I rise at 4:30 every morning to get a jump on a 70-mile drive to work. To keep some semblance of order, I try to do the same thing every day at the same time. It starts with getting out of bed, making the coffee and heading outside to pick up the morning newspaper. It is always dark, and I am careful to turn on the outside light to avoid stumbling off the porch.
On a recent morning, as I was on my way out the door, my mind was on the day ahead. Neglecting to flip on the porch light, I stepped right into the middle of a bowl that was sitting on the doormat.
I picked it up, thinking with annoyance, “Who left this at my front door?” Then, in the dimness of dawn’s early light, I recognized the bowl and noticed a piece of notepaper taped on the inside edge. It had one word written on it: “Sorry.”
In June of 1998, my wife, Terri, and I celebrated our 30th wedding anniversary, and I spoke at the end of Mass. I had struggled over what to say that would be meaningful and appropriate. Then, in a moment of inspiration, I thought of a prop that might help me describe my feelings. I wrapped it up, and had it included in the offertory procession.
When it was my turn to speak I reached for my prop, tore off the wrapping paper and exposed a brown, ceramic bowl. I looked out to the pews to catch the eye of my college roommate, who had been my best man, and held the bowl out to him. Wayne looked puzzled at first, but then he smiled and nodded his head.
We were both recalling the day 30 years before when Wayne showed up for our wedding. He had presents in his car, and prefaced the giving of them with the warning, “You are probably going to think this is strange, but you are going to need all of these things.” With that, he pulled out a complete set of kitchen gadgets that never make their way to wedding showers. The largest item was a brown Pyrex bowl. My friend was right; we did need all those things.
As the years passed, one item after another got lost or broken until the only thing left was the bowl. It had managed to make the whole 30-year tour with us—through eight moves, three kids, two houses, seven dogs, a dozen cars, holidays, celebrations and catastrophic moments. And it is still a part of our life.
I shared the story of our bowl with the people assembled that day, telling them how it has held salads for dinners, cake mixes for birthdays, ice for sprained ankles and popcorn for movies. It has watered dogs, marinated meat, held nuts and bolts to assemble toys and rolls of dough for those funny cookies Terri makes every Halloween. It has sorted Christmas tree lights, coins for counting and even been a hat for an impromptu skit. But most important, it has held for us the memories of three decades of family life.
The dog died in the fall of 1999, and our three children moved out to be on their own. It is just the two of us now; and in this disposable paper plates and plastic containers society in which we live, the bowl is used less frequently. Still, whenever I look at it, I think, “Remember when....”
In that spirit, we began giving bowls to the young married couples in our parish with a note sharing what our bowl has meant to us throughout our married life. We thought everyone deserves something to hold their memories, something that in later years would elicit from them a “Remember when...” as well. (Maybe I got the idea from the title of one of Joyce Rupp’s books —The Cup of Our Life, extra large.)
Sad to say, some of the bowls have been returned. Often left on the front porch, without explanation. They come from good people who were just not able to be good enough. People too caught up with what and who they were or wanted to be to truly surrender to the commitment and promise of matrimony. One could call them “married singles”—busy, indulged, self-absorbed and neglectful of their relationship. These are wonderful people who, while striving so hard for a wonderful life, wound up bent—then broken.
The Rev. Andrew Greeley once observed in an article about matrimony that although we bestow upon each other the sacrament of matrimony during our wedding ceremony, it is no guarantee that the relationship we have entered into will ever be sacramental. That is the work of a lifetime: to make the promise of the wedding day sacramental.
Over the last eight years, my wife and I have conducted marriage preparation classes for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. We tell the couples that we are not interested in how much they love each other—their presence in the room speaks of that love—but in how committed they are to each other. That is the theme of a presentation by Jim Healy, M.D., from the Diocese of Joliet, entitled “When the Cake Is Gone.” He makes the point that marriage is not about the pronouncement “I do,” but about the commitment “I will.” It is the sense of purpose that comes from the “promise.”
I know of no long-married couple who, along with recounting stories of love and affection, couldn’t also show you the chips, dents and bruises of their marriage. Those blemishes are testimony to the task of developing and maintaining the most intense of interpersonal relationships. They are the marks of people who have been faithful to the “promise,” who have worked hard at their sacrament.
My youngest son will marry next year, and I think about what I should say to him. I take some comfort from St. Francis of Assisi, who admonishes us to “preach the Gospel; use words when necessary.” Perhaps the best thing I can “say” to my son, then, would be the unspoken example in the family of origin within which he grew up, loved by two people who were in love with each other. Two people who never forgot the “promise” and the power of the sacrament that supported it.
The Archdiocese of Los Angeles was recently compelled to cut back on ministry services to balance the budget. Many of the cuts could be objected to, especially in light of the recent building of an expensive and somewhat controversial cathedral. But the office in which we work was maintained because it performs a valuable service for pastors, and the general feeling was that those of us in the field did a good job with marriage preparation. (A good job? I wondered about that while holding the bowl on the porch that morning. I don’t have all the answers, but standing in the dawn’s early light with a returned bowl filled me with many questions.)
Preparation for a child’s first Communion is a yearlong process, and includes at least three substantial meetings for the parents. Confirmation preparation is a two-year commitment for the teenager, with strong parental and sponsor involvement. But marriage preparation is often only a one-day “traffic school” for the soon-to-be-wed.
A bride will spend more time searching for the right wedding gown than she will spend confronting the issues of marriage. Together, the time a couple will spend planning the “greatest day of their lives” will far outdistance the time they spend preparing for the sacrament that will bind them. For an unfortunate few, the wedding day will be the last “greatest day” they will share together.
Marriage preparation programs have often been criticized for giving too much weight to the physical and psychological aspects of marriage, while being “Catholic lite” on theology. An eight-hour marriage preparation class or a three-day Engaged Encounter is patently insufficient for formation, and trivializes the constancy to which we believe the sacrament of matrimony calls us.
If as a community of believers in Jesus the Christ, manifest in the world through the sacraments, we are to continue to say we believe in the sanctity of marriage, then we should begin to treat it as something more important than the absurdly expensive rite of passage it has become.