A Deathly Love
It seems morbid, but I found myself thinking a lot about death as I grew closer to being engaged. When a proposal was offered to me and that knee was bent in a moment of grave anticipation, my thoughts immediately froze and I asked myself, "Is this the person I am going to die with?"
It seems odd, I suppose, to think about death in such a wonderfully ecstatic and happy moment, but the words of the familiar vow, "Till death do us part", seemed to have a firm hold in my mind. It wasn't something I could take lightly or forget about in the bliss of the moment; death was literally a part of the decision making.
When I studied abroad in Austria, the monastery where I lived used to house Carthusian monks, who used to greet one another with the saying, "Frater, memento mori." Remembering death and the coming of that moment wasn't morbid or strange to me. It seemed fitting that holy people were calling to the forefront of their consciousness the reality of their human condition, and reorienting their minds daily to the then-serious business of preparing for it as best they could.
When I said my marriage vows to my husband, I did so while holding a crucifix. For me, that wasn't just about consecrating my marriage to Christ, although that was certainly part of it. Grasping onto that crucifix while saying the words, "Till death do us part", meant that I was acknowledging that my death was coming, and so was Garrett's, but that the beauty of our marriage infused our earthly journey with such a noble purpose: to help one another prepare for that moment, to aid one another in becoming as holy as we could so that we would see God face to face and not be afraid of leaving our earthly home. Holding onto that crucifix, which now sits above my bed, reminds me that it was through death that Love found its deepest and truest meaning, and that if I am to truly and fully love Garrett, I must die to myself a thousand different ways during this lifetime, because love is released in me dying to myself for his sake.
This understanding of marriage as dying to self for the sake of another, for the sake of preparing my soul and his soul for our eternal home, isn't easy and it isn't something I can muster the courage to think of all the time. But when I think of marriage, I inevitably think of death, because like when I look up at Christ on a cross, I can't think of love without His death in turn.
This summer, my childhood best friend was married, and standing at the altar as she and her husband recited their vows made such a lasting impression on me that it's hard to put into words. I've never experienced such a full circle of awe, pain, and beauty as in that moment those familiar words were uttered, "Till death do us part."
I stood up for those vows only hours after learning that my dad had died. I have been to countless weddings, and countless Masses at that, but this day was so different and so infused with a beautiful and yet terrifying meaning.
Death and love were interlaced so strongly and meaningfully.
This is My Body, which is given for you. I imagine the washing of the disciples' feet by the master, the pouring of wine, the agony and pain of God dying. I imagine His body broken and nailed and I see the host rise and somehow this participation in sacramental mystery makes a little more sense. Love died for us.
"In sickness and in health, in good times and bad." I imagine my father and mother, so young and so many years ago, reciting those words to one another anxiously as my friend was doing now. They were both so full of hopes and dreams for the future, and neither of them knew in that moment what the living out of those words would hold for them. For my dad, it meant dying to self every day. It meant sacrificing his own wants and needs and dreams for the sake of my mom and myself and my brother and sisters, even when we scorned his efforts and undervalued the extreme pains he took to make us happy. There were moments of health, but many more moments of sickness. There were good times, but also many bad times. My dad stayed true to my mom in the midst of it all, and his love for her knew no bounds, but kept on dying, dying, dying to self.
And when my friend and her husband repeated the words, "Till death do us part", they did not know when that moment would come. My parents did not know at the time either. They probably imagined being old and goofy together and dying at the end of their life, but this was not to be. That moment of parting came much, much sooner, in the middle of a summer day, on the side of the road in an unexpected rush of God calling a servant back to Himself for no other reason seemingly than simply He wanted him back.
I experienced all this as I held my little boy beneath my too tight bridesmaid's dress and felt him kick, "This is my body, given for you", and I knew that the fruit of my marriage was taking on a new dimension that held more sacrifice, more dying to self, but immensely and immeasurably full of more love.
Love bears all things.
"Marriage calls each spouse to fight against himself for the sake of his beloved. This is why it has become so unpopular today. People are no longer willing to achieve the greatest of all victories, the victory over self." When I read those words as an engaged woman, I had a understanding of what it meant, but it took living it out and experiencing love and death for myself that made me realize that I have not even waded into the shallow end of the unending ocean of this mystery.
For I really do believe that love and death and the paradox of meaning that they hold for humanity is an ocean, an abyss bursting forth of goodness and mystery that we taste when we stop and allow ourselves to.
I know that death is powerful force, and it grips one so intensely that it can be hard to rationalize it or categorize it in your heart. But I know that love endures even unto death, and I see it in my mom and dad's legacy and in the heart of my friend as she begins to walk the very same road.
As Francis de Sales writes, "Mount Calvary is the mount of lovers."
Photos by Sally O'Donnell Photography.