Lived Experience, Authentic Love

Mary Magdala Community

“Lived Experience, Authentic Love” ©

by Rev. Jim Ryan,

Lived experience is one of the gifts one gives to one’s beloved in marriage. Such mutually shared gifts result in the couple’s own shared lived experience. First, what is lived is each individual’s own experience of growing in the knowledge and love of self and relating to others and to society at large through many kinds and depths of relationships. Second, is the lived experience of 2 such persons who make their way to each other. This discovery experience of mutuality, attachment, and integrity becomes the ground of a lived experience that aims toward life commitment, even to marriage.

It is just such a mutual life commitment that includes, but is also beyond, a joint contract that people of faith regard as the dual structure of marriage (that is, contract & covenant).

In this juncture of faith and a couple’s love for each other the role played by church teaching and church law often comes into play in the couple’s decision to marry and to live out their marriage and family life.

My, how times have changed!

In particular, the church’s institutional role has greatly diminished. Nowhere more is this the case than in the lived experience of couples who marry and who carry out all the decisions of their own married life together.

Here’s a case in point.

While on a visit to Iowa this summer, catching up on family goings on, I picked up a current edition of the local diocesan newspaper. The Bishop’s column presented a particular viewpoint. Remember that this man, in the view of the institutional church is the authoritative teacher of the church’s members. In the column the bishop forcefully expresses himself on marriage and the choices people make in their marriage. He launched a salvo against contraception and other choices couples make as sexual partners with responsibilities to the quality and sustainability of their family life. The bishop informed the readers, or more to the point – the church members, that choosing contraceptive strategies that are anything other than that commanded by the institutional church (do they still call it natural family planning?) – constitutes a choice for evil. And those who choose such a strategy are sinners.

This is quite a charge since every reputable study and survey on the matter shows that up to 85-90% of Catholic couples choose a contraceptive strategy other than the one commanded by the institutional church and its celibate officeholders, the bishops.

Aside from the fact that he gets away with opining on the full-board sinful character of the lives of his members – he makes it clear that (while validly married, mind you) he considers them to be living in sin. Aside, also, from this is the apparent fact that his members pay no attention to him!

And why is that? Could it be that the lived experience of his members is basically a message to this authoritatively teaching bishop that he knows not of which he speaks? Or, perhaps more to the point, he speaks of that which he has not lived!

Recently, while having a conversation with a young engaged couple we talked about a priest who presented them with his view of their decision to marry outside of a Roman Catholic Church building. The priest took advantage of the occasion to also offer an analysis (some might say passing judgment upon) the correctness of the choice of this couple to marry.

The first issue – the outside the building issue – was quickly dispatched, since “that sort of thing just isn’t permitted.” (Unless, of course, you are the daughter of the Governor of the state of New York – a story for another time.)

On the second issue – that of the “correctness of the choice” – the priest informed the couple that they would have an invalid marriage (within the purview of the Catholic Church, of course). While for many of us such a clerical commentary is familiar turf, this millennial bride-to-be was having none of it. Out of respect she did not say it, but in our later conversation she said she thought to herself, “Who are you to say that to me?” One could add, “Who are you to pass judgment?”

One could say that the well-covered matter of the loss of moral and authoritative leadership of the bishops and clergy of the institutional Roman Catholic Church is not only long gone, but it is also so yesterday!

Lived experience is today’s ground for choice. Growing in love for one other person has become the textbook for couples who choose to marry. It is a textbook, some of whose chapters the reader skips to one’s own detriment. But these days the text writes itself – the reader has become the author. And, as will happen, authors find co-authors which a great deal of the time makes the book a much better read.

Perhaps the point is clear. In the 21st century personal, lifelong choices belong to the person. The choice to marry is clearly one choice among other possible choices for living a life of love, mutuality, integrity. It comes as no surprise, this being the case, that institutional requirements take a back seat to personal choice. Clearly, such requirements are still operative, and there are couples who agree to them. Personal choice, though, replaces institutional arrangements or is the force to which institutions increasingly adapt.

Remember when the priest’s opinion and permission mattered in such a direct and enforceable way? Well, that time is gone – or should be. The priest may advise, he may offer an informed opinion, he may express the teaching of the institutional church. These days the engaged couple is free to consider what he says or not.

How refreshing it is to hear Pope Francis when he says, “Who am I to judge?” And how delightful to quote a Pope as a critique of laws and commands that may still contain an ethical principle, but hold no priority among equally appropriate ethical principles .

This notion of lived experience has been around for some time. In the past century philosophers have used the German word Erlebnis” to mean lived experience. By it they mean first that lived experience is inescapable; it is the personal shape and interior existence of who we are. We act in denial of such experience to our peril. Secondly, this term consists of what we do with our experience and the responsibility that is ours in the doing of it. All else – church commands, peer and parental pleasures and/or displeasures, social and cultural persuasions – all else is information to be applied as the person responsibly and healthfully sees fit.

Finally, lived experience that shows itself in authentic love, for people of faith, has become the anvil on which moral, social, political, philosophical and theological choices are hammered out. In such choices we discover ourselves, those we love and those who love us. In such choices we celebrate the invisible within the visible, the divine within the human, the sacrament within the here and now.


Please share your responses, thoughts, criticisms, and yes, disagreements.

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