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Thursday, July 11, 2013

St. Benedict, Thomas Merton, My Wife, & Me - On our 15th Wedding Anniversary

Today is a day filled with meaning for me.  It is, for one thing, the feast day of St Benedict of Nursia.  Why Benedict's feast day is important to me will be explained shortly.  More importantly, July 11 is also my wedding anniversary, and on this day Kim and I celebrate 15 years together as husband and wife.

"The Move in 1997" - Image from Google Maps
When I was 23 I read Thomas Merton's The Seven Storey Mountain for the first time.  Kim and I were newlyweds (yes, we married young) who, shortly after our wedding, moved 3500 kilometers from where we had grown up in order that I might pursue my dream of an academic life.  I was to begin a second Bachelor's degree at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, with the hope of going on to graduate school thereafter.  But within a few months of our move to Ontario, I started to question whether the academic life was for me.  I enjoyed the study immensely, but questions started popping into my head about whether this was the life to which I was 'called'.  I had, as it were, something of a crisis of vocation, made worse by the fact that I had just asked my new partner to move away from all she knew and loved in order that I might pursue that which I was now calling into question.

Merton came to my aid.  For whatever reason, I had a copy of The Seven Storey Mountain on my bookshelf, and I decided to read it, though I really didn't know anything about the author.  The book utterly transfixed and transformed me.  Although I look at the book somewhat differently now that I'm older, at the time The Seven Storey Mountain spoke to me about vocation.  At the heart of the book is the story of Merton's struggles to figure out what he was to do with his life.  Rejected by the Franciscans, continually rejected by publishers, and anxious that he was not called to the life he wanted - the life of a contemplative priest - Merton suffered through a crisis of vocation, and at the age of 23 I saw myself in him.  When Merton recounts finally walking through the gates of the Abbey of Gethsemani to stay, I breathed a sigh of relief and joy.  For although our crises of vocation differed tremendously - I was not (at the time) Catholic and was not, as a newly married man, going to become a monk - I was relieved to know that someone's vocational crisis was resolved, that such crises can get resolved.  In short, the book increased my faith.

Bread from Genesee (Image from Twitter)
I began reading Merton voraciously, particularly his autobiographical writings, and through him became fascinated with Benedictine monasticism and St. Benedict.  Kim and I began making retreats at the Abbey of the Genesee (I can't recommend their bread enough - amazing!) where I read Nouwen, Merton, and learned about Benedict's Rule from the monks.

So, you ask, what does all this have to do with your 15th wedding anniversary?  It has everything to do with my anniversary, for it is the background information needed to understand just how incredible Kim is, and just how much she has taught me about what it could mean to love with the kind of self-giving love that God as Trinity images for us.

Merton opened up a vista for me, as I began to explore monasticism, writers from the patristic period, and the spiritual classics.  And he kindled in me the first inklings of an attraction to the Roman Catholic church.

Kim and I were very happy Anglicans, both deeply involved in our parish.  I was a lay reader in the Anglican church, and so helped out liturgically and was given the opportunity to preach the homilies on occasion.  Our priest was great, we loved our fellow parishioners, and Anglican liturgy is beautiful.  But as the years progressed I became discontented.  My graduate studies led me to a focus on the Fathers - I wrote my M.A. thesis on Augustine of Hippo and my Ph.D. dissertation on Cyril of Alexandria - and during my studies, influenced as I had already been by Merton et. al., I gradually came to the realization that I was actually Roman Catholic theologically, ecclesiologically, and spiritually.

This was not an easy time for Kim and I.  She did not feel the same attraction to Rome as I did for reasons that I fully understood (and understand).  While I knew I would feel more theologically 'myself' in the Roman church, any transition to the Catholic church on my part would introduce a substantial rift in our familial structure, a rift particularly difficult to navigate given that we now had one child.  Moreover, although I did not want any transition I made to Rome to be seen as a criticism of the Anglican church, a church I understand to have immense beauty and a profound theological tradition and depth, I knew that it was difficult for Kim to hear me talk about my attraction to the Roman Catholic church.

But Kim demonstrated complete understanding and love during this time, and she willingly provided the means to allow me to become more fully myself, as she had always done and as she continues to do.  I therefore was received into the Roman Catholic church on Pentecost 2007, and while it was immensely difficult for Kim to witness me make a step that would place us in separate communions, she was entirely supportive and giving.  On that day, I took the name "Benedict" as my confirmation name, not only because of the influence of Benedictine monasticism on me, not simply because I was a fan of Pope Benedict XVI who was pope at the time, but because Kim and I were married on St. Benedict of Nursia's feast day.

In his rule, Benedict writes a great deal about the centrality of humility and love, and emphasizes that the entire purpose of the rule is to grow in love:
But as we progress in this way of life and in faith, we shall run on the path of God's commandments, our hearts overflowing with the inexpressible delight of love (Prologue.49)
While it may seem strange to compare my marriage to monasticism, I have learned in my marriage to Kim what it could mean to grow in the inexpressible delight of love.  I am not, suffice it to say, an easy person with whom to live.  I don't here speak out of a false humility.  "I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me" (Ps 51:3).  I have many faults, not the least of which is my tendency toward a pride-filled selfishness.  Yet over the past 15 years, Kim has consistently - consistently - demonstrated the kind of generous love towards me, and towards others, that is at the very heart of our image of God as demonstrated through the Incarnation.

"The Move to Louisville (2008)" - Image from Google Maps
In addition to her countless daily displays of generous love, Kim agreed to our move to Louisville, Kentucky from our beloved Waterloo, Ontario (my Canadian friends perhaps understand how difficult such a decision to move to the USA can be for Canadians) in order that I might pursue an academic career at Bellarmine University, coincidentally enough, the home of the Merton Center and only a 50 minute drive from the Abbey of Gethsemani.

Please believe me when I say that I don't intend here to gush.  On this, our 15th wedding anniversary, I want to emphasize just how much Kim continues to teach me to become what Rowan Williams describes as a more fully human being, a person who lives into what it means to bear God's image and likeness and so exist and manifest the kind of generous love that God is in God's essence.  For Kim models what this could actually look like in reality.

And I thank God that she married me.

2 comments:

  1. In a word: beautiful. God bless you and Kim.

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  2. Just returned from Omaha and the CWS! That did not go well, but there was so much more. Spent time at
    Gethsemani and three days at Pleasant Hill and now I am reading Merton, Merton, and more Merton!!

    ReplyDelete