The moment the heavy, wooden church doors creaked opened on that cool October night and I caught sight of Dan standing smiling before me, my eyes filled with tears. As I moved closer to the altar, my feet stepping slowly along the Spanish tiles, I thought about the promise Dan and I had made to one another, and to God, in the days leading up to our wedding.
Our life over the past few months had consisted of near constant chatter of what marriage meant to us and what we wanted to make of this unique union the two of us were crafting. Would we be the couple that throws open their doors for their friends and family every weekend? Or would we be the couple that sets off to lands far away to bring mercy to the poor? Would we refuse to let the sun set on our anger or would we go to sleep, give one another space, and work through our issues in the light of day? Where would we spend holidays? Where did we each aspire to one day put down roots? Exactly how many pecan pies did Dan secretly hope I’d make in a year?
At our marriage preparation retreat we were prompted to list the things we each were passionate about and that we hoped to bring to our life together. Dan requested that things like music, time for creative pursuits, and pie remain ever in orbit around us. I insisted that we stay close to romance, adventure, and bodies of water. We knew we wanted children. Lots of them and soon, if possible.
But all of those things were secondary to our primary hope for our marriage. What we wanted more than anything was to keep God at the center of our union and to follow him wherever he led. We were full of zeal. Willing missionaries. Passionate pilgrims. All in. Unstoppable. And maybe a little naive.
As we walked out of the candlelit church and into our marriage, I was blissfully unaware that creating a strong marriage isn’t entirely a matter of identifying our mutual desires and bringing them to life (fueled entirely by the force of our wills, of course). I didn’t yet understand that marriage is refined by fire; that it feels more like traveling along a mountainous path that leads through a series of beautiful peaks and dark, cold valleys. I had no idea that there would be elements of our marriage that took me so completely by surprise that they took my breath away, challenged my faith, and filled me with an anxiety so vicious that I feared it might never release its grasp upon me.
Dan didn’t know how terrible I’d be at keeping up with the laundry and I didn’t realize that he would be unable to leave the house until he’d identified the exact song his soul was yearning to hear and had savored that song to its very last note. We didn’t know that we’d fight viciously but that we’d also forgive exceptionally well. We didn’t know that one day God, in the blink of an eye, would pour down enough grace to put a stop to those ruthless fights entirely. We didn’t know how much we would change as individuals and how much we would grow in love.
Kind people who wanted to see our marriage blossom and thrive tried to tell us of these things but the truth is that you can’t know, not really, and certainly not in any meaningful way, what the marrow of marriage really feels like until you are living in it.
That’s a good thing, I think. Because even though there were things I was unprepared for, I’m glad I didn’t know. I like to think of the betrothed and the newlyweds of the world as painters. With brushes and brightly hued paints in hand, they commit to canvas a pure, unadulterated vision of what their ideal marriage will look like. They cover that canvas with their hopes, dreams, and aspirations. And then, once they have finished, they step back and gaze at it with perfect satisfaction, hand in hand.
Will their vision be refined over time? Will it become a little less idealized and a little more realistic? Will the same rocks that line the mountainous path God has laid before them chisel a more nuanced picture of marriage upon their canvas over time?
But all of that added depth will forever be set upon the original canvas they created together. A canvas that will always be a reminder to them of what they wanted for their marriage before life got hard, before the evil sisters, Cynicism, Heartbreak, and Hopelessness, began to whisper dispiriting things in their ears.
Whenever the valley gets so dark that they can barely follow the path set out before them, they can close their eyes and remember that vision they had when they were just starting out hand in hand. They will be able to take all of that joy and hope that they threw upon the canvas and use it to illuminate their way out of that cold, dark valley; to find their way back onto one of those magnificent mountain peaks where they will stand together and gasp in amazement at just how far they’ve come and how profoundly they love one another.
I didn’t know as we dreamed and danced and kissed under the stars at our reception that we were painting our canvas. And I certainly didn’t know just how much I would to sit and study it over the years. How I’d spend hours in front of it begging it to remind me of what we were after and where we were going. And how in those moments when I was so consumed with fear that I wasn’t sure I had it in me to continue, our canvas would remind me of that young couple who had handed their marriage over to God, asked him to refine it, and then said intrepidly, “Wherever you lead, Lord, we will follow.”