How Works of Mercy Help Marriages

(Melinda Nagy/Dreamstime)

‘Humans are meant to experience a foretaste of heaven, right here on earth, in and through marriage,” says the foreword of Intimate Graces, a new book from Teresa Tomeo and Dominick Pastore, a married couple in Michigan. How to get there and live there? They propose that practicing works of mercy — feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, bearing wrongs patiently, comforting the afflicted, etc. — brings out the best in marriage. The husband (who is a deacon) and wife (who is a popular talk-show host on Catholic radio) discuss the book and what they’ve learned during their three decades of marriage. — KJL

Kathryn Jean Lopez: What do the works of mercy have to do with marriage?

Teresa Tomeo: We didn’t really think about this until we were approached by our editor, Heidi Hess Saxton, who came to us with the idea for the book. And then we started to think about it and realized that given our own testimony and the high number of troubled marriages out there, that the works of mercy apply beautifully. For example, think about “ransoming the captive.” Many spouses may be stuck in a state of anger, for instance, or may be unable to forgive someone of a past hurt, and that anger is affecting the marriage. Or perhaps one spouse is post-abortive and needs to be freed from the hurt, pain, and guilt they are experiencing. A husband or wife could be struggling with an addiction. The love, support, and prayers of a faithful husband or wife could enable the spouse to get the help they need and could literally set them free.

Lopez: You got married in the Church, went to weekly Mass, but “had no real relationship with Christ.” How does that happen? What is a real relationship with Christ? Is it different for men and women?

Tomeo: I think Benedict XVI explains this beautifully when he talks about having an encounter with Christ. We really have to get to know Him and love Him or else the Church and our Catholic faith are nothing more than a box to check off on Sundays. I do think it is different for women and men as women are much more relational. That’s why I love to read the Gospel passages about the women who were close to Christ and also those verses that mention how He ministered to so many women. Martha and Mary had such a beautiful relationship with Him. They invited Him into their home and He taught them many things. He always engaged in conversations that struck right to their hearts. And He does that today if we open ourselves up to that relationship.

Dominick Pastore: We went to Mass out of obligation and habit, not because we necessarily always wanted to. We really never put anything into going to Mass, so we didn’t get much out. It’s easy to fall into a complacent relationship if you don’t tend to the needs of the other person and appreciate what the other is, in turn, giving to you. That’s happened to us and how we treated our faith. A real relationship with Christ is one in which we relate to Jesus as would a real person — you spend time with Him (Scripture), you talk with Him (prayer), and you open yourself up to Him so that He can, in a sense, know you (giving your life to Him). In the end, we come to love Him and the Church He established.


Lopez: Can God really be “the source of true joy and fulfillment” in a marriage? What’s a spouse for, if so?

Pastore: Only God can be the source of true joy and fulfillment, and my role as a husband is to help reveal Jesus to her so that she can see God in that way, and vice versa. When that happens, our relationship with others blossoms, as does our individual and marital relationship with Jesus.

Tomeo: God must be the source of a marriage’s meaning. Marriage, after all, is the reflection of the Trinity here on earth, a relationship of three. When everything is centered on God and when you as husband and wife understand what the Sacrament requires — helping your spouse get to heaven — then your relationship has true meaning. You laugh more, fight less, and forgive quickly.


Lopez: How can you sell “self-sacrifice” in marriage? It doesn’t quite work in a pop song.

Pastore: From the outside looking in, you’re right, you can’t sell it. What Jesus did on the cross doesn’t make any sense, until you realize the depth of our sin and the greatness of His mercy. It’s the same with marriage: We are imperfect human beings and there is no way — no matter how much a husband and wife think they love each other — without totally giving yourself to the other person that the true depth of love can be known or shown. That kind of love can conquer anything a couple will face in the marriage. But here’s the really cool thing: When both spouses do this, your marriage will go through the roof. It won’t be a hardship; it will be a joy to practice self-sacrifice. It’s not like I have to give up anything. When I’m doing all I can for Teresa and vice versa, my true desires are fulfilled.

Lopez: How does one protect a “vulnerable heart”?

Pastore: Great question, because there are times in a marriage when one spouse is in a fragile place — spiritually, physically, or emotionally — and the role of the other is to safeguard him or her. This can be difficult because both spouses might not understand the needs of the other. In other words, I want to help, but I don’t know how; and Teresa might want my help, but she might not be sure how to express it.

Obviously, prayer is key — prayer for holy insight into the situation; prayer for compassion and empathy; prayer for direction and courage in the healing or strengthening of the vulnerable heart. Only Jesus can do the healing, but the protector’s job is to be a conduit for His grace. Instead of walking side by side, the protector might walk a half-step ahead to ward off any evils, hurts, or whatever else might worsen the vulnerability.

Lopez: How is it that it is “sometimes easier to help strangers in need of comfort than to provide spiritual and emotional help to our life’s partner, or to make our home at least as safe as the local shelter down the street”?

Tomeo: Because we can still distance ourselves emotionally from strangers. This is not to dismiss the importance of applying the Works of Mercy to areas of need in our community. It still takes a caring heart and a sense of sacrifice, but with our own family we have to go deeper. We’re in for the long haul, not just volunteering a few times a year. That commitment to solve whatever problem there may be takes just that — commitment. It goes back to the marriage vows of “for better or for worse, till death do us part.” But again, since some issues take a long time to solve, spouses might avoid addressing them.


Lopez: “In times of illness, one of the best gifts we can offer our spouse is the gift of hopeful perspective.” Could that prove to be annoying for said spouse, though?

Pastore: A hopeful perspective needs to be given not only with compassion, but with empathy and an understanding of the other person’s situation, which depending on the situation could change. Normally when I’m sick I become reclusive and prefer to be left alone, yet Teresa still provides a hopeful perspective by doing special things for me that don’t require my interaction. On the other hand, when she is ill, I know she wants my company and attention to help her feel better; that’s how I offer a hopeful perspective.

Lopez: Why did you want Greg and Julie Alexander from Alexander House to introduce your book? Who are they and what are they up to?

Pastore: Julie and Greg have an incredible marriage ministry called the Alexander House. They are dedicated to helping marriages in crisis. We have become good friends and bonded over our concern for other couples. We had the opportunity also to see their work firsthand when we spoke at a fundraiser for their ministry. We met so many couples whose lives were changed and marriages saved through their wonderful efforts. We just felt their contribution would be especially important because like us they had been there and done that and they too, praise God, were able to restore their marriage.

— Kathryn Jean Lopez is senior fellow at the National Review Institute and editor-at-large of National Review Online. She is co-author of the new revised and updated edition of How to Defend the Faith without Raising Your Voice. Sign up for her weekly newsletter here.


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