But even if we didn’t actually feel it yet, the very act of showing up was an act of faith. God took this offering and He poured out grace upon grace over us. Over time, these graces changed us, and we became entirely new people. We weren’t “made over” so that we could succeed in this world, we changed our lives with His help so that we could experience happiness in the next world.
Brethren: Be renewed in the spirit of your mind, and put on the new man, which has been created according to God in justice and holiness of truth. (Ephesians 4)
We just celebrated our twelfth anniversary. My prayers for a new marriage, a marriage made new through the blessing of the Catholic Church, were answered when our priest consecrated our union in a convalidation ceremony when my husband entered the church. Twelve years and four children into this marriage, we now cannot bear to spend more than one day apart from one another. We have grown so deeply into one another that nothing could possibly tear us apart. And we are now so blessed to see how glorious the tree of our marriage has become!
My beloved husband had to leave us recently on a business trip to Washington DC. I had to run the show at home, homeschooling our four kids that range in age from two to nine without a car and on too little sleep for five long days. We were so nervous about this trip. My husband hasn’t flown since childhood and I’ve never flown at all. We were upset that we would not be sharing in these experiences together. It might sound silly to you. Lots of marriages survive regular separations such as this. But my marriage isn’t just any marriage. We have gone from living totally separate lives to being so close that the idea of a week-long separation is actually painful. I ache for his closeness now in a way that I never would have previously thought possible. The realization hit me this week that this is indeed how it’s supposed to be!
Your marriage isn’t just any marriage either.
Physical separation of husband and wife isn’t the problem. Emotional separation is. For many spouses, going away on a trip doesn’t make them feel any further apart than being in different rooms in the same house. Even when they’re together, they’re not “together.”
Trust me, I know, I’ve been there.
Before he left on his trip, I was awake with him in the middle of the night. I held him tightly, smelling of sleep before he walked out into the chilly autumn darkness. He drove our old beat up family car over one of the busiest highways in North America to fly to the capital of the United States, the day after the fifteenth anniversary of 9/11. I was sick to my stomach with worry. I prayed and cried when he left and had trouble falling back asleep in our suddenly huge bed. I live with worry every day when he leaves for work. As I’ve written before, that’s what being a police wife feels like. But this was all brand new and we didn’t like it at all.
All I could think was: I don’t want to get used to this.
Looking back, I can’t believe we wasted all those years. We are now very conscious about how we choose to spend our time. The grace that we receive through participating in a sacramental life is the glue that holds our marriage together. We have stopped seeking happiness — which is always elusive when pursued directly — and now instead strive for holiness. We have discovered that living a life of virtue, a life which embraces suffering and allows for mortification isn’t a life devoid of pleasure. Sacramental marriage provides the framework for a life lived holy, the benefits of which are indeed joy and true love. When our passions are rightly ordered, only then can exist the tree of a marriage — a family, firmly rooted, protected from all of the storms that life brings.