Marital Companionship and the Liturgy of Life

The news about marriage is mixed in America. While the divorce rate has declined over a period of years, marriage is also in decline. Stories of prenuptial agreements, abusive spouses, disputes on raising children, and marital infidelity abound. Many feel that it is simply safer to remain single or enter a domestic partnership without the legal binding of marriage.

I’m here to offer an alternative view on marriage on the basis of my experience. I was married for nineteen years until it ended abruptly, at least in this life. Some of you may be familiar with the story of my late wife, Tresja, who suffered a medical emergency while on a disaster assistance response team in Haiti.

Within the short period of eight hours, everything was fine – then she fell ill, and died. Her colleagues at USAID have done a marvelous job in sharing their remembrances of her life. The purpose of my own selective story is not to provide a hagiographical narrative – though I believe and confess that she has joined the communion of saints. I want to share aspects of our story of marriage in everyday life.

In my nineteen years of marriage, I learned the true meaning of companionship in marriage. Christian marriage is an authentic living out of liturgy. Husband and wife receive God’s love, share it with one another and their community, and embark on a common journey to God’s kingdom. Here is how I discovered these truths in my marriage.

Desire and a Reality Check

Our marriage followed the pattern of many nuptials. There was an instant attraction, dating, and to be sure, desire. We experienced the threshold rites of a wedding shower and planning, the service, and honeymoon. Tresja gave me great advice on the beach in the Bahamas. “Follow your heart. Go to grad school to study theology and become a professor. I’ll do emergency work in DC.”

Every honeymoon ends when you go home. Living with the same person, day and night, week and month, year by year, changes the relationship. One must create healthy separation. The spouse’s burden becomes yours, even when the timing is inconvenient and you have enough on your plate.

When many marriages begin, the process of getting to know one’s spouse has only just begun. The couple engages ordinary and unplanned events together. Some activities are easy (taking a walk, seeing a movie). Others are more difficult. It’s Mother’s Day. How do we plan the weekend? Where do we go for Christmas? Do I have to attend this event?

Questions like these come up for most marriages. Sometimes, it all works out just fine. For others, a lot of negotiating and bending is necessary.

Marital Bending and Negotiating

In our first seven years of marriage (2002-2009), Tresja and I did a lot of bending, and a lot of negotiating. We moved from Minnesota to Annapolis, Maryland. I was a graduate student at The Catholic University of America. She wanted to start a professional career as a disaster response specialist. It started slowly for her, beginning with serving tables at TGI Fridays. She worked at the IRIS Center at the University of Maryland for two years, and in 2005, became the Operations Center Manager at USAID’s Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance (now Bureau of Humanitarian Assistance, or BHA).

Life changed quickly. We bent and negotiated. I was busy with grad school and diaconal ministry. Tresja began to travel extensively. On normal days, I would either stay home and study while she took the commuter bus to work, or we would both be in DC all day. We left the house no later than 7:00 a.m. She usually came home at 6:45 p.m. Dinner was always late. She would travel for work, and I’d be home alone for three weeks at a time. Life sometimes consisted of separation and loneliness, or two tired spouses.

In these circumstances, tension bubbled up. I wanted my wife’s attention, and she was tired. The reverse was also true. I was writing my dissertation while working full time. Every Saturday, for one year, I wrote in my basement, and concelebrated Liturgy on Sunday mornings. There was not much time, at all, for spousal recreation.

Looking back on this life episode, I now see that these circumstances could have endangered our marriage. Both of us bent and negotiated, seemingly for the sake of the other. My wife’s trips were grueling for me. She was pregnant with our daughter on two international trips. In early 2010, she was in South Africa while my infant daughter and I were home alone. Two epic snowstorms brought Maryland, Virginia, and DC to their knees. I was stuck at home with the baby and the roads were so bad, we couldn’t even make it to the grocery store. At the time, it felt impossible without her.

Marriage and Service to Communities

Why did I agree to my wife’s long travels? Why did she agree to my hybrid existence as professor and Church servant? It was not merely a matter of doing it for the other. People in other countries needed help, and Tresja had the expertise to provide it. Students needed to learn theology, and people needed to receive nourishment of word and table. At some level, by some divine grace, we recognized that we had to share our spouse with communities both far and near.

Our paths were not as disparate as they seemed. Our journey of seeking God’s kingdom required both of us to execute the tasks of those ministries. Our companionship taught us that it was never about me, or her. The bending and negotiating we had done repeatedly was our feeble response to the call to be the body of Christ in the contexts we had chosen (or maybe to which we had been appointed).

Discovering the True Meaning of Companionship

What happened to us? Life changed. We moved first to Los Angeles and then Valparaiso, Indiana, for teaching jobs at LMU and Valparaiso University. Life was still hectic, but the years of bending and negotiating had become habitual. We were no longer commuters – she worked from home when she wasn’t traveling, and I was able to either walk to and from work or have a short drive.

Our new lifestyle balanced out the long periods of separation. And those were real – in January 2017, I returned from a conference, met her in the parking lot of the LAX airport to get the car keys, kissed her goodbye as she prepared to depart for her flight, and saw her several weeks later.

When we were together, we had time to share life. We walked together at least once a day, often twice. We were able to share more meals together. Some of the time spent together consisted of more bending and negotiating. Sometimes, we walked together in silence. This happened quite recently, near our family cabin in Minnesota. We both remarked that we were perfectly comfortable in the silence. Usually, we would share news, opinions, ideas, and tasks. Sometimes, no words were needed; it was enough to just be together.

Marriage and Companionship (com-panis)

Life together had become true companionship, com-panis – sharing bread, together. The dynamic of companionship shifted again with COVID. We had been coming and going, with intermittent periods of separation. Now we were thrust together all the time, for everything – meals, exercise, work, school. No restaurants, no vacations, no church. If we were ever at risk for marital trouble, it would be during COVID.

We learned how to bend, negotiate, and share space yet again. When the restrictions on the numbers of people in Church were rigorous, we prayed the Typica together at home. This was new for us. We had our roles for community prayer. Our Sunday assembly consisted of the three of us.

Every time we prayed the Typica, Tresja stood by my side, with Sophia and our two cats in the room. Tresja chanted the prayers and psalms with me and recited the Creed.  The pandemic required an immediate Christian response. The years of bending and negotiating – and companionship – led us to adjust our lives. We were frightened about becoming ill, about losing family members, and losing our jobs. We agreed that one thing above all was important – staying together and preserving our companionship. We believed our companionship, blessed by God, would lead us through whatever dark valleys awaiting us in life.

Christians often define marriage as a sacrament. It is a sacrament because God is the source of the love and companionship shared by the couple. We heard many stories of people who seemed to recognize that their marriages were holy. We were among those blessed to rediscover that our marital companionship was truly important – much more so than restaurants and vacations.

The End: Transitus

This section brings me to the end. After a lovely spring and summer, we were gearing up for another school year. 2022 was going to be big. Our twentieth wedding anniversary is in March, and I am turning fifty in May. We were going to celebrate the first in Hawaii and the second in New York Our daughter entered seventh grade. I had plans for a two-week intense research trip to Ukraine. Tresja was assigned for disaster assistance in Ethiopia in December and January. She would miss Christmas, but we had survived holidays apart in the past. Pursuit of the kingdom of God required her to be there; our companionship would not be threatened by the moment.

On August 14, Tresja’s supervisor asked her if she could fly to Haiti to assist urban search and rescue after the devastating earthquake. The request was incredibly inconvenient for me – they needed an answer in one hour. I had to change my plans for Ukraine immediately. She had to run out the door for an errand and was to text her response while out and about. Lives depended on assistance – I could postpone my trip and take it at another time. After some uncertainty, she packed her gear hurriedly at 10:00 p.m., and the uber took her to the airport at 2:00 a.m.

That was the last time I saw my wife alive, in the flesh. On August 18, she collapsed during a late dinner in Haiti, complaining of a severe headache. Her colleagues were heroic in their attempts to save her, but the trauma from the cerebral hemorrhage was too severe. By 8:00 a.m. on August 19, 2021, she began her transitus to the Lord. We were shocked, angry, confused, and devastated. We were supposed to grow old together, usher our daughter into adulthood, and celebrate the rest of our lives.

So here I am, two weeks later. I am in a liminal space – wounded from the devastated loss, yet grateful for such rich companionship. Every year, we hear the account of the Parable of the Rich Fool (Lk 12:16-21). The trips to Ukraine, New York, and Hawaii were not urgent. Our kitchen remodel can wait. God’s business does not wait.

Our marriage taught us how to attend to God’s urgent business by constantly bending and negotiating. Our give and take enriched our companionship. Our dialogue was the liturgy of ordinary, everyday life – the liturgy of marital companionship. There is no need to search the euchology for a prayer or component that tells us the meaning of marriage. The meaning is in the lived experience of marriage, in the ordinary beauty of companionship. Perhaps this suggests that authors of liturgical texts should consult marital life, so that the experience of intimacy would shape our euchology.

Here is what I believe. All along, through the bending, dialogue, and company, God’s kingdom was within us – in our marriage. Marital companionship is an immersion into the love of the Triune God. I am aggrieved by the sting of this loss; but I am abundantly joyful and grateful to have received this rich blessing of companionship. May married couples throughout the world receive the divine grace God pours out upon them in marriage.   

15 comments

  1. Even in your grief, Fr Nick, you nourish us with courageous and clear words of hope. Our own transitus lies ahead; may we meet it with equal grace and sobriety.
    Love in Christ,
    Alexis Vinogradov

  2. What Alexis Vinogradov said.

    My heart goes out to you, Nick, in your loss. Thank you for this profound reflection.

  3. Nicholas, sincere condolences on this appalling loss. You have given us an amazing testimony. I do hope the writing of it has been helpful to you even in the midst of raw grief. It has certainly been helpful to the rest of us.

  4. We are very grateful for your testimony. I am sure you hoped for comments, not just admiration. Your testimony is of great interest in both a sociological and a theological perspective. The end of my comments are chopped off. So I have to post the end in a second short post
    In your title and two subtitles, you emphasize companionship. We all agree about the importance of companionship. What else can marriage be? It has not always been so. More than two or three generations ago, marriage was mainly an institution, based on accepted gender roles. The change was first documented in 1953 by E. Burgess and H Locke in The Family: From Institution to Companionship. In companionship the gender roles could be negotiated. In the 1950s there was a general agreement that the husband would be the main breadwinner, and the wife in charge of the family with possibly a secondary income. This arrangement was seen as working for the common good.
    In the 1960s everything changed with the ethic of personal fulfillment. Now each partner wanted personal fulfillment in marriage, first and foremost. Women wanted equality in all things: in the pursuit of a career and in the sharing of household tasks. Now there is no more common good, only personal and individual fulfillment. This two-career situation is full of tension. In this situation of competition, one partner has to “bend,” and solution are to be found through somewhat adversarial negotiations. In this explosive situation, the divorce rate exploded in the 1970s and 1980s. It plateaued since, but it remains high.
    We are still in this situation today: a two-career marriage is unstable. Among the solutions are: 1) agreeing on how to handle two careers before marriage. 2) Both partners having a 9 to 5 job. 3) For high earners: hire help for cleaning, cooking, and child care.
    See the end in second post.

  5. When one or both parents work for the church and the Kingdom of God, things are different. Working for the church should never be a career, that is, the pursuit of personal achievement or the feeling that one’s work in the world is absolutely needed. Working for the Kingdom is a vocation, a calling by a higher power, a mission which at all times must remain subordinate to the will of God. Now we have again a common good: finding the will of God in the pursuit of one’s ministry, the good of relationship and the children. Now there will be no more negotiations but the common task of discerning the will of God. St. Paul repeatedly emphasized the importance of enlightened discernment. “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed [so that] you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” (Rom 12:2)
    Does this help?

    1. Actually, no it doesn’t. I find your analysis lacking. Perhaps it is related to one particular country, but even across the Western world the history of the marital relationship via-à-vis sociology is not nearly as simple as stated here.

      It’s not possible to isolate what gender roles were in the 1950s as a universal absolute. Nor is it possible to limit the changes in relationships to the 1960s, although clearly there were large societal changes in that decade. The bald statement that in the 1960s women wanted equality in all things is not only inaccurate but using it as the main factor for the rising divorce rate in the following decades is an over-simplification.

      I would point to the spouses of those, both male and female, who serve in the military as an example of one scenario where the tensions surrounding absence/presence are lived out in a particular way, and have been for centuries. Working for the Church is also a complex area, and much depends on whether one or both partners are lay or ordained, and indeed which Church we are talking about.

      Implying that there is no need of negotiations when both partners are in the business of discerning the will of God is, I believe, a misconception. Negotiations are always necessary, in marriage as in all other walks of life.

      [For future info, when one’s initial post is too long and gets cut off, the secret is just to post it, and then edit, when the limitation on length is removed. While editing you can add to and extend the post without having to spread yourself over two or more posts.]

  6. Beautifully written Nick. Thank you for blessing us all with this and I will keep you and your family in my prayers.

  7. thank you for the courage and faith to write this. Ever since I heard of your wife’s death, you have been in my prayers, and that is renewed now reading this. I see so much of our life in yours – “bending indeed” between careers, calls, two countries and more. Thank you for putting into words how this is the communion that is marriage and our God (pure communion and community in whose image we are made).

  8. Fr. Nicholas, thank you for your courage in this time of grief. I am very sorry for your loss.

    You are in the prayers of The Plekon family.

    Henry

  9. Thank you for this moving essay, Nicholas. Condolences to you and your family. May God bring you strength in this time, and give your wife rest in light eternal.

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