Existential marriage: Knights in shining armor and the ladies that love them

Knights of Columbus salute during the welcoming ceremony for Pope Benedict XVI - Existential marriage: Knights in shining armor and the ladies that love them

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My husband is a Knight of Columbus. This past month, he was received in as a fourth degree knight. It was a big deal, which involved the attendance of about 400 other knights in our region, along with the bishop. I was surprised at the fanfare, but even more, at the sense of community that came from simply being the wife, or lady, of a knight.

The Knights of Columbus are a fraternal organization that aids and assists families in their group when they are in need. This extends to the greater community in works of social and public relief works. They began in 1882 by a parish priest in Connecticut, Father McGiveny, who saw a need in his parish and sought to encourage the men to band together in charity, unity, and fraternity. Today, there are 14,000 councils and the organization boasts of 1.8 million members around the world.

The community I felt when received in as a Lady of a Sir Knight was unexpected. The warmth and welcome I was offered could not be attributed to anything I did, but rather, it was simply an invitation to join them in a sorority. A dinner was held in the honor of all who had entered the fourth degree last night, and we were invited to attend.

The purpose each person holds as the central focus of their existence is at the heart of the fraternity’s success. Each Knight knows he has a unique mission in this world, and none takes that mission lightly. Additionally, there was great appreciation for their spouses. At one point, a speaker began talking and one of the Ladies reminded her Knight to be quiet during the speech. The exchange was done with expressions only, with the chastisement of a mother coming from a single look, and the obedient husband complying with a tiny expression of defiance. It was a priceless interchange. Years of living together seemed to make communication through expression as loud as any scream.

A thought crossed my mind: Could this be an existential marriage? I had never heard of existential philosophy being applied to marriage in theory outside of theology. Oddly, the one article I found dealing with existential marriage was posted on Catholicculture.org by Frank J. Sheed. A line jumped out at me and it rang in my ears. “In marriage, the view of the essential magnificence of man is at once most urgently needed and most sharply tested” (Sheed, 2015, para. 7). To have an existential marriage, one must first accept oneself authentically, then accept the spouse as a human being with flaws and love them beyond mere emotion. “No one sees the husband as the wife sees him—not the husband, certainly; and he has his own unshared view of her for compensation” (Sheed, 2015, para. 7). If ever there was a truth serum, it is a spouse. They know their spouses, at times, more astutely than the individual knows him- or herself.

It would seem this was a pretty important detail in the existential marriage. If my husband knows me better than I know myself, and I question his knowledge, I may run into a bit of a struggle in life. Perhaps this is the cornerstone of marriage to be healthy. The view a spouse has for the other spouse may not actually be accurate, but it is integral to understanding the differences between them and trusting this view is what allows a marriage to traverse the dangerous twists and turns in life. Just as the tiny bit of defiance showed in the unspoken communication between the two spouses at my dinner table, the trust the husband placed in the wife’s view was important to their happiness. Even if she was wrong, she was right. As Sheed mentions, a man is the head of a family, but the wife is the heart. The Knight at my table seemed to recognize the issue at hand was in her domain, and he trusted her view.

The qualities that are seen by the spouse that irritate may not be a flaw, but rather the trigger, for the other spouse. It would seem this is a critical piece of information for a marriage partner to understand. If one is patient, one can process deep wounds that erupt from the past and that play out in the present. For example, my husband likes to save things. EVERYTHING. It is a trigger for me as I lived in confined quarters with three sisters in one room. Once, my father chastised me bitterly for using up a space in the closet to display some religious items. With three other sisters in the room, closet space was a premium. I had a lot of pretty things to display, but I had to learn to discard some of these things in order for the closet to hold more clothing. It was a difficult lesson, and one that still hurts when I think of it. For my husband to learn of this might be critical to making him understand my view of retaining objects we do not absolutely need. However, my husband grew up in Ireland during a time when people were generally pretty poor. To throw things away his saved objects would diminish his training to save all things and use them optimally. It took a good ten years and marriage counseling to understand why the saving of every object bothered me and was important to him. I found the cure was moving houses. It provided an incentive for my husband to rethink his position, but also a chance for me to place value on his perspective.

In living marriage existentially, mutual self-donation is the hallmark of the union. Alice von Hildebrand speaks of this mutual self-donation in her book, By Love Refined: Lettters to a Young Bride (Sophia Institute Press, 1989) in which she describes marriage as a great risk and references the philosopher Kierkegaard who called marriage a “deed of daring” (von Hildebrand, 1989, p. 3). It would seem that the existential approach to marriage is similar, though not exactly like, the existential approach to living life.

To go into marriage, one must expect difficulties and see their spouse as a human being with flaws. However, to see the human being authentically also demands acceptance of that human flaw and an appreciation of the spouse in their goodness. It is very daring to enter a union where a person expects challenges but the challenges are what make the union solid. The more both spouses consider the other spouse and their feelings, the greater the chance the union will work. Both must have this attitude to make it work, and to see it break down can often be the result of hurts that are ignored or not seen. It takes both to consider the preciousness of the other spouse, and neither can sit on their laurels in a marriage.

In other words, to live an existential marriage, I must first acknowledge that my husband is a human being who is both magnificant in his potential, and flawed in his humanity. My husband will have moments that will make me admire him, and irritate the living daylights out of me. It would seem existential marriage is to see my husband as my Knight in shining armor riding in on a white horse, and then watching him fall on his butt off said horse. Both images are authentic. The first is the classic, Disney fairytale image. The other is an image one might expect in a good Mel Brooks comedy. Both are reality.

So, it would appear, the Ladies of the Sir Knights that I have been inducted into are simply women who acknowledge the magnificence of their Knights, but allow them their human failings as simply a part of who they are. The way they communicate allows them to do so without humiliation (unless a person like me is observing them for a blog post) and encourages their husband or wife to be a better person, without shaming them into it. The way the two interact is a mystical union of body and soul, which allows the casual observer to witness the greatest form of human love: Love which accepts the other, but encourages the other to be all they are capable of being in this life. This, it would seem, is what an existential marriage actually is.

Sheed, F. J. (2015). Library: Marriage existential. Catholic Culture. Retrieved from: http://www.catholicculture.org/culture/library/view.cfm?recnum=1002

Von Hildebrand, A. (1989). By love refined: Letters to a young bride. Manchester, New Hampshire, United States of America: Sophia Institute Press.

— Maria Taheny

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