Everything I Needed to Know About Marriage I Learned in the Convent

Twenty-eight years ago I called my sister from the convent telephone, asked if I could stay at her house for a while, waited at the steps of the 150-year-old Motherhouse for her to come pick me up, and said goodbye to the Dominican Sisters who had hosted me as a postulant for the previous two months. It was a bittersweet goodbye.

I had thoroughly enjoyed life inside the community: waking before dawn, communal prayer, and Mass. I took to the routine and schedule like a duck to water. I loved that there were times and places of silence, but also times of recreation and shared meals. Life was lived in common, and this particular community was alive and growing–so much so that in the years since I left they’ve had to build an addition!

Domestic life was great. I didn’t miss my clothes, doing my hair and makeup, or worrying about split ends. Habits were black and white, shoes were standard issue. It was a joy to pray in community and much easier to free up my mind for contemplation since I didn’t have to shop for groceries, plan and make meals, deal with laundry, or any of a whole host of household tasks that had been a drudgery to me as a single woman working as a writer. I had been able to attend daily Mass, but never really found a Bible study or prayer group to help support my faith. Living in this powerhouse of prayer at the Motherhouse was a great way to experience firsthand what is was like to share a common vocation, a common path towards God. And for the first time I would trust one person, the novice mistress, to help me discern my calling. That was a relief.

Still, it was a struggle. I hadn’t forgotten the man I had been dating before entering the postulancy (he would later become my husband and the father of our children). While I enjoyed the personalities around me, I missed a certain intimacy in conversation and the deliciousness of unstructured time. As a twin and one of eight children I was accustomed to being able to strike up conversations freely, even as an introvert, so the rules about talking began to feel more constraining than freeing.

But I had faith that the novice mistress, given the grace from God to help postulants in the process of discernment, could help me learn whether I had a calling to the religious life there. The sisters take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. Although they all take the same vows, each lives out a unique life of love. It was the last of these vows that I was most worried about. Having grown up in a university town seeing “Question Authority” bumper stickers and sensing that obedience might be a dirty word, I wasn’t so sure about that one.

I had entered the convent in January, and by March I was loving community life and enjoying classes at the local Catholic community college. Working late one night on a presentation about the sacrament of marriage, I learned how this sacrament was a little different from the others. All sacraments are outward signs of inward grace instituted by Christ. All seven sacraments have a matter and a form, meaning there are specific materials (such as water) and certain words (such as the words of Baptism) that are always used when celebrating the sacrament.

In the sacrament of marriage the “matter” consists of the man and the woman themselves. The “form” is given by the words of sacred commitment, of covenant, to one another. The purpose of their bond is companionship, leading one another to heaven, and raising children in the faith. Every day, as long as there are no impediments, God showers a married couple with the grace to get through anything together. They share an intimacy even the angels cannot. Each is given the grace to help lead the other to heaven, just as the novice mistress had her own special charism. Even if a couple were to become homeless and have to give up their worldly belongings, they would belong to one another for life. Even if they lived in the same suburban house as dozens of others on their suburban street, their love story would be unique and unrepeatable.

So this was what I had been contemplating shortly before my meeting with the novice mistress, when she told me she didn’t think I had a call to join the Dominicans. I had spent the evening learning about the beauty, power, and sacrifice of the sacrament of marriage, while still trying hard to offer to God whatever He was asking. It didn’t feel abstract to me, since I already knew a man whom I had loved and could imagine spending my life with. I pondered gift and sacrifice. I thought about obedience and freedom. I felt a tiny bit like what Abraham must have felt when he was told to sacrifice Isaac (without the blood of course). I mean that in the sense of truly wanting to put myself aside and find out God’s plan. I actually wanted to be obedient, if only I could know His will. I spent that night in quiet awe, thinking of Abraham’s fear and trembling as he prepared to sacrifice his son. The next morning it was a tremendous blessing to have an answer so quickly and directly. I would be leaving the four walls of the convent and eventually create a home–a domestic church–with my husband. There we would both offer ourselves daily, both in the joys and the sorrows of family life.  

What did I learn? I learned that any path in life that leads to God will be a holocaust of self, a complete giving one hundred percent, all of the time. I learned not to be afraid of obedience–it usually comes in the form of the obvious, like getting the clothes out when you hear the dryer bell. Or visiting relatives when holidays roll around. Or serving dinner when everyone is  hungry, tired, and crabby.

This obedience may not look like the obedience of a religious sister, but they both boil down to setting oneself aside for the other.  And once you accept the virtue of obedience, it’s actually freeing to know what’s expected of you.  Sisters have a clearer chain of command, while married couples have to work things out together, but there’s still obedience in each state in life.

Whether you are married or single or a professed religious, you will have joys and sorrows, and you will bless the Lord in good times and bad. Whether you are surrounded by other women in habits or surrounded by little people that look and sound a bit like you; whether you share a life with one man across the dinner table, or whether you live the single life; your daily walk will begin with, “Lord, what do you want of me today?” It will usually involve loving other people, especially the unlovable. It will usually involve a supernatural effort, far beyond your own capacity.  Ideally it will involve humiliation after humiliation, starting with seeing your faults in detail, up close and personal, and still knowing that you are loved anyway. Whatever your calling it will take a long while–maybe a lifetime–to accept your faults and get over yourself. Forgiving yourself and others will be your main job description for life.

Like the Old Testament, your story may be filled with treachery, rage, lust, avarice, infidelity, and sorrow. Forgiveness beyond your capacity and faithfulness despite the rest is what we are all called to, regardless.  Your day may be full of times and places of silence (if you are lucky) or you may need to lock yourself in the bathroom just to have enough quiet to think straight (not that I’ve ever done that…). You may get to roll out of bed and attend Mass daily, or you may need to feed, dress and transport a van full of people in order to attend Mass while shushing, rocking, nursing and bribing. You may have to move to another city at a moment’s notice, or you may be burying a child taken too soon. It all counts in the eyes of God.

If you are blessed with a time of discernment as I was, ask yourself what you’ve learned. I learned that I love the Mass and that I’m happiest when I can attend regularly. I learned that I do well with structure. I learned that I enjoy having a gaggle of friends who like to pray together, so the Legion of Mary, a morning breviary group and a nightly rosary have been great during the pandemic, and a monthly Women’s Evening of Recollection with an Opus Dei priest, including confession, are far more invigorating and fun for me than a Girl’s Night Out or getting my nails done.

It is a big responsibility to sign up for marriage. Religious sisters have several years of discernment before taking final vows, but a couple can get married so fast. I pray that each of our young people asks God’s will for them, that they seek out good advice, that they look for a marriage partner who is capable of loving in a sacrificial way, and that they remain free from any serious sin that would block in any way the tremendous grace God wants to shower on them. I also pray that those who may feel forgotten–the single, the divorced, the widowed, the childless–know that they are sons and daughters of the same God, who has a plan for each one of us. It may feel a little like Abraham’s fear and trembling at times, or like my waiting on the steps of the convent ready to leave. No matter how different it might appear from the outside, our self-giving–whatever form it takes–won’t be so different from our brothers’ and sisters’ in faith.

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