Drowning in the miracles of motherhood

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All growing up, if you asked me what I was going to be, I’d answer without hesitation, an artist. Ever since I could hold a crayon, I’ve been drawing. Ever since I could talk, I’ve been telling stories. Ever since I could write, I’ve been committing those stories to paper. I believe that the finest artistic works are akin to worship, I believe the vocation of an artist is a holy one indeed, and I believe that beauty truly can save the world.

Now if you ask me what I do, I’ll answer that I stay at home with babies. I still hold lofty artistic aspirations, but reconciling art and motherhood is difficult even as it is beautiful. The miraculous nature of being a co-creator and steward of human life is one of the most artistically stimulating things that can upset your life. Yet, it is precisely the thing that makes the inner silence needed to be an artist difficult to come by. Every hour of my day I am on-call to a fussy, nursing newborn. Any time I start floating away on an inspired trail of thought I am stopped by toddler screams heralding needs rational or otherwise (if intelligible at all). Welcoming babies means it’s no more simply about fighting my deeply phlegmatic nature to show up and hack at my artistic pursuits whether I feel like it or not that day. It’s about having the luxury of the time or mental space to indulge in them at all.

Often I catch myself thinking about what my life would have meant if it was cut short. What would these years mean–mired in spit up and temper tantrums and me never having really cultivated my talents. And of course, this was not a purely hypothetical situation for so many women throughout history. I recently read that two of Jane Austen’s sisters-in-law die in childbirth after years of having back to back babies. Austen, herself, had the opportunity to marry and yet chose to remain unmarried and free to write novels. But what of any of those women who harbored artistic impulses? What of their ambitions outside of mothering that were laid to rest with them?

Losing your identity to motherhood is something no woman wants, and it is undoubtedly bad to cease to exercise necessary self-care or to permanently and unhealthily become a martyr to motherhood. Yet, despite my ache to fully realize the role of an artist, this losing myself to motherhood, this temporary dimming of my interests and shedding of my individuality, this drowning in babies and being incapable of doing much else, seems to be precisely what’s being asked of me right now.

When I look to another group of women seemingly relinquishing their individuality, I glean some wisdom about the limitations of my life as a stay-at-home mother of small children. Religious sisters revoke their individuality in dress and in name, accepting what is given to them, doing what is asked of them by superiors, becoming one in a sea of women tying their wills to unwavering vows. And the lives, particularly of cloistered contemplative nuns, appear to lack any individuality, freedom, or usefulness to the outside world. But contemplation, while not useful in any worldly sense, is a channel into the divine life of God in which a person finds herself most liberated and fulfilled in her identity.

As I said before, even as motherhood is impossibly immobilizing, it’s just as creatively and contemplatively stimulating. The wise look of my sleepy newborn. The emotional molting of my toddler. His little voice singing–a transcendental sound of hope to my anxious self. Being present to these wonders makes me want to transfix them in art, and perhaps at some point that will be my work. But right now my primary work is just to be present to them. Flannery O’Connor writes in her prayer journal, “I do not know You God because I am in the way. Please help me to push myself aside.” This also seems an appropriate prayer for the woman struggling with her loss of identity in motherhood. Right now, I am meant to be hidden within motherhood, to contemplate without action, to push myself out of the way so that I may know God.

Whether I die young and this time, fertile in thought and dry in deed, results in nothing in the way of art, or if I live long, write much and write well to the glory of God, and even my children see me as something other than their mother, I hope I might still say that I was present at this feast, taking it all in, more concerned with being a witness to the great mysteries before me than validating my identity to the world.

Anyway Milton said it well four hundred years ago:

“God doth not need
Either man’s work or his own gifts; who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state
Is kingly. Thousands at his bidding speed
And post o’er land and ocean without rest:
They also serve who only stand and wait.”

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Drowning in the miracles of motherhood

Staying afloat

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I’m back! Sort of. You probably already know, but in case you don’t and are wondering why I dropped off the face of blogland for the past two months, we just weathered a hurricane, moved into a new house, and welcomed a new baby. Whew.

I do have loads of drafts for posts in varying states of doneness, and even though I’m the slowest of bloggers in normal circumstances, I am itching to get back into this space that helps me get the frazzled, stream-of-consciousness bunch of thoughts that bombard me all day teased out and a bit more composed.

But having two under two is no joke and situations like dragging my soot-covered toddler out of the fireplace with one arm while carrying and nursing my newborn in the other are a daily occurrence.

I remind myself over and over what good problems I have. That books and tupperware and pots and pans and clothes strewn everywhere are a sign of curious, energetic toddler life. That battling mini-existential crises on a daily basis is a sign of being conscious of what fragile beauty is in my care. That the guilt over all my yelling from being constantly overwhelmed is a way God calls me to turn to Him and admit that I can’t do this without His grace.

So it may be a while yet before I’m posting here again…and if you want to say a Hail Mary or ten on my behalf, bless you.

Staying afloat

Reading, Eating, etc.

Reading

Books:

Finished:

Middlemarch: loved it dearly. Also, Katherine’s post on shifting ambitions reminded me of the themes in MM and why a life spent loving the people in your community well is actually world-changing stuff.

Peace Like a River: good but some parts did make me think it would be prime material for a Hallmark Hall of Fame movie. Not saying that’s necessarily a bad thing. And some parts were truly arrestingly beautiful.

No-Drama Discipline: full of good information, but annoyingly repetitive at times.

Working on:

The Art of Eating

Green Dolphin Street: for my bookclub. So far (and I haven’t read very far at all) this is really delicious to read. For all the unbelievable-ness of the plot, Goudge can paint such beautiful settings, round out characters so richly, and write such simple phrases that convey so much spiritual depth.

Articles:

Pregnancy and NFP

Uncharted Territory: Getting Real about NFP

NFP in Real Life: Hard but Worth It: this should be required reading for all Catholics–engaged (because you need to know what you’re getting into), married (because you need to know you’re not alone), clergy and religious (because you need to know what the married faithful are struggling with and how to minister to them), and single lay people (because we’re a family and families help each other–by upholding each other through prayer…and offers of babysitting 😉 )

What miscarriage and birth taught me about letting go: hat tip to the ladies of my bookclub for mentioning this one. Bookmarking to re-read periodically in the future when I feel like I’m drowning in babies.

On pregnancy and body image.

-And more on pregnancy and body image

Other stuff:

It’s okay to doubt.

Growing Up Poor. Here’s How It Changed My Life. “Judging the poor — or pretending that simple rules of logic apply to something often determined by blind luck — makes all of us less human.”

Home Delivery! What will they think of next?

-I use onion powder (and garlic powder) but always feel a sense of shame! Vindication!

-Pretty sure my brain’s already been rewired to be distracted…

-Forever a word nerd: The 35 words you’re (probably) getting wrong.

And because I just posted that downer about social media, here are a few IG posts that spoke to me exactly when I needed them to:

Number 2 (but real talk–how do you stop alllllll the biting??)

– When your vocation feels more like a death than a relief (because that’s an accurate description of what it feels like to parent a toddler at million months into pregnancy in a million degree heat with a million percent humidity.)

“the tough can exist with the good” (because to say I’m nervous about throwing a newborn in our pre-existing chaos is a huge understatement.)

-And finally, this meme spoke to me most of all 😂

Eating

Peach creme fraiche pie. Not too sweet–just the way I like my desserts.

Fig, date, and walnut quick bread made quickly before a friend stopped by. It was very, very good (we slathered our slices with fig jam+goat cheese) although I realized two fourths of the way to three fourths that I was using self-rising flour instead of AP. Still turned out perfectly.

-This Tawainese minced pork was delicious (and perfect for doubling and freezing). And very forgiving of my ingredient swaps (marsala for Chinese cooking wine, reg. soy sauce for dark soy sauce)

-I got the DALS cookbook from the library and I’m trying to cook out of it as much as possible before it’s due back. It’s been a really fun way to test out a cookbook before deciding whether I want to actually buy it. Some of the recipes are pretty unmemorable, but on the whole it really is a good cookbook when you’re stumped for what to put on the meal plan. Best recipes from it so far:

Apricot-Mustard Baked chicken (served with the horseradish chard–which converted me to loving chard so I feel I should buy the cookbook for that reason alone)
BBQ Chicken (I used chicken breasts instead of the recommended drumsticks and thighs and it was SO good and juicy after brining it in salted water for a few hours)
Orecchiette with Sausage and Crispy Broccoli
Grilled Fish with Smoked Paprika Butter

Etc.

Talk to me InstantPot. I’m kind of kicking myself for not getting one on Prime Day, because while I’d like to be a French housewife who would rather be guillotined than trade in her two hundred-year-old beaten copper dutch oven for this modern claptrap…it looks SO dreamy for my sweltering summertime kitchen. Not to mention perfect for all those freezer meals I may or may not make for the baby’s crash landing. Not to mention a more economical way for me to make bone broth than keeping my stovetop running for 24 hours.

Reading, Eating, etc.

Birth plan

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I am officially in the third trimester so naturally I’ve got birth on the brain (and in the womb–braxton hicks all day, every day). This is my second go around with it so I sort of know what to expect. Which is to say I don’t know what to expect.

Last time, I was completely open to either going med-free or having an epidural. On one hand, I had (and still have) this idealistic tendency to romanticize suffering and think of how powerful a force and how uniquely feminine a sacrifice offering up the pain of a med-free birth is for the good of a broken world. On the other hand, I was well aware of how badly I suffer in my daily life–gimme an epidural when I stub my toe, thank you v. much.

But my labor started out with intense, close contractions rather than manageable, gradual ones. I couldn’t even talk through my very first contraction. When we reached the hospital at 2am, I felt like I was at the threshold of the amount of pain I could withstand. Then they told me I had 6cm to go and the thought of all the pain just getting worse and worse made me so, so done with it. So I ended up with the epidural and a nice long nap before the stress of a yo-yo-ing baby heart-rate, a near-c-section, ten minutes of pushing, an un-photogenic face full of broken blood vessels from holding my breath while pushing, a lot ugly, happy sobs, and the terror and wonder of a new life spread out before me. 

Sometimes, I wonder whether the experience of labor depends on pain tolerance or pain perception. Is it simply a matter of being weak-willed (or ill-prepared mentally) or can you actually experience the same pain as another person but more acutely? (I have read that part of being an hsp is a hightened sensitivity to pain)

I’ve never considered a natural birth for the typical reasons. I’m not afraid of medical interventions. I have no desire to wear it as a badge of pride and I have no curiosity about “fully experiencing” labor and delivery. I’m not an au naturel, attatchment parenting type. I don’t feel like it’ll bond me to my baby more deeply.

But I can hardly ever think of birth without thinking of death and of the meaning of suffering. The similarities between the two were highlighted when I read Kristin Lavransdatter last year with my bookclub. For many characters in the novel, the labor of birth and the labor of death last for days–their agonies unmitigated by modern palliative care methods. As a midwife assists a woman in birth, a priest assists a soul at the hour of death:

“Sira Eirik continued to hold him against his chest for a moment. Then he gently laid his friends body down on the bed, kissing his forehead and smoothing back his hair, before he pressed his eyelids and nostrils closed; then he stood up and began to say a prayer.”

Most of us now live in an anesthetized world where suffering is considered meaningless. But I believe in the Christian mentality that says in no uncertain terms that suffering can be intensely meaningful: a means to enter intimately into the mystery of Christ’s passion, death, and resurrection, to unite yourself deeply to those mysteries, and something that can be sanctified and offered up for the good of the whole world.

Ultimately of course, when it comes to both birth and death–when it comes to all experiences God allows you to undergo in your life–what matters is abandonment to His will rather than the fulfillment of your own. This might mean a emergency trip to the hospital when you planned a home birth, an epidural when you wanted to keep up your med-free birth streak, an accidental natural birth in the car when you wanted to be entangled in relief-gushing iv’s at the first twinge of pain. You might even have to face the harrowing, rare but real possibility of yours or your child’s death in childbirth.

For this reason, I can never say one way or another what my birth plan is. But I know birth is a kind of death. Death, a kind of birth. We’re encouraged to pray for the dying, for the dead, and for a good death of our own. And so, I also try to make it a habit to pray for women and children in birth and for my own good birth, whatever it might involve.

P.S. Some of my favorite labor/birth posts around the web:

Prayers for Birth

Natural Childbirth and Marathons

Deliver Us: The Sweet Suffering of Childbirth

P.P.S. My own past poetic-ish ramblings on pregnancy and birth here, here, and here.

P.P.P.S. Wouldn’t this or this make a lovely gift for an expectant mother?

 

Birth plan

Reading, Eating, etc.

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Reading

Books:

Still marching through the middle of Middlemarch but I’ve been breaking it up with a few other things:

When Breath Becomes Air: I had high hopes for profundity from this one, but I wish there had been more of an integration of medicine, literature, philosophy, and faith. However, I do realize Kalanithi was actually dying as he wrote this and I imagine writing a book without knowing if you’ll live another week, month, or year makes it a harried process. I did find his wife’s and his largely unquestioning use of ivf out-of-character for him since he had spoken so eloquently about the dignity of human life and he made such a big deal about the need to have a critical mindset when facing possible ethical dilemmas. Otherwise, Kalanithi did come across as a genuinely kind person with both intellectual and personal depth.

La Morte D’Arthur: when Joe and I were dating, we made it a point to read together and some of my happiest memories of the early days of our relationship are wrapped up in the words of G. M. Hopkins, Kenneth Grahame, Josef Pieper, and others. Somehow, between work and babies, we fell out of the habit, but recently we picked up La Morte D’Arthur and it’s been hilarious to read together.

No-Drama Discipline: because it has good reviews and I don’t know the first thing about disciplining children well (how exactly are you supposed to react when your toddler won’t stop gleefully biting you when you’re trying to work out?)

-And some Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers on audiobook.

Articles:

Work, work, work:

The Work You Do, the Person You Are

The United States of Work

The Case for Being Grumpy at Work

-Maybe it’s just because I’m phlegmatic to the bone, but does this just seem more exhausting than laudable to anyone else?

Online life:

Before the Internet: “It was a heady time!” Made me laugh.

My son is a hashtag: “The best we can do is whatever feels OK for us and our children now.” I don’t know. Is that the best? Mightn’t we deeply regret what felt was okay at one point and wish we had thought more critically about it?

More on parenting:

St. John Chrysostom’s advice on raising children

In Defense of Motherhood as Art: I have a lot, a lot of thoughts about this, but I did especially love this part:

“At my most hopeful I think that writing and art are essential to motherhood and vice versa. Each accesses the most ancient, the most universal, the most complex emotions. Each requires the nurturing of a new consciousness, a new being, a new way of seeing. Each is endlessly different and endlessly dull, endlessly challenging and spiked with constant disappointment and beauty.”

Community: Having the Right Intention: lots of ideas here I need to be reminded of for living in my own tiny community.

-And just for fun: If you’re a word-nerd like me, you’ll love this.

Eating

-I threw a girls night a few weeks ago and my sweet friends who knew I’ve been craving Asian this pregnancy all brought me Asian food. The day coincided with National Donut Day and since donuts are one of my two very favorite foods (gnocchi being the other), I made these Vietnamese donuts. (Actually, I made prepped the dough and various friends facilitated the deep frying). I made condensed milk custard dips for them (plain, matcha, and cinnamon flavored) and writing this out makes me really need to get back in the kitchen and whip up another batch.

-We also made Taiwanese popcorn chicken and as a result, a street-food tour of Asia has made its way on my bucket list.

-More Asian yums: crispy ginger tofu. I made ours with stir fried Chinese eggplant and broccoli. Unfortunately, I didn’t dry the tofu out enough to it all got stuck together in one gelatinous mass that I had to cut up after frying. Still good. Still would make again.

-I like themey-ness, so for our anniversary I had originally intended to make something like gnocchi (our wedding day food…because my favorite food) or traditional English picnic fare (we honeymooned in the English countryside). But I had things that needed to be used up in the fridge so it ended up being pan-fried chicken thighs with a white-wine-shallot grape sauce, risotto, and a radicchio almond salad. I wasn’t at all sad for the lack of themey-ness.

-Of course, it’s an unspoken cooking rule that you should always intentionally make too much risotto so that you can make arancini (otherwise known as Italian rice balls of fun).

-Easy weeknight meal: Greek lemon-chicken soup: there was half a rotisserie chicken in the fridge and I had all the ingredients on hand, but I had forgotten how good and simple this soup is. (I made it without a recipe but this is basically what I did.)

Summer eats:

Peach-tomato salad with goat cheese, honey, thyme, olive oil, sea salt and pepper. Made to go alongside steaks and smashed red potatoes.

Worcestershire-balsamic marinated flank steak salad romaine leaves, roasted yukon gold potato medallions, tomatoes, sauteed onions, and goat cheese crumbles.

Tomates farcies (stuffed tomatoes). That sounds fancy, but really it was a clear-the-fridge, shop-the-pantry meal because we had tomatoes that were turning mushy on the counter. I mixed tuna (the good jarred kind, not the cat food in a tin kind), cooked rice, freshly grated parmesan, assorted chopped olives, fresh thyme, a few spoons of olive oil and brine from the olive jar. Then after stuffing the tomatoes with said mixture, I topped them with panko, more parmesan, and a few pats of butter and popped them in the oven to roast. Served with a buttery toasted baguette, this meal ended up being infinitely better than a lot of meals I plan out and shop for.

Etc.

Worth a listen. I’m always wary of buzzwords and ’empathy’ is a hot one right now.

“when…you’re imagining to be empathetic or to share suffering you’re immediately incorporating that experience into a view of yourself and your own worldview. What Arendt wanted was actually something a bit more radical than that, is to imagine something that’s not your world, that makes you feel uncomfortable. And that’s where the work has to start. And that’s why she was also very committed to thinking.”

-Do you and your significant other differ when it comes to board games? Joe likes a good strategy game (Risk, Pandemic, Settlers of Catan). I like a good party game (Loaded Questions, Balderdash, Cranium). I’ve been determined to find a game that fits us both and on an online forum, someone suggested Sushi-Go. It’s actually pretty entertaining, but it’s all the more fun when you get sushi to-go alongside it. I really think we could take our sushi game nights to a whole new level with this baby.

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Reading, Eating, etc.

Tortilla Española-ish

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This is decidedly not a summertime recipe. It involves multiple stove-top burners going at once and cranking up the oven broiler. But I had it for the first time during the summer six-ish years ago so I always associate it with summertime. I was in Spain for World Youth Day with a group of hilarious and wonderful girls and we shared lots of good conversations over buttered baguettes stuffed with jamon serrano, cold glasses of agua fresca, churros dipped in chocolate, and wedges of tortilla española.

If you’ve never had Spanish tortilla, you’ve been missing out on one of the great standards of homely world cuisine. It’s nothing like a Mexican tortilla. Rather, it’s a potato and egg pie served at room temp as tapas.

The ingredients are: potato, onion, egg, and olive oil. I strayed off the beaten path with this version and loaded it up with a few inauthentic ingredients (red wine vinegar, smoked paprika) to give it a punchier flavor.

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Ingredients:

6-8 medium yellow potatoes, peeled and diced
1 small yellow onion, diced
olive oil (or butter)
4-5 eggs
2tbs red wine vinegar or more to taste (optional)
2tbs paprika or more to taste (optional)

Directions:

In a cast iron skillet or frying pan with higher edges heat olive oil over medium heat and add potatoes. Season the potatoes with salt, pepper, and some of the paprika. Cook potatoes in batches or in multiple pans so as not to overcrowd and burn them.

Stir the potatoes often and cook until they’re slightly crispy on the outside and soft on the inside. Set them aside in a bowl.

Next add the diced yellow onion to the skillet and cook in olive oil until translucent. Then add the potatoes back in and mix with the onion. The mixture should fill up the skillet a good ways up the sides.

Beat the eggs and add the red wine vinegar and remaining paprika and mix it all together. (Sometimes I add a 1/2 c of crushed tomatoes to give it an even punchier flavor) Pour the mixture over the potatoes and onions.

Cook over medium heat until the egg seems set on the sides and bottom. Place until broiler for five minutes until golden and crisp on top. If you use a non-stick skillet and the bottom was well-oiled, it should flip out easily on a serving plate. Serve warm or at room temperature.

I like paring this with gazpacho (green grape and cucumber pictured). And to further round out your Spanish feast, you could serve it with a tomato-olive salad, manchego-melon-jamon serrano skewers, and of course, a pitcher of sangria.

Buen provecho!

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Tortilla Española-ish

The World’s Best Best Man Speech by the World’s Best Best Man

best best man speech

It was our third wedding anniversary last week, and one of the happiest memories from our wedding day was our Best Man’s speech. Since, it really was the best best man’s speech I’ve ever heard, I wanted to share it here.

Hello. My name is Christopher, and I have the honor of being Joseph’s best man this day. Before I truly begin, I have to admit that my toast is pretty ambitious, if you consider the title I gave it to encourage myself: “The World’s Best Best Man Speech by the World’s Best Best Man.” That’s setting the bar high. Pardon me if I happen to crash into it during the attempt. There’s a saying–or, at least there’s a motivational poster that goes, “Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss you’ll land among the stars.” That’s misleading. Really, if you shoot for the moon and miss, you’ll die slowly in the vacuum of space. Hopefully, that won’t happen to me tonight, metaphorically. Or literally, for that matter.

I first met Joe at a theology club meeting for which I, still being of a somewhat slovenly habitude, and not knowing him, thought he was incredibly overdressed. He was wearing a sport coat and wingtips. I think I was wearing a t-shirt that said, “Cat on a skateboard” and had a picture of a cat on a skateboard. Somehow or other he knew of me, because after the meeting, he came up and said, “So I hear you write poetry.” Which is not the first think you’d have about a guy wearing a shirt plastered with a picture of a cat on a skateboard.

“Yeah,” I said.

“That’s cool,” he said. “So do I. We should read each other’s some time.”

At this point I thought, “Whoa. Hold on there, slick. We just met. Just who are you?” But sooner than I thought, it was all sonnets and stress verse, and the rest, though not history yet, might be someday. And, before I knew it, the answer to that question. “Who are you?” was, “My best friend.” We have indeed since then become so close that, disturbingly, Don, one of the groomsmen and Dominika’s soon-to-be-brother-in-law, has referred to us as “The Ambiguously Straight Duo.”

I know Joe to be prudent, steadfast, exceedingly generous, and selfless, so much so that he once did a tremendous favor for me, but I cannot tell you about it because he cares so little for any recognition he might get that he swore me to secrecy. That is the kind of man Joe is–Dominika, this is the man you are marrying, a man who does the right thing and more than the right thing, and wants no recompense or recognition for it at all, because love is all the reason he needs to act.

I know that in Dominika’s family, they like to talk about favorite memories, and one of my favorite memories of Dominika is of when we were at our friend’s wedding reception (to which Joe could not come) and he sat both of us at the kid’s table. Dominika and I and about six sixteen-year-olds. It was awkward and hilarious. Looking back, that was fun, but I didn’t know Dominika that well, and I can’t help but think how much more fun we would have had if I had known her as well as I do know. I’d like to tell you all the nicknames I have for Dominika, because they’re hilarious and affectionate. Unfortunately, if I do, she’ll claw my eyes out with what she once referred to as her “harpy talons”, so I’m going to play it safe and–not.

I wish I could tell you that Joe came to me after his first date with Dominika, convinced he was going to marry her. But I can’t. Not because Joe wasn’t so convinced, but because when I met him, they were already dating, and in fact I am incapable of imagining them apart. Indeed, the night before the members of the wedding party threw a couple’s shower, I had a nightmare that Dominika called the wedding off. I literally woke up in a cold sweat.

At this point, you may be wondering, “Is this guy in love with Joe and Dominika or what?”–The answer to that question is yes. I love Joe and Dominika. I love Joe and Dominika together, so much more than either of them is alone. They are two of the most beautiful people I have ever met, and they are surpassingly beautiful together. They are what has drawn us all together in celebration of their own drawing together in the sacrament of holy matrimony tonight.

I myself am not married–that is not an invitation–so I cannot give you two much advice here. Thus I thought it best to turn to another man who was not married: therefore, St. Thomas notes that every sacrament derives its efficacy from conforming to the Passion of Christ–in other words, marriage is a crucifixion.

But, like the Passion, it is also the fruit of charity, a sign of Christ’s love for His Church. You will have sorrows and frustrations, but those are the seeds of indefatigable virtue and exquisite joy. You will die for each other and die to the world for each other. You will die for the children with which God blesses you. I love you very much and cannot wait to see what your love will bring to the world.

To Joe and Dominika. Live beautifully.

The World’s Best Best Man Speech by the World’s Best Best Man