In 1964, when I was nine years old and my little sister was four, our family lived in Eagle River, Alaska, a small town near Anchorage. My parents decided to drive nearly 4,000 miles to Memphis, Tennessee, to spend Christmas with my father’s family. A few years earlier, we had driven the Alcan highway in summer to visit family in the “lower 48.” Even that had been quite an adventure, as the highway only had a few hundred miles of paved road back then. This time, however, we were headed south in frigid 30 to 40 degrees below zero weather.
Near the Teslin River in Yukon Territory, my mother suddenly became silent and we eventually noticed she had become unconscious, her head slumped over. Sitting in the back seat next to my sister, I remember screaming that I couldn’t wake her up, while my father tried to control the car with one hand and frantically shook my mother with the other. After what seemed like forever, he pulled the car into a nearby lodge parking lot and ran into the business for help. I stayed with my mother and prayed.
The Alcan highway, especially in those early years, was full of blind corners, unknown obstacles, detours, and many unforeseen hazards. You had to make a list of needed items and plan for all contingencies, as there were many long stretches of highway with few possibilities for help. Diligent and conscientious planning and preparation was necessary or failure--and failure meant life-threatening under those conditions--was almost certain. Thanks to my father’s quick thinking, the lodge owner’s help, and God’s grace, my mother survived that day and so did our family.
Marriage is another adventure that requires significant preparation to survive and thrive over time. As the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops says on its website, “The important thing for engaged couples to keep in mind as they check numerous items off their pre-wedding ‘to-do’ list is the well-known adage, ‘Your wedding lasts a day, but your marriage lasts a lifetime.’” Our Church encourages engaged couples to thoughtfully invest in preparing for their married life. Because contrary to Hollywood’s superficial and exclusively positive depiction of marriage, every married couple will experience disappointments, mishaps, tough times, twists and turns, and valleys along the way.
The Church, thankfully, is ready to help us get ready for this journey. While every parish and priest may have a little different “checklist” and timetable for engaged couples to spiritually prepare for marriage, every faith community has people willing to dedicate time, prayers, and resources to marriage preparation. To benefit, couples must only be willing to take advantage of these resources and be open to following God on this holy highway.
The fact is, couples don’t start to prepare for the all-important trip that is marriage the day they get engaged or even when they call the parish about marriage prep. Catholics actually start preparing for a holy marriage at baptism, when we join the body of Christ.
As we grow and mature, we form own consciences and spiritual lives. Saying “Yes” to God along the way actually helps prepare us for the vocation of marriage...saying “Yes” to loving God and others…to following the high road when making moral decisions...to donating time and resources to family and community...to faithfully stewarding our own bodies and talents...to being faithful, caring, compassionate, and forgiving in our relationships...with Jesus as our model, we have already said “Yes” to God in so many important ways! And those decisions were preparing us for happy and holy marriages.
From my early trips as a child to the many others I’ve taken later in life, I’ve been blessed to travel the Alcan Highway in all seasons, marveling at the vistas, rivers, mountains, and wildlife. I was blessed by the natural beauty that reflects the glory of God. I’ve been married through many seasons of life, too, and that sacrament has brought a different sort of truth, beauty, and goodness into my soul. Fifty years ago, Pope Paul VI issued his beautiful encyclical on marriage, Humanae Vitae, whose truth still resonates today:
“This love is first of all fully human, that is to say, of the senses and of the spirit at the same time. It is not, then, a simple transport of instinct and sentiment, but also, and principally, an act of the free will, intended to endure and to grow by means of the joy and sorrow of daily life, in such a life in such a way that husband and wife become one heart and one only soul, and together attain their human perfection” (Humanae Vitae, 9).
As we begin or continue in our marriages, may our valley of sorrows be ever so shallow and our peaks and vistas of joy be constant, as we continue to say “Yes!” to God through Jesus.
Incidentally, my mother did not die that fateful day as I was crying and praying in the back seat of our speeding car on the Alaska Highway. Upon reaching the lodge, my father rallied the owner, who drove them to the hospital. My mother stayed in the hospital for two weeks while healing from an almost fatal ruptured cyst. In the meantime, my sister and I--who were quite young and had never flown before--nervously boarded a plane in Whitehorse that took us to Memphis, where we spent Christmas with our grandparents.
For Further Reading:
Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul VI, 1968
Love of the Bridegroom and Bride, Saint Bernard of Clairvaux