start seeing sacraments: marriage & holy orders

Every week I’ll share a few favorite images around one of the seven Catholic sacraments, to celebrate my new book: Everyday Sacrament: The Messy Grace of Parenting.
Follow me on Instagram at @thismessygrace or tag your photos with #everydaysacrament.
Let’s start seeing sacraments together…

sacraments

Marriage + holy orders.

Aren’t they an odd couple? After all, in the Catholic tradition of the celibate priesthood, you can’t usually have both sacraments in your life (unless you’re a married deacon). Old-school illustrations of sacraments in Catholic catechisms separated these two as opposites: you either chose holy matrimony or religious life. One or the other.

But after this experiment of seeing everyday sacraments, I see these two more similarly.

Both are responses to God’s particular call in our lives. Both are commitments of love that we profess with public vows. Both are opportunities to share our gifts with the world.

So whenever I try to capture glimpses of these sacraments in images, I see them as invitations.

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To remember the vows I have made and to affirm the vows that others have taken.

To imagine where my children will be called and to support those who have already answered their calls.

To see our shared work as holy, whether we are spouses sharing the responsibilities of home or church leaders supporting the vocations of the community.

. . .

I see sacraments of marriage and holy orders in everyday reminders.

Some glimpses of these sacraments are moments to remember. We’re trying to do good work in our callings, tending to the people and the places around us.

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Some are openings to imagine. What will these children of ours become and how can we walk with them?

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And some are just fresh breaths of joy. Running headlong into this world of possibility.

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What a gift it is to be called to share our lives in loving service to others, whatever the path God beckons us to follow.

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Where have you glimpsed reminders of marriage and holy orders? What do these sacraments mean to you?

when the nights were full of promise

My husband and I went to college together. But we didn’t go to college together, you see. In retrospect we figured out that we met during freshman orientation. A failed, forced scavenger hunt mixer between our respective dorms, in which all I remember is lounging on the lawn with one of my budding best friends, laughing snarkily about how those guys over there were so weird but at least they didn’t care about the stupid scavenger hunt either.

But we didn’t start dating until senior year. And only halfway through that.

So whenever we wax nostalgic about college days, we each have our own memories, our own stories, our own epic escapades with our own groups of friends.

Last week we stood outside in the settling dark of a warm summer night. We’d let the dog out before turning to head to bed, all three boys already lost in slumber upstairs.

And as we stood there, barefoot on the edge of another lawn, August grass already curling into early autumn’s brown, I turned to him and asked –

Do you remember when every night was full of possibility? 

When every weekend beckoned with the prospect of an unforgettable night out and unbelievable stories to share with our roommates the next morning. When promise hummed in the late-night air as our group headed for the bar or the party or the dance. When there was always the prospect that tonight might be a night we never forgot – that we’d meet someone, that we’d run into fun just around the next corner, that we’d end up with one of those classic college stories only hilarious to those who were there, who never forgot the mayhem or the nickname that ensued from the night’s events.

When the air was electric with anything possible.

When I think about what changes once college recedes in the rear-view mirror, it is this sense of wide-open prospect that seems farthest gone.

Not only that any evening could turn epic, that even a late-night run to the grocery store could prove entertaining, but that the next class or professor could be the one that changed an interest into a major. That the semester abroad could lead to a career. That the retreat or the alternative spring break or the service project could open up a whole new calling.

Our eyes were open wider than they had ever been before. 

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And we almost knew it while it was happening. We had a hunch that the alumni who reappeared faithfully for fall football weekends weren’t simply missing friends or classes or campus clubs. They were missing a way of life. The promise of possibility that opens briefly for those of us lucky enough to call a college education our own. The widening of four years in which the world becomes our proverbial oyster and we get giddy off the aphrodisiac.

But of course it cannot last forever.

The choices we all began to make – graduate school and cross-country moves and first jobs and engagements and marriages and babies and houses – they were good and necessary choices. The rest of our life was waiting to happen, beckoning to begin when we stood outside the convocation center, clutching our graduation caps while wild May wind whipped through our hair.

Is every night full of promise and possibility now? At first my instinct says no. These are our tired thirties, after all.

Now nights are full of dirty dishes and diaper changes and wrangling wiggling children into bath and bed, then turning to the disheveled house and the day’s to-dos left unfinished at work, and then how is it 11:30 again? We’re going to be wiped out when the baby wakes us at 5. Let’s get to bed – wait, did you take the dog out and is the dishwasher running and did anyone switch the laundry into the dryer and where did that stack of bills go?

The air around us starts to feel old and tired. The furthest thing from electric.

But sometimes when I try to look with wider eyes, eyes that used to spark at any possibility, eyes that still sense the shadows of what’s most important, even on a dark night under a cloudy sky, I see that maybe the promise of our nights is still there.

Muted tones, softened edges. But still so present.

Every night I get to slip into bed next to that boy I fell in love with when we were 21. Every night one of our children wakes needing something from us – milk or water or simply a snuggle back to sleep. Every night our house stands strong and safe around us. Every night we rest to ready ourselves for another day’s good work.

There’s so much promise brimming there.

Sure, the prospect of possibility looks different at 33 than it did at 22. I’m sure it will shift to change again at 44 and 55 and on and on. Our lives become limited by the choices we make, but these aren’t all harsh constraints. Simply sharper definitions. We become ourselves. Partly the selves we have chosen, partly the selves we have shaped in response to what life has given us.

So perhaps the better question is not where does promise lie but how sharply can our eyes see it?

Back then, footloose and fancy free, we never could have imagined what lay before us. Life’s never this way. Even those easy, eager conversations of oh, I definitely want kids, too that we must have had while first dating – we never dreamed that those breezy hopes would stumble over infertility or miscarriage.

But neither could we have grasped the depths of how all that was tough and hardened would bind us together, closer than we could have glimpsed when we were laughing on that loud dance floor, the night it all began.

. . .

Lately I’ve been mulling over that line from the end of John’s Gospel. Jesus sitting on the shore in the gray light of dawn, staring at the water and telling Peter that when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished.

But - and there is always a but, isn’t there? and you feel Peter cringe because he knows it, too – when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.

And even though our end will never be as dramatic as Peter’s tale will twist, we still sense this truth about adulthood. The truth you cannot grasp when you are on its giddy brink.

You will be taken where you do not wish to go. Your heart will want things it cannot have, and your soul will struggle with truths it does not want. You will be pulled towards people and places you never imagined.

But there can still be promise there, enough possibility to keep you looking skyward even on the dragging days and the darker nights.

As long as your eyes can keep blinking open. Wide enough to see it.

sharing march 8: my/our/their birthday

The Case of What Happened To My Birthday?

It hit me for the first time, on the eve of my 33rd trip around the sun, that it’s a pretty darn perfect metaphor for what I’ve learned in adulthood.

March 8th used to be All About Me. What’s a birthday other than your unique footprint upon the calendar? Everyone sends you cards, calls you on your special day, wishes you a wonderful celebration. You get to bask in the glow of 24 hours with you at the center: cake, cards, presents. Even the daily horoscope selects a personalized (yet simultaneously vague and laughable?) prediction for your next year.

I loved my birthday every year, gripped it tight with a happy grin. Mine.

Then, as fate would have it, I fell in love with another Pisces.

Another March 8th Pisces, to be precise.

And somewhere between my initial eye roll of disbelief, the driver’s license he produced as proof over dinner, and the eleven years since? The day ceased to be mine forever.

March 8th became our birthday, still a strange stumble of pronoun off my tongue. Like another anniversary or Valentine’s Day (except we always find a restaurant that offers free meals or desserts, much to the waiter’s double chagrin). A shared celebration.

No longer mine but ours.

Of course that’s what marriage is about, cue the clichés. But I truly never thought I would have to bake my own birthday cake every other year. I never thought I’d field birthday calls for us both. Or open birthday cards addressed to two.

Google can’t tell me the odds of sharing an exact birthday and birth year with your spouse, but I’d bet it’s slim. So the one day that was rightly my own on the calendar? (Aside from some fleeting thought that statistically, of course, I surely shared the natal date with millions of others.)

Now it belongs to us.

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Then another funny twist happened.

Ever since our first baby was born, and the story and details and life-changing milestone of his birth day were forever seared on my brain, I started seeing birthdays differently.

Suddenly they were about the mothers, too.

The ones who stand smiling in the background while the child bends over the cake to blow out candles. The ones who were always missing from the photos because they were behind the camera every year. The ones whom nature made the necessary half of the equation that produced a birthday.

The ones who birthed.

Strange as it sounds, ever since I became a parent I always think of people’s mothers when I wish them a “Happy Birthday.” I think of the women who couldn’t forget this date, either, even if they are no longer in their child’s life. Because they labored and sweated and suffered on that day to bring a baby into the world.

And the body and soul don’t soon forget that sacrifice of love.

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So today I’ll roll over and wish my husband a Happy Birthday. He’ll smile and do the same.

Later on we’ll talk to our mothers, I’m sure. They’ve taken to calling each other, too, exchanging congratulations for a job well done years ago. And we’ll share birthday cake with our sons (who still don’t understand how their parents aren’t twins).

All in all it’s a darn-near perfect picture for what I’m learning about this life. That’s it’s not about me or even us. It’s about them.

The ones whose love brought us here. And the ones brought here by our love.

It’s their day, too.

seven years

What does it mean to share seven years?

Jokesters jest about the itch, of course. But that seems cynical. After seven years together, we don’t instantly spring for calamine lotion or start to sneak away.

Scholastics said seven was the age of reason. That sounds wiser. After seven years we’ve learned how to reason with each other, how to fight and forgive, when to hold on and when to let go.

Traditionalists tout this anniversary’s gifts as wool for warmth, copper for durability. That sounds fitting. After seven years we’ve settled into comfort and we hope it lasts.

Scripture scholars coming off sabbatical might justify celebrating a Sabbath year. That sounds lovely. After seven years we’d take time to give thanks for what has been and rest to rejuvenate for what’s to come.

But I picture seven years as a springy second-grader, scraped knees from jumping off the jungle gym, gap-toothed grins for school pictures. That feels right. We’re a bit banged up, having taken a few knocks, but we’re still smiling, still full of energy.

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It’s reassuring to think that after seven years our marriage might have passed the needy newborn stage, the trying toddler times, the pushing buttons of the preschool phase. But even though our marriage is no longer novice or newlywed, it still feels young. So much lies ahead that we can’t yet imagine.

And I love seven for that. She’s not worried about brushing her hair or hitting puberty or surviving junior high. She’s busy being seven – running around the backyard, jumping off the swing set, laughing at knock-knock jokes, asking questions about how the world works. Staying seven is plenty enough.

The un-self-conscious joy of seven. There’s inspiration for a whole year’s celebration in those knobby knees.

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when the marriage dust settles

In a week when marriage made headlines, the quiet moments will be the ones I remember.

Glimpsing small cousins plodding down the aisle in tiny tuxedos, child-sized versions of the grooms they may one day become.

Chasing an exasperating (yet still adorable) toddler around the back of church while the priest asks if the couple will accept children and bring them up with love.

Catching only one line from the homily in its entirety, words quoted from Bonhoeffer that it is not the love that sustains your marriage, but from now on, the marriage that sustains your love.

Hearing a father with a golden voice singing for his daughter as she lit a candle with her new husband.

Saying yes to the bright-eyed boy who asked to take his off his too-tight dress shoes and run free through the lush grass of the golf course green.

Spinning my baby on my hip as he tipped back his head and belly-laughed with glee, wondering whether he’ll ever spin me around another mother-son dance some day.

Late-night mugging for the camera in the photo booth, catching my husband on the cheek with a kiss as so many couples have done before us.

Watching one last burst of fireworks as we pulled out of the parking lot with two tired boys fading fast in the back and a squeeze on the hand from the spouse who knows I love summer night surprises like a six year-old child.

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Beyond the headlines, the everyday work of marriage goes on as before. Work and joy, children and responsibility, forgiveness and laughter.

It is a seemingly impossible promise, to choose a covenant with another flawed human being for the rest of your days. But quietly behind the scenes, millions make it happen without fanfare.

Every wedding we attend, ever since our own, I watch the high hopes of the couple at the altar, standing together in contrasting white and black, and I wonder how fitting it is to pledge love in a place of sacrifice, of lives laid down and broken in gift for each other. We are pointed towards the mystery and crucible of the sacrament long before we can glimpse the long view of what we have promised.

It’s tempting, once you’re no longer newlyweds and have reached the point of settledness—having set up house and established careers and had a few babies—to start sounding more like the seasoned old-timers, whispering while we watch them take their vows: “They’re just kids! They have no idea what’s ahead of them.”

It’s partly true: they don’t. We didn’t. No couple who commits themselves on a wedding day can fully grasp what that covenant will mean or what life will throw their way. We all hear “for better, for richer, in good times, in health” and breeze over the second half of each couplet: the wise and cautious reminders of the sufferings this calling will inevitably encounter.

Yet whenever I’m tempted to run the risk of clucking condescension for the fresh-faced kids standing on the altar, I remember this: we, too, had no idea what was ahead of us. But we, too, knew just enough for that day.

(Click here to read the rest of my latest post at CatholicMom.com)

This weekend’s was one of those weddings when everyone agrees – over glasses of Chardonnay and cocktail hour Sinatra and children shedding suit coats underfoot – that They’re A Perfect Match, that We Couldn’t Be Happier For Them.

We nod and affirm, without ever saying it, that they do know enough for today.

And that the rest of us – jostling babies on the edge of the dance floor, leaning over linen tablecloths to hear grandparents tell stories, clinking forks against glasses to embarrass the newlyweds into a kiss – we are still slowly learning our way into our vows, too.

before-kids and after-kids: two halves of a marriage

We’re about to tip the balance of our marriage, my husband and I.

This weekend we celebrated our sixth wedding anniversary. We enjoyed an elegant dinner on china and crystal once the babies were asleep upstairs. Watched a whole movie from start to finish without interruption. Indulged in sweet rolls for breakfast and ice cream in the afternoon. Took a long walk downtown and watched our boys play in the sunshine.

Darn near perfect.

And in a few weeks, we’ll celebrate our son’s third birthday. He’s already a-twitter about a cake and a party, so plans are on the horizon. As is preschool, further confirming that our firstborn is no longer a baby, no longer a toddler, but on his way to becoming a Boy.

All of which led me to realize that our marriage now stands evenly balanced, for a blink of an instant, between our years with children and our years without. From this point on, the days when we were partners but not yet parents will start to slip farther away, becoming a distant memory – like sleeping in past nine and spontaneous date nights.

I loved the years of our early marriage. For some they are the hardest, but for us they were full of joy and laughter. We loved getting married, loved being married. No, we weren’t perfect. Far from it. We had to work through plenty of annoyances and adjustments to living with each other, like every couple does. We had to learn how to be in relationship in a whole new way. But for whatever reason – the clicking of our personalities or the constellation of life experiences that led us to each other – we have been blessed with a deep delight as the foundation of our life together. I have thanked God for that gift every day since.

So when parenthood proved to be harder to come by than we expected, in the midst of those lovely early years, it was tough. No, overdone steak is tough; algebraic equations are tough. Infertility simply sucks. It is a profoundly depressing and upheaving and table-turning and gut-wrenching experience. You slam up against your own limits and find yourself powerless. You can do nothing but try and hope and pray and wait and see.

For us, infertility ended. For many, it doesn’t. And that daily reminder, our sheer sense of blessedness at having the chance to have a child, has wrapped our experience of parenting in a sense of wonder and gratitude that has forever deepened our relationship. Watching each other become parents has been touching and tender and terrifying and transformative. Our children have changed us, changed our marriage, in ways we’re only beginning to understand.

Last week we finally started hanging pictures in our new home. One of the first to grace the walls was our wedding portrait. We stood in front of the frame, late afternoon sun reflecting our silhouettes onto our former selves, and laughed that someone must have let sixteen year-olds get married, because how could those fresh-faced kids possibly be us, just a few years back?

I drifted back to that Saturday in July, the same sweet burst of stargazer lillies floating in from the vase in the kitchen, faithfully filled by that same groom. I thought about the two halves of our marriage and the turning point of a baby’s arrival that changes everything.

And I realized that the further we get from our wedding day, the more our marriage becomes more than us, those two grinning goofs in the photo. It’s about our two boys, too.

So while I sometimes long for those early years of our marriage, the spontaneity and simplicity of pre-kid days, I know that where we are now and where we’re going is exactly where I want to be.

And who I want to be with.

where we dreamed our babies

We’ve been tackling lots of house projects lately – windows, floors, closets. So I find myself thinking a lot about this home we’ve created, this place we became a family.

There is a deep joy in making a house a home, a fulfillment I never imagined when I was an energetic twenty-year-old, hauling tattered boxes in and out of different apartments every year. Today I find myself having lived on this street for longer than I’ve lived anywhere except my childhood home. My address hasn’t changed in years, but my perspective has.

Through the seasons I’ve spent gazing out the same windows at the same trees, I’ve learned that settling in isn’t the same as settling. The joy of owning a home is putting down deep roots so beauty can grow. It’s the wisdom grown from tending to one small piece of God’s green earth. It’s the wonder of taking someone else’s place and filling it with your own dreams.

We’ve planted gardens and fruit trees, rose bushes and lilacs. We picked out new appliances when old broke. We hauled furniture upstairs and down when inspiration struck. I’ve watched crews of construction workers tromp in and out of our yard, putting on new roofs or tearing up old floors. My handy husband even built a bedroom and a basement of bookshelves.

In short, we’ve made this place our own.

But when I think back on this house, my strongest memories will be the transformations that took place within us, within its walls.

This house was full of infertility’s charts, tests and meds before it was full of babies’ clothes, books and toys. It was full of couple love before it was full of children. This “starter home” is where we became partners and parents. Where we started writing the story of our life together.

A few days ago I took a break from wrangling the bottomless heap of kids’ clothes in the closet. Sweaty and tired, I laid on the floor and stared up at the spinning fan. The fan that my husband installed, in the room that my mother and mother-in-law painted for our first baby. I thought about the home we have made while I listened to my son pretend to read from one of his favorite books:

We’d dreamed a baby, we’d wanted a baby, we’d planned for a baby, we’d waited and waited and waited for a baby. 

Until finally there was you. 

As he flipped the final pages, I turned my head on the carpet to watch him sing: And oh, how we love you!

Watching my baby-turned-boy, I realized that perhaps this chapter is the most important one we’ve written in the story of this house. Not the herb garden we planted out front or the strawberry patch we dug out back. But the family we became along the way.

When we were giddy newlyweds rushing in the door from our honeymoon, we had no idea how the early years of our marriage would be shaped by the wanting and hoping and praying for children. This was the place we dreamed our babies, wondering how they would look and when they would arrive. This was the place we planned for our babies, worrying as the months stretched into years. This became the place we waited and waited and waited for our babies. Until finally, they were here.

And oh, how we love them.