The quality of a marriage, like a fine wine, depends on the aging process. As grape juice ferments, the yeast acts upon the sugar to produce alcohol—the wine.  The greater the percentage of sugar present in the grapes, the more raw material there is to be converted and the greater the potential for a fine wine. Isn’t that symbolic?  The greater the sweetness in our relationship, the greater the potential for a fine marriage? But just as the wine ran out at the wedding at Cana, many couples feel the wine has run dry in their relationship.

Call for Help

I’m no marriage expert–just ask my husband–but recently, I had four strangers contact me (three women and one man) regarding their problems—you know—their spouses. They went to my website, saw all the kids and must have thought that maybe I knew something about holding things together. Some of the people who have contacted me are in high profile jobs within the Catholic media.  They promote and seek to live a solid Catholic life with every fiber of their being. Yet it escapes them through their marriages and leaves them feeling defeated and embarrassed.

At first, as I took these calls and emails, I sympathized, promised to pray, offered every suggestion I thought might help and then, felt a little guilty.  Who was I to offer advice of any kind?  I have a dysfunctional marriage myself.  Sometimes.  Okay, it’s way less dysfunctional than it once was.  Back in the day, only the Fifth Commandment stood between us and homicide.  Hey, just kidding.  Sort of.

Mark and I are far from perfect. We can be stubborn when we think we are right.  Since we tend to think we are right a lot, it’s a good thing that we agree on so much—just not everything.

As a matter of fact, I’m embarrassed to even admit this, but many years ago we traveled to speak at a conference together and argued the morning we had to speak. Stress was the order of the morning for a number of reasons. It turned to conflict and argument.  Still, once we got in the car to drive to the conference, we immediately prayed the rosary and apologized for losing our cool.  The loose ends of our relationship made me think we weren’t ready for prime time yet, but still, after our talk on Mark’s vasectomy and subsequent reversal, several people approached us to reveal that our talk had inspired them to get reversals.  It was clear that we are a powerful unit when serving God but our weaknesses could knock us out of the game if we do not keep our guard up.

I expected my confession of a far-from-perfect marriage to disappoint people and turn them away. Instead, I found them encouraged. Knowing of my own struggles and progress seemed to make them feel a little better, a little more hopeful.

Through a devotion to prayer and daily Mass, Mark and I navigate the sometimes-turbulent waters of marriage.   But even though we occasionally slip, we have a very functional response:  prayer.  We keep leaning on it, doing it together as a couple and as a family, and I think it’s going to save us in the end. We continue to strive for love and holiness and realize that without the grace of God, we haven’t got a prayer, so to speak. For example, on one occasion, there seemed to be a dark cloud over us.  After about a week of this, I suggested doing a nine-day rosary novena in front of the Blessed Sacrament.  The cloud lifted day by day.  By the end of the novena, things were fine again. Whatever was ailing us dissappeared.

In the early years, we never prayed together. Funny how so many couples can have children together but praying with each other feels too personal. For us, it began many years ago by reading a St. Jude novena prayer card together when our house would not sell. It was the first time we prayed with just the two of us. Reading from a prayer card was really not so hard and it got us started praying together at times, over and above our nighttime family prayers. Now, whenever we go out for the night, we pray for the kids at home.  And often, we begin our night out by stopping at church to say a rosary.  We would never have thought of doing such a thing in the early years of marriage.

Amazing Grace

But enough about us. I only mention it here for perspective and honesty.  I’ll never write a marriage manual, but I did help to write a book about marriages.  Amazing Grace for Married Couples (with Jeff Cavins and Matt Pinto, was easy to do because I was ghost writing and editing the stories of other marriages.  And these relationships were some of the worst I had encountered short of physical abuse. What I found in each one of them, however, was a miracle of love reborn.

With each couple, we began with the courtship phase.  Love swept them off their feet and they walked down the aisle confident that their love will be everlasting. There was only one exception to this scenario where a man felt trapped due to an out-of-wedlock pregnancy. After the honeymoon, things were good for a time. Then, slowly, the relationship started to unravel. For some couples it happened quickly, but for one who went on a second honeymoon on their eighth anniversary, it seemed to come out of nowhere.

These marriages were all so different.  Some married young after a brief romance.  For others there was a much longer period of courtship and a determination that the two were compatible and mature enough to make a marriage commitment.  Then, life and sin got in the way in a big way.  Alcoholism, gambling, adultery, homosexuality, pornography, boredom, obsessions with career, and atheism, were some of the corrupting factors.  These were not marriages one would expect to survive.  Not even.

A friend who read this book once said to me, “Sometime I’d be in the middle of a story and say to myself:  ‘There is just no way this marriage is going to survive.’ But then, I realized that it had to make it because it was in the book.”

The one common factor in all the marriages is God’s grace doing the seemingly impossible—saving a relationship that appeared hopeless.  In two cases, neither partner was praying for the marriage—both had called it quits.  But, in both instances, there were a host of relatives and friends, praying for the couple.  In the other cases, at least one spouse was praying and pleading with God for help.

Help came in different Divine ways but the couples finally both turned to God to build up their relationship.  The amazing part is that in every case, all the couples said they were more in love today than on the day they married. A few are now working in various Catholic ministries together.  That is quite a feat considering some of the extreme cases of sin and betrayal.

In some cases, we used pseudonyms to protect families from the personal details that were revealed. We wanted to include everything, knowing that others could be helped by these extreme stories. Yet, there is one caveat.  As I was writing this book and marveling that had these couples split up, they never would have experienced the resurrection of their unions, I had a conversation with a priest friend.  This priest had actually sent one of the couples to me to be included in the book.  He cautioned me to temper my enthusiasm.  Sacramental Catholic marriages are for life, but there are no guarantees. What must be lasting is our commitment to love our spouse and not betray our marriage vows. We can pray and do our best, but in the end, everyone has free will.  The challenge then, is to keep loving our spouse even in the face of difficulties. Given our frail human condition we need God’s help.

It’s All About Love

Msgr. John Esseff, a priest from Scranton, PA, has dedicated his priesthood to promoting the love of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.  He understands both the difficulties of married love and the importance of it within the family.  His own parents struggled with achieving a loving union. He relates a story of how the love of Christ is linked to marital love. 

“My mother had a picture of the Sacred Heart of Jesus above her bed.  One night, she told me that she prayed: “Sacred Heart of Jesus, I want to love you more. Show me how to love you more.”  My mother went to bed and saw a vision of Jesus.  This is what she later told me: ‘It was the image of Jesus that came to me in a rising vision.  At first, I saw His pierced feet and flowing white robe. I kissed his feet and His pierced hand.  When Jesus revealed to me His Sacred Heart, I almost fainted.  Then, when I looked up to see His face, I saw your father’s face.  Then, I understood. I had asked Jesus to show me how to love Him more and He was telling me to love my husband more.’” 

But how do we love a spouse who has hurt us? Where do we find the love? Quoting from an article written by Sheri & Bob Stritof, who have been married 45 years, present workshops on marriage and have written a book on the subject: “Love is a decision. Being able to make a decision to love and to move beyond the feelings of disappointment or resentment is a major key in having a long lasting marriage.”

They contend: “Love is a decision to be open and to share when you don’t feel like it. Love is a decision when you don’t think your spouse deserves your love. Love is a decision means that you are open to honest communication with your spouse. That’s not only talking, but also listening. It is also a decision to be loved.”

Being human, making such a decision can seem impossible.  But of course, with God, all things are possible.  Easier said than done, I know.  An example of this superhuman love for a spouse is Blessed Anna Maria Tiaga, the patron of mothers and housewives. (Wife, Mother, Mystic Tan Books.)  Anna Maria was a humble woman born in Sienna in 1769. During her lifetime, Europe was in a state of constant upheaval including the French Revolution, Rome under oppressive French Directoire, and the imprisonment of Pope Pius VI.

She led a simple life, with her seven children and husband Domenico, whose temperament was often difficult and explosive. I’d call him a jerk. Being more diplomatic, the book credits him with helping her to become a saint, expecting people to read between the lines. This holy woman always treated her husband like royalty and showered him with love. Her deep relationship with God was the wellspring from which she drew the infinite love she had for her husband.

It was to the well that the servants went to fill the jars during the Wedding Feast of Cana. Jesus turned the water in wine at his mother’s request during the marriage celebration.  This Bible story imparts a powerful example to us. We can take our own marriage intentions to our Blessed Mother and expect no less; new and even better wine when the supply has dried up. 

Wine is a fitting symbol for the love of a man and wife in marriage.  Consider that when grape juice ferments, it is actually being broken down by the action of the yeast. The yeast, acts upon the grape juice and can create something even better–wine. Jesus says the kingdom of heaven is like yeast.  (Mt 13:33). The kingdom of heaven—the yeast–can act upon our marriage when it breaks down. God’s fermentation can change the broken marriage into something beautiful—the finest wine.

We can trust our needs to Our Lady of Cana who went to her son when the wine ran out.  But the only way to drink of this fine wine is to follow her directive:  “Do whatever He tells you.” (John 2:5)  Perhaps that is why Mark and I keep pulling it together and improving over time.  Even though we often fall short, we pick ourselves up and keep trying to do whatever Jesus tells us to do. And what is it He tells us to do?  To love God with our whole heart, our whole soul and our whole mind and to love our neighbor as ourselves.

It’s often easier to love God but the deal is we have to do both. Jesus told us to leave our gift at the altar and first be reconciled with each other. (Mt 5:24)  Obviously, we cannot control the relationship but only our end of it. There’s all sorts of troubled relationships–some that cannot be reconciled–but without forgiveness we are not loving and without love we are not following the Blessed Mother’s advice to us:  Do whatever He tells you.”

Prayer to Our Lady of Cana

Mary, we have no more wine.

We run to you knowing that just like at Cana, you will look to the needs of our marriage.

Help our troubles be but fermentation and through your intercession and the grace of God, pray that our union grows strong and sweet.

At Cana, your Son, Jesus, said it was not His time.

Through the outpouring of love He had for you, He performed his first miracle and turned water into wine.

Lord, we turn to your mother and again ask her to take our needs before you. We trust that again, her motherly care for us and your infinite love will grant us this request.

Our Lady of Cana, pray for us.

Sacred Heart of Jesus, we place all our trust in You.

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