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Whispers at the altar

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“Dearly beloved, you have come together into the house of the church, so that in the presence of the church’s minister and the community your intention to enter into marriage may be strengthened by the Lord with a sacred seal.” With these words from the Rite of Marriage, having just descended from the pulpit in order to meet the couple at the foot of the altar, I greeted my brother and soon-to-be sister-in-law. As our families watched with anticipation and tears of joy, I questioned them about their freedom of choice, their fidelity to each other, and their acceptance and upbringing of children. With each response, they approached the definitive moment of consent.

I remember making secret, whispering prayers to the Lord as I prostrated myself before the cathedral altar on the day of my own lifelong promises, on the day I received the gift of ordination to the diaconate. I have repeated these prayers daily in the quiet.

“Since it is your intention to enter the covenant of Holy Matrimony, join your right hands and declare your consent before God and his Church.” Not having a microphone, I had been projecting my voice so as to be heard at the back of the church. Now it was my brother’s turn to speak. I prompted him: “I, Richard, take you, Danielle, to be my wife.” In a voice just above a whisper, looking unswervingly into her eyes, he began. Startled by the softness of his voice, I almost forgot to give him the next words: “I promise to be faithful to you … ” He was so quiet; if only I could call a brief timeout. Was he nervous? But he was smiling at her, with great confidence. “… in good times and in bad … ” ‘Speak up,’ I thought. ‘Let the people hear you.’ He is not shy by nature, so why was he not speaking more loudly? “ … in sickness and in health … ” How confused I was.  “ … to love you and to honor you … ”

Suddenly I realized: Richard didn’t need to be heard by everyone. This was no performance, despite the attending family and friends. He was speaking to Danielle. He was making a precious promise to her, and the best man, maid-of-honor and I were privileged to witness. As he finished — “… all the days of my life …” — I relaxed with a deep peace.     

I remember making secret, whispering prayers to the Lord as I prostrated myself before the cathedral altar on the day of my own lifelong promises, on the day I received the gift of ordination to the diaconate. I have repeated these prayers daily in the quiet. These unnoticed prayers, I am confident, will be a support to my fidelity, a source of increasing holiness. As Richard and Danielle gave themselves to each other in marriage, how appropriate that they would make promises in whispering voices. For they will live their promises in mostly secret, unnoticed ways. What temptation to infidelity might weasel in? Surely, it will be squashed by these quiet words, confirmed by daily actions. How many “bad times” does a couple experience over the course of a life? They alone will know, they alone will persevere in love. Will the emotion of love fade at times? The crowd might never know how the couple lives out their whispered promises. And this is marriage. This is fidelity. This, indeed, is a sign of the fruitful love Christ has for his church. 

As Danielle spoke the same promises to Richard, I closed my eyes and smiled. Thank you, Lord, for the gift of permanence. Grant us the grace to be faithful until death, when our whispered promises, quietly lived, will merit a chorus of exultant praise and heavenly glory.

Deacon Blank, who is from Holy Trinity Church in Gainesville, is in his fourth year of theology studies at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, Md.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2019