Relationships—whether human or divine—always involve change

Opening our lives to a great other—in marriage or with God—is an adventure worth welcoming.
Our Faith

My wife recently purchased a new T-shirt: black, sleeveless, and adorned with a punk rock cartoon vampire in a nod to one of her favorite shows. When it arrived and she actually saw the garment, she said, “Oh, it looks cute, but I think it’s going to be way too big on me.”

As it turns out, it wasn’t too big. In fact, it fit perfectly. She was not amused by this revelation. And paradoxically enough, adding to her annoyance was the fact that the T-shirt looks really good on her.

Adventures with changing bodies are but one of the many aspects of marriage that remind us that long-term relationships are a dynamic reality. Bodies are also an aspect of existence that, for Catholics, keeps marriage sacramental. If sacraments are physical signs of God’s grace in our daily lives, then embodied living in which you define your existence by its close proximity to the body of another “till death” provides all kinds of opportunities for sacramental living. Because we do all kinds of things in and with our bodies.

Hanging a picture together can be a ritual. Even more so is a routine like bringing up the streaming service with the show you’re currently watching once the kids have gone to bed. Enjoyment of favorite meals together—already explicitly sacramental in the Eucharist—means finding enjoyment of God’s edible creation, whether on wing night or taco night. We fully admit that both of these meal selections are habits we have formed, for better or worse.


It’s also very Catholic for rituals to become habit. Theologians from Thomas Aquinas to Beth Haile have posited that virtues are basically good behaviors that have become habits. They can help position us to fall very deeply in love—whether with God or another human—by letting the encounters with these rituals nourish us and shape us, like so many drops of water on a stone, moment to moment, year to year.

The practical effect is a mirror dynamic in which we learn about God and our partner by viewing each through the prism of the other. While God is eternal, God too is a dynamic mystery—alive and changing like the flame of a candle or the torrents of a river.

The risk involved with habit, of course, is that something becomes mundane or taken for granted. And again, in our practice of how we relate to the divine or a human partner, we can drift farther apart without even realizing it. Why do I not feel the closeness I did before? Why do I feel like I no longer know what’s going on with them or what makes them tick? When is the last time I really made time for this relationship?

Growth plays out over time and often in different directions. It takes intentionality to keep the lights of a relationship in view. People are always changing, always keeping parts of ourselves from view. There’s a vaguely arrogant country rock song by Michael Nesmith (this description doesn’t narrow it down, I realize) in which the former member of the Monkees laments, “The image of you wasn’t clear. I guess I’ve been standing too near.” Keeping perspective is a real challenge.


Relational perspective can be warped in more problematic ways. Fear of rejection and judgment can be deeply set anxieties that impede us in how candidly we relate to both God and partner, in terms of how much of ourselves we share and truly let them in. We run the risk of making the mental version of our “other” some kind of monster, which is especially tragic when the person who wants to be let in has nothing but love and healing acceptance to offer. Learning to grow in comfort, reassurance, and, ultimately, trust is also a habit that can stretch formidably over a lifetime.

In the meditative practice of eye gazing, two people contemplate each other’s faces up close and still for a length of time. It’s not uncommon, in the duration of the practice, for the appearance of the other’s face to seemingly change, almost psychedelically, like multiple ages and states of life converging in one moment. This phenomenon isn’t resisted, but instead embraced as part of the experience. This would be a radical posture to put in place as we contemplate God and partner: What growth and change are already occurring that I need to embrace more intentionally, even vigorously?

What is no longer serving us? Where are you inviting me now? Talk about waking up from fearing change and clinging to the present version of reality.

Sacramental marriage is not for the faint of heart. It’s wild to think of being in close proximity to another finite person for decades at a time and just being kind of expected to figure it out. Truly opening our lives to a great other—human or divine—is like having a glacier carve across the landscapes of our hearts, bulldozing the hills of our smug, self-satisfied, and staid ways of being ourselves and creating openings for newness and rebirth.


And that is an adventure worth welcoming. “What kind of creative thing could God be calling me to today?” is the frame Jana Bennett, professor of religious studies at the University of Dayton, employs to describe life lived out in the Spirit. It’s far removed from how many people approach their daily lives, their relationships with God, and their marriages. It is all an ever-expanding universe.

The one sentence I remember from the homily at my own wedding is, “They believe their love can save the world.” (We had picked the “unknowingly entertained angels” reading.) But the transformation we seek isn’t all beyond ourselves. In fact, it begins with ourselves and the other. And this journey has unfolded in ways that are ever deepening, often surprising, ever a source of new zest and excitement. As with an adventurous relationship with God, there doesn’t seem to be a ceiling to returns on this worthwhile investment.

As we age, we discover new depths wrapped up within ourselves. We also have periods of not checking in with ourselves and struggling to see our own light. In all of it, someone who has been with us all this time can offer the perspective we need to find our way and flourish on the journey. They see us with the care and delight that God has for us. And likewise, our concept of having a great “other” in our lives is ever dynamic, maturing, and even expanding.

Unlike our 20-something selves, our bodies now need those extra layers of warmth and padding to protect us from a world whose harshness and wrongheadedness sometimes seem like its only constants. But at least we have each other as we continue to grow and expand in our perception of what that means. Like that too big T-shirt suddenly fitting perfectly, expansion is kind of inevitable. And far from dreading it, it should be something we embrace, rejoice in, and allow to exceed our wildest expectations.


This article also appears in the June 2024 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 89, No. 6, pages 43-44). Click here to subscribe to the magazine.

Image: Unsplash/Krists Luhaers


About the author

Don Clemmer

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