Surprised by Joy

For seven years now, I’ve thrilled in the story of how I came to be engaged to my husband. For me, it feels like it is almost extraordinarily special, almost as though it is more special than our actual wedding day! In the past few weeks, I’ve been asking myself why that is. Why is it that the anniversary of our engagement means so much to me? I can’t answer that question fully, but I have discovered a lot through my pondering.

Primarily, I have realized that the reason I love my engagement so much is not so much that the man I loved asked me to marry him, but that through this man’s commitment to me, I came to know God’s love for me in a way I’d had trouble believing till then. My engagement was very, very much the incarnation of God’s love for me, and the fulfillment of so many hopes and dreams I had scarcely dared ask Him.

About a year before our engagement, I’d attended a discernment retreat. It was a landmark occasion for me, as I was blessed with the personal direction of a very good and holy priest over the course of three days. For me, it was a very Paschal experience, for I went from deep sorrow to joy, spanning Friday through Sunday. Though I came from a loving family, I struggled to believe in my heart (head was easy) that God loved me. My whole motivation in wanting to become a nun was not my response to His love for me, but wanting to show Him my love for Him. Cute, but definitely immature. That weekend, I became convicted deep in my heart that God Himself was crazy about me, and that I didn’t need to do anything at all to earn that love. I worked through deep wounds I’d suffered, and I came out radiant. Full of love for God, I felt ready to risk everything for Him and entered a discernment house I hadn’t even known existed.

But all this time, I still had not dared to admit what I wanted most. I’m not sure I even knew what I wanted most, apart from pleasing God. That’s a perfectly fine place to be, really, especially if you manage to disentangle yourself completely from all your own ideas about what you should be wanting and allow the Holy Spirit to direct your heart. It took letting go of my grip on all my convent dreams and aspirations, and standing before God completely empty-handed, for me to arrive at the place where at last the Holy Spirit had enough room to move and quiet to speak.

Now, even though I had not really known for years what I wanted, apart from not wanting to be without a vocation, I had many years and much literature and opera to have me contemplating marriage and, well, an ideal husband. I had not originally wanted to be a nun. Rather, I had grown the desire out of my own distaste at the idea. Indeed, it was my revulsion at the idea of joining a convent as a young teenager that compelled me to learn more and to grow a desire for it, for I hated the idea even more of holding back anything from God. I wanted to love God, no matter what the cost, just like the great Saints I’d read about–all of whom, I noted, had pursued religious life or priesthood. Clearly my aversion needed to be conquered! But, I was weak, and I would often find my heart yearning for companionship, and no matter how close I grew to God, I always felt lonely and incomplete. I assumed that this was just part of the vocation, part of the sacrifice, and I embraced it, offering it up for all those who find themselves alone or celibate by chance rather than choice. I could carry that cross, I said to myself. I would do so with love. It didn’t really matter whether I enjoyed it or not. I wanted to love!

Yet still, I would find myself smitten with Tom or Harry or whomever, and I’d laugh at myself and analyze and over-analyze my feelings and my ideas of what God maybe wanted of me. And I’d certainly go through many periods of desiring marriage and wishing I could find a good man who wanted to date me. Finding a good date was hard, as I was very serious about dating with the intention of discerning marriage. What was the point in allowing romantic feelings to grow if we didn’t have an end goal in mind? To save time and heartache, I spent time outlining the bare minimum of shared values or interests I would need to share with a prospective date. And I also occasionally dreamed of the most wonderful man I could imagine, who quite possibly didn’t exist. I’d probably have to end up sacrificing some of the traits of my dream man. After all, how many men were good at Latin? How many of these were also funny? And how many of those loved classical music and literature? And, the biggest yet most significant hurdle of all, how many would kneel beside me before the Eucharistic Lord in adoration? I decided to prioritize the latter, as it was the closest to my heart.

When my husband–legendary Latinist, witty, well-read, gentle, a match for me in music knowledge, and devout Catholic–proposed to me and I finally accepted, it was for me the fulfillment of the deepest desires of my heart for this world: a perfect companion. Better yet, it was a complete surprise. I had known this man for five years. Four of those years I hardly knew him, occasionally hoping he would date me, but the shy guy never made a timely move. Then I began to take religious discernment seriously, and I also encouraged him and a friend to date. It was in some ways thanks to their friendship, that never grew beyond a friendship, that I got to know him better and realize that here was a really amazing guy. Cultured and Catholic? Amazing! He had great taste in music, recited Beowulf in Old English, and enjoyed Shakespeare, but he also went to Sunday Mass, and even weekday Mass, for I’d seen him there often, not knowing he’d hoped to see me there.

God loves me. He really, really loves me. He even wants my happiness, not only in the next life, but even in this life. He delights in surprising me with good things. He wants to fulfill every wholesome desire of my heart. He blessed me with a man who cares deeply for me, who admired me for years, and who is a really terrific companion.

My engagement story is much bigger than simply the story of a man and a woman who fall in love and decide to get married. It’s the story of God showing His love and provision for His beloved daughter (and son!). My engagement is such a source of joy and beauty for me much less because of this incredible mortal I am now bound to, and much more because of the incredible God who arranged such an event in the history of the world, an event so seemingly insignificant and trivial compared to all the great events in history, and a tremendous gift for two very unworthy servants. I do not deserve this kind of joy!

I knew at the time, and I know even better now, that married life is not happily ever after: it’s hard work, and there are times of deep grief and suffering. But through it all, God is constant. He is faithful. He loves us, and He is with us. My good husband is a daily reminder of that. He is truly a Sacrament to me.

My engagement is my Annunciation event, my cause for a Magnificat! It is my Good News, my Gospel! Forever I will sing the goodness of the Lord! That is why May 8th will always be a most important and wonderful date on my calendar.

For our ridiculous love story of literary proportions, including an engagement ring sent from heaven, see: My own Austen novel — extended version.

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