The news about marriage is mixed in America. While the divorce rate has declined over a period of years, marriage is also in decline. Stories of prenuptial agreements, abusive spouses, disputes on raising children, and marital infidelity abound. Many feel that it is simply safer to remain single or enter a domestic partnership without the legal binding of marriage.
I’m here to offer an alternative view on marriage on the basis of my experience. I was married for nineteen years until it ended abruptly, at least in this life. Some of you may be familiar with the story of my late wife, Tresja, who suffered a medical emergency while on a disaster assistance response team in Haiti.
Within the short period of eight hours, everything was fine – then she fell ill, and died. Her colleagues at USAID have done a marvelous job in sharing their remembrances of her life. The purpose of my own selective story is not to provide a hagiographical narrative – though I believe and confess that she has joined the communion of saints. I want to share aspects of our story of marriage in everyday life.
In my nineteen years of marriage, I learned the true meaning of companionship in marriage. Christian marriage is an authentic living out of liturgy. Husband and wife receive God’s love, share it with one another and their community, and embark on a common journey to God’s kingdom. Here is how I discovered these truths in my marriage.
Desire and a Reality Check
Our marriage followed the pattern of many nuptials. There was an instant attraction, dating, and to be sure, desire. We experienced the threshold rites of a wedding shower and planning, the service, and honeymoon. Tresja gave me great advice on the beach in the Bahamas. “Follow your heart. Go to grad school to study theology and become a professor. I’ll do emergency work in DC.”
Every honeymoon ends when you go home. Living with the same person, day and night, week and month, year by year, changes the relationship. One must create healthy separation. The spouse’s burden becomes yours, even when the timing is inconvenient and you have enough on your plate.
When many marriages begin, the process of getting to know one’s spouse has only just begun. The couple engages ordinary and unplanned events together. Some activities are easy (taking a walk, seeing a movie). Others are more difficult. It’s Mother’s Day. How do we plan the weekend? Where do we go for Christmas? Do I have to attend this event?
Questions like these come up for most marriages. Sometimes, it all works out just fine. For others, a lot of negotiating and bending is necessary.
Marital Bending and Negotiating
In our first seven years of marriage (2002-2009), Tresja and I did a lot of bending, and a lot of negotiating. We moved from Minnesota to Annapolis, Maryland. I was a graduate student at The Catholic University of America. She wanted to start a professional career as a disaster response specialist. It started slowly for her, beginning with serving tables at TGI Fridays. She worked at the IRIS Center at the University of Maryland for two years, and in 2005, became the Operations Center Manager at USAID’s Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance (now Bureau of Humanitarian Assistance, or BHA).
Life changed quickly. We bent and negotiated. I was busy with grad school and diaconal ministry. Tresja began to travel extensively. On normal days, I would either stay home and study while she took the commuter bus to work, or we would both be in DC all day. We left the house no later than 7:00 a.m. She usually came home at 6:45 p.m. Dinner was always late. She would travel for work, and I’d be home alone for three weeks at a time. Life sometimes consisted of separation and loneliness, or two tired spouses.
In these circumstances, tension bubbled up. I wanted my wife’s attention, and she was tired. The reverse was also true. I was writing my dissertation while working full time. Every Saturday, for one year, I wrote in my basement, and concelebrated Liturgy on Sunday mornings. There was not much time, at all, for spousal recreation.
Looking back on this life episode, I now see that these circumstances could have endangered our marriage. Both of us bent and negotiated, seemingly for the sake of the other. My wife’s trips were grueling for me. She was pregnant with our daughter on two international trips. In early 2010, she was in South Africa while my infant daughter and I were home alone. Two epic snowstorms brought Maryland, Virginia, and DC to their knees. I was stuck at home with the baby and the roads were so bad, we couldn’t even make it to the grocery store. At the time, it felt impossible without her.
Marriage and Service to Communities
Why did I agree to my wife’s long travels? Why did she agree to my hybrid existence as professor and Church servant? It was not merely a matter of doing it for the other. People in other countries needed help, and Tresja had the expertise to provide it. Students needed to learn theology, and people needed to receive nourishment of word and table. At some level, by some divine grace, we recognized that we had to share our spouse with communities both far and near.
Our paths were not as disparate as they seemed. Our journey of seeking God’s kingdom required both of us to execute the tasks of those ministries. Our companionship taught us that it was never about me, or her. The bending and negotiating we had done repeatedly was our feeble response to the call to be the body of Christ in the contexts we had chosen (or maybe to which we had been appointed).
Discovering the True Meaning of Companionship
What happened to us? Life changed. We moved first to Los Angeles and then Valparaiso, Indiana, for teaching jobs at LMU and Valparaiso University. Life was still hectic, but the years of bending and negotiating had become habitual. We were no longer commuters – she worked from home when she wasn’t traveling, and I was able to either walk to and from work or have a short drive.
Our new lifestyle balanced out the long periods of separation. And those were real – in January 2017, I returned from a conference, met her in the parking lot of the LAX airport to get the car keys, kissed her goodbye as she prepared to depart for her flight, and saw her several weeks later.
When we were together, we had time to share life. We walked together at least once a day, often twice. We were able to share more meals together. Some of the time spent together consisted of more bending and negotiating. Sometimes, we walked together in silence. This happened quite recently, near our family cabin in Minnesota. We both remarked that we were perfectly comfortable in the silence. Usually, we would share news, opinions, ideas, and tasks. Sometimes, no words were needed; it was enough to just be together.
Marriage and Companionship (com-panis)
Life together had become true companionship, com-panis – sharing bread, together. The dynamic of companionship shifted again with COVID. We had been coming and going, with intermittent periods of separation. Now we were thrust together all the time, for everything – meals, exercise, work, school. No restaurants, no vacations, no church. If we were ever at risk for marital trouble, it would be during COVID.
We learned how to bend, negotiate, and share space yet again. When the restrictions on the numbers of people in Church were rigorous, we prayed the Typica together at home. This was new for us. We had our roles for community prayer. Our Sunday assembly consisted of the three of us.
Every time we prayed the Typica, Tresja stood by my side, with Sophia and our two cats in the room. Tresja chanted the prayers and psalms with me and recited the Creed. The pandemic required an immediate Christian response. The years of bending and negotiating – and companionship – led us to adjust our lives. We were frightened about becoming ill, about losing family members, and losing our jobs. We agreed that one thing above all was important – staying together and preserving our companionship. We believed our companionship, blessed by God, would lead us through whatever dark valleys awaiting us in life.
Christians often define marriage as a sacrament. It is a sacrament because God is the source of the love and companionship shared by the couple. We heard many stories of people who seemed to recognize that their marriages were holy. We were among those blessed to rediscover that our marital companionship was truly important – much more so than restaurants and vacations.
The End: Transitus
This section brings me to the end. After a lovely spring and summer, we were gearing up for another school year. 2022 was going to be big. Our twentieth wedding anniversary is in March, and I am turning fifty in May. We were going to celebrate the first in Hawaii and the second in New York Our daughter entered seventh grade. I had plans for a two-week intense research trip to Ukraine. Tresja was assigned for disaster assistance in Ethiopia in December and January. She would miss Christmas, but we had survived holidays apart in the past. Pursuit of the kingdom of God required her to be there; our companionship would not be threatened by the moment.
On August 14, Tresja’s supervisor asked her if she could fly to Haiti to assist urban search and rescue after the devastating earthquake. The request was incredibly inconvenient for me – they needed an answer in one hour. I had to change my plans for Ukraine immediately. She had to run out the door for an errand and was to text her response while out and about. Lives depended on assistance – I could postpone my trip and take it at another time. After some uncertainty, she packed her gear hurriedly at 10:00 p.m., and the uber took her to the airport at 2:00 a.m.
That was the last time I saw my wife alive, in the flesh. On August 18, she collapsed during a late dinner in Haiti, complaining of a severe headache. Her colleagues were heroic in their attempts to save her, but the trauma from the cerebral hemorrhage was too severe. By 8:00 a.m. on August 19, 2021, she began her transitus to the Lord. We were shocked, angry, confused, and devastated. We were supposed to grow old together, usher our daughter into adulthood, and celebrate the rest of our lives.
So here I am, two weeks later. I am in a liminal space – wounded from the devastated loss, yet grateful for such rich companionship. Every year, we hear the account of the Parable of the Rich Fool (Lk 12:16-21). The trips to Ukraine, New York, and Hawaii were not urgent. Our kitchen remodel can wait. God’s business does not wait.
Our marriage taught us how to attend to God’s urgent business by constantly bending and negotiating. Our give and take enriched our companionship. Our dialogue was the liturgy of ordinary, everyday life – the liturgy of marital companionship. There is no need to search the euchology for a prayer or component that tells us the meaning of marriage. The meaning is in the lived experience of marriage, in the ordinary beauty of companionship. Perhaps this suggests that authors of liturgical texts should consult marital life, so that the experience of intimacy would shape our euchology.
Here is what I believe. All along, through the bending, dialogue, and company, God’s kingdom was within us – in our marriage. Marital companionship is an immersion into the love of the Triune God. I am aggrieved by the sting of this loss; but I am abundantly joyful and grateful to have received this rich blessing of companionship. May married couples throughout the world receive the divine grace God pours out upon them in marriage.