Watering my mustard seeds

The other day, a very old and very dear friend of mine shared a humour post on Facebook – “30 Ways to Win a Catholic Girl’s Heart.”  It actually was pretty funny and I’m sure I’m not the only reader who can relate to several of the points on this list — though I really do think that you do have to have some working/practicing knowledge of the system to really understand why I had a giggle fit over “Become a Swiss Guard.”

Humour aside, though, the whole thing did get me thinking about this whole “being a single practicing Catholic” thing I’ve got going on.

I turned twenty-five a couple of months ago, passing that particular milestone with the experience of a few long-term relationships and various short-lived ventures into dating. I wouldn’t say I’m an expert because I so totally am not one, but I’ve loved enough and lost enough by now to have a pretty good idea of what it takes to win over this particular Catholic heart.

Some people I know think that the most fulfilling relationship I could possibly have would be one with a practicing Catholic guy. However after my last turn around the LTR block with one, I can tell you that being of the same religious background and having a reasonably comparable level of faith formation is no guarantee to everlasting marital-worthy happiness. Sure, it makes things easier sometimes, and I definitely have peers whose young marriages are working out rather nicely due to shared faith, but castles in the air of any kind are simply that until they’re grounded in your reality.

My reality contains within it a highly secularized demographic of peers who, while perhaps not being so ardent in their natal religions as I am, are still wonderful, decent, and amazing people. And I’m not about to whittle away all my options down to a small handful of churchgoing, God-fearing guys (who I know by appearance alone because the only time I see them is during Sunday Mass) simply because I’m Catholic.

I can stand on my own two feet in my faith.  My mustard tree, though small yet and still sometimes desperately thirsty for grace, is sturdy enough that there’s no danger of me uprooting it from that nourishing soil to please somebody else.  If I am meant to share my life with another person, then I know that I will be able to freely and happily share everything about myself with them – including my faith and all the experiences that I have had because of it. But I will never beat somebody over the head with my old Baltimore Catechism, make full conversion or RCIA a dealbreaker, or drag somebody by the scruff to Mass. That’s no way to win a non-Catholic heart, and that’s also kind of hypocritical (you know, that whole “Free Will” deal and all).

I’ve come to realize that what makes things easier for me is mutual respect, honesty, and openness. If a guy can respect that I have my faith and my beliefs, and doesn’t ridicule me, put me down, or insult me because I am a practicing Catholic, then I can return to him a sizeable measure of respect. If a guy can be honest with me about why he’s lapsed, doesn’t believe in God, or doesn’t understand the whole religion thing, then I am happy to share the little I know to help bring further clarity. And if a guy can be open with me about what’s in his own heart and what his intentions are, then I can find it in my heart to return the gesture.

I’d much rather be alone and happy than be trapped in a relationship of religious convenience.  I would rather be loved, cherished, and respected for everything that I am, not just wanted because of the religion into which I was baptized and which I practice willingly as an adult.  And that’s what would warm and win this particular Catholic heart, because the end of the day, being able to share my faith with my partner on any level would be a precious blessing and I would treasure it…and I honestly believe there are many ways to share faith – many ways to grow together in faith, hope, and love, even as a “mixed” couple. If that’s what’s in store for me, then I gladly welcome it and will eagerly walk that path alongside whatever upright, just, and decent man God sends along that same way.

Reflections of a Former “Doormat” Girlfriend

As far as relationships go, in the past I’ve tended to really suck at them.  Let’s face it:  we all tend to suck at them at one point or another in our lives, and even good, solid relationships have their fair share of rough patches.  The trick is to start learning from our past mistakes before they become habits – easier said than done, I know, but it’s only once we’re finally able to look at ourselves and accept that we’ve screwed up that we’re able to grow.

I remember that, on the night of first-ever breakup, my mother asked me, “Why did you break up with him?”  And even back then, my seventeen-year-old self knew the real reason:  forget that he was living in Europe at the time, or that he had a female friend with whom he’d been getting a little too cosy, or that we were teenagers who thought they knew more about life and love than anyone else in the world.  Our two-year adolescent relationship hadn’t been working well for the better part of a year, and I had finally seen it for what it was:  a dead end.  I ended it with him because I knew that he wasn’t going to be able to give me what I wanted, which was the kind of love and life shared by my parents.

Call it old-fashioned.  Call it naïve.  Call it wishful thinking.  Call it whatever you want but that’s the truth.  My parents had an amazing life together and, as saccharinely Disney as it sounds, they really had a once-in-a-million years kind of love.  And who doesn’t want that?

I had gone into that first relationship with the faith of a child because I was a child, and it wasn’t exactly the easiest first relationship to deal with either.  I had spent most of my time with him trying to change him from who he was into what I thought he should be, and that was my contribution to the eventual demise of our relationship.  I thought his professions of love (or perhaps it’s more apt to say “love-like feelings”) included an inherent desire to make sure I was always happy, and that he would go about ensuring my happiness by giving in to each and every last one of my petty, childish demands.  (Naturally, my chosen adjectives here are bestowed in retrospect:  at the time, they all seemed reasonable.)

Post-breakup reflections led me to the following conclusion:  I wouldn’t be pushy and bratty in my next relationship.  (Obviously, this occurred after enough time had passed for me to believe that my poor broken heard really could mend enough for me to think about making another attempt at love…but I digress.)  I was determined to never be “that girl” ever again.  My next boyfriend would enjoy a nagging-free experience with me, and I would be a girlfriend who wouldn’t need to be told to “chill out” all the time.  No, sir!  I would be the girlfriend that would make his buddies wish they had girlfriends like me, simply by being selfless enough to cater to his needs – and, in turn, he would totally return the favour and be accommodating of all of mine.  Naturally.

Naturally, those of us who have gone around the proverbial block know that none of this happened.  To quote my mother, we all know none of this happened because

“the road to Hell is paved with good intentions.”

I assure you, although “Hell” might seem a tad melodramatic here, that’s actually a pretty good description for my second relationship.  Being the “cool” girlfriend quickly spiralled down, alarmingly fast, into a place where I became the “doormat” girlfriend.  In our on-again/off-again relationship (a two-year ordeal during with our time together was punctuated by increasingly worse fights and “being on breaks”), I was so desperate to please him.  I was, in fact, so desperate that I actually ended up giving him the power to deconstruct me, piece by piece, until I was emotionally small enough to be completely beneath him.  Or wrapped around his finger.  Or under his thumb.  Or completely out of sight (but nonetheless always available).

Essentially, I allowed one person to manipulate and sweet-talk me into compromising my ideals, my self-worth, and my entire self.  And, by the time I realised it, I was not only desperate to keep him, but desperate to do so in order to prove everyone wrong.  Because by this time, everyone in my life who genuinely cared about me could see that he did not.

Ancient Greek mythology is rife with stories that deal with the concept of hubris.  It’s one of those foreign-language (not to mention ancient) words that has no direct-to-English translation.  Often mistaken as pride, hubris is actually the dire consequences of pride – the lesson, if you will, or perhaps the fall that cometh after.  And in an agonisingly twisted way, I still had some pride – albeit the wrong kind – when it came to the sorry state of my second relationship.  I didn’t want to admit that I’d failed again at being a “good” girlfriend.  For starters, I’d done everything differently this time, so how could it be possible that things weren’t working out?  My pride decreed that I stick with it as long as necessary.  It told me that it would not end because of any lack of trying on my part.

In short, I had to go down with the ship.

My tale of hubris began with a horrific fight (the worst night of my life, actually) that preceded the revelation that nobody in a relationship ever wants to have:  despite all my efforts, he had been seeing somebody behind my back ever since our last break-and-make-up some months before.  In a strange way, though, our last fight had been so emotionally raw that this discovery was oddly cathartic.  In its wake, I actually realised several things about this relationship, as well as about its predecessor.

First, it hit me that despite these two different experiences, I would eventually be able to muster up the courage to allow myself to fall in love again – I just needed to figure out my own self and deal with my own issues before that could happen.  Second, I realised I’d had all the right nuggets of ideas in both relationships – it had been my approach in both that had helped derail everything.

I’m not saying that either of these guys is blameless:  evidently, neither can be described as such.  But yes, I was a contributor in my own right – a catalyst to a host of problems.  Instead of trying to find a common ground or agreeable midpoint with either of them, I polarised myself.  Yes – a good relationship includes wanting the other half to be happy.  Yes – a good relationship changes you in many ways.  Yes – a good relationship has a lot of giving in it.

But these things have to mutual, and constantly so; none of them are the exclusive, sole responsibility of one half.  To expect and to demand that a relationship operate on the grounds of the latter is both selfish and cruel.  A good relationship is not a 50/50 deal or any other division of effort that totals 100.  A good relationship is two people each giving 100% of themselves in order to make things work.

Being in love is sometimes equated to being drunk:  you do and say things that you wouldn’t under sober circumstances, and sometimes things seem beyond your control.  But maybe you’ve heard the advice that when you’re drunk, you should try sleeping with one foot on the floor because it’ll help with the dizziness (and yes, this totally works).  The same goes for being in love:  you have to keep one foot firmly planted on a solid foundation, and if your other half really and truly cares for you they won’t demand that you change what that foundation is made of, or ask that you jump off it altogether.  Nor should you expect that of them.

Because in the end, any relationship is built on the foundations that come with both parties involved…and any good relationship combines those foundations so that each half of it can build up the other.  And yes, while all relationships have their own problems the difference is that in a good one, both sides are on equal footing and work together to sort it out.

I mean, life is had enough – why make it harder?  Why let the one person who should always be in your corner go to the other side of the ring?