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  • Images of an Ordinary Conjugal Spirituality
  • H. Paul Santmire (bio)

Some people have pets. My wife, Laurel, and I have flowers, above all our amaryllises and our begonias. In the fall, we put them to bed for the winter in cardboard boxes, which we then stack in a storeroom in our Watertown, Massachusetts apartment. We bring out the amaryllises in February, the begonias in March. We carefully water them and fertilize them. We cheer them on when we see the first signs of green. We clap our hands—“all right!”—when the first buds show and then again when the blossoms begin to emerge.

If someone were to ask me what two old people like us do in this chapter of our lives, which some call declining, she in her seventies, I in my eighties, I might well answer: we take care of our amaryllises and our begonias. As much as humans can, we love those flowers. They are our companions in this the final and blessed stage of our more than fifty years of married life. Call this love for those plants an expression of an ordinary conjugal spirituality.1


Granted, this doesn’t sound very sophisticated. To begin with, this spirituality comes to expression in the midst of a marriage. Much of traditional Christian spirituality, in contrast, has flourished in hermitages or in a monastic milieu. To this day, monasteries, such as the one where I regularly worship in Cambridge, Massachusetts, are often sought out by serious Christians who want to deepen their spirituality. But the rule of the monastic life is extraordinary. It’s predicated on celibacy. Over the years, I have learned much from monastic traditions, but that’s not where I live. Nor is it the place where many other Christians live.

That’s one reason why Martin Luther’s theology has spoken to me so powerfully throughout my adult life. Arguably, Luther’s abandonment of his monastery and, in due course, his enthusiastic embrace of his marriage was the most radical thing he ever did. By that act, he bequeathed to the Church Catholic a new and thoroughgoing spirituality of the ordinary. Luther’s affirmation of God’s liberating grace brought with it an enthusiastic celebration of the mundane life: marriage, of course, but also parenthood, church participation, [End Page 231] political and cultural engagement, and encounters with nature, like the growth of a grain of wheat or the birth of a mouse. But all that doesn’t have the feel of a viable spirituality, at least in large sectors of the Church Catholic today. It feels so—ordinary, especially the marriage part.2

Which is why I think that the love that my wife and I have for the amaryllises and the begonias is well worth talking about, along with other commonplace marital experiences like that. In addition to all the other things that the Church Catholic needs today, I am convinced, it needs a fresh vocabulary for what can be called the conjugal ordinary and new and affectionate ways to celebrate that ordinary. To that end, I want to narrate some pedestrian experiences of my own with what we used to call holy matrimony.3 But before I begin, here are some introductory comments.

First, I want to state what I hope will be taken to be obvious. In no sense, do I intend the following narrative to be read as normative or exemplary. This is not an account of how things should be done, in any sense, but of how things actually were done, as best as I can remember them, in a single case. The value of a narrative like this, indeed, may be precisely its brokenness and its incompleteness. I’m highlighting raw human data here, but hopefully in a way that might be instructive to other students of conjugal spirituality, for better, for worse.

Second, I propose to tell my story with a modest voice about marriage itself. I once had what I thought were insightful talking points when I counseled students or faculty or parishioners who were readying themselves for marriage or who were trying to confront crises...


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pp. 231-250
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