by Mary Ellen Hill
Once over the first hurdle without falling, the Catholic's position will probably never be challenged as seriously again. But it isn't easy. On the other hand, it seems to me that many non-Catholics are seldom given credit for the amount of good will they are able to muster in this matter. Either they are not fully informed or, fully informed. they are not encouraged to make the sacrifices for the sake of honour, which may well lay the groundwork for conversion.
In our case, both my determination not to live in sin and John's distaste for the whole technique involved in artificial methods combined to keep us safe. At this time John might have been persuaded otherwise, but there was no point in even discussing it. Rhythm was available to us; we made use of the system for a year or so (though even that was too "artificial" for our natures), then took up our courage and plunged into parenthood again. With the second experience the problem of suffering seemed less acute, the baby more instantly adorable. It was never again so hard for me to accept God's ways.
Life did march on, however. The war was over and we had escaped separation. Civilian life found us poorer than formerly. The second and third babies were a financial drain, and John began to show the strain. He became ill and lost a month's work. We were in debt. We seemed unable to meet all the demands life was making on us, but I had the rock bottom belief that somehow all our hardships meant something and were, in fact, building stronger characters. John had no such faith. He could see that in general our troubles were no worse than other peoples'-his conclusion: God (if there was a God) certainly did like people to live the hard way. When I felt doubts, I talked them over with the parish priest. Reinforced, I would return home to face John's moody reluctance to accept life as it is. He mocked my faith and hope as "dope", he thought his own despair more honest. Yet he never did try to limit our problems by suggesting immoral solutions.
This estrangement during difficulties on account of different views of life is one of the strong temptations of a Catholic. He sees others, one in faith, helping each other through. "Perhaps," he may think, "this marriage was not made in heaven. Maybe I should have married one of my own kind." This is only a temptation in the sense that it tends to focus the eye on one's own need, rather than the partner's. The Catholic should rather feel for the poverty and need of his partner than his own desire for spiritual companionship. "How can I help?" should be the question asked of self. "I have the faith of 2000 years behind me. How can I somehow rub some of it off on him?"
When things were at their worst, this was the question I asked myself. He is so afraid, I thought; yet there is so much reason for him to trust. How can I help him? Point Five, generosity of spirit. The answer sometimes is just to be strong and silent, praying for God's help without offering any of the platitudes which may only serve to wound. The answer in our emotionally acute situation had to be stronger. I had received concrete help from a particular priest, and I suggested to John that the same priest might be able to inject a little strength into him. I had no thought or hope of a conversion. John's bitterness seemed to rule that out. Yet I could think of no one else to whom to turn, and John was desperate enough to try anything.
After that visit, he was a different person. Not a whole new person overnight, but a man starting off in a new direction. He took instructions at our own parish from a different priest, came home to argue the doctrines with me, cent back to the next session cocksure that he "had" the priest this time. Home again he would come, humbled, but sure he could still find things wrong in that "danged" catechism. Back he would go, jubilant with the "unanswerable" question. Home again. Well. After eight months of this, with not a question of his own left, he wrote his relatives to seek reasons why he should not be a Catholic. He received no reasonable replies, just repetitious prejudices without reference to fact. He talked to ministers. They made no attempt to dissuade him, refuted no doctrines logically, only said they could not themselves accept such an "authoritarian” religion. At last, saying with Peter, "Lord, to whom shall we go?" he was received into the Church in the sixth year of our marriage. I'm biased, of course, but I feel that there has never been a more confirmed, convinced, pure-of-heart Catholic in the Church.
Now, why did all this happen? Because I was a "good example"? Actually. I used to cringe every time someone would congratulate me on John's conversion, saying what a "good example" I must have been. I shamefully recall the mornings I spent at Mass seeking spiritual consolation for myself instead of home fixing his breakfast, letting him feed the baby while I was gone. I remember making an issue of fast-days or novena or missions, out of my own insatiable desire for tangible religious comfort, the Lents I refused to go to a movie with John instead of secretly choosing a mortification he would not be forced to share. These were all mistakes, but they were honest mistakes in a way. Gradually I was able to see what I was doing and why, and to seek God out in ways which would not drag John bodily after me. It was only when I learned gentleness that I was able to see his need clearly, and to lead rather than drag hum to a recognition of its fulfilment.
If I was a good example at all, it was simply in caring about my religion. As much as I messed up parts of demonstrating my belief, John couldn't doubt that I did believe, and believed enough to live by the faith.
In fact, a whole programme for "un-mixing a mixed marriage" might be reduced to the one thing necessary: to care. To care enough to find out what you don't know about your religion; to care enough for the spiritual health of your marriage that you veritably "eat for two" in the reception of the sacraments; to care enough for the weakened nature of the non-believer to refrain from burdening him with your own questions; to care enough for the love you have in common not to let it be touched by detestable practices; to care so much for the poverty of your partner that you will suffer anything in order to share with him your riches.