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.

Family-Loving Freak

Maybe I’m a freak. On a local mamapreneur thread we were asked what we would want to have, if we had the courage to ask for it—everyone else was asking for Teslas and winning the lottery; I want six kids.

I realized there are two things I’ve treasured most in life and regretted the least: travelling around the world and adding to my family. For me, “big family” brings up memories of choking-on-our-tears laughter with all my siblings and my parents in one room, memories of sitting around the living room with the fire burning while we all did our own thing but still together, memories of travelling across Canada in a van and pitching tents along the way. A big family increases the likelihood you’ll have someone you can turn to when you just don’t know where to go. A big family increases the likelihood that when I’m old, I’ll have someone to talk to—like I joked with my physiotherapist today, if I have six kids, I’ll have one to call me on every day of the week plus one day of rest!

And maybe I am crazy. And maybe I wouldn’t enjoy having another three kids or so. And maybe I won’t even be able to bring more live children into the world. I don’t know. But there’s a joy in not knowing, the same kind of joy you get when you’re travelling: you don’t know exactly what experiences you’re going to have, but you know it will be an adventure, and the odds are pretty highly in favour of this being a pretty grand adventure.

I’m travelling in this adventure with my best friend, the man whose company I enjoy more than anyone else I’ve ever met and whom I’ve vowed my life over to. He’s amazing. I never imagined marriage could be so fun and so beautiful. (Of course we argue! But I hadn’t realized that arguing in marriage can be good, that it can be a sign that we consider each other worth wrestling with until we come to a mutual conclusion). This man is also extraordinarily courageous: in some ways, the idea of having more kids makes him nervous, but he’s open to it, both because he loves me and because he honours God. That’s true courage right there.  He’s courageous, he’s interesting, he makes me laugh, and he honours God—that’s one heck of a life companion. And so far I’m crazy about the little people we’ve made together.

We’ve been blessed with four children so far, three with us. Each pregnancy has demanded a lot of trust from us that all things would work out well. With the first, my husband was unemployed and in the country on a vistor’s visa. With the second, we had to find a new home and we suffered through his terminal diagnosis and death. With the third, my doctor had advised against getting pregnant again so soon for mental health reasons (but I knew she was mistaken), again we had to find a new home, I felt like I was dying from what turned out to be gallstones, and my body was severely taxed by the weight and bulk of two wonderfully lively babies, and then we somehow survived a very blurry first year with twins. I haven’t regretted a single one of these pregnancies. Each child has been an awesome gift I have the privilege of continually deepening my understanding of—even Matthew.

We’ve used Natural Family Planning, which some people erroneously equate with the Rhythm Method, and it’s been very effective (my favourite method under the NFP umbrella term is the Marquette Method, perhaps because I get to do little science lab experiments in my bathroom, but perhaps also because I just find it extremely easy). If we were to discern through prayer that we shouldn’t have more children for some grave reason, we could limit ourselves to three as effectively as if I were to ply my body with artificial hormones, which, thanks be to God, I have never considered. (We’re not even supposed to eat the meat of animals given hormones—how is messing with my own hormones for years on end for an elective reason a good idea?).

But I want more kids. Sometimes, I’m not even sure why. After all, three kids is hard, really hard. I’m tired. I’m overwhelmed. I’m on antidepressants. I’m not sure I’m a great mother. I don’t like all the chores. I like my “alone time.” Yet, none of this would magically transform for the better if I stopped at three. I guess I’d be past the “baby stage” sooner, but then what? I don’t want to be surrounded by Teslas at the end of my life. I want my kids there, my beautiful children I’m so proud of because they are.

I want to think that maybe, if I really do love my kids as much as I hope I might, they will take that love and multiply it, spreading it through the world. I want them to take the joy they discover at home and the talents they develop with the support of our home, and I want them to take those into the world and make it a better place. I hope to instil in them this little flame of God’s love that I have and invite them to spread it—just as at the Easter vigil, the flame from the Easter Candle is spread to the little candles of all the attendants in the church, so too do I want our light from Christ to be passed on.

And me? What will be my reward? I probably will never drive a Tesla. I may never even own a house. But to know that the Light has spread exponentially because I was open to sacrificing a little more sleep, a little more time, a little more money, a little more me—then I will know without a doubt that my life was not wasted.

Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal. But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal.

Matthew 16:19-20

Easters

I have known many Easters: happy Easters, lonely Easters, Easters of immense joy, Easters clouded by depression, and one Easter when my soul felt dead within me as my Good Friday hadn’t played itself out yet. Some Easters I’ve felt prepared for; others have almost caught me by surprise. I remember my first “cloudy” Easter: the weather truly was dismal, and I was surprised — and almost a little distressed — that I did not feel happier. But the work that the Lord has been accomplishing in me over the years has been largely that of impressing upon me that life isn’t about me. Whether I feel happy or sad or nothing at all does not change the fact that Christ has risen from the dead. And whether I’ve kept a good Lent or not does not determine whether God will grace me with joyful feelings on a day of high celebration, nor does it preclude a last minute conversion of heart. Those years that even Easter feels arid I can remember the years that felt lush, and I can offer the darkness to Him, for I am determined to believe that He is Lord of All, including Death.

This Easter is neither here nor there. I’m experiencing typical parent exhaustion and though I kept Lent respectably enough, I could not enter into the mysteries as deeply as I have in other years. This seems fairly typical of my experience so far as a mother: unable to spend the kind of time I spent in prayer as a single person, I feel much more like I’m walking blindly and in faith. I’m forced to trust more that God is working in me whether I’m aware of it or not, and there is almost no way I could deceive myself into thinking that I’m earning heaven by my pious deeds. No, if I earn heaven, as I hope, it will be purely through Christ’s merciful assessment of my poor attempts to be faithful and obedient to my vocation. Whereas I might have fallen into Pharisaical delusion had I entered religious life, family life has by its very demands impoverished my spirit. Thanks be to God!

May your Easter, be it happy or sad or otherwise, be blessed. Christ is risen!