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.

A blog for those in mixed marriages

I started this blog because I couldn’t find a voice in the Catholic social media sphere that spoke to my position as a devout Catholic, married to someone who does not share my faith. I suspected that I am not alone in this situation.

I converted to Catholicism in 2016, a few months after I met my husband. I began the process of RCIA before I knew him, and once I met him, I explained my religious journey and he was supportive of my conversion. He attended the Vigil Mass in which I was received into the Church even though we had only been dating for about three months at that time, which is a special memory for me. Although that is when I officially became Catholic, I would say that much of my love for, and commitment to, the faith has grown since then.

My husband is, in fact, Catholic by baptism, and would consider himself as such. However, faith is not an important part of his life: I go to Mass alone (with the baby) 90% of the time, our daughter’s faith formation is entirely my responsibility, and we certainly don’t pray together as a family. On the other hand, we agreed that our daughter should be baptised in the Catholic church, and he generally is not resistant to me encouraging a faith life for her.

I mention all this to demonstrate that my situation may be ‘easier’ than that of others, whose spouses may be more antagonistic towards their faith. I want this blog to be for anyone who feels that their faith is not shared by their spouse, but I recognise that there is a spectrum of difficulty and that my situation is not the hardest. However, I strongly believe that God wants us all to delight in our relationship with Him no matter our personal circumstances, and that He absolutely does not want any of us to give up on faith simply because we do not have families that are perfectly unified in belief.

There have been times when I’ve felt that God is disappointed in me because I didn’t wait for a practising Catholic spouse, or that He must think I just didn’t love or trust Him enough to break off my relationship when I realised that we may never be on the same page about matters of faith. I feared that I was doomed to a life of imperfect faith because I had failed to find a man who shared my beliefs 100%. I even worried that I would have to choose between my relationship and my faith, and was afraid that God would abandon me if I stayed in the relationship.

But here’s the thing: despair does not come from God. Yes, God asks us to do hard things. Yes, God sometimes wants us to walk away from things that make us happy because He has a better plan for us. Only you know what God is asking of you, and you must be honest with Him and with yourself in order to discern what He wants from you and your relationship. I can promise, though, that He is not going to abandon you because you went off-script from His plan. And I can also promise you that the Catholic mommies of Instagram, Facebook and the blogosphere do not know better than God does what is good for you. 

I believe fully in Christ, His Church and Her teachings. I am not here to promote heresies. I am here to tell you that you can live your faith fully and fruitfully no matter the circumstances of your marriage or relationship.

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?

About Faithful and Fruitful

I have a lot to thank the world of Catholic social media for – above all, my faith. I had always been interested in, or even drawn to, Catholicism, but it was not something I ever envisaged as being for me. The only Catholics I knew were my grandma, and a few other lukewarm Catholics amongst my friends and family. I credit my grandma’s prayers with my ultimate conversion, so I don’t want to downplay her significance in my faith life, but the ‘real life’ Catholics I encountered were not the people who drew me to the Church.

I can’t remember exactly how I got drawn into the Catholic blogosphere, but it was sometime in 2014-2015. I was totally fascinated by the lives of bloggers like Rosie Hill, Kendra Tierney and Haley Stewart – mainly, because they seemed so normal. And yet, they were living out the fullness of the Church’s teaching, including such crazy notions as NFP and going to church even when on vacation *shock horror*.

Over time, I could not push away the feeling that they possessed some truth, some peace, that was missing from my life, and from the versions of Protestant Christianity I had encountered. I read more and more, not just of their blogs but about Catholicism more generally, and found a depth and beauty there that I had not previously encountered. I became sure that this was the Fullness of Truth.

Fast forward a bit. In 2016 I was received into the Church, and in 2018 I am writing this as a lover of the Faith, still hooked on Catholic social media (although now it’s mainly on Instagram and private Facebook groups). I still love that community and am inspired by it. But. As my own little family has started to grow – we welcomed our first baby daughter in January – I’ve started to feel that there isn’t a place for people like me in the world of Catholic social media. Although a devout Catholic myself, I am not married to one. So as I scroll through pictures of Catholic families in their Sunday best at Mass, or daddy teaching the kids about St. Lawrence, or reflections on how NFP is really hard but it made their marriage and their faith stronger – I think, do I have a place here? Can I ever be a good Catholic in the absence of a Catholic spouse? Do my kids have any chance of encountering the truth and beauty and depth of Catholicism, when dad rarely comes to Sunday Mass with us?

With a lot of prayer, study and inner struggle, I have come to genuinely believe that the answers to all those questions are ‘yes’. I have come to believe that this is a cross that God has asked me to carry, and that if I align my life properly, it can be my path to holiness. It will be hard and frustrating, but it can still be beautiful and joyous. I want this blog to encourage others in similar situations to keep pursuing their faith as fully as you otherwise might, and not to let Satan trick you into thinking that if your life isn’t as perfectly holy as the big names of Catholic social media appear to be then you can’t get to Heaven. I believe that Jesus meets us where we are, whatever our circumstances, and that our God is a God of infinite love, mercy and compassion. He will never abandon us if we don’t abandon Him. When you approach the gates of Heaven, you will not be turned away in the absence of a spouse who spent 18 months in seminary before finally discerning that he was called to marriage, and to you.

Finally, I want to say that I am not here to tell you that you should go ahead and marry your atheist boyfriend and everything will be fine – those decisions are between you, your boyfriend and God, and you should be honest and realistic about the challenges that lie ahead. I am here to tell you that it’s possible to have a fulfilling faith life in the absence of a Catholic spouse – if that weren’t the case, the Church wouldn’t allow it (more on that later). In the meantime, keep loving your spouse truly and deeply regardless of their feelings about the Church, and of course, pray – for your spouse, for your kids, for yourself. No one on Earth is close enough to, or far enough from, God that they don’t need your prayers.

Vision

For a while, I was afraid that I was the only person experiencing the struggles that come with not sharing my faith with my spouse. It was a lonely place to be – I assumed that my non-believing friends and family would be unable to understand why it’s a problem, and my fellow Catholics would wag their fingers disapprovingly and tell me it’s my own fault for getting myself into this situation. I even felt like God would be mad at me, disappointed that I didn’t wait a bit longer or try a bit harder to find a spouse who thought Just Like Me.

Gradually, I began to connect with other women in my situation. A friend engaged to a Muslim man; someone discerning her future with a non-practicing Catholic; many who converted after marrying Protestants or atheists. We each face unique struggles, but share a common experience: we want to live our Catholic beliefs faithfully and fruitfully. That is to say, we want to stay true to the beliefs and teachings of the Church, and also for our faith to bear real, tangible fruit in our lives and the lives of those around us. We don’t want the fact that our beliefs are not shared by our spouses to inhibit our own practice and love of the Faith.

Yet sometimes, that seems easier said than done. Jesus, through the Church and the Bible, made it clear that He not only wants us to live our faith in community, but that it is necessary for our growth as Christians. Whilst some of us may have church communities or friends who share our faith, I sensed a need for community among women who share the cross of a marriage which is not united by faith. That is what I hope this will be.

I hope that this will be a space for encouragement, counsel and prayer. I hope that women are able to connect with others who understand their circumstances. Above all, I hope that this will become a community that brings the hope needed to cling to the Truth AND stay true to our marriages, even when it isn’t easy.