Marriage: From cafeteria to gourmet banquet

It wasn’t love at first sight. We grew up in the same town, attended Catholic schools, and even dated each other for a few months in high school and sporadically during college. And then came that pivotal New Year’s Eve when Gerri’s date got sick and Bob talked his way into a date with her. It was a “storybook” evening! After talking and laughing through two lousy movies, trudging through an unexpected foot of fresh snow, encountering a dead battery and riding home in a police cruiser, we were more than just friends.

Preparing for life

As Gerri says, “For me, it was stunning! Through high school, the sisters taught us to pray the Rosary daily for a good husband. I did, although somewhat halfheartedly, even though I was focused on a career with the FBI. I really didn’t expect my prayers to be heard! Bob even gave me a rosary as a wedding gift, with our wedding date inscribed on the back of the crucifix. And like a fool with a good luck charm, I tucked it away in a drawer because my prayers had been answered — I married a good husband.”

As we prepared for marriage, words from Ephesians 5 caught our attention: “Wives be submissive to your husbands.” When we coupled those words with our priest’s instruction to “follow your conscience with regard to family planning,” we concluded that contraception was a necessity, and we quickly fell into the birth control trap. It left us feeling empty. We had our two children, and thus had met our societal obligations by statistically replacing ourselves. But we were no longer lovers — giving for the good of the other — and it was having a ripple effect on our family. As we further embraced “cafeteria Catholicism,” picking and choosing the teachings that fit our lifestyle, we skipped basic things like grace before meals and Sunday Mass if it was inconvenient when traveling. Just as St. Peter began to sink while walking on water when he took his eyes off Christ, so too did we start to sink when we took our eyes off Christ and missed the truth, beauty and goodness of marriage.

The grace to change

Nature never forgives and man sometimes forgives, but God always forgives, and He blessed us with the grace to change. We read Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae (“Of Human Life”) and many other Catholic writings and realized that children are gifts — “love with a name” — and not simply the by-products of marriage. Together we learned natural family planning. When we rejected birth control and understood how to “read” our signs of fertility and infertility, we experienced how and why the marital act can be profound, holy and good. Furthermore, this knowledge enabled us to cooperate with God’s grace and welcome three more children into our family.

These changes made a profound impact on our marriage, but this was only the beginning. We were gaining a greater understanding of our Faith, but we needed to live it on a daily basis. We had to tell our children that our past ways were the wrong ways; we needed a new direction. We explained why we must pray before meals, make Mass and the sacraments a priority, and center our lives in Christ. Our children responded: among other things, the youngest learned to read because he wanted to lead the litany we recited as a family each evening during Lent one year; the kids pointed to pictures of Jesus and Mary if there was an argument during dinner, and they reminded us to check the Sunday Mass times when we were traveling. No more excuses! We had to live what we believed 24/7, and the kids were helping us do that.

Unlimited access to mercy

As we struggled to live marriage God’s way, we experienced unlimited access to his mercy, and that was life-changing! We could no longer ignore his outstretched arms. The rosary is well-worn now; the wedding date on the crucifix is barely discernible. We returned to Ephesians 5 years ago and continued reading: “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the Church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, that he might present the Church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.” Oh! We had missed this part early in our marriage.

Now we often reflect on Ephesians 5. It is one of the many delicacies offered at the “gourmet banquet” of the entire body of Catholic teaching. Our taste buds long for the richness of the Faith. “Cafeteria Catholicism” will never satisfy. We no longer settle for the din of the cafeteria; we want only the truth, beauty and goodness of the banquet!

Bob and Gerri Laird write from Virginia.