by Mary Ellen Hill
John was twenty-two and I was twenty-one when we married. It was a "war marriage." We came from different parts of the country; our parents had never met; our educational backgrounds were different: country boy, city girl; John's folks rabidly, "intellectually" Protestant-mine firmly, "intuitively" Catholic; we married after only three months' acquaintance, without the real approval of either family. It looked like one of those marriages least likely to succeed.
On the credit side, we had approximately the same intellectual level and an identical belief in the sacredness and life-long character of marriage, as well as an instinctive distaste and distrust of everything connected with artificial contraception. We had thrashed out our religious and moral problems in our daily correspondence over that three-month period. Since John had no formal religion or belief, except to be vaguely Congregationalist, there was no question of marrying anywhere but in the Catholic Church. We loved each other, we each felt we could enjoy real mutual support temperamentally, mentally, and spiritually. To cement this rapport, we had two years together away from all in-laws-definitely a help for us.
With all these advantages you might think that survival as a practising, believing Catholic should not have proved difficult for me. Any "mixed" couple knows better. It is not so much that John does not like fish-it is just that he would rather have it on Wednesday or Saturday so that he wouldn't be dictated to by the Pope as to his Friday menu. It isn't that John objects to church on Sunday, it's just that with the crowd leaving early for the beach it's a nuisance to always have to adjust the schedule so that the "guilt-ridden" Catholic can go to Mass. It isn't that anyone objects to regular prayers of petition, but really-NINE days? Why not, (with a sardonic grin) six, or ten, or better still, something ordinary, like a week of seven? As for fasting to go to Communion, when everyone else is having a merry time Saturday night. well, anyone can see that religion such as that is a kill-joy.
We were isolated from all Catholic companionship, John being a Naval officer in a Southern town, on a base which was strangely devoid of other Catholic officers. I was the "odd man out," the different one; but the twitting from the others was usually good-natured enough. Still, I was a fish out of water, having been completely sheltered from secularism, paganism, and Protestantism from my childhood. I was completely innocent of any knowledge of apologetics. Most of our acquaintances were older and much more sophisticated than we. The temptation to kick over the traces was strong. Not strong enough, however: it was in the face of the eye-high, wartime, eat-drink-and-be-merry existence that the firmest foundations of my Catholicism were laid.
Which brings us to Point One for Catholics in a mixed marriage: when the world is shouting in your ears "Don't be silly, everyone is doing it," go to the Church to find out the reasons behind her laws.
This may seem an obvious solution to the loyal Catholic. To the Catholic in a mixed marriage, whose loyalty is mocked as superstition or fear, this step may be difficult, especially if he has had no previous personal contact with priests. There is a human fear, too, that if his belief is made stronger, it will cause an even deeper cleavage between him and his partner who, far from being more tolerant of his religion since marriage, has shown himself to be rather more intolerant as he sees the little daily evidences of devotion. There is a very real, if unacknowledged, conflict between the desire for unity with God and unity with that person most loved on earth. Yet it is no Pollyanna remark that if religion is put first (tactfully, unobtrusively, modestly), love and respect will deepen on the part of the non-Catholic party. He or she may be irritated or even jealous, but will be impressed nonetheless.
In my own case, as quickly as doubts began to gather, I asked a priest about them, formally in confession or informally in the street or in the parish rectory reception room. May I say there was never a lack of an answer-a reasonable, down-to-earth answer. It never failed to make me wonder why the whole world did not beat a path to this luminous source of truth. In addition, books were recommended. I soaked them up like a dry sponge.
I was able to profit from all this only because of Point Two, frequent reception of the grace-giving sacraments, which came about like this. Since the world in which we lived was not, obviously, going to adapt itself to my practice of religion, I was forced to adapt myself to the world-at least exteriorly. John liked late Sunday mornings, comics and Rotogravure spread all over the bedroom, a pillow fight, a leisurely breakfast-but I had to fight my puritanical notion that such leisure was wrong before I grew to enjoy it. My worries were based on the fact that such luxuriously lazy proceedings rendered reception of Holy Communion impossible, although John would afterwards invariably accompany me to the last Mass. Solution, simple. Started daily Mass and Communion, instead of imagining that Sunday Communion was somehow better just because it was more difficult for me. Nor did I go six days to make up for one, but rather because in the first few mornings I found a peace and wholeness in my religion, a security in my faith I had never known before. Since this was a hidden devotion, it caused no comment. My faith grew deeper with the help of sacramental grace. My desire for John's conversion, which I never put into words because it daily seemed to grow less likely rather than more likely, became a bitter-sweet pain, always with me, scarcely attended to.
It was at the end of the first year that our first child was born, an event that turned into a spiritual crisis for both of us. During the long labour we were completely separated physically, but closer spiritually than ever before, since we were both confronted with the problem of suffering simultaneously. We were exhausted after 20 hours of waiting and wondering. We both asked God over and over, "Why?" but no booming reply came to reassure us that everything would be all right. In his fear and desperation, John spent an hour in the Catholic Church begging heaven to let it end happily. I was beyond anything like prayer; he was doing the praying for both of us.
Afterwards, when we were surveying our new son and joking about parenthood in general, I was suddenly overcome with a wild weeping session which strongly resembled grief. I was unable to explain my behaviour to John. Greatly in need of spiritual comfort and reassurance, I was unable to express my fear of the God who permitted such suffering. I knew that John had no answers, but only questions himself. Actually, I was grieving for my lost belief in a good God: grieving for my mistake in marrying someone unable to help me spiritually, wondering confusedly if my suffering were the price of that mistake.
It was in this crisis that I realised how separated we were spiritually. John had not even seen me since I was admitted to the hospital; I was glad because I was afraid that if he had seen my suffering, it would have completely killed any religious faith he might have, since he is so tender-hearted and protective. I felt then, and for years continued to act upon the belief, my personal Point Three, that I would necessarily face any spiritual problem alone, without John ever knowing there was a problem.
The answer to childbirth suffering is largely the child itself. The miracle looms larger than the pain; the memory fades to the point where another child seems possible. Yet, the period after the first child is likely to be the severest test in a mixed marriage on the question of morals. The non-Catholic cannot see why a woman should "go through that"? very soon again; the Catholic viewpoint may be weakened because it is now no longer an academic problem but a very real experience to be faced. Birth-control suddenly seems not only right, but imperative. The atmosphere is so loaded emotionally and even physically, after a period of continence, that the needs of each may cloud the issue of right or wrong. At times like this the Church, most reasonable of all mothers, may seem completely unreasonable, especially to the non-Catholic.
It is then that the Catholic must stand his ground on Point Four, not allowing himself to be persuaded of evil at a time when he is exceedingly vulnerable to the easy way. In the face of suffering and new responsibility, the gentle goodness of God recedes, and the firmness of God comes to the foreground. There is a temptation to turn one's back on this seemingly less attractive aspect of God and even to justify such actions on the grounds that if He is that "tough," you don't like Him anyway; or maybe the Church is wrong, God really does not expect such heroism. The answer to the dilemma is not a blind clinging to a right conscience, but again a deliberate review of all the Church's reasoning on morals in marriage, including all kinds of interference with life processes birth control, sterilisation, and abortion. It is sound. It is practical. It stands up in a strong light. Adherence to the moral code builds character; concessions have been proved to weaken not only the individual, but society as a whole.