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“Sometimes the gifts God has in store for me are not the gifts I would have chosen for myself.”

“He doesn’t do the things he used to do, like buy her flowers.”  A coworker was telling me about a friend of hers, who, after several years of marriage, was lamenting the changes in their relationship.  Their lives were now full of kids and work and school and sports and dance classes, and she was struggling with the way life looked now compared to five years ago.

This week in the American Catholic Church is National Marriage Week.  I’m obviously an expert in marriage, having never been married. My coworker was musing out loud about young couples preparing for marriage and questioning whether they’re prepared for the fact that the person you are at twenty might be very different than the person you are at forty.

“My friends are just so busy, running kids to practices and school,” she explained to me. “He was running the kids to dance practice, and she was working late, and life is just different.  I think she’s upset that he doesn’t do the things he did while they were dating. He doesn’t do the things he used to do, like buy her flowers.”

I had listened with sympathy, but now I had to speak up.  “Taking the kids to dance practice is his flowers,” I pointed out.

Sometimes it takes someone on the outside of a situation to see the inside more clearly.  Sure, her friend would love to get flowers every once and awhile. But her husband was showing his love in a different way.  Perhaps in way she needed more than flowers.

St. Paul tells us that love endures and never ends, but he doesn’t tell us that the manifestations of it don’t change.  And while Shakespeare may tell us that love is an “ever-fixed mark,” I don’t think even he expected the expressions of it to remain the same over a lifetime. 

Our Hollywood idea of marriage is a shiny and perfect one.  The bright-eyed and eager young lovers overcome some difficulty, and as the curtain falls, they are preparing to spend the rest of their blissful days together.  There is nothing wrong with believing in love stories. In fact, fairy tales and love stories manifest that deep desire of human nature to be loved by the beloved, a story that has been written in us from the Garden.

But that love story written in the Garden was fulfilled in the Cross.  Because we chose to taint our world with sin, the love story, while still possible, is only possible lived out in this vale of tears.  And in that vale of tears, our love is strengthened and perfected in the Cross.  Trials and suffering (whether they’re big, like cancer or poverty, or small, like daily annoyances or your spouse’s bad habits) can be hurdles to love or portals to love.  All of us know examples of couples who have either been drawn apart or drawn together through suffering. 

Returning to my coworker’s friend, I think all of us can put ourselves in her shoes in some way or another, regardless of whether we’ve been married.  Life had progressed, and there were things about today that she hadn’t foreseen five or ten years ago.  She loved her husband, but things were different from the carefree days of dating.  It’s natural to begin to wonder about the spark that had been there in those early days.  If now it seemed more like embers, what about given ten more years? 

I don’t want to make light of her complaint, as much as it might just sound like a Neil Diamond song.  Flowers were a visible sign to her that her husband loved her, appreciated her, and wanted the spark to continue.  There’s nothing wrong with desiring that.  But there’s also something in receiving the love where it is being given.  Taking the kids to dance practice sure doesn’t smell as nice, and it might not have the sweet “just because” element that a surprise bouquet of flowers does, but it might be the greatest act of love he can give at that moment.  Sometimes love feels like butterflies and flowers.  But more often, it feels like a folded load of laundry or an offer to pick up dinner on the way home from work.  

While some of us can’t completely relate since we’re not married, there’s another relationship in our life that probably suffers from this as well. Our relationship with God. We may have ideas of what a good prayer life feels like, or how a healthy spiritual life should look. Maybe we see a friend’s prayer life and it seems better than ours, or more fruitful. When I hear a friend talk about how she had a moment in prayer, or heard God’s voice, or felt particularly loved, I wonder if I’m doing something wrong. Maybe I once had these consolations, but now they seem to be missing.

Sometimes I crave a spiritual high from my holy hour or time of lectio divina, and it’s just not there.  Maybe there’s even a dryness in its place. That doesn’t mean God’s stopped loving me.  It means He’s giving me love in a different way- in a way I need more at that moment. 

How often do I neglect gifts of love – from either family, friends, or God – because they’re not what I’m expecting or wanting?  Am I truly open to see love where it is, and not just where I want to see it? Sometimes the gifts God has in store for me are not the gifts I would have chosen for myself. Do I desire holiness enough to accept even those? The signs of love – our flowers – don’t always look like flowers.  They might even look like Crosses.  True joy comes once we pick up those flowers and follow Christ.

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