Thursday, October 8, 2009

Because the Catholic Position on Marriage is the Only One that Ever Made Sense to Me

When I was 13 and Dad sat me down for Birds and Bees: The Advanced Course, I remember thinking, “Hunh?! Three years ago, he taught me about sex between a man and woman. I get that. The bodies fit together. God engineered it that way. But man and man? Woman and woman? What fits what?”

I report this 45 years later not to sit in angry judgment on anyone. I have friends who are homosexual. In professional theater, which I thought might be my profession when I was all of 17—either that or Episcopal minister—I became aware that there were many people of the homosexual persuasion. (We have since learned that the line does not stop at Episcopal minister, or Catholic priest, for that matter.) To work in theater, you had to work with homosexual people, and some of these people became my friends, for whom I still admit a certain fondness.

Fine. But with the innocence of a 13-thirteen-year-old boy utterly clueless about sex, I had this simple thought when first confronted with the notion of homosexuality as carnal action: What fits what? (1) I had a fundamental, innocent belief in God. (2) I believed that God made the world and that the world therefore is well engineered. (3) I could not understand the engineering of homosexuality. Ergo, God did not intend this to be a normal form of human interaction.

I still think that 13-year-old was on to something.

I was reminded of this last evening when I ran into a former client of mine, or rather I thought of the connection upon waking up this morning. Since 1988, I have worked—on again, off again, and now on again—with elderly people helping them write their memoirs. There’s more about this on my relatively undeveloped blog about that. Anyhow, I ran into a former client I’ll call Mr. Smith last night, and the encounter was a testament to marriage in the one-man, one-woman, one-life Catholic sense of the institution.

I have worked on over fifty memoirs since 1988. Mr. Smith’s was unique because it was not just Mr. Smith’s memoir but Mr. and Mrs. Smith’s memoir. When his son introduced me to him and I proposed the idea of writing his memoir, Mr. Smith demurred. Because it is my business to do so, I pressed the matter. Finally, I understood that Mr. Smith had no objection to publishing his memoir, so long as Mrs. Smith was an equal partner in the work.

So we invented a new form of memoir, in which the couple alternated chapters. First her ancestors, then his. First her birth and upbringing, then his. The two strands approached one another (the families spent summers on adjoining properties) until the book arrived at her chapter about meeting him and his about meeting her. This is a long way of saying that Mr. and Mrs. Smith's marriage was one of the most beautiful I have ever observed, and I think their braided memoir was a proper testament to that beauty.

Mrs. Smith died a few years ago, and I ran into Mr. Smith last evening at a book event. Mr. Smith is relatively frail now, walking on a stick, but still radiating an unsurpassed kindness. You run into someone who knows Mr. Smith, and the first words out of their mouth usually are, “He is the nicest man!”

Mr. Smith is an old-line Yankee and therefore probably of the Protestant persuasion, though the Smiths’ religion never came up in their memoir. I wouldn't doubt that his kindness is rooted in faith. But working closely with the Smiths, as I was privileged to do, I also observed an extraordinary kindness between them, a mutual respect as much him for her as her for him. They held hands in my presence. I'm sure they often held hands.

When I saw Mr. Smith last night, I recalled Mrs. Smith and told him what an inspiration their marriage had been to me in my marriage to Katie. I told him that Katie and I are celebrating our 25th next week and that it is my fond hope we will be as happy at our 50th as I observed the Smiths to have been in their later years. With simple words and a quiet smile, he acknowledged his love for Mrs. Smith.

In the old Boston library that hosted the book event, I noticed that Mr. Smith was seated behind a column, and I asked him if he didn't want help moving to a seat with a better view. No, he said, he preferred this seat, because it was “close to my family.” He nodded sideward, and I saw then that his son and daughter-in-law were seated directly across the aisle in the sold-out room. I was touched by this. I knew he was referring to a closeness that was more than physical.

Mr. and Mrs. Smith are for me another confirmation of the fundamental wisdom of traditional marriage. In making a point, it's usually good to look at the opposite, and I've tried to do that here. As a 13-year-old, I thought that homosexuality involves faulty engineering. As a 58-year-old, I observed that the opposite—especially in a committed, lifelong relationship—makes all the sense in the world. I think it always will.