I've been writing a family life column for over fifteen years. And I rarely write about marriage. I sometimes refer to marriage. I frequently write about openness to life. But I tend to avoid writing about marriage. I'm a big fan of marriage. I dearly love my husband. It's really tricky, however, to write about marriage. It's one thing to write about one's own struggles and failings; it's entirely another to write about one's spouse's. I'm not so keen on making our struggles public. It's impossible to write honestly about marriage without mentioning the tough times.
There are lots of times when Mike will look at me during a really, really good moment in our life together and say, "You should write about that." As far as I can remember, he's never said that during or after a particularly bad moment. And we have bad moments.
I think though, that I am a good wife. For the first ten years or so of our marriage, I was a good wife solely by the grace of God and my own sheer joy at being in my husband's presence. I was totally head over heels in love. Then, under the strain of four children and his eighty hour a week job and lots of travel, sheer joy needed a boost. My desire to be a good wife was augmented by trying to implement the advice of countless books on Christian marriage. Following most of the advice there came naturally to me. I just needed to be reminded and encouraged.
The advice in all of those books ran along the same lines: keep a well ordered home; be a cheerful helpmeet; be tuned in to his need for physical affection. I've read volumes on submission and volumes on traditional roles. Lots and lots of good advice.
In the past few weeks, though, I've reflected on those messages and found them lacking. To be sure, I believe we honor the men who provide for our homes by making them cheerful havens of peace and good cheer. I'm all in favor working alongside our men. And I'm a staunch believer in following his lead where hobbies and spare time pursuits are concerned. I think the physical gift of marriage is one of God's greatest blessings for a married couple. The advice in those books is solid. The action items are noble ones. The sum total of those actions, however, do not make one a good wife.
There have been two seasons of my life where I could not follow the advice in the "good Christian wife" books. The first time, I was a bride, married just two years. I found myself very ill. Bald from chemotherapy, puffed up with steroids, and often too sick and tired to lift myself from the couch, I was a deplorable housekeeper. I could not go out into the world to do the things he loved to do: sporting events, golf outings, even grocery shopping. To do so would risk a potentially lethal infection. And all too often, physical affection was reduced to my feeble attempt to run my fingers through his hair as he drifted to sleep.
The second season is the one I'm in right now. I am on total bedrest, with the threat of hospital admission. I haven't seen my kitchen in days. I don't cook. I don't clean. It was big news when I was allowed bathroom priveliges and to sit up long enough to fold laundry. The slightest touch causes my uterus to contract. Nothing is more endearing to my husband than for the whole family to "be there" for youth sports. I'm so not "there." I fully admit that I have been so schooled in the "good Christian wife" train of thought that I'm struggling with my role right now. It's my husband who is protesting when I tell him how I'm failing at the "good wife thing."
Bless his heart!
He reminds me that we're in this for good, in sickness and in health. Can one be a good wife if she can't do anything? Is being a good wife an entirely active thing? According to Mike, it couldn't possibly be. He insists that doing all those things are not what makes someone a good wife.
What does then? What lesson is there in this moment that is actually a lesson for the rest of our married lives?
The first thing that comes to mind is prayer. I can and do pray almost incessantly for my husband these days. Often, it's the only thing I can do. He is bearing the almost unbearable strain of doing for our family. He is carrying me emotionally at a time when I'm vulnerable and embarrassingly fearful.He's the doer. I am the prayer support. St. Joseph and I are very, very tight these days and I never cease to be grateful for his prompt intercession. Indeed, prayer is no small thing.
Prayer though, isn't making a wish upon a star and coercing heaven into doing things my way. Prayer is a means to expand my soul, to crowd out sin and to fill it with grace. With the benefit of that grace, I see glimpses of God's vision of a good wife. He wants us to keep a cheerful home. He wants to us to relax and play with our husbands. He wants us to give freely of ourselves physically. But these actions are not at the core of being a good wife. At the core of being a good wife is a soul who knows the heart of her husband.
The actions are instruments. Through those actions, I might reach his heart. And I often do. But it's not about the actions; it's about the knowing. It's about the reaching for the heart of the man and truly, truly caring about what resides there. The actions are very useful tools. Sometimes, when the tools are fully at my fingertips, though, I become more concerned with the tools than with the man himself. How well am doing the housekeeping thing? How good a soccer mom am I? That's not what it's about.
Not now. Now there is nothing between me and the man. There is no way to "win" his affection. I'm not planning candlelit dinners. I'm not sitting in the stands of a soccer game on a crisp autumn day sharing a caramel macchiato. I'm not doing much of anything. I'm here in bed twenty-four hours a day, reaching for his heart. When I reach for his heart, when I care only about him, when I listen as if the whole world depends on it, when I want nothing more than to know what he holds at the core of his being, when I leave myself and I'm solely his and his alone, I am a good wife.
I am left with prayer and conversation. Conversation, I have found, must be weighted in favor of listening.
Honestly, we are limited by language. We are limited by our humanity. We can't do this marriage thing under human power and do it well. I will never make the kind of connection that God desires in my marriage without God himself. Marriage is a sacrament. Thank God! It's pure grace that allows me to reach the heart of my husband. Pure grace grants us moments of wholeness when we truly, truly complete one another. In the absence of action, it is easy to know what is essential to those moments of wholeness. In the absence of action, I am left with nothing but prayer and the openness to him that is enabled by grace.
Can I be a good wife in sickness and in health? Only by the grace of God.
--reviving this one from the archives today as we work at home. In order to focus on home and family, I'm backing way away from the computer this week. It's Boot Camp here before our autumn rhythm moves into full swing. I'm posting this as a genuine reminder to myself. We're working hard to prepare the environment for our studies and to establish excellent habits so that each member of this family can serve the others well in the coming term.