Saturday, November 23, 2013

The door that Latin dance opened: reflections on marriage

photo credit: Mandy Fiock

It might have turned out entirely different had we met online or at church, in a theological discussion group or on a college campus.  If the way we first knew each other was “Catholic” or  “non Catholic,” chances are I would have walked on by without a second glance, simply because of a label and what that label meant to me.

Thankfully, the first language that passed between us was not Spanish or English or theological labels, but dance.  Latin dance, to be more specific, which can conjure up a certain image, or at least I imagine I see it in peoples' eyes when I tell them how my husband and I met.  That of a sweaty 'latin lover' with a plunging neckline sweeping me off my feet as we're caught up in this passionate tangle of salsa dancing.  No, it was much more subtle than that.  The magnetic pull of his smile, the way it lit up his whole face, how his eyes danced every bit as naturally as his body.  The confidence with which he moved and led me, painfully new to the world of hip movement and Latin music, without minimizing me in the spotlight of his skill.  The way he kept enough distance between us I felt his respect, a gentle shield.  And when I made mistakes, the way we’d end up laughing and breaking into a goofy freestyle before picking back up where we left off. 

Dance cleared a path, breaking down invisible barriers before we even knew where the other came from.   So that, when we finally sat down, several months later, and asked the who-are-you questions, I already sensed I couldn’t brush him off that easily: 

“Oh, you’re Catholic?  Sorry, but I think your theology’s off.  No, I’ve never sat through more than one Mass and, well, I’ve never actually studied or listened to an informed Catholic person explain the differences in our expressions of faith, but I just know you’ve got it wrong.”  

Holy smokes, I’m so grateful in my ignorance and, let’s name it, arrogance, this is not how our conversation went.  Let's just say God, and Ricardo, were very gracious to me.  Instead, our differences opened the door to a pathway of dialogue and exchange, and eventually, to love. And to my great surprise (and many of those close to me) I walked through, though not without considerable internal wrestling. 

Over time, my end of the conversation went something more like this: Tell me, what does faith mean to you?  What does Jesus mean to you?  Why do you pray the way that you do, what are all these sacraments about, and what do you say to all those non Catholic Christians who accuse you of “worshiping” Mary?  What is the role of the saints, why do you need a priest to confess to, and who is the Virgin of Guadalupe?

At first the questions came crashing in, like those ocean waves one right after the other, so high, intense, unyielding.  Some of them were answered within a conversation or two; others, I grew to see, cannot be explained away so easily.  And still others, I may never fully understand because I didn’t grow up Catholic in Mexico, because God himself cannot be fully understood, and with all the billions of people on this planet, there must be at least as many sets of eyes that catch his light from a different angle.  

So I went with him to Mass.  He came with me to pentecostal worship services, after which he might quietly share his impressions or questions.  I fumed at why I couldn’t take communion at the Catholic church, and he raised an eyebrow at the pastor in the front row chewing gum while we sang in the midst of what felt like a Christian rock concert. We both decided, if we wanted to see if this could work between us, we needed to find some place in the middle to call home; and thankfully, I was hungry for something new.  

I’d been a church mutt all my life, but in the decade leading up to meeting Ricardo, identified more with a charismatic expression of faith, one I'd been outgrowing prior to meeting him.  We landed as smack dab in the middle as we could find, in a Presbyterian church filled with young families and bursting at the seams with babies, among liturgy and hymns and the Eucharist.  I began to find God in rich traditions of the Church, centuries old, in quietness and contemplation, instead of in how I performed my "spiritual gifts."  I'd been in a congregation for so long that eyed the word "traditional" with great suspicion when it came to worship and practice.  This dive into liturgy and Eucharist every week was a paradigm shift for me, a refreshment I hadn't known I was craving.  Eventually, I joked that I’d become a Presbycatholicostal.  Or something along those lines.  In truth, our relationship was changing me, in ways I never foresaw as possibilities.

For most of my young adult life, I'd been searching for someone who was safe (i.e., someone more like me).  I knew, in theory, marriage would be tough enough coming from similar places let alone many layers of differences, but still I couldn't walk away from Ricardo.  Looking back, it makes more sense to me, on some levels, that this was not, after all, a diversion from how I've always been.  Perhaps it was more in line with who I am than I realized, even as I was changing in many ways from the girl and young woman I'd known, and this both unnerved and intrigued me.  I've always been the one that jumps right in the midst of a challenge instead of taking progressive steps leading up to the plunge.  The one that wanted to move to Africa and live in a refugee camp before ever visiting.  The one that was planning to move to Minneapolis to pursue my career after grad school, again, without knowing the city or anyone there.  The one that preferred to train for a marathon rather than a 5K, or do a triathlon as her first foray back into athletics after a major injury.  It's just how I roll.  Why would marriage be any different?  

I didn't want to marry someone because he looked "right" or good on paper, because others approved, or because he fit the criteria from a list I wrote when I was sixteen, before I really knew who I was or how I would change through the seasons of life.  And everyone chooses their partners for reasons very personal and unique to them, and so I know it's not for everyone to value differences the way I do.  But in the end, it was our differences that showed me more of God than those things that were the same, all built around the one truly unifying sameness: We're both children of God, loved by Christ and desiring to love him well with our lives. The revelation that God didn't choose to love me because I'm so much like him, because we have so much in common, but because he just chose to, stoked a fire in my soul.  

There's something beautiful and mysterious and redemptive, in two very different people living under the same roof, merging together two lives into one, seeking to love and serve the other in the throes of all of our differences.  And we all marry different people, don't we, it's just that for some, the differences are more prominent.  It's not about swinging from one end of the pendulum, from glorifying our sameness to elevating our differences, either.  

It's about not living - and loving - so afraid.   

I read recently that no one ever marries the "right" person, we just think we do.  That because we are always changing, the person that seemed so right to us when we first married may look quite different a month or years later, and so will we.  The author of these words, Stanley Hauerwas, an ethics professor at Duke University, concluded with this remark:  "The primary challenge of marriage is learning how to love and care for the stranger to whom you find yourself married." 

Amen and amen.    

And this, I'm seeing, is part of the glorious mystery of marriage.  

As for all the questions, they still roll in, further apart now, lower and gentler sloping waves that break and spread out into the vast sea.  I will always have questions and maybe, just maybe, I’m learning not to fear them, even to lean into them.  Especially the ones that defy scripted  answers.  

photo credit: Mandy Fiock
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I feel the need to emphasize here that my intent, in no way, is to generalize any groups of people: those who marry someone with whom they have much in common, or those who marry with many differences; Catholics or Pentecostals.  Nor do I desire to exclude people who aren't of the Christian faith from the dialogue of marriage.  I am merely telling my story as honestly as I know how, and all of these pieces mentioned happen to play defining roles in its telling. 

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