Common Wisdom: After 25 Years

There we stood on the steps of St. Mary’s Catholic Church, all five of us, having our picture taken. Twenty-five years before there had been only two of us, bride and groom. Now three nearly-grown children joined us. Twenty-five years ago a Sears store had been across New Jersey Street from St. Mary’s, and so we referred to the church as St. Mary’s-by-Sears. Today Sears is gone, replaced by O’Malia’s grocery—hence, St. Mary’s-by-O’Malia’s.

Twenty-five years ago St. Mary’s, a church modeled after the Cologne cathedral, was surrounded by a downtown Indianapolis neighborhood grown seedy and shabby. My mother, mortified that my groom and I would choose to be married in such a setting, came to tears over having a wedding in a church “next to the red light district.” It was hard enough that the site would not be the familiar Methodist church of my childhood; to invite wedding guests to celebrate in a crumbling and even scandalous neighborhood was too much. Our protestations that renovation was beginning in the Lockerbie area around the church did not soothe my mother. Not until her Catholic friend Mary Catherine called and assured her that the pastor, Msgr. Victor Goossens, was a man beloved and respected in the Catholic community did my mother, putting down the receiver, break into relieved smiles and carol, “Well, I guess it will be all right after all to have the wedding at St. Mary’s.”

Today the Lockerbie neighborhood is choice real estate, a charmingly restored thicket of cottages in the middle of which stands the James Whitcomb Riley home. St. Mary’s at the edge of the neighborhood is the Indianapolis landmark it has always been, ministering now, as 25 years ago, to downtown residents of all economic means.

St. Mary’s Church, both in its interior and exterior, has changed far less than the characters in the scene on that wedding day 25 years ago. St. Mary’s Church still stands, but an astonishing number of those present on that Saturday just after Thanksgiving are now dead. Msgr. Goossens died at least a decade ago. My maid-of-honor died seven years ago, my father-in-law a dozen years ago, my aunt 20 years ago. The list goes on. They were all with us that day, smiling, shaking hands, planting a kiss on my cheek as they filed past. Then they moved on, that cloud of witnesses, to more pressing concerns of which we yet know not.

Those of us who remain have also changed. Twenty-five years is the difference between youth and middle age, or between middle age and old age. When I met my husband I was just 21, the present age of our oldest child. When my husband and I married, my mother was a year younger than my husband now is.

But the even greater change in the scene on the church steps is the addition of three new characters who 25 years ago did not exist, three children without whom we could not imagine any life at all. Our extended family, too, is filled with new characters. If a wedding were being held today, many young faces would dot the pews—nieces and nephews and cousins whom no one dreamed of a quarter of a century ago. What a great relief it is, what a sign of hope, that these new faces keep appearing, replacing those who have faded from the picture into a mist beyond us. As in Thornton Wilder’s play, The Long Christmas Dinner, the liturgy of life’s banquet goes on and on. The dinner does not end; a character only comes in, sits down, eats, grows old, and moves quietly out a rear door, just as another character comes in and takes his place at the table.

I take comfort in this continuing but changing scene. If it means that undeniably the faces of the bride and groom in the wedding photo have advanced inexorably from youthful to middle-aged and will one day—sooner than we think—startle us by looking old, it also means that obviously we are not the ones in charge of the drama. It does not depend entirely on us. We realize, rather to our humility, that if we come on stage, we also must eventually go off. And yet the master plan appears to require that we must indeed come on and play our part. If we refuse, the drama falters; unless we come, the characters who will come after us remain waiting in the wings.

When a couple have been married 25 years, the marriage seems to have been on stage a long time. Yet the very rapidity with which those years have sped by proves that the marriage of a couple who live long into old age is still only a tiny moment in God’s scheme of history. When my husband and I were first married, we spun romantic dreams of both living long enough to be married 70 years. We even had the phrase “70 years” inscribed inside our wedding rings. And even now, firmly middle-aged, we are still romantic enough to hope that we might live long enough to celebrate our seventieth anniversary. Even so, knowing more now about the frailties of the human body, we are realistic about the long shot of the two of us living to be, respectively, 99 and 93. It so happens we do, however, know of a wonderful old couple who lived just short of their seventy-second anniversary. And lately the wife died, leaving her husband to weep over staying behind for the moment. The morning does come—after all those days and months and years of giving thanks and nodding off together under the Amish coverlet—when one wakes up and discovers that one’s mate has gone on where, for the first time, it is impossible yet to follow.

When a couple have been married 25 years, they realize that even the longest and happiest union is subject to the limits imposed by death. It is as if they have been walking together on a long, uphill journey. The incline, however, has been so gradual that they have not noticed any special exertion. Their responsibilities along the way—children, family, work, and so on—have distracted them from awareness of their expenditure of energy. But suddenly they find themselves at the summit of their mountain. They are able to peer out and see the other side—a long, gradual slope sweeping down to a valley hidden in mist. It is a shock to glimpse the other half of life, when for so long they were journeying toward the middle. The second half always ends in death, and that stark, inescapable fact wakes them up. They look at each other and see not their mate for an hour or a day or a year or two but the one with whom they will go to the death.

Somewhere in their late forties, it seems to me, people acquire a new metaphysic—that is, they begin to realize that death happens not only to other people but will happen to them, too. As they could not when they were younger, they now actually picture the time when they will lie on their deathbed. Thus they sense a greater urgency to identify the things in their life that will not die.

Of those things that do not die the greatest is love, and, surely, second only after God’s love of us and our love of Him is married love and its natural extension, the love of children. The young couple vowing to love eternally fling themselves beyond the boundaries of time and space. The limits of finite flesh are broken by that one pledge of a permanent, unbreakable vow, by which the newlyweds become channels of God’s grace. The young couple vowing permanence become the mother and father whose love spills outward into the world. And the love of parents and children becomes the bond that knits together generations living and dead. Marriage after marriage after marriage link our race; one after another couples enter as guests at the table, take their places, then leave to make way for others.

One need only visit the cemetery to learn that the Lord chose marriage as the vehicle to move history along. The men and women of one generation have loved, borne children, and given up their lives so that other loves and lives might take their place. By marriage are grandfathers linked to grandsons; by marriage are grandmothers bonded to granddaughters. From one vow to love forever comes a fruitful olive tree of generations. From one vow to love forever comes a civilization.

When we were newlyweds, my husband and I spent a great deal of time, as young lovers do, talking about what our love meant. Now we are middle-aged lovers, and we scarcely talk about that. After all these years, considering the intricate network of experience, layer upon layer, that binds us together, it seems vacuous and singularly unsatisfying to try to explain 25 years. Gratitude, rather than words of explanation, seems a more adequate response. We are content in the belief that these 25 years have been providential and are part of God’s plan of grace.

This gratitude that wells up day after day finds expression most of all in the Mass, the fundament of 25 years. The very fabric of our life weaves around the Eucharist, so naturally that the days and years seem a procession of Masses—ordinary daily Masses and special occasion Masses; baptisms, weddings, funerals, graduations, anniversaries; Masses in our parish church; Masses in our home; Masses in cathedrals, country churches, and college chapels; Masses in monasteries, religious houses, and high school gyms; Masses wherever we have traveled. Only the Mass, the mark and measure of our journey together, incorporates and sums up the ebb and flow of our pilgrimage. Only the Eucharist can encompass the mystery of why two people are brought together in marriage, given children and an indissoluble mission to solder the links between those who have gone before and those who will come after.

By

Mrs. Anne Husted Burleigh is a free-lance writer, mother, and grandmother who lives on a farm overlooking the Ohio River in Rabbit Hash, Kentucky, near Cincinnati. She has written two books: John Adams, a Biography, and Journey up the River: a Midwesterner’s Spiritual Pilgrimage. She has contributed to many publications, including Crisis and Catholic Dossier, and now writes for Magnificat.

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