The Annunciation and the unexpected

The story of the Annunciation is beloved amongst Catholics. It is here that we see Mary’s indispensable role in the story of Salvation begin to unfold. It is here that Mary teaches us that by giving our ‘yes’ to God, even when we afraid (especially when we are afraid), we can participate in God’s plan for mankind, helping His Kingdom to come.

That narrative is a little overdone. It is beautiful, and certainly true; we must follow Mary’s example, and give our fiat to God, asking for the Blessed Mother’s intercession when we feel afraid to take bold steps alone. I am certainly not questioning the goodness and truth of this lesson. It’s just that this seems to be *the* ‘teachable moment’ that gets reeled off again and again when it comes to the Annunciation.

As I prayed the first Joyful Mystery of the Rosary yesterday, something else stood out to me. We know intellectually that Mary must have been confused by what God asked of her, and that the people around her must have gossiped and accuse her of all sorts of terrible things once they knew she was pregnant. But because we know so well that this was a fundamental part of God’s plan for Salvation, have we perhaps forgotten that, when it actually happened, people didn’t know that? All they saw was a young girl, not yet married, who had suddenly and mysteriously fallen pregnant?

If that happened today, would you believe Mary’s story? Would you think that she was the axis on which the story of Salvation turns? Or would you just think that she was delusional, kidding herself, or outright lying – even blaspheming against God by using Him as an excuse for her sin?

I suspect I might think the latter. And that got me to thinking – how many times have we inwardly or outwardly questioned God’s call for someone else? Wondered whether they are simply using God as an excuse for something they want to do whether or not it is God’s will? How many times have I let someone else’s raised eyebrows or judgement thinly veiled as ‘advice’, make me question God’s plan for my life?

No one except God can tell you who you should marry. Maybe God will speak through someone you know – but you shouldn’t let someone’s unsolicited and perhaps uncharitable opinion be a deciding factor. Your non-religious friends might say, “What’s the problem? Why does it matter whether he shares your beliefs? This is the problem with religion – it divides people!”. Whilst your devout Catholic friends might say, ‘There’s no way that God wants you to marry a non-Catholic. How can you give your whole self to God if you can’t share your beliefs with your spouse?”

God has a special and unique plan for each of us, one that may seem surprising or even shocking to outsiders – as Mary’s story shows us. Mary also shows us that it’s OK to be afraid or even to question God about His plan. Ultimately, she demonstrates that if we accept a plan that may cause whispers and gossip, we can bring glory to God.

As I always say, I do not wish to suggest that any and all relationships with non-Catholics are willed by God. You need to be honest with yourself and open to God’s voice when discerning how any given relationship will impact your relationship with God. But don’t be put off by other people casting doubt on your role in God’s tapestry of Salvation.

Obstacles and excuses

As I was going about my day today, I was mentally grumbling about the deficiencies in my prayer life. Having started a 54-day rosary novena for the first time, I’ve gotten into the habit of praying a scriptural rosary with the Rosary Cast podcast when I get up with my daughter around 6am. Which is great! But, I was thinking, first thing in the morning is the only time I have for fruitful prayer: my husband is asleep, the baby is occupied with her milk and renewed joy to play with her toys. If I had a devout Catholic husband, we could pray together in the evenings – perhaps a litany to our favourite family saints, bedtime prayers with our daughter, an examen before sleeping.

But then, as if St. Michael or Our Lady or some other saintly friend had my back, I almost felt these complaints, sent by the devil, being squashed by the Truth of God. Yes, I have some specific obstacles to my ‘ideal’ prayer life. But doesn’t everyone? It’s my choice to either let those obstacles stand in the way of my relationship with God, or to recognise that my prayer life will be as fruitful as I make it. Would it not be more beneficial to offer up those frustrations as prayer, thereby making them part of my prayer life? Does God not always make space for more prayer when we look for the parts of our days and our lives in which we can grow in intimacy with Our Lord?

This is not to undermine the real sadness and sorrow that comes with being unable to pray with my spouse. If it did not cause me pain, I probably wouldn’t be moved to pray daily for my husband’s reversion. But I am firmly convicted that, at this point in my life, this is my cross. This is my path to holiness, not my excuse for laziness in prayer. As I have prayed through the Joyful, Sorrowful and Glorious mysteries of the rosary (the Luminous mysteries aren’t traditionally prayed in a 54-day rosary novena), I’ve been reminded starkly that Jesus and Mary know our pain; they both felt it in their own earthly lives. If we unite our suffering with Our Lord and Our Lady, we will grow in faith and spirit.

And further, this verse from the Joyful mysteries has kept coming back to me:

For He who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is His name. (Luke 1:49)

The devil wants us to feel that our quest for holiness is doomed, that our circumstances make it impossible. He wants us to feel despair, and ultimately, to give up. How can I despair, though, when I look around and see all the wonderful things that the Lord has done for me? Our challenge is to keep our eyes, minds and hearts on those things, to let our hearts sing a Magnificat; and that when we feel sorrow over our perceived obstacles to unity with God, we do not let it become an excuse to give up as the devil wants, but to lean ever closer into the suffering, redemptive love of our Saviour.

Prayers of Elisabeth Leseur

Sometimes it can be difficult to find our own words of prayer. Thankfully, the Church has a rich tradition of beautiful prayers, in addition to a whole host of saints who have given us words of prayer to use when our own words fail us. Here, I will list some prayers recorded in Elisabeth Leseur’s diary for you to use in your own life and marriage.

 

My God, help me to carry the cross Thou hast offered me, and let none of this precious grace of suffering be lost to me or to the souls Thou lovest.

I want to love Thee and Thee alone, O my Saviour – not the great joys Thy child sometimes receives from Thee. Help me to detach myself more and more from passing things and to attach myself to Thee. Give me the grace of being […] Thine instrument with souls, those who are dear to me, and those whom I do not know but who need my humble intercession with Thee.

My beloved, I believe the joy of reunion will surpass the pain of separation and waiting, and that then we shall live. You who can see and know, obtain for us a feeble ray of this eternal light to guide and illuminate us.

O Lord, […] I implore Three to come to him, to come to them, and let them live, let them live the interior life deeply, and also an outer life renewed by Christianity. The harvest is plentiful; my God, let them be blessed labourers in it; let their life and mine be a work of beauty and love, and let us labour together for the coming of Thy kingdom in the world and in souls.

Help me, my God, and without my knowing it, use me for a little good. [L]et me be the rough vessel giving forth light and warmth. Thou art that light; come and enlighten, through me, the souls that infinitely dear to me. What a joyful day it will be when those souls shall know and love all that Thou hast made me know and love, I who am poor, insignificant, and weak – that day when I shall be able to reveal to them the soul Thou hast truly recreated in me.

 

Elisabeth Leseur

Elisabeth Leseur (1866-1914) is a Servant of God, meaning she is being investigated by the Church for possible canonisation. Whether or not she is eventually recognised as a saint (I pray that she will be!), she has had a profound effect on my life and spirituality. It is really her example that led me to feel that I can confidently pursue sainthood, even in the absence of a devout Catholic spouse.

The short story is that Elisabeth Leseur was a devout Catholic married to an atheist/agnostic, Felix Leseur. Furthermore, her circle of friends were overwhelmingly non-believers, and had little respect for her beliefs. This caused Elisabeth a lot of pain, in addition to significant physical suffering. But rather than growing bitter and defeated by her situation, she embraced it as her cross and used it as a means by which to grow closer to the Lord. She lived a life of constant prayer and sacrifice, as well as unceasing love and charity towards those who derided her faith. She even begged the Lord to take her life in exchange for the conversion of her husband.

Alas, the good Lord granted her prayer. After her premature death, Felix discovered Elisabeth’s secret diary in which she had intimately detailed her prayerful quest for his conversion, as well as her deep and abiding love and respect for him in spite of their differences. This started a spiritual journey that led not only to his return to the Faith, but to his being ordained a priest. I’m sure Elisabeth rejoiced ecstatically in Heaven!

I’ve adopted Elisabeth Leseur as patroness of this website, as well as considering her one of my own personal patrons. I try to remember to ask for her intercession in my marriage daily, as well as doing my best to follow her example as set out in her diary (which I strongly encourage you to read!). You will certainly see many more references to her here, as she’s become a saintly best friend of mine, and the first (future) saint whose story truly resonated with me.

Elisabeth Leseur, pray for us!

A morning prayer for my marriage

Lord,

Thank You for the gift of a new day of marriage.

A new chance to love better;

To serve better;

To embrace my vocation.

I ask you, Lord, to help me embrace my cross,

As You embraced Yours,

Out of love.

I pray, Lord, that You will show my spouse Your love,

That he will come to know You, love You and follow You,

Not for my sake,

But for his.

I am sorry, Lord, for when I have failed to reflect Your love,

Your compassion, Your mercy and Your patience.

I beg You, Lord, to use me, Your humble servant,

To shine Your light in my marriage today.

In Jesus’ name. Amen.

What does the Catechism say?

As Catholics, we are blessed to have the Catechism of the Catholic Church to provide us with answers to questions about faith, morality and doctrine. Consequently, we have a clear answer to the question of whether Catholics can marry non-Catholics. The short answer: yes, but there will be some challenges.

So, let’s look straight to the source. What exactly does the Catechism say? (Skip ahead to find a summary).

Mixed marriages and disparity of cult

(emphasis added in bold by me)

1633 In many countries the situation of a mixed marriage (marriage between a Catholic and a baptized non-Catholic) often arises. It requires particular attention on the part of couples and their pastors. A case of marriage with disparity of cult (between a Catholic and a non-baptized person) requires even greater circumspection.

1634 Difference of confession between the spouses does not constitute an insurmountable obstacle for marriage, when they succeed in placing in common what they have received from their respective communities, and learn from each other the way in which each lives in fidelity to Christ. But the difficulties of mixed marriages must not be underestimated. They arise from the fact that the separation of Christians has not yet been overcome. The spouses risk experiencing the tragedy of Christian disunity even in the heart of their own home. Disparity of cult can further aggravate these difficulties. Differences about faith and the very notion of marriage, but also different religious mentalities, can become sources of tension in marriage, especially as regards the education of children. The temptation to religious indifference can then arise.

1635 According to the law in force in the Latin Church, a mixed marriage needs for liceity the express permission of ecclesiastical authority.137 In case of disparity of cult an express dispensation from this impediment is required for the validity of the marriage.138 This permission or dispensation presupposes that both parties know and do not exclude the essential ends and properties of marriage; and furthermore that the Catholic party confirms the obligations, which have been made known to the non-Catholic party, of preserving his or her own faith and ensuring the baptism and education of the children in the Catholic Church.139

1636 Through ecumenical dialogue Christian communities in many regions have been able to put into effect a common pastoral practice for mixed marriages. Its task is to help such couples live out their particular situation in the light of faith, overcome the tensions between the couple’s obligations to each other and towards their ecclesial communities, and encourage the flowering of what is common to them in faith and respect for what separates them.

1637 In marriages with disparity of cult the Catholic spouse has a particular task: “For the unbelieving husband is consecrated through his wife, and the unbelieving wife is consecrated through her husband.”140 It is a great joy for the Christian spouse and for the Church if this “consecration” should lead to the free conversion of the other spouse to the Christian faith.141Sincere married love, the humble and patient practice of the family virtues, and perseverance in prayer can prepare the non-believing spouse to accept the grace of conversion.

Let’s summarise: the Catechism tells us that it is licit for a Catholic to marry a non-Catholic Christian (mixed marriage), or a non-Christian (disparity of cult). In both cases, a special dispensation is required for the marriage to be sacramentally valid. The non-Catholic spouse must assent to supporting the Catholic spouse in preserving their faith, and to the baptism and education of any children in the Catholic Church.

The Catechism believes that the challenges presented by such marriages are not insurmountable, but are present and must be addressed. We are warned against “religious indifference” (CCC §1634) arising as a result of tensions, and are encouraged to focus on commonalities and respect differences. Whilst we should pray for the conversion of spouses, such conversions must be the free choice of the non-Catholic spouse. In the meantime, “sincere married love, the humble and patient practice of the family virtues, and perseverance in prayer” (CCC §1637) should guide the actions of the Catholic spouse.

What a gift! The Church gives us a pretty clear model here. First of all, we can rejoice that the Church in Her wisdom believes that marriage to a non-Catholic is possible without compromising our own faith. Furthermore, we are given clear instructions for how we should conduct ourselves within such a marriage: we should be truly loving and respectful of our spouse and their beliefs, praying for them and their conversion, and practicing virtues. Importantly, we are reminded that we must not push conversion, and that whilst it is certainly joyous if it occurs, we must seek it through prayer and lived example of our faith.

I’ll end this post here because the content is dense, but in future posts I hope to discuss the ‘how’ of all this: how should we pray for our spouses? How should we practice virtue in our families? How can we be loving and faithful witnesses to the Truth without aggressively pushing conversion?