Now, if I were just out to score brownie points, I'd answer Mr. Auden's question simply, as one editor did — "Paradise? My wife!" — and then get on with the stories that make up the heart of the book. But brownie points rank only around second on my list of priorities. For when you and I consider the Catholic notion of family life, we're acknowledging the presence of an even higher authority than my wife, Terri.
The Bible, of course, sets a good model for any Christian who would describe paradise. Believers don't just look ahead to a time when life will be pleasant and humans will do what they're supposed to do. We begin by looking back on such a time. So I'd like to introduce myself by telling you the story of the most improbably paradisal day of my life.
Pennsylvania winters can be brutal, and nowhere so brutal as at the university in the geographic center of the state, the place that young residents ironically call "Happy Valley". Penn State University sprawls over many square miles in a valley that serves as a natural wind tunnel. On a spring day students can build muscles by pushing against a stiff wind as they rush from class to class. But there are no such silver linings to the gray storm cloud of a Penn State winter. Wind means one thing and one thing only: the wind-chill factor. It means leaning into strong, bitter gusts in a good mile trek from one corner of campus to another.
Now magnify all those conditions by a nineteen-year-old guy's capacity for self-pity, and you see that the suffering of such a winter could be immense and even desperate. ("Mom, please send more money for pizza delivery. Frostbite stands between me and the dining hall.")
Well, it was in the dead of such a winter that I met Her, the occasion of my nearest brush with idolatry. She was Terri Shupp, a little wisp of a girl from Gettysburg whose smile could melt the campus's highest snowbank and whose intelligence and wit made for sparkling conversation that I wanted never, ever to end.
I was even willing to rise at dawn to start the conversation, if only she would let me. One below zero Saturday morning she didn't have time to spend with me, because she was volunteering for some do-good cause way across campus.
"I'll walk you over," I broke in. "I can be there in a minute."
It probably took no more than half a minute for me to be fully suited for the weather, transported across the street and sitting in the lobby of Terri's dorm. She arrived radiant but a little late, and after quick greetings, she led the way to the door. I followed, dazzled, outside.
I didn't care at all about the cold, nor did I care that her volunteer gig was on the other side of creation. The farther away the better. We could talk the whole way. She could make me laugh. Maybe I could make her laugh too. This was living.
We had gone maybe a quarter of a mile when I noticed that she was rubbing her bare hands together before returning them to her pockets. In her rush to get downstairs, she had forgotten to wear gloves. Her hands must have been in pain already.
I didn't have to think twice. "Gosh, you're going to get frostbite. Take my gloves."
She protested, but I insisted. And she put them on.
Soon my hands had no feeling. I loved it. After a little bit more time they were turning strange colors. This walk was costing a fortune in terms of human endurance, but I was willing to pay the price. The more my hands ached, the more I felt I was loving her. I was proving my love. Like the knights of the Middle Ages, I was taking on an ordeal for the love of My Lady, and I was prevailing, without a word of complaint and with a constant smile.
By the time I said good-bye and Terri sprinted into the building to do her hours of good for the world, I was fairly well pointed in the direction of matrimony, with or without my hands, which seemed as if they might require amputation. It didn't matter. If I had fallen dead from frostbite, to have my flesh consumed by arctic wolves and mountain lions, I could not have died happier.
To think that a gloveless walk in icy wind — a situation I would have bemoaned on the way to a first-period psychology class — could be nothing less than paradise on this particular morning. The sacrifice itself was glorious. But as I was to learn, love moves from glory to greater glory.
Evening came, and morning followed, and who should appear very early at my door but Terri Shupp. She had stopped by to return my gloves. I kept her there as long as I could, and when she left I actually put my unworthy hands in one of the gloves she had worn on her most lovely hands. Then and there I learned that virtuous acts do receive their just reward. She had left a note for me in each finger of both gloves.
Fast-forward many years, beyond our marriage in 1985, beyond the birth of our first four children in 1989, 1992, 1994 and 1997, to the year 2000, when Terri and I were invited to give a talk to engaged couples. We spoke on the subject of love and sacrifice, and I built my talk around the story of that winter day when we were very young. Terri applied the underlying principles to many aspects of marital life. Our bottom line was that people are happier when they're living to make others happy.
One man raised his hand and addressed his question to me: "If you're always living to make her happy, when do you ever get to have fun?"
I was struck dumb by the question. I must have just stared at the guy, because the priest running the program spoke up and gave the right answer.
I suppose I'm not good at theoretical answers anyway. I like to tell stories, and I like to read stories. And that's what this book is all about.
If there is a recurring theme in the book, it is the point that Terri and I tried to make to those engaged couples: happiness requires love, and love requires sacrifice. For me this is the summary of all Catholic teaching — on family life, on sexual morality, on social justice, not to mention the Trinity, the Incarnation and the Eucharist.
The family is the great catechism God has given the world. The work of our lifetime is to learn how to read it and then study it prayerfully.
A couple in love will learn many lessons in the everyday events of their life together. Throw into the mix a child or two (or six or twelve), and the lessons increase by orders of magnitude. It's all serious business, I suppose, but a sense of humor plays no small part in our spiritual development.
Monks may learn humility by wearing a hair shirt; we parents have our own means of mortification. We must, for example, sit helpless while our four-year-old daughter, patiently and with scientific rigor, enlightens a visiting elderly, saintly Franciscan priest about the varieties of panties that Mattel affixes to its Barbie dolls. (I'm not making this up.)
We must decrease as our spouses increase in importance. We must decrease as our children increase in wisdom, age and strength. And the first thing to go is any puffed-up sense of our own dignity. (I mean, Barbie panties, really!) Yet we need not be diminished at the core. Pope John Paul II often urged young couples to "become what you are" by giving themselves away. This is something we'd never do voluntarily, but it's something that parenting forces upon us. Parenting is God's way of making Christianity simpler for people like me, who by nature are not too quick on the uptake.
How simple is it? Saint Paul put it plainly for Christian spouses and parents: "I appeal to you ... by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship" (Romans 12:1). In this book I present that living sacrifice in living color, with stories of how I've grown with my kids, from diapers through puberty. I hope readers will learn with me, and I hope they'll laugh with me.
Our family life is the sacrifice we offer to God every day. It rises like incense to heaven as we do very ordinary things: as we love our spouses, guide our kids, pay the bills, attend countless, endless scout meetings and do our work. All this is our share in the common priesthood of the church. It is our daily sacrifice, the Mass we live.
God, for his part, gives back to us abundantly, from the treasury of his own perfect fatherhood. His grace empowers us to reach it all — eternal happiness, lasting love and loving sacrifice. And that's the only way we can find fulfillment and become who we are as parents.
As we lift up our hearts in this sacrifice, God stoops down to lift up our homes, to make them outposts of his paradise, havens of charity and happiness, no matter how cold the winds may blow on a winter day.
Mike Aquilina. "Love Amid the Frostbite." Introduction from Love in the Little Things: Tales of Family Life (Cincinnati, OH: Servant Books, 2007): xvi-xxi.
Reprinted with permission of Servant Books, an imprint of St. Anthony Messenger Press, and of the author, Mike Aquilina.
Mike Aquilina is vice president of the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology and co-host, with Scott Hahn, of several television series on EWTN. He is the author or co-author of, Love in the Little Things: Tales of Family Life, Living the Mysteries: A Guide for Unfinished Christians, Fathers of the Church: An Introduction to the First Christian Teachers, The Way of the Fathers: Praying with the Early Christians, and Praying in the Presence of Our Lord: With St. Thomas Aquinas. With Cardinal Donald Wuerl, he is the author of The Church: Unlocking the Secrets to the Places Catholics Call Home, and The Mass: The Glory, the Mystery, the Tradition. See Mike Aquilina's "The Way of the Fathers" blog here.
Copyright © 2007 Mike Aquilina