Photo above: Ben and Chrissie Carleton are pictured with their children Julianna, Justin, and Gemma on the day of Julianna’s Confirmation and First Holy Communion.
By Ben and Chrissie Carleton
“Now we must help each other to get to Heaven.” These are the beautiful words of Blessed Karl of Austria to his fiancée the night before their holy wedding. I can’t think of a better way to summarize what marriage means to my husband and I than by this powerful quote! Our own marriage story started nearly thirteen years ago when we were just 21 years old. The ups and downs of life that have since followed set us on a glorious path to finding true love, unity, and sanctification through mutual sacrifice and shared love of God.
With the secularization and even abasement of marriage in our poor society, the truth that marriage is first and foremost a holy sacrament of the Church has been all but lost. I, being steeped in this sad culture and receiving meager marriage preparation, certainly felt underprepared and even blindsided by how difficult marriage can be, especially in the first couple years. Yes, we experienced the highs of new, exciting adventures together, but we also endured the lows of angry, drawn-out fights that left us both with regrets. Needless to say, the building blocks for holiness weren’t necessarily there for me.
Looking back on those first years of marriage something was missing. We were in love, but not with a sacrificial love. We had life goals, but not with unifying or sanctifying ends. We were living together, but not in a way that builds up a domestic church. There are so many things that were just good, but not great.
When I became pregnant with our first child and soon lost her to miscarriage, I became an emotional wreck of wild emotions. I learned very quickly that I wasn’t so independent after all. My pride was slowly chipped away by the grieving process and soon by the intense emotions of a subsequent pregnancy. I realized that I had to make a very difficult act of humility and allow my husband to simply BE my husband. That is what God intends in holy marriage: that a husband is to protect, cherish, and support his wife in the beautiful way that only a husband can do. When I allowed my husband to do this and to be the head of the family as God ordained, my anxieties stemming from stubbornly doing everything myself and my way began to slowly disappear. This immediately started to deepen our union and mutual respect and began to sanctify our budding family. What a grace of peace it is to finally surrender one’s pride to the will of God!
As we grew in holy union through the nine months of my second pregnancy, we began approaching the sacraments of Holy Eucharist and Confession more often, and, with that, a whole new realm of unity and love was opened to us! Because marriage is a sacrament, we as spouses were equipped from the start with the graces necessary to make it holy, but we hadn’t been making the conscious effort to allow that sacramental grace into our lives. For me, it has taken years of falling and rising to allow that grace to fully encircle and steep my soul, and some days it is still a difficult process.
This channel of marital grace has taught me how to truly love my spouse and children. I have learned how to love with a sacrificial love: a love of total self-giving. It is the same love that Christ exudes when he sacrificed Himself on the Cross for us, and it is the mutual, intimate Love shared by the three divine Persons of the Holy Trinity. What a profound mystery to imitate!
As our beautiful children grow and become the age of reason, the lofty task of educating them in our faith has also brought us closer together as spouses, as a family, and as a domestic church. The biggest truth we are set on teaching them is to love God above all by encountering Him in the holy sacraments of His Church. We have learned that once this is achieved, all else falls into place.
God willing, we will continue to keep the sacraments as the backbone of our domestic church and marriage, and in doing so, advance our souls to their Eternal Reward! Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, we place our trust in You! Our Lady, pure and holy mother, pray for us. Saint Joseph, guardian of the Holy Family, pray for us.
“What do want to be when you grow up?” Those words are not attributable to any single person, but permeate the very air surrounding young men and women coming into full adulthood. When I consider my younger self, I count myself as no exception among those who, despite the goodhearted intentions of those who ask, unwittingly embraced an implied self-centeredness in that question. After all, was I not taught to put my own education and work opportunities first before others? Was I not constantly encouraged to nurture my own self-esteem? Was I not part of the next generation, we who were poised to do whatever we wanted to do and be whoever we wanted to be?
Enter into this mix, at the naïve age of seventeen, my future spouse. It was love at first sight, of course (is there any other kind?). Within months, I developed an infallible certainty that I wanted to spend the rest of my life with her. One and a half years later, I popped the question. Did I consider that she was Catholic and I was not? Not really. There were many things I did not consider (including alerting my parents about the impending proposal!), and my single-minded priority was not, to say the least, to nurture a life-enduring, grace-filled bond. Rather, it was to keep the love feeling going forever. In other words, to promote myself and to get what I wanted.
Then, a curious thing happened. I started going to Mass. My fiancée insisted, but I found the whole affair to be unexceptional, a less entertaining version of the still-boring church services I attended as a child. Yet, by some sort of inertial grace, I found myself coming back repeatedly. Other than agreeing to be married in the Catholic Church – I had no objection to Church law – I still had no interest in religion. But I did take an increasingly great deal of interest in my upcoming vows. The stirrings of grace had done that much at least. I committed to doing marriage properly, to the best of my ability, and that small opening into my soul was all that was needed. Through the Sacrament of Matrimony, from the moment it was conferred, the Holy Spirit flowed in and changed me profoundly. Quite to my own surprise, and to my new wife’s, I announced my intention to become Catholic within one week of getting married! Less than a year later, I was received into the Church on April 2, 2011.
I had been called to this vocation even though, at the time, I didn’t have the language to express it in those terms. The graces received in that first year of married life, coinciding with reception of the other sacraments, was an experience I still find hard to describe. It was like waking from a dream, when a foggy mind yields to clarity, or when disorientation gives way to focus. There is within me, to this day, a sense of fullness that sustains me and guides me to carry out my ordained duty, whether it be going about the daily routine or navigating difficult times.
It is with some irony, however, that the daily routine and difficult times are not so easily distinguished as may first appear. Every day, in fact, comes with what may be less ominously called difficult moments. Those little episodes where temptation comes creeping in, or when pride stands in the way. It is here that the words of St. Paul are the most relevant: “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ also loved the church, and delivered himself up for it.” This love is not an emotional love, like the kind that consumed me in those early days, but a sacrificial, life-giving love. The kind of love that can only be learned through repeated exposure. This lesson has been hard for me to learn, as I imagine it is for most husbands. To give wholly of myself, to put myself last for the sake of my family, to swallow my pride, on a daily basis, is immensely challenging. But with the grace of God readily at hand, I do not feel overpowered. Quite the contrary, I am my family’s protector, and God has prepared me to fight any battle necessary to lead them to salvation. I can think of no better use of myself than to give my whole being to this cause.
Thinking back one last time to my adolescent self, I could not have described then what it was that I wanted, nor how to get it. Now I know what it is I want: holiness. And I also know how to get it: by leading those under my care, through sacrifice, to their own salvation. Without the grace of God to call me to married life and sustain me ever since, I would not have found my true fulfillment.
Ben and Chrissie Carleton have been married for twelve years. They have been blessed with three beautiful children: Julianna (7), Justin (5), and Gemma (1.5). Julianna attends school at St. Charles Catholic School, and Justin plans to enter this fall. The Carletons live in Spokane Valley and are parishioners at the Cathedral of Our Lady of Lourdes.