Breda O’Brien’s testimony for IEC2012

12 Jun 2012

Marriage and Family; personal testimony – Breda O’Brien, IEC2012

Good afternoon, everyone. When I was asked to speak at the Congress, I was both deeply honoured and deeply terrified. I have never missed a deadline for my Irish Times column, including a time where I finished one between contractions when I was in labour with my last child. Yet the deadline to submit this speech sailed by, and I was still stuck in front of a blank screen, unable to write a word.

Instead, scenes from my past life would flash across my mind, much as they say happens to drowning people.  I remembered the time years ago when my three year old stomped up the aisle of the church, ignoring my frantic efforts to hush him, as he loudly proclaimed, ‘Mass is rubbish! Mass is rubbish!’ in time with every step. As he stomped, I thought  I could see thought bubbles – you know the ones in the cartoons?- appearing over the heads of the parishioners. In my imagination, they said things like, ’I blame the parents.’

Or the time one of my children decided to ask, ‘Mammy, what’s a nun? I don’t know what a nun is?’ as I was chatting to my dear friend Sr Rita. I had been teaching in a Dominican Sisters’ school for years, but had rather neglected the  obvious at home, it appears.

But even those incidents were harmless in comparison to the time my children cheerfully told a visitor that they had a name for when I was in a bad mood. They called them my ‘hawk on pigeon’ moments. My little children were the pigeons, and I was the hawk. Yes, that swift moving predatory bird that tends to leave a lot of blood and feathers in its wake. The visitor looked stunned, and tried saying something polite which would excuse me, but they all chorused, ‘Oh no. She really is a hawk on pigeons.’

So you can see that I might have had just a touch of writer’s block when writing a personal testimony on the topic of communion with Christ and one another.

Then the block cleared, and I realised that I was in the perfect position to talk to you about the messiness of family life, the profound imperfection of it all, and yet the wonderful joy that manages to sneak in despite all the mess.

We all come from families, and it is there that we learn to love, however imperfectly.  I know that some of my single friends feel left out by the Catholic emphasis on marriage, but we are all members of families, and single people can be extraordinarily important in family structures. I remember my own aunt Kathleen, who was single. She was a still point in a turning world for the rest of us.

She was someone who had time for everyone, who always knew what every member of our far flung family was doing. She was a reminder to look outside the narrow frame of the nuclear family, because her lively interest in people was matched by her lively interest in the world. She had a quiet, sustaining faith, which reminded me of the saying often attributed to St Francis: “Preach the Gospel always, and if necessary, use words.”

I think of parishes, which are often deeply dependent on the work of single people.  And I know some single people who do not even believe that there is any such thing as a vocation to the single life, but give witness to the value of the single life by  the creative and helpful way in which they live their lives.

One of the great innovations of the early Christian church was the honour given to single people, and to the widowed.  In ancient cultures, it was a disgrace for a woman not to be married, and widows were encouraged to re-marry as soon as possible. But the Christian religion said no, single people have a vocation too, and marriage is not the only way to serve.

However, my own vocation is as a wife and mother, so I feel qualified to say that we mothers can be strange and puzzling creatures.

One day, I was in a car next to a cycle lane. The commuter traffic was moving so slowly I was able to observe a mother on a bike for quite a few moments. She was cycling to school with three little children, but she was cycling in a way I couldn’t quite figure out.

She wasn’t doing anything dangerous, but she was speeding up and slowing down in an unpredictable fashion. The best way I can describe it is that she was attempting to use her bicycle as a hovercraft.  She was hovering on a bicycle.

But then what she was doing hit me. She was attempting to keep her body at all times between her children and any threat from the traffic. You have heard of being willing to take a bullet for someone? This mother was willing to have her body broken by a car, rather than see any of her little ducklings harmed.

Now, I’m sure an evolutionary biologist would nod sagely and say that it was an instinctive evolutionary behaviour designed to improve the chances of genes being successfully passed on. I don’t know about you, but to me, it looked a lot like love. In fact, being willing to have your body broken to protect your children looks a lot to me like the love of God.

And yet, that same mother probably has her ‘hawk on pigeon’ moments, too, in spite of all her love.  That is part of the reality of family life.  Being willing to have your body broken rather than have your children harmed is an image of the love of God, but God doesn’t leave us when we are less exemplary.

In fact, something which I have clung to with great tenacity over the years is the saying that ‘a good family is not where bad things never happen. Good families are where, when bad things happen, they are handled well.’

To that I would add, that handling things goes best when we reach out like little children for the grace of God, conscious of our own inability to ‘fix’ anything.

In our family, the kitchen table is very important. The moment when each child left the highchair and joined the rest of us was a great moment. It is there that we learn to listen,  and to forgive and be forgiven. It is there that we are nourished, body and soul. It is there that we learn to be thankful, and to give thanks for all we have. In that way, it is the place where we first learn the meaning of Eucharist, of Christ present in our midst.  If we want to re-learn the value of the Eucharist, perhaps we also need to re-learn the value of the kitchen table and the family meal.

God is present when people are squabbling, and irritable with each other. He is present when someone is moaning about having to do eevveerryything in the house because they have the meanest mother in the world.  He is also present when we are helpless with laughter around the dinner table, or sitting in a tearful huddle because a much loved family member has died. He is there as we eat yet another delicious meal prepared by my husband, have a long discussion about religion, politics and who is the best companion in Dr Who, and when there is the ritual fight over who is sneaking out of the kitchen to avoid the washing up.

A marriage is not a moment. It is a lifetime, where every day you try to live up to the promise which you made, a promise so impossible that it forces us to stop relying on our own resources, and reach out for the grace of God in prayer.

Marriage is a sacrament in which the spouses are the ministers of the sacrament, and  where the priest functions as a witness. The marriage stems from the moment when true and free consent is given, the promise to love each other freely and for ever, and to welcome any children that God may send.

As the Catechism of the Catholic Church says, ‘spouses .. seal their consent to give themselves to each other through the offering of their own lives by uniting it to the offering of Christ for his Church made present in the Eucharistic sacrifice. (Catechism, #1 621).

I am blessed in my husband, Brendan. He is utterly supportive of us as a family, working full time in the home, and also home educating our four children, Ben, Robyn, Eva and Matthias.  He also works really hard in the parish, and is involved very much with others in the family mass, attempting to make our parish a warm and nurturing place.

More because of him than of me, there has always been a link between our family life and the Eucharist. Our week flows into what happens on Sunday, and what happens on Sunday flows into what happens in the week.

But there is a deeper way in which our marriage is supposed to also reflect the Eucharist. Catholicism is an earthy religion, that sees bodies as blessed and good. James Joyce has a character, Mr Duffy, who lives a short distance from his body – in short, mostly in his head, and scarcely at all in his body and his heart.

But Catholics are not supposed to live at a short distance from our bodies, but to fully inhabit them, and allow them to be signs and symbols of the love of God.

As we become one in body, we are somehow becoming one with God, and taking part in his creative and loving energy. It seems impossible, even shocking, but as expressed in the scriptures, and developed in Blessed John Paul’s writings, “Man became the “image and likeness” of God not only through his own humanity, but also through the communion of persons which man and woman form right from the beginning.”

Does this require some kind of perfection? Absolutely not. Only God is perfect. And marriage will makes you steadily more aware of your own imperfections. I often think that marriage is like one of those three way mirrors, you know the ones in brightly lit changing rooms in clothes shops, where you can see all your flaws from three angles? Or maybe that particular analogy only speaks to women?

The closer you are to the person you love, the better they know you, so all the little evasions, the little fudges that you perpetrate, are reflected back to you. All the hurts you cause the other person become clearer and clearer to you in that unrelenting mirror.

It would be a counsel for despair if it were not for the reality of love.  I’m talking tough, unsentimental love. Passion and romance are brilliant, and I’m all in favour of keeping both alive.

In spite of exhaustion, overwork and general stress, Brendan and I have always tried to keep romance in our marriage.  But love, real love, messy, real love, is what helps marriages to survive and thrive.

It is often said that the modern world is lacking in idealism when it comes to marriage. It is my contention that the modern world is full of a dangerous kind of naivete when it comes to marriage, which does more damage than any amount of cynicism.

There is a mythology out there of THE ONE, the one who is your perfect soulmate, who will meet all your needs, and fulfil all that you are looking for.  Is it any wonder that people hedge their bets, and are slow to commit, if this unrealisable ideal is their idea of marriage? Is it any wonder that people are so quick to conclude that it isn’t working out, if that is what they expect marriage to be?

The mythology of ‘the one’ is like that of a fairytale, where the hero and the princess overcome obstacles to find the perfect mate, and live happily ever after.  Perhaps it is unsurprising that  fairytales end with the wedding.  Nor is it a coincidence that despite the fact that so many more people live together before getting married, that the wedding day has assumed huge significance in our culture.

The wedding, that fairytale event, has become more of a focus than the marriage. Saving up for the fairytale day is sometimes even the reason given for delaying the wedding.

More and more people are shocked to discover that contrary to conventional wisdom, living together doesn’t increase your chances of happiness in marriage.

In fact, it tends to have a damaging effect. Social scientists think that it may be because some people who live together ‘slide’ into marriage, rather than ever actively making a decision, a choice to love this person, this person only, this person always.  It becomes something inevitable after living together for a certain time, rather than a free choice.

As married people, we need to be more honest about the reality of marriage, that it is tough, and hard work. It is also incredibly fulfilling, but in the way that anything tough is fulfilling, like falling across the line having run a marathon. Not that I would know anything about running marathons, you understand.

The sacred host is broken at mass, both as a symbol of sharing, and of the brokenness of the world. We are broken people, but our brokenness allows space for the grace of God to enter in, and the compassion forged by being so weak and imperfect allows us to forgive ourselves and others.  We are blessed, broken, and given for each other.

The community dimension of marriage is vitally important. The Second Vatican Council reminds us that the marriage covenant exists not only for the good of the partners and their children, but also for the good of the Church and the good of society at large. (see Church in the Modern World, #48).

The modern mythology of marriage centres on two people. But marriage is not just about two people. It’s about two families, with their histories, weakness and strengths. It’s about community, and society. Its the amount of support your society and state is willing to give your marriage, about whether they value it as a bedrock of society, or just see it as one lifestyle choice among many. It’s about living out values that are good for society as a whole, that model a way of life that is not consumerist, but based on the intrinsic value of each human being as someone loved by God. It’s about care for creation, for the wonderful world which God gave to us, and which we so often damage and exploit, rather than steward.

Marriage is both wonderful, and very hard work. If you let it, it will burn every grain of selfishness out of you. If you are blessed with children, you will, like Alice Thomas Ellis once wrote, discover unconditional love for the first time.

And rearing kids is hard work, and the mistakes that you make haunt you. Mind you, it can also bind you together as a couple. I remember being staggery with exhaustion in the months after my first child was born, to the extent I forgot my own name. Not metaphorically, but literally. I was in a shop, and they did not have what I wanted, and the helpful shop assistant said that she would order it for me, if I gave her my name and details.

I stared at her, completely blank. I had no idea what my name was. But in some kind of parable about marriage, I could remember my husband’s, so I turned to him, and asked, ‘Brendan, what’s my name? ‘ He didn’t bat an eyelid, as if it were perfectly normal to forget your own name, and told me, ‘It’s Breda O’Brien.’  I turned back to the shop assistant, who quickly shut her mouth, which had been hanging open in shock, with an audible snap.

Children may make you lose your memory, but they also make you grow. Their helplessness evokes protectiveness, and a vulnerability to pain on their behalf which I could never have imagined before I had them.

I often think of Mary, and Simeon saying to her when her little baby still so tiny, ‘Your own soul a sword shall pierce.’  I think of her when I hear of a child dead by suicide, or speak to a mother out of her mind with worry over a child who is not eating, or a grandmother who is heartbroken because neither her children nor her grandchildren are attending Mass, and none of them seem to miss it.

There is so much brokenness in the world, but in that brokenness, so much beauty, so much love. Bread broken is bread shared, a communion with the body of Christ.

And what about those who try and try, but whose marriages fail in spite of them? They, too, are experiencing brokenness, and they need a community to help them, and support them.

Perhaps, though, in a society where we were more real about marriage and its demands, and more willing to mentor young couples,  we would have less breakdown. Our parishes and homes should be places of welcome in the way that Jesus welcomed, and he spent a lot of time ‘hanging out’ with people who did not meet with society’s approval.

Every marriage has a honeymoon period. Then, you begin to realise all the ways in which your spouse is imperfect and perhaps even selfish. Unfortunately, they are realising the same about you, but your faults are not quite so clear to you as they are to them.

So you have a couple of choices. You can walk away. You can stay, but never really deal with the revelations. You just work around them, lower your expectations, and settle for a humdrum existence. Or you can decide that you are going to make your overcoming your  own selfishness your first priority, and pray daily for grace to achieve that goal.  If both people work on that – their own selfishness, then you begin to have a marriage made in heaven.

And there is a reward. It never fails to amaze me that despite my ‘hawk on pigeon’ moments, my children love me to pieces and tell me so regularly.  But I guess that children’s hearts are always inclined to love, no matter what we are like.

Married love is different. It is more of a choice. When someone says ‘I love you’, when you’re young and pretty, and good company, that’s nice.  When someone says ‘I love you’, long after the time when bus drivers and waiters no longer flirt with you, when he has seen you at your worst, at times when you have been cutting, and sometimes savage with him, when he knows you inside out, including that you snore like a distressed seal, when in spite of all that, the person you married still looks at you, and says, ‘I love you,’ then you are getting as close to the love of God as you are likely to get in this life.

Thank you.