Till Death (or Engine Failure) Do Us Part

Wedding season is upon us. This spring, summer, and fall, millions more will be tying the knot, and those of us who are lucky enough to attend a Roman Catholic ceremony will hear a vow formula such as this:

I, ____, take you, ____, to be my lawful husband/wife, to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death do us part.

As a friar, I will obviously never take wedding vows. (My until death moment came last August 11th, when I made solemn profession to God in the Order of Preachers.) Yet if you’ll allow me to share the story of a car I once owned, maybe it can shed some light on the beauty of a true, sacramental, indissoluble marriage between a man and a woman.

In the winter of 1999, returning home to New Jersey after graduating from college, I purchased a 1989 Volvo 740GL. I don’t know why, but something attracted me to Volvos, so when I found one at good price with only 80,000 miles on it, I didn’t have to think long. For the next seven or eight years, I drove that car from Maine to Virginia to Vermont. I drove it all over New York City, New Jersey, and Philadelphia. I took it on countless trips to Boston and Cape Cod and elsewhere. I installed Sirius Satellite Radio in 2002 as one of their first 100,000 customers. During the warm May and June evenings, my friends and I would open the sun roof and smoke cigars while heading into New York City for some live music. Good times.

Of course, Volvos have legendary durability when it comes to things like the drive train or the transmission. So, on my car, it was the silly stuff that would break, such as the shock mount, the turn-signal light housing, the antenna, the light over the license plate (which actually got me pulled over once), or the hub caps that seemed to fly off too easily. After a quick fix, I’d be good for thousands of more miles. From 150,000 to 200,000, from 200,000 to 250,000: as the odometer rolled on, I was just hoping I could reach the coveted 300,000-mile mark.

There were hard times, too, such as when the battery was shot, or the electrical system malfunctioned. There were the snowstorms, the traffic jams, and the parking tickets. Many a time the Volvo ended up on a flat-bed tow truck, and the driver would take me out to my mechanic, who was always encouraging me to hit that 300,000 mark. (A good business practice.) The air-conditioning never worked, and one winter the heat went out, so that I had to wear foot warmers in my boots. Truly, this relationship was for better and worse, richer and poorer.

I also made my living out of that car. I was a diplomatic courier for a few years, running in and out of New Jersey and New York city, dropping off and picking up documents from consulates, etc. More importantly, however, and very surprisingly, it was in that car that I discovered my vocation and learned God’s will for the good of my immortal soul. This happened in a number of different ways. The first and most critical was silence. By simply turning off the radio or not talking on the phone (it was still legal without a handset), I was able to listen to God. Second, in that school of silence I began to pray the Rosary every day. Third, I began to learn more of the fullness of the faith via Catholic broadcasting. Over the period of about a year, I came to know that I had a calling to religious life and, eventually, while I was doing my courier work in New York City, I met the Dominicans Friars.

Finally, one spring day in 2007, on Route 9 just south of Elizabeth, New Jersey, my Volvo and I hit the 300,000-mile mark. I pulled over, got out, did a little dance, took a picture of the odometer, patted the car on the dashboard, and got back on the road, reminiscing about all the trips I had taken in the car.

Not long afterwards, on a beautiful June evening in New York, as I rounded east 71st Street onto 5th Avenue, the car went completely dead—electronics, engine, everything. I coasted over to a parking spot in front of the Frick Museum and, somehow, I knew it was the end. The car was towed out to my trusty mechanic, and a few days later I got the call: “Jack, we did all we could, but . . .”

When I bought that car, I had not the slightest clue what lay in store, but looking back—my goodness—what God accomplished inside that old Volvo leaves me speechless.

Of course, this is just a story about a car and its owner. Wedding vows (or religious vows) are about something much more important—us and our Creator. What will take place after those vows, and before death, will assuredly be beyond anything we can imagine. We cannot anticipate the details of God’s plan for the salvation of our souls. We have only to be faithful, in good times and bad. That is why sacramental marriage (or solemn religious profession) is indissoluble. What love!

As I was rounding the corner  on 5th Ave that evening just moments before my Volvo died, the song coming out of the radio was—no joke—Mark Knopler and Emmylou Harris’s duet, This Is Us, about a husband and wife looking back on a happy marriage. What providence!

Image: The Author’s Car, Yankee Automotive Shop (Easton, Pennsylvania), ca. 2006

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