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

BOOK | INSTAGRAM

“The Artist of Love” | A Young Bride’s Reflection on Writings by Alice Von Hildebrand

KATE THIBODEAU

 

This post contains an affiliate link. All opinions are our own and those of the vendors featured in this piece. We believe in authenticity and honesty, and only recommend products and services we would buy and use ourselves. For more information about our disclosure policy as required by the FTC, please see Spoken Bride’s Terms of Service.

A young bride faces a number of choices when it comes to defining her role within marriage. The conflicting worries and joyful surprises of marriage may become overwhelming when trying to establish a new role as someone’s wife and partner towards salvation.

PHOTOGRAPHY:   HER WITNESS

PHOTOGRAPHY: HER WITNESS

I remember the first few months of marriage—working a new job and attempting to prove myself as a career woman, while also attempting to set up house, learn to cook and patiently maneuver through the transition. I found myself pulled in different directions while trying to solidify a mission statement or role for my new responsibilities as James’ wife. I pressured myself to strive for perfection in every field, while feeling limited by my inexperience.

The joy of my union to my wonderful husband was challenged by my personal expectations for perfection. In the tension, I lost sight of the sacred nature of being a wife.  

A gift from a friend offered a new lens for me to comprehend my stress and pressure. By Love Refined: Letters to a Young Bride, a novel by Catholic authoress Alice Von Hildebrand, spoke to the many fears, questions, and experiences of my newlywed life.

This little book is filled with letters by a long married widow to her newlywed goddaughter, Julie, who faces trials and questions in her vocation. The daily struggles and triumphs of Julie and her husband mirrored many of my own. I read through pages thinking to myself, “My James does that!,” or “We have had this conversation!,” and “I, too, am guilty of this mistake.”

Von Hildebrand offers powerful spiritual advice in each letter, encouraging marital relationships for self-giving love and mutual respect. She paints a vision of marriage as it should be: learning how to love and lead one’s spouse to heaven through sacrifice.

Julie’s experiences reflected many of my own struggles, from trying to balance work with being a homemaker, to accepting the habits of a permanent roommate, my spouse. I marveled how through her godmother’s writing, she discovers her true role as a wife—despite both internal and external pressures—as “an artist of love.”

Von Hildebrand explains the meaning of this title by describing her love for oriental rugs, and how their complex beauty is made through tiny snippets of fabric. This image is a symbol of the many small acts and deeds of a wife, the artist, as she weaves together her sacrifices, efforts, and decisions to benefit her husband and family.

I take this message to heart as my mission statement as both James’ wife and a child of God. My vocation calls me to regard every challenge and duty in life with deference to my marriage. How will this decision impact our relationship? Does this word or action detract from my mission as the artist in our home? Does this contribute to the art of our marital love?

Regardless of the field in which I may be struggling, I need only simplify my motivations and focus them towards my vocation. My beginner’s errors and the fear of unknowns matter so little when I realize each sacrifice and trial, suffered with love, is an addition to the “quilt” I weave for the good of our family. In this truth is an ever present joy.

Being “an artist of love” is applicable to every role I may take on as a wife, as a working professional or a stay-at-home mom. As we age and mature in our marriage, so will our metaphorical “quilt”.

As a young bride-to-be searching for a peace in the daunting new territories of marriage, I am grateful to know of Hildebrand’s novel. Her simple words help me find purpose and meaning in each new trial and experience.

In the transitions of marriage and family life, I encourage every woman to not be overwhelmed by the stress of a new role. Do not pressure yourself to be excellent in every new undertaking, but have patience in every little action and sacrifice. Accept each challenge and make every decision in the confidence of your new mission: to be an “artist of love.” May your marriage be joyful in this pursuit!


About the Author: Recently married to her best friend and partner towards salvation, Kate Thibodeau is learning how to best serve her vocation as a wife while using her God-given talents. Mama to angel baby, Charlotte Rose, and soon-to-arrive Baby Thibs, Kate has an English degree from Benedictine College, and strives to live in the Benedictine motto: that in all things, God may be glorified. Kate loves literature, romance, beautiful music, pretty things, wedding planning, and building a community of strong Catholic women.

INSTAGRAM | FACEBOOK

Forever: An Interview with Jackie and Bobby Angel

No matter where you are in your dating life, engagement, or marriage, and no matter where you are in your spiritual life, the Father deeply desires to pour out his love over his sons and daughters; to know and be known by them in a singular, specific way. In every vocation, we hear the song of his love for us.

We had the privilege of a conversation with Bobby Angel and Jackie Francois Angel, husband and wife authors of the recently released Forever: A Catholic Devotional for Your Marriage. Forever features six weeks' worth of daily reflections and questions for couples to read together (Lent could be an ideal time to dive in with your beloved), with the intention of drawing them nearer to the Father and illuminating the truths of the human heart that ring eternal, even in a culture of constantly changing attitudes and wedding trends. 

Read on for the Angels' take on these topics of learning to love a singular, specific person in your spouse, our longing to be known, Saint John Paul II's Theology of the Body, and their advice for engagement and marriage. 

Who did you write this book for? Is it just for married couples, or would others benefit from it as well?

We wrote this book for everyone! While specifically targeted to those already married, we wanted it to be accessible for people who are dating, engaged, newly married or married for 20 years, as well as any single person who wants to consume more content on the Theology of the Body and maybe learn some tidbits about marriage. Our hope is that this book could help people in all different stages of the journey, from an engaged couple getting married in the Catholic Church and getting reacquainted with the faith, to even those couples married for a long time who have studied Theology of the Body and are glad to have a resource that allows them to pray together nightly and learn more about their faith and each other.

You both do quite a bit of speaking and teaching to young adults around the world; what have you noticed in terms of contemporary young adults' attitudes toward and ideas about marriage? Did this play a role in how you wrote your book?

For those young adults who actually do want to get married (since so many young adults are foregoing marriage to just cohabitate), there is often this idea that marriage will solve all their problems or make that “ache” of the heart go away. We try to share that the best thing to do as a single person is to focus on being healthy--emotionally, physically, mentally, and spiritually--and to realize that marriage won’t make your problems (like insecurity or a habit of pornography use) go away, but rather magnify and exacerbate them.

In our book, Forever, we also try to show that God is the only one who can satisfy every desire of our hearts. Marriage is just a sign and foretaste of the Heavenly union and marriage with God in Heaven. Thus, if God is not “enough,” nothing will ever be, not even a fantastic marriage.

So, if single people can go into marriage knowing no human being, not even their spouse, is perfect like God, nor can their spouse heal or fix all their problems--like God and some therapy can--it will lay a much healthier foundation than having the previously stated notions.

Why did you choose to base your reflections on St. John Paul II's Theology of the Body?

We both experienced renewals in our faith through dynamic youth ministry programs as well as a secondary “jolt” of excitement in encountering the rich teachings of St. John Paul II. As people with very real desires and and that ever-present ache to know and be known, JPII retold our beautiful Christian faith by focusing on the call to union stamped into our physical bodies. Good news, indeed!

In an age where so much distortion and heartache comes from the misuse of our bodies, reading and learning the Theology of the Body was eye-opening and refreshing. It put to words that ache for communion and gave us a tangible way of integrating our desires, rather than merely fighting or suppressing them. It’s the Gospel re-told in a new way; it’s the antidote our fallen world needs. We both drank deeply of this vision before meeting each other, so beginning a relationship and a marriage--and now a family--with this understanding is a tremendous grace and responsibility. We feel blessed to be able to share it with the world.  

What role does prayer as a couple play in your marriage? What advice do you have for engaged couples and newlyweds on how to begin praying together?

Be patient with each other! You’ve likely spent decades praying on your own before coming together, so know that it’s a bit of a dance where you will step on each others’ toes. Communicate what you like to do together and also what you may prefer to do on your own. For example, maybe you like to do the rosary together but spiritual reading alone; or vice versa. Figure out what works for you as a couple and stick to it.  

Also, different seasons of life call for changes. If you’re blessed with children, your prayer rhythm will change. Make the most of the time you have; quality over quantity. Look at children as an opportunity of prayer (and purgation!) instead of obstacles to your prayer. 

If you could give one piece of marital advice to the brides and newlyweds reading this interview, what would it be?

Communication, communication, communication! Learn how to communicate well with God, and learn how to communicate well with your spouse. Communication with God is what prayer is, and being honest with God about your hurts, brokenness, desires allows a lot of healing and freedom.

Communication with your spouse is essential! Learning how to argue in a healthy way, learning each others’ love languages, and communicating your desires and expectations in every area of marriage (from how to raise children to who does what part of the housework to what pleases each other sexually) is essential to growing in love for one another and having a marriage that lasts “‘til death do us part.”


Jackie Francois Angel and Bobby Angel live in Orange County, CA. Jackie is a traveling speaker and worship leader, as well as a songwriter and recording artist with Oregon Catholic Press. Bobby is a campus minister and theology teacher at Servite High School, an all-boys' Catholic High School in Anaheim. They have traveled to speak both nationally and internationally to share their faith and present the Church's vision of life-giving love. They recently welcomed their third child. 

BOOK | BLOG