One of the things I gave up for Lent this year was the last word. It might seem an odd thing from which to fast, but on the home front I crave the last word, savor it, seek it with such reckless abandon that I scatter piles of lesser words about the house until at last I have it. In the past I have recognized this fault in myself: that I want to be right, or at very least, heard and understood, in all things. I manage to tamp down this tendency in public, but in private, in flourishes.
Jodi knew of my sacrifice, and just prior to Holy Week, I asked for her honest assessment as to how much progress I had made. She hesitated a long moment, so I said, “It’s alright — I need you to be straight with me.”
She said, “Honestly, I haven’t noticed much of a difference.”
Just as I thought. I knew I hadn’t done well in this regard — and considering the number of times I know I bit my tongue or choked down one last pointed comment, I now knew how gluttonous my appetite for the last word had truly been.
Lent was not a complete loss, however. For one thing, my self-conscious failures led me to look for little things I could do to make up for being a jackass: simple acts of love and kindness like making the bed, which I have rarely if ever done of my own accord. For another, after this sobering conversation with my bride came Holy Week, and the sacrament of Penance, and the Triduum.
Like so many of the faithful, Holy Week crept up on me with alarming quickness and stealth. Once I realized time was short, I redoubled my efforts to hold my tongue, with at least some renewed success. On Tuesday, Jodi and I went to Confession at Mary Queen of Peace, to a young priest who cut us both to the quick, condensing a plethora of sins to a single, focused flaw, then concocting a penance to match.
In my case, he said something like this: “A simple definition of love is giving of yourself to another. A simple definition of pride is claiming for yourself what isn’t yours. All yours sins seem related to this tendency to take things for yourself: wanting to look better than you are to those around you, wanting recognition for what you do, even taking on more responsibility for what’s happening at work or in the world than belongs to you.”
For my penance, he asked me to find three people or causes to which I could give of myself before the end of Holy Week. And it helped.
After work on Holy Thursday, I shut off my computer and phone until after the Easter Vigil. It’s remarkable how peaceful it can be to escape the endless barrage of email and social media “news,” especially in an election year. Nevertheless, in the wee hours of the morning on Good Friday I found myself unable to sleep, and finally rose around 4:30 a.m. to pray and journal.
I sat near the front window with a cup of black coffee in the foreground and choral music in the back; two candles providing a flickering light so as not to deaden the dawn when it arose. My mind wandered across the years of marriage and family life, and I thought of St. Joseph, who is never quoted but ever present in the early life of Jesus in the gospels — the epitome of the “strong, silent type”; the carpenter, whose rough hands and faithful heart made dead wood bloom. Here was a model of a husband and father: quiet, hard-working, life-giving.
For nearly 20 years of marriage, I have accepted the truth that I married well: a woman of beauty, faith, and virtue who was meant to guide me to Christ. For those same 20 years, I have acknowledged her as life-giver, and myself as a sponge, simply soaking up the love she pours forth.
While all of these things are true, for 20 years I’ve used them as a crutch — something to lean on in my weakness. It sounds so sweet and humble to say, “I’m not worthy,” but when did that become good enough? Should I not strive to become worthy?
For the past several years Jodi and I have helped with engaged couple retreats at our parish. Many times over those years we’ve helped to share this analogy between marriage and the Holy Trinity: God the Father loves God the Son; the Son receives that love and reflects it back to Father; and that love between them is God the Holy Spirit, “the Lord, the Giver of Life.” Similarly, a husband loves his wife; the wife receives that love and reflects it back to her husband; and the love between them becomes so tangible that it gives life — sometimes literally, resulting in a third person.
For years I’ve helped share this message without directly applying it to my role in our marriage. The husband is the life-giver. The husband initiates. His bride receives what he gives, transforms it, and gives it back — but I’m meant to the source. Not a sponge, but a spigot.
I sat, dumbfounded, as dawn arose. All these years of “wearing the pants” in this family, and Jodi has been trying to do both our jobs. When the sun finally rose, I felt like a new man. Or rather, a man rising to new life.
Dust that we are, a day later I was struggling to recall these revelations and was again longing for a sign from God to guide me — like those whom Jesus fed with a few loaves and fishes, who, the very next day, asked Him, “What can you do?
So I resolved to write them down and share them. May they be my own little resurrection story: after 20 years, a fool became more the man he is called to be. Amen.