On a recent Sunday, we were blessed with the chance to attend a Special Needs Mass at the high school in which we teach and do campus ministry. Once a quarter, families with children who have developmental and physical disabilities, as well as anyone from the community, gather together to pray in an environment that is welcoming and understanding to those who are “differently abled”. The congregation included men, women, and children with Down’s syndrome, autism, deafness, cerebral palsy, and a myriad of other handicaps. It became clear that these conditions were seen not as limitations on the person, but as gifts that made them unique and wonderful. As Mass began, an announcement was made reminding the congregation, “We are a welcoming community to all. Pacing, noises, and sounds are a part of this liturgy. Thank you for joining us today.”
The Mass was beautiful, from start to finish. There were no observant eyes measuring up what people were wearing, no disdainful glances if a phrase was flip-flopped during the Gloria, and certainly no judgments on the state of your eternal soul if you dared to smile or chuckle at some point in the Mass. The only rule, it seemed, was to be freely and fully yourself, and worship God as such. This loving, accepting, joyful Mass, and the community in attendance, gave us a free lesson of what a healthy marriage should look like.
In our relationship, both when we were first dating and now as we are engaged and preparing for marriage, we have discovered that we are both very happy with how we live day to day, convinced that our way is the best way to do things. We are each so convinced of this fact that occasionally one of us will say or do something that attempts to convince the other to do what we want to do and abandon their set pattern or method. Not surprisingly, this can cause a bit of friction and frustration, which doesn’t make any sense, because clearly my way is the best way (at least, that’s what we’re both thinking).
This occasional tension and moderate frustration is a natural and universal occurrence in a relationship, and it’s something we’re learning to live with and work through as we prepare for marriage. It happens, of course, because the two of us are in the process of uniting our lives. We are coming to discover and learn each other in more complete ways, in both small and big matters. And sometimes we are shocked by and bristle against each other’s different ways of doing things. It’s completely normal and totally natural, but still surprising every time. Why is that? Why do we, or any other couple, struggle with the idea that someone else might do or say something differently? Why have we judged or questioned each other, or even attempted to stifle what the other person does?
One of our favorite TV shows is Boy Meets World, a teen sitcom we both grew up watching that tells the story of Cory Matthews as he grows up in Pennsylvania with his family, best friend Shawn, and girlfriend Topanga. There’s a great episode where Topanga spends Christmas with Cory’s family for the first time since their engagement. Topanga keeps trying to infuse her own traditions and ways of doing various things into Cory’s family’s holiday. At the height of his frustration, at 3 o’clock in the morning, Cory goes downstairs to try and make sense of how angry he is with Topanga and how nervous he is that merging their lives is this difficult. His father is also sitting downstairs, awake because Cory’s mom had woken him up to talk through her own issues. As father and son commiserate, Cory’s dad turns the proverbial light bulb on about the struggle Cory was having with the differences in their relationship by saying, “So the moment you start to think that she’s you, you find out that she’s her.” That moment was a turning point for Cory and Topanga in the show because they began to realize that there was great freedom and joy when they were each fully and completely themselves, without fear of being controlled, judged, or changed by each other.
At the Special Needs Mass, we were able to witness firsthand what it’s like to see that kind of love lived out in a community. We were witnesses to perhaps one of the most beautiful Masses either of us had ever experienced. People who struggle to remain seated or sit still were able to pace around and move in their seats. Men and women who express themselves with gestures and sounds were able to freely move their arms and cry out. At the moment when the priest raised the Consecrated Host and said, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, happy are those called to the supper of the Lamb,” a young boy behind us joyfully shouted “Thank you!” before continuing to rock back and forth. It was a Eucharistic Celebration where every single person in the room was able to move, act, walk, gesture, and speak without fear of being shushed, ushered out, or looked at with eyes of judgment and disapproval. It was a welcoming Sacrament, and it epitomized what we hope our relationship and marriage will be.
As we ate lunch after Mass that Sunday, we started to ask ourselves a few hard questions: How often have we attempted to project our own way onto each other? How often have we judged each other in our relationship, both in small things and on bigger matters? How frequently have we attempted to “quell the others’ personality” or “fix this or that” just so that we can have it our own way? As we asked each other these questions, the answer to all of them was the same: we struggle with selfishness and pride and have not seen each other with eyes of full, loving, joyful acceptance, in both matters big and small. We had struggled to extend the same courtesy of being “welcoming and accepting” to each other that was so freely given to the attendees of the Special Needs Mass earlier that day.
In Matrimony, we will be sacramentally united. Two different people, with different upbringings, traditions, routines, and ideas will become dependent on and united to one another, and in that union, we are coming to fully see each other and accept each other in all manner of situations and scenarios. Not Katie trying to re-create Tommy in her own image, or Tommy trying to re-create Katie in his. We are beginning to more fully see and accept each other on all sorts of things, from how to do the laundry to when to wash the dishes to how we’ll discipline children. We are coming to fully see and accept each other on how we show affection, how we fight in an argument, and how we enjoy relaxing. All of this will require compromise and lots of patience, frequent sacrifice and even more frequent joyful acceptance. In the process of joining our lives, and as we have begun to learn what we each uniquely do both at work, home, in prayer, with our families, and in social situations, we are coming to love the things that make us different from one another. Learning about our differences, oddities, routines, and the “set in our way” methods are forcing us each to grow further and sacrifice more frequently, which in turn means our love for one another is deepening each day. When we allow each other to live and act and speak and “be themselves,” we are happier, more joyful, more united, and even more ready to get married. We’ve started to realize that we must give the same welcoming acceptance of each other that was given to the differently abled and special needs people at that Mass. In marriage, we are being called to see the beauty of the other as they are and allow them to freely be themselves without fear of judgment or critique We experienced a beautiful example of this at the Special Needs Mass, one that will hopefully guide us as we continue to prepare for our Sacrament.