A Skiff in Raging Waters & Grace and The Value of Suffering in Marriage
Author’s Note: My wife Annie and I were honored to be asked by Fr. Nate Meyers and the good people of St. Francis Xavier Parish in Buffalo, MN to deliver a reflection on marriage for their annual Cana Dinner. It was a wonderful evening, and I commend our remarks (especially my bride’s!) to the friends of the Bellarmine Forum for their consideration. The talk is in two parts: my contribution is entitled “A Skiff in Raging Waters,” and Annie’s is “Grace and the Value of Suffering in Marriage.”
A Skiff in Raging Waters
By John M. DeJak
Upon arriving home to Chicago from our honeymoon, one of the first visits to friends that we made was to the old Jesuit professors at Loyola University. We were welcomed warmly, as was their custom. After the congratulations and initial small talk, Fr. Matthew Creighton, S.J., Professor of Latin & Greek, uttered to us something that only the mind of a poet and a priest could have fashioned. He said:
First of all, outside of 19th century translations of the classics, I don’t think I’ve heard the term “skiff” used in any sort of conversation. This was a man, a scholar, a priest who chose his words wisely! A “skiff” is a small boat that was not meant to sail the seven seas and not meant to hold a lot of people. Rather, these were small crafts meant for leisure and mostly taken down rivers or quiet lakes. But as any outdoorsman will tell you, the quiet of one portion of a river may—a few miles downstream—turn into deadly rapids.
Over the sixteen years of our marriage, I have returned to this prophetic utterance time and time again. I never asked Father what specifically he had in mind when he said this to us, but I’ve come to understand the great Fr. Matthew Creighton, S.J. in a similar way that I understand the great Homer: their words and meanings are obvious, but in those words there is also another meaning that speaks to each individual in a unique way. Like the Homeric simile, the words uttered conjure up in the mind of the hearer, his own experiences and visions of the scene. In fact, the words may take on new shades or more profound depth as the years pass—so that what was once uttered in a moment in time, now echoes with more profundity down through the years.
Why was Father’s image an apt one for those entering marriage? Why is it apt for those within marriage? I hope that my reflections here might provide you some thoughts on this issue. More so, I pray that what my bride and I both say here this evening may be the occasion for some reflection and building up of your own marriages and the strengthening of your own families.
When I think of a “skiff upon raging waters” as an image for marriage, I think of the actual boat—the skiff—as representing the vow. What makes the marriage is a choice and a promise. It is made by a fallen human creature prone to selfishness, bad habits, mistakes, and sin; but, paradoxically, at the same time capable of the highest heights of courage, strength, and love. The heroic appeals to all of us because we imagine the greatness we might achieve; but, in another paradox, greatness is achieved in small things. A young man, in the time of his life when the desire for a woman is at its greatest, smitten with her beauty, enamored of her virtue and intellect, constantly desiring to be with her at every moment, makes the most courageous act of his life. A feat of daring that rivals any heroism in war or act of courage in the face of oppression: (1) he asks a woman to marry him and (2) he actually marries her.
The first act requires the virtue of fortitude (she may say no); it requires prudence (deliberation is required to know that this is the woman he wishes to spend the rest of his days with and he chooses her); it requires justice (he must be prepared to give her what is owed to her: the powers of his mind and heart and the strength of body to provide and protect); and it requires temperance (this is the one woman for him; he sees that he is foreclosing other options and other opportunities). The second act requires the same: prudence (understanding matrimony and the significance of the commitment); justice (giving the intended what is due to her in her state—love, cherishing, security, provision, and protection); temperance (fidelity and respect in bodily and material things); fortitude (the courage to fulfill these obligations).
While both acts require some aspects of natural virtue, it is the second act that is the Vow— the promise. It is appropriate that a period of time be taken between the proposal and the promise for deliberation and reflection upon the great work in which the couple is about to engage. It ensures that there is full consent of the will when the vow is pronounced before God, each other, and public witnesses:
“I promise to be true to you, in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health. I will love you and honor you, all the days of my life.”
Proposal turns to promise and just as God gave His Word to all of us, in giving their word, the spouses give themselves to each other. The vow is uttered at a moment in time—but it is a promise that lasts a lifetime. It is uttered by two people—probably in the flush of excitement; probably young and attractive and—let’s face it—crazy for each other; probably blissfully unaware that the skiff they are embarking upon requires constant attention and strengthening to endure yet unforeseen rapids. The vow is made by fragile and weak people, yet the vow is the bond that holds it all together. This is one of the chief reasons that Christ came—to give us the grace to steer the skiff and to continually strengthen it. But not only that, in point of fact, Christ endows the skiff with supernatural qualities—so that a craft meant for a quiet lake or a leisurely stream might endure the squalls and storms that buffet even the most powerful battleship.
If the skiff is the vow, the raging waters are all those things that threaten to break it. Most profoundly, it is the inborn selfishness that each of us deals with. Huge things—like tidal waves—are not the things that are the most threatening to the skiff; rather it is the hairline fractures, the slow seeping of water into the vessel that threatens to sink it. It is the day-to-day selfishness of one of the spouses doing what he wants instead of living for the other. This is not to say that one has to sacrifice his interests, likes, etc. but given the responsibilities of love, one is called to a continual sacrifice of self. This is where the rubber meets the road and of which my wife—who is more competent in love than I—will speak. But there are also other raging waters. The world and the seducer of the world are at work. Consider these lies that are contrary to love: materialism; “keeping up with the Joneses;” a false understanding of freedom (doing what one wants instead of doing what is right); secularism; a de-facto atheism or agnosticism that sees man’s life as restricted to this world; sexual confusion and an anti-family mentality as in acceptance of contraception, homosexual conduct, abortion, euthanasia. All of these things threaten marriage and ultimately destroy the family. Does this mean that we are not to love those swept-up in these tidal waves of lies—certainly not! We are to love them even more! But the most significant way that married couples can show that love, is to navigate the skiff through those waters, keep their vow, and be a humble example. It is not in attempting “great feats” or “huge accomplishments,” but in humbly steering the ship.
For those who have been married for awhile and—as happens with all of us—are sometimes asleep at the wheel, perhaps a recollection of the first time you set out together would do much to help you navigate the waters of marriage and family life. Wives: recall the time when your husband was a handsome young man, with a full head of hair, the physique of a professional athlete, the same who wrote love notes to you (even stealing away from the guys at the bar or the football game to do so). Husbands: recall that beautiful woman on your wedding day; recall the thought of her as the woman you wanted to be the mother of your children. Recall your vow on that day—and realize that the words said that day are more powerful and poignant today than they were even then. Think of your children—and see them as the fruit of your love and the love of God. How privileged you are to be a co-creator with Him. And thank God for all of this!
There are times when navigating the raging waters of life seems impossible—raising children, trying to eke out an existence, family quarrels, misunderstandings, constant disappointment by friends and society and the Church—even spouses. But take courage, something that seems as impossible as navigating a skiff through raging waters can be done—for nothing is impossible with God. And if you do, when, finally, you reach the end of your journey together and you step off that little skiff, you will have reached the Master’s house “where there are many rooms;” and please God, may those rooms be reserved for you, “your children, and your children’s children” and where, “after a happy old age” you may be granted fullness of life.
Grace and the Value of Suffering in Marriage
By Ann DeJak
I am humbled to have been asked to speak for you this evening on marriage and family life in part because I’m so terribly aware of my own shortcomings as a wife and mother and because I’m quite certain there are many here who have gained more wisdom in life than myself! I often joke with my friends who are in the early years of marriage and raising toddlers that I really fashioned myself a nice person until I became a mom!
My remarks will involve 2 parts this evening. First, an overview of how the gift of Matrimony flows from the Church, Christ’s saving vehicle for salvation. And secondly, I will share with you a bit of our own personal story especially with regard to our almost 16 year-old eldest, severely disabled, beloved son.
For centuries within the Catholic tradition another name for the family has been (in Latin) the “ecclesia domestica” or “the domestic church.” What does this mean? Well, first off, the Church is the primary means by which Our Lord chose and continues to choose, to dispense his grace–his life of love–his path to salvation. This is done most perfectly through the Sacraments. Isn’t it interesting that God elevated marriage to the dignity a Sacrament? Telling both of its tremendous nobility and the incredible need for graces to virtuously live out this state in life.
Sacramental grace is the means by which we are sanctified or made holy–it is not through our own efforts alone that this occurs–but in cooperation with Christ’s life, his life of grace, that we are able to live virtuously in our homes. But there’s an old saying, “Grace builds upon nature.” That is, grace sanctifies, elevates and renews nature. True marriage is natural, but Matrimony is holy! Here are a couple of examples of “grace builds upon nature” to help illustrate.
Little Johnny cannot simply get an “A” on his spelling test just by praying for a good grade. Little Johnny has to first do the hard work of repeatedly studying and memorizing simultaneous with prayers that might help him remember that which was studied in order to do well. Another example, young Meg cannot become an excellent ice skater just by watching the winter Olympics every 4 years and hoping and praying for her dream to come true. Young Meg has to first go through repetitive and arduous training and instruction, probably not excluding great pain and injury, to eventually become an excellent skater.
Likewise, “grace builds upon nature” in the context of the relationship between husband and wife. For example (and here I’ll use John and my names just to make it fun): John and Annie can’t converse and communicate well–even if they’re volunteering for church functions and good deeds of many kinds–if at home John is more concerned with what’s on T.V. or his iPhone or Annie places image, perception or perhaps status above the cultivation of her relationship with her husband. Pope Benedict XVI spoke of this critically during his pontificate, “Sincere and constant dialogue between the spouses is essential for avoiding the emergence of misunderstandings that grow and harden.”
Allow me to clarify here: watching T.V., using smartphones, trying to have a good appearance as a family, these are not evils. Quite the opposite. These things become problems when they are misused or loved in the wrong way. Grace is most effective when the nature piece is properly ordered, understood and nurtured.
Recall the skiff that John spoke about earlier. This is a simple raft that is able to float but unable to sustain itself BY itself upon treacherous waters and so needs the winds of grace to navigate and survive. This journey does not exclude great pain, suffering or what may sometimes seem to be unbearable hardship. But I am convinced that whatever the suffering or hardship may be, whatever the season in life we find ourselves in, God gives us the strength to bear any cross with the help of his grace. A great man, Fr. Walter Ciszek said, “For just as surely as man begins to trust in his own abilities, so surely has he taken the first step on the road to ultimate failure. And the greatest grace God can give such a man is to send him a trial he cannot bear with his own powers—and then sustain him with his grace so he may endure to the end and be saved.”
This brings me to the second portion of my remarks. Allow me to tell you a little bit about our family: specifically our firstborn son, Thomas Augustine who is almost 16 now! Tom is the first of our 8 children: 4 boys and 4 girls (you can imagine the laundry)….
Thomas Augustine DeJak was born 7 weeks prematurely and this is when we discovered God had sent us someone extraordinarily special–at his birth. Tom has a physical condition called arthrogryposis which is a muscular, joint disorder marked by contractures and very low muscle mass. He has almost no active movement in his arms and limited rotation at many of his joints. It is not always the case with this condition, but in Thomas’s case, his is coupled with severe cognitive delays and mental impairments. Tom is on an all-liquid diet and so requires specialized formula feedings and is dependent upon us for all aspects of self-care and eating. Tom is almost completely non-verbal and often has difficulty expressing or conveying his needs and desires.
The impact of Thomas’s disability touches every member of our family and many aspects of our daily lives. My husband and I often refer to our life-style as “dividing and conquering.” Thomas is difficult to transport and has little or no sense of danger and boundary. As a result we rarely are able to attend events as a complete family and are often dependent upon extra help. His sleep cycles are sometimes upside down and often require an adult accessible all hours of the night to assist him if he is hungry or in need of something and John, my dear husband, usually takes care of it. All of our kids now know how to feed Tom (they did even when they were 2 years-old) and are receptive to his non-verbal forms of communication.
Tom likes to knock things over often, make a lot of noise and fling things! He is very messy and sometimes destructive—come to think of it, he sounds like most teenagers, right?! We all have to be ever-vigilant that Tom doesn’t find or create dangerous situations for himself. He has several personal care assistants that come into our house to help with his needs. These women have become like family to us and are tremendously helpful, caring and patient.
I have often heard over the years words to the effect, “God sent you a special child because you are special people.” I understand that people mean well with these kinds words but I don’t find consolation or much meaning in them. Instead I’d like to say, “God sent our family a special child because He wanted to teach us how to love!”
In our day, many think happiness in marriage means having the perfect car, house, job, spouse, etc. Many spend their entire lives striving for such only to discover that there is still something very much missing. In contrast some of the happiest souls on earth live in poverty. Why? Something deeper than the acquisition of things and achievements brings happiness. Love endures, things do not. In the end, to love and to be loved is the only life worth living. Disabled persons often call us to an even deeper form of love–a higher level of selflessness and virtue precisely because of their dependency upon and very spiritual connection with us.
Thomas gives and receives love in such a simple and innocent way and very much keeps our focus off ourselves. His presence day in and day out in our home is a blessing to our 7 other children and John and me and I daresay to anyone else who comes into our home. This is not to say that Tom’s care is easy or without extreme disappointment, fatiguing frustration, and sometimes heart-wrenching worry. Diapering a teenager, preparing drippy leaking bottles, keeping up daily with smelly bedding, all the while tending to a large family is at times overwhelming. I’ll be the first to admit that I too often squander opportunities for grace and fail. Love is learned day by day, hour by hour, minute by minute. Get up, fall down, get up again. Even Jesus fell three times carrying His cross. Pray unceasingly, ask always for forgiveness and grace and as Father Walter Ciszek, Servant of God, was fond of saying, “Give God your lousy best!”
For whatever mysterious reason, God in his Providential Wisdom and Mercy has chosen the Cross as the path to Resurrection and perfection. May we in our hearts, in our homes, in our marriages, embrace His Cross and so love with a love so great that as Saint Catherine of Siena said, “…will set the world on fire!” Thank you.
This article, A Skiff in Raging Waters & Grace and The Value of Suffering in Marriage is a post from The Bellarmine Forum.
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