4 Secular Novels Featuring Insights into Authentic Love + Catholic Marriage

STEPHANIE CALIS

 

Can non-spiritual reading have a place in your formation and prayer life?

Catholic author Walker Percy said, “Fiction doesn’t tell us something we don’t know. It tells us something we know but don’t know that we know.” 

The Catholic faith offers us a rich treasury of theologians, ancient and contemporary, who have shed light on Scripture, the sacraments, prayer, and more, in a language we can comprehend in our humanness. And certainly, there are a wealth of resources on relationships and sacramental marriage, in particular.

I’ve found my world-view changed for the better by the religious works I’ve encountered on love and marriage. Yet the truth is, I’ve never felt entirely comfortable admitting that spiritual reading isn’t my favorite genre. 

A lifelong literature lover, it’s taken time for me to articulate what I now deeply believe to be true: stories that convey goodness, truth, and beauty--those that reveal the nature and purpose of the human person and human love--can be just as powerful as theological writing in showing us who we are and directing our hearts to God. 

While spiritual writing provides a good and necessary framework and lens for our understanding, literature, for me, brings these truths to life in a tangible, embodied way as we experience characters’ interior lives. Together, they supplement one another and offer an enriching education in self-knowledge, love, and faith.

Here, for fiction lovers like me, a selection of novels beyond perennial Catholic favorites like Austen, Waugh, O’Connor, Percy, and Berry, that illuminate the human heart and offer life-giving insights into love and marriage.

A Place for Us, Fatima Farheen Mirza

This story of estranged siblings and parents re-entering each other’s lives for a wedding jumps seamlessly through time and memory, sharing such recognizable, true-to-life accounts of longtime marriage, growing up with siblings, experiencing your first love, and the pain of distance and division. I finished this book in tears, filled with the hope that no matter how imperfect our earthly relationships might be, our hope lies in our resurrection at the heavenly wedding banquet.

Sample passage: “I have looked up at this sky since I was a child and I have always been stirred, in the most secret depth of me that I alone cannot access, and if that is not my soul awakening to the majesty of my creator then what is it?”

Circe, Madeline Miller

The centuries-long lifetime of the witch from The Odyssey, who famously turned men into pigs, is reimagined in this beautiful novel. Reading about the Greek gods’ immortal nature—and Circe’s resulting years of solitude and loneliness—I was repeatedly struck by the fact that eternal life means nothing without the divine Beloved; the Bridegroom. It is the love of God that gives meaning to our creation and existence.

What’s more, I found myself deeply moved by the incarnational, embodied dimension of love, as this book explores through the nature of gods and men: Christ took on human flesh and a mortal life out of love. Our mortality is not the end of the story.

Sample passage: “I have aged... Sometimes I like it. Sometimes I am vain and dissatisfied. But I do not wish myself back. Of course my flesh reaches for the earth.” 

Saints for All Occasions, J. Courtney Sullivan

How does the Lord work within the discernment choices we make? After sacramentally entering into a vocation and experiencing doubts, does it matter? This bittersweet story of two Irish Catholic sisters who immigrate to Boston in the mid-twentieth century delves into the daily rituals and intimacies that make up both married and religious life, with encouragement to seek God’s will in all things.

Sample passage:  “Think of a marriage, husband and wife. The piece of paper, the white wedding dress, they don't promise anything. A person has to stay there, fight for it, every day.” 

The Remains of the Day, Kazuo Ishiguro

Love as an act of the will, rather than a flight of emotion, is integral to an authentic communion that imitates Christ’s own love. Is it possible, though, that an overcommitment to duty over emotion can become a source of regret?

As I read this story of an English butler and his relationships with his master and a fellow, female servant, I considered how the things we don’t say frequently speak as loudly as the things we do. I found it a poignant reflection on the human need for vulnerability and expressing affection.

Sample passage: “If you are under the impression you have already perfected yourself, you will never rise to the heights you are no doubt capable of.” 

I love pondering the ways in which the worldly echoes the sacred; the ways in which popular or secular media expresses a universal truth that aligns with human nature and the Catholic faith. What novels can you recommend for insights into love and marriage? Share in the comments and on Spoken Bride’s social media.


About the Author: Stephanie Calis is Spoken Bride's Editor in Chief and Co-Founder. She is the author of INVITED: The Ultimate Catholic Wedding Planner (Pauline, 2016). Read more

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How to Connect with Your Spouse While Postponing Pregnancy

CARISSA PLUTA

 

When using Natural Family Planning, married couples must frequently pray about and discuss their desire and plans for having more children. 

PHOTOGRAPHY:    MADI MYERS-COOK

PHOTOGRAPHY: MADI MYERS-COOK

And in some circumstances, through prayer and discernment, husbands and wives may make the decision to postpone a pregnancy (or another pregnancy). 

Abstaining from sex during periods of fertility can prove challenging for couples, and they may find themselves having difficulty connecting with one another during these times. 

But there are so many ways to feel intimate with your spouse even when you can’t be intimate. 

Communicate

Communication is key for couples trying to avoid pregnancy. Couples should not only remind each other of their “why” for avoiding, but should also discuss the challenges that may arise in doing so. 

But even more importantly, take this time to grow in emotional intimacy. Share your feelings, dreams, and interests with your spouse and actively listen to his.

Prayer

Praying with your spouse during this time strengthens both your individual relationships with God as well as your marriage. 

Prayer fosters humility, vulnerability, and trust. It calls husband and wife to look outside of themselves toward the other and Christ. 

Physical Affection

Just because the night can’t end in sex doesn’t mean you have to avoid all physical contact with your spouse until you’re back in your infertile time. 

Couples should focus on physical touch that affirms each other rather than arouses. Hand holding, hugging, even kissing can help couples feel intimate during times of abstinence. 

But if you have a serious reason to avoid pregnancy, you should know what physical contact you can handle and which will only make the avoiding harder. 

Get creative

You can get creative with how you and your husband can spend your free time together during times of abstinence. 

Carving out quality time with your partner can help you to connect in a new and fun way. Go bowling, play a board game or try a new hobby. Enjoy one another’s company. 

Laughter

Find ways to make each other laugh. Laughter releases tension and can really help couples during times when facing the challenges of abstaining. Not only that, but sharing jokes and laughter will draw you and your spouse closer together. 


About the Author: Carissa Pluta is Spoken Bride’s Editor at Large. She is the author of the blog The Myth Retold. Read more

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Newlywed Life | Surprises of Traveling with your Spouse

STEPHANIE FRIES

 

Whether it’s traveling for your honeymoon, a summertime vacation or holiday, sharing life as a “party of two” may eventually yield opportunities to pack a bag, load the car, board the plane, and take a trip. 

Unlike sharing a home or going on a date, traveling with your spouse may be a catalyst for surprising new conversations about values, opinions and preferences. 

A husband and wife bring experiences from their respective childhood travels into their adult preferences, including how to spend time and money. Some couples may not realize how many expectations each partner brings into a vacation until they make opposing suggestions. 

The opportunity to travel is an incredible fortune. There are so many different ways to take a vacation: backpacking or luggage-in-tow, culturally immersive or relaxing, budget or high-end, clean or rugged, foreign or domestic, self-guided or professionally-guided, adventurous or cultural, ethnic food or familiar food, planned or spontaneous. 

Although you and your spouse love each other’s company and are in a groove with sharing chores and space around your home, time on vacation is completely different. In reality, vacation is often as a desirable “break” from routine norms. 

Discussing a budget is typically part of the initial plan for taking a trip. Beyond a dollar amount, the budget conversation involves how and where you will spend money. 

How we spend money communicates what we value. Do you value a nice hotel with all of the amenities or would you opt to allocate funds toward a private tour at an art museum? These preferences reveal and determine where you and your spouse agree to prioritize spending in accordance with your values. 

Where we spend our time also communicates what we value. It is impossible to eat at every restaurant, see every tourist attraction, and participate in every possible activity during one vacation. Husbands and wives must share decisions about what is realistic and desirable within the constraints of time on vacation. 

Like any experience in married life, we are called to die to self as an act of love for the other. Does this mean we are called to plan a vacation solely according to our spouse’s preferences? Absolutely not. 

Marriage calls two individuals into deeper intimacy. Surrendering your desires for your spouse’s preferences is an act of love. However, being honest and vulnerable about your personal preferences is also an act of love because, by sharing this part of yourself, you invite your spouse to see, know, and love you.

Maintaining a flexible and marriage-centered attitude in these conversations about potentially conflicting opinions will guide couples to make decisions with shared ownership and joy. Without a doubt, travel is an opportunity to learn about your spouse, yourself, and the values you desire to fulfill in your family. 

We would love to hear: do you and your spouse have similar opinions about travel and vacation? What areas have prompted conversations and compromise? Share your reflections with our community on Instagram and Facebook.


About the Author: Stephanie Fries is Spoken Bride’s Associate Editor. Stephanie’s perfect day would include a slow morning and quality time with her husband, Geoff, a strong cup of coffee, and a homemade meal (…with dessert). Read more

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Questions to Foster Emotional Intimacy

CARISSA PLUTA

 

Early in a relationship, couples often have an easier time asking probing questions to get to know their significant other in a deeper way.

But after the honeymoon phase has waned, couples can easily default to questions that require a simple response like: “How was your day?” or “How was work?”

Asking thoughtful questions and then actively listening to the answers your spouse gives can do a lot to foster emotional intimacy and connection between a husband and wife. 

Not yet married? Read more here on developing emotional intimacy during engagement.

Try asking your husband one (or all) of these questions on your next date night, or around the dinner table to get the conversation started. 

What are your dreams?

Dreams can grow and change over time as a person discovers more about who they are. So even if you knew your spouse’s dream during the seasons of dating and engagement, his dreams (and yours) may look different now then when you met. 

Asking your husband to share his dreams with you makes him feel known, while also revealing ways in which you can encourage your spouse in pursuing them. 

This question often generates discussion about dreams that you as a couple have for your family and future together.

What have you been thankful for recently?

As marriage move past the honeymoon stage, it is very easy for couples to take each other for granted; however, gratitude is an integral part of healthy relationships. 

Asking your spouse what he is thankful for gives him the opportunity to intentionally practice gratitude, enforcing it as a more regular habit. 

It can also help you, personally and as a couple, to focus on the present moment and all the gifts God has blessed you with. 

What has Jesus been saying to you in prayer?

This question goes even deeper than the classic “How is your prayer life?” 

It invites the listener into this innermost part of their spouse’s heart and may even help your spouse process the ways in which God has worked in their lives. 

Plus, it opens up the possibility for a longer conversation on spirituality and prayer which can be edifying for both people. 


About the Author: Carissa Pluta is Spoken Bride’s Editor at Large. She is the author of the blog The Myth Retold. Read more

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Prayer Intentions for Women Called to Marriage

Whether you’re currently single, dating, engaged, or married, every woman prays to live out her vocation faithfully and well. What does that look like in the everyday?

Photography: Aberrazioni Cromatiche Studio, seen in    Fabiola + Cole | Vatican City Basilica Wedding

Photography: Aberrazioni Cromatiche Studio, seen in Fabiola + Cole | Vatican City Basilica Wedding

For those called to marriage, the desire to be a strong, holy wife might feel so...abstract. And that’s understandable! Depending on your relationship situation and whether you’ve met your spouse, your ability to will the good of a specific man and ask the Father for grace with specific matters can be limited. 

Are you in a season of discerning the Father’s will for your life? Read tips for determining the vocation he might be calling you to. 

There are, however, particular intentions you might consider bringing to prayer as you anticipate, prepare for, or live out your married life. Here, prayer suggestions for brides.

Strengthen me in sacrifice.

Ask the Lord for a greater sense of perception and attention to opportunities for sacrifice and service, as well as a willing disposition to do so with a joyful heart. Is he prompting you to fast from or give up particular habits? Are there daily activities in which you can ease the load of someone in your life (chores, quality time, or otherwise)? No matter your current state in life, you can actively strengthen your marriage--starting now--by developing a heart of sacrifice.

Grant me the gift of understanding.

Seek growth in active listening, healthy conflict resolution, and empathy. Embrace others’ honesty and vulnerability as a gift to be treated with mercy and care. Cultivating communication skills amplifies and enriches all of your relationships.

Read 5 Tips for Active Listening.

Help me to know your peace, Lord.

Do you find yourself doubting you’ll ever meet the man you’re intended to marry? Are you anxious to determine if the man you’re currently dating is The One? Are you and your spouse facing a major life decision like children, career changes, or a move?

The Lord desires our hearts to be at peace. In times of restlessness for answers, approach discernment with a spirit of openness, trusting that he responds to our prayers--sometimes with a whisper, and sometimes with a shout--in the most loving, fruitful ways, even when his call is wildly different from our expectations.

May I revere my sexuality and fertility.

Our identity as human persons, male and female and invited to join God in bringing forth life, speaks the truth of who we are. Pray for the graces of reverence, joy, freedom, and self-discipline as they relate to your sexuality, and if you feel the pull, seek out theological resources that further illuminate.

Pray, also, for trust: the knowledge and appropriate resources to learn about your fertility and your body’s particular rhythms, the faith and confidence to embrace children and grow your family as you feel called. And perhaps most painfully, the trust that should infertility and complications arise, you are not abandoned and the Lord will reveal, in time, his plans for your particular marriage to be fruitful.

May I make of myself a gift to my husband, and may he make of himself a gift to me.

Authentic love is free, faithful, total, and fruitful; a complete gift of self. This love takes on a particularly intimate, personal dimension in marriage, yet there are ways to embody self-gift even before marriage.

Pray about ways to communicate love through every part of your life, not just your romantic relationship: live with a spirit of encounter. Make efforts to make others feel seen, heard, and known. Be a witness to joy and to confidence in your identity as a daughter, sister, and bride. 

For that, ultimately, is who you are: a woman, equipped with unique gifts only you can confer on the world--not only on your wedding day or as a new wife, but before and after you enter into your vocation. May your prayers inspire your gifts and your worth.

Have you experienced this desire to be a “good” wife? What other intentions have you prayed for in this pursuit? Share your thoughts in the comments and on Spoken Bride’s social media.

“The Body is Called to Follow in Hope” | Ongoing Reflections from the Ascension

STEPHANIE FRIES

 

Forty days after Jesus’ resurrection on Easter Sunday, he ascends into heaven; he shows us the way to our destiny in heaven. 

The opening prayer at the Ascension Mass caught my attention in a surprising way when the priest said, “Where the head has gone before in worry, the heart is called to follow in hope.”

PHOTOGRAPHY:   DU CASTEL PHOTOGRAPHY

I understand this prayer can be interpreted in different ways. In reference to the Ascension, the Catechism of the Catholic Church says, “Jesus Christ, the head of the Church, precedes us into the Father’s glorious kingdom so that we, the members of his Body, may live in the hope of one day being with him forever.” Here, the Catechism speaks of the head and the body as a parallel to Christ and the Church. 

However, I internalized this prayer with a self-reflective lens: where my head--logic, anxiety, and expectation--has gone before in worry, my body--my heart, soul, and will--is called to follow in hope. 

Entering the sacrament of marriage has opened my heart to an entirely new level of vulnerability and, thus, worry. Perhaps you can relate. The beautiful experience of being vulnerable and intimate and in union with another is raw. And in moments of weakness and fear, my head is left in a state of worry: about my own health and safety; about my husband’s health and safety; about the future of our family; about being prematurely abandoned or alone. 

Concurrently, as my heart has grown into my vocation over the last year, I have grown in union with my spouse; a union I adore with gratitude every day. My vocation is creating in me a new heart with a greater capacity to love and be loved, a new identity of what it means to be a woman, and a new understanding of where and how God calls me to live. 

I believe the experience of responding to beauty, grace, and gift with worry is a reaction to our human mortality. Though God showers us with mercy and love, this Earthly reality will not last forever. 

Sin occurs when our feelings pull us into a state of despair. Holiness abounds when our feelings propel us toward God the father with a hope for heaven. 

The Ascension reveals a perpetually open door for our bodies to follow Christ in hope. Hope in God’s perfect timing. Hope that God will use our Earthly experience to reveal his glory and bring us closer to him. Hope that we are destined to follow Christ into heaven.

Through the gift of free will, we have a choice. The worries, pains, and anxieties we experience through the crosses we bear can end with worry. Or these emotions we feel can be a cue for greater faith, hope and charity. As we are honest with ourselves in times of trial, we see either a temptation or an invitation. 

In the Ascension, God lifted Jesus back to himself. It was not an act of Jesus’ strength, but a surrender of his will to the will of God. The same is true for us. 

How often do we internalize our struggles and think we must muster the strength to pull ourselves out of despair, solve problems, take action, and rise up with a plan? On the contrary, as we abandon our fears and worries to God, he lifts us into his everlasting love. Through his mercy and our goodwill, he frees us from the chains which weigh us down and he becomes our strength. 

Saying yes to God’s invitation for faith and hope and love is not always accompanied by fuzzy feelings. But, like choosing love or forgiveness, choosing God may be an act of the will before it is an affirming experience of the heart. 

My sisters, these are words I believe to be true, but I often struggle implementing this truth in my life. More often than not, I bemoan the act of surrender. Though I hate to admit it, I feel sad for myself and pay too much attention to the temptation to despair. I desire to surrender with a more joyful hope. In my feeble attempts of saying “yes,” each moment of self-awareness and desire is a new stepping stone towards God. 

He will raise us to a greater glory. Do we ask him to reveal his heavenly self in our daily lives? Do we have the eyes to see, the ears to hear him? 

Like Jesus’ Ascension, hope and surrender are graces to be received by God. Do not grow weary in the waiting for eternity. Do not allow worries on Earth to stain your hope for heaven. God sees you, knows your heart, loves you, desires union with you. He has a perfect plan to draw you closer to see and know and love him. By following in hope, you will be lifted to see his face. 


About the Author: Stephanie Fries is Spoken Bride’s Associate Editor. Stephanie’s perfect day would include a slow morning and quality time with her husband, Geoff, a strong cup of coffee, and a homemade meal (…with dessert). Read more

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Your Marriage Isn't Just for You and Your Beloved

MARIAH MAZA

 

Beautiful bride, remember that your marriage is not just for you and your beloved. 

I don’t remember who said it, or whether it was before or after I got engaged, but it is a piece of wisdom that, once I heard it, I began to ponder curiously in my heart.

It stuck with me because it ran so boldly against the grain of the secular “wedding culture” I grew up seeing in movies, on magazine covers, and in the pages of books. These were stories that followed the romantic journey of a couple falling in love, planning a meticulously beautiful wedding to reflect their unique love, and the two of them driving off into the sunset to live “happily ever after”--whatever that meant. In my mind, I imagined the bride and groom living the remainder of their days in their little cottage, deliriously in love, breathing in the happiness of their marriage “ever after.” 

Without realizing it, I cultivated a very “inward-facing” idea of marriage. 

First, let’s clarify two things.

It is a beautiful and exciting thing to celebrate a couple’s unique love story and all the twists, turns, trials, and victories they walked through to make it to the altar on their wedding day. That’s why there’s a part of our hearts that cherishes a good love story on screen and in real life--for the hope and happiness it brings.

And planning a wedding that reflects that story’s beauty, from the colors, to the centerpieces filled with the bride’s favorite flower, to the specific readings chosen for the nuptial Mass, is also a wonderful thing. It is festivity and creativity at its greatest when we gather together to celebrate two people becoming one flesh in the nuptial Mass.

So what am I saying? Those movies and magazines and books only showed half the equation

Or rather, the beginning of the equation. Those stories dazzled me with how boy fell in love with girl, but they usually didn’t explain, after the bride and groom drove off into the sunset, what the lifelong mission of that married love was supposed to be.

The Church teaches us that your marriage is for you and your beloved and for the edification and sanctification of the world--but if that sounds a little ambitious, try starting with those in your community! Sacramental marriage is like the ever fruitful, ever generous love of the Trinity. Although the perfect love shared between the Father and Son is incredibly beautiful and special, their divine love does not stop there. It is so profound, so life-giving, that it begets a third divine Person: the Holy Spirit. 

The love of Father and Son is so profound, so life-giving that God simply delighted in creating an entire unnecessary universe to share in his Life, with unnecessary animals, trees, mountains, oceans, and human beings. 

God had no need of any part of this earth. He enjoys perfect, eternal Trinitarian community. And yet, in his infinite love and joy, he created us anyway. All out of love. A love that is not caught between him and Christ, but overflows into every last atom of creation. 

"The world was made for the glory of God"...”not to increase his glory, but to show it forth and to communicate it,” for God has no other reason for creating than his love and goodness: "Creatures came into existence when the key of love opened his hand” (CCC 293). 

Like a small child who sits down to draw the colorful, fantastical creations of his imagination, not because he has to, but because he delights to.

This is what your marriage is meant to become.

The Catechism tells us that matrimony is actually one of two sacraments of service: “two other sacraments, Holy Orders and Matrimony, are directed towards the salvation of others; if they contribute as well to personal salvation, it is through service to others that they do so. They confer a particular mission in the Church and serve to build up the People of God” (CCC 1534).

Your marriage is for you and your beloved. To share in the joys, crosses, and daily tasks of life together. To sanctify each other as you walk hand-in-hand to Heaven, sometimes in perfect step and sometimes with one leading the other.

Your marriage is also meant to be “outward-facing” towards the community around you. True love, by its very nature, calls a person out of himself in service. Therefore true married love, by its very nature, must call both spouses out of themselves. Not just to serve each other, but to make their very marriage a gift to those around them. To “confer a particular mission in the Church and to serve to build up the People of God.” 

St. John Paul II wrote in his papal encyclical Gaudium et spes, “the Christian family, which springs from marriage as a reflection of the loving covenant uniting Christ with the Church...will manifest to all men Christ's living presence in the world, and the genuine nature of the Church.” (Gaudium et spes, 48). 

It is a high calling, to strive to imitate the infinitely divine, fruitful love of the Trinity in your own marriage. To live your vows in such a way that your marriage “will manifest to all men Christ’s living presence in the world.” But it is a saintly calling, and it sanctifies the daily struggles and joys of marriage with an eternal mission.

Cardinal Raymond Burke said in an interview in 2015, "There is no greater force against evil in the world than the love of a man and woman in marriage. After the Holy Eucharist, it has a power beyond anything that we can imagine." 

Beautiful bride, as you prepare to walk down the aisle, or if you are walking through the transition of newlywed life, remember the twofold mission of your vocation. Remember that your cherished love story and the beauty of your wedding day are only the beginning of God’s plan for you and your beloved. Allow your marriage, the joys and the crosses, to become an outward testament to the goodness of God’s love and mercy for those around you.

Our world doesn’t need perfect marriages. Our world desperately needs holy marriages. How can your marriage become a fruitful gift to the world? 

Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ loved the church and handed himself over for her to sanctify her, cleansing her by the bath of water with the word, that he might present to himself the church in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. So also husbands should love their wives...This is a great mystery, but I speak in reference to Christ and the church” (Ephesians 5: 25-27, 32).


About the Author: Mariah Maza is Spoken Bride’s Features Editor. She is the co-founder of Joans in the Desert, a blog for bookish and creative Catholic women. Read more

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