Chapter 3: The God Who Provides
For as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to get married. All five of my older siblings married their college sweethearts, so I had no road map for what to do when I didn’t even have a girlfriend to go along with my diploma in 2004. I had dated a few girls, but my head and my heart never seemed to agree. Either I fell hard for girls that weren’t really that interested in me in the end or my feelings quickly faded when dating girls that I knew possessed so many great qualities and virtues. While in college, I volunteered with local parish youth ministry programs. I loved serving in youth ministry, but I majored in business and planned on pursuing a career in either advertising or finance. I took the typical route toward a career in finance by accepting a junior high youth ministry job right after graduating.
I told myself I would be a youth minister for a year so I wouldn’t have to feel guilty about making a lot of money years later when I got a real job. One year turned into 11, but I can’t complain because I absolutely loved the opportunity to share the Gospel with young people. I was convinced that God had a perfect plan for the lives of every teen I met, but I wasn’t seeing any grand plan coming to fruition in my own life. It was a struggle to keep trying to convince other people that the Lord would provide for their needs when I was still not so sure He was hearing my prayers.
On one hand I thought that maybe I’d find love after achieving some arbitrary combination of sin minimization and holiness maximization, but on the other, I had several friends whose lives seemed much more chaotic and yet were happily married. It was immediately after returning home from the wedding of one of these happy friends that I brought my frustrations and questions to the Lord. I was never one to keep a regular journal, but at a local adoration chapel one night, I decided to write a letter to my future spouse. I wasn’t feeling prophetic, or even hopeful, but I saw it as an opportunity to distract myself from the frustration of still being single. Over the next few years I wrote about 20 of these letters, usually during points when relationships or just life in general seemed to hit another detour or dead end.
The letters themselves didn’t necessarily fill me with hope, but their existence did help keep me accountable as I hoped to someday give them to my future wife, and I wanted to be living a life that I could proudly write to her about. Despite the growing pile of letters I was accumulating, my love life was no better than before. My life revolved around youth ministry, both running the program at my parish and speaking at retreats and conferences around the country. On the last night of the last retreat of a particularly busy summer, the girl I had been seeing ended things. The next morning, just before heading home, I got a call from one of my roommates that our apartment had flooded. I returned home just in time to grab a bunch of my things and temporarily relocate to my brother’s basement. After a nonstop summer of working with high school students, my last few days of freedom before the next school year began were spent camping on the floor belonging to two of my teenage nephews. I was exhausted from the summer, I felt like I was totally spent from trying to serve the Lord in ministry, and yet it seemed like the rewards for my efforts were a heartbreak and water damage.
I laid in bed (specifically the floor that now served as my bed) and silently had it out with God. I expressed my fear that despite my attempts to follow God and to work for Him, He had forgotten about me and my future. It was a one-sided conversation as I vented to God, but then all of a sudden I heard Him clearly speak to my heart: “I’m not done.” It was as strange to experience as it is to read about; I had never had my prayer interrupted by God before. Usually He kindly respects my rants, but this time, He spoke clearly (though not audibly, don’t worry) and it stopped me mid-lamentation. It was an odd thing to hear, and a bit concerning when I first took it as a threat that He might eliminate even more good things from my life. If nothing else, I was greatly consoled to have heard from God. Even though He offered no clarity, I had no doubt that it was His voice. I knew it couldn’t have just been my own wishful thinking that conjured up this phrase, especially because it made no sense in the moment and didn’t seem to be what I wanted to hear.
Back to my illustrious youth ministry career. In addition to the enormous salary and status that come along with the position, I also had Fridays off from work. According to the parish business manager and my friends, it also appeared that I took Saturdays through Thursdays off, but I digress. Since I lived close to one of my brothers and his large family, I was able to spend lots of time with my nieces and nephews. Once in awhile I would pick up the kids from school for my brother and his wife, and the experience helped me grow in humility as I rolled up to the elementary school in my sister-in-law’s well used minivan.
Days after my apartment flooded, I was still floor surfing (that’s what everyone calls it when you are 27 and subleasing from your 13-year-old nephew) in my brother’s basement and had a few vacation days left to burn. With no other plans for the afternoon, or the rest of my life for that matter, I offered to pick the kids up from school. As the kids piled into the van and a stern but fair 9-year old crossing guard informed me that I had violated the school’s traffic flow procedures, we exited the parking lot. Just as we made the turn onto the main road, on the school sidewalk I saw the most beautiful girl I’d ever seen in my life. I asked the kids if anyone knew who she was, praying that I wasn’t now having a momentary crush on some student’s mother. My 10-year old niece Kara told me that this woman was her new math teacher, Miss Ridge. Our conversation regarding the mysterious math teacher ended at that point, despite Kara’s claims to the contrary at a wedding reception nearly two years later.
A week later, on my next Friday off, I was at my brother’s parish for daily mass. I regularly attended this mass on Fridays because it was both close to my (still wet) apartment and it offered me a chance to see my nieces and nephews as the elementary school students also attended this mass. In defense of my dignity, it’s important to state that my habit of attending Friday liturgies at this parish long preceded the arrival of the new math teacher. Occasionally my nieces and nephews would move away from their classes’ assigned seats and sit with me when they saw me at mass. On this particular Friday, Kara came over to my pew with a big smile on her face. She whispered to me that she had just told Miss Ridge that I liked her. As one can tell from reading, it was embarrassing and made me look slightly pathetic. The optics were even more disturbing. The church was circular in design, so every pew is facing another set of pews in the circle. With the students taking up the majority of the seats available, the only pews I could choose just happened to be about 180 degrees (directly across) from Courtney Ridge, the now concerned math teacher.
I had no plan or opportunity to introduce myself to Courtney, and certainly no hope for recovery from my new reputation as the creep who uses his niece to set him up on dates when he’s not stalking teachers via mass seating charts. There was no foreseeable opportunity to meet Miss Ridge, and besides, my sister-in-law had heard that Courtney was currently dating someone. About six months later, I ended up meeting Courtney at a young adult retreat, but I didn’t know what to say beyond, “Hi, are you Courtney Ridge? I think my niece Kara told you that I like you.” That was it. No fireworks, no flowing conversation, and certainly no chance of a smooth next step for me. Courtney was in line for confession and I realized there was no follow up line that could possibly straddle the line between distancing myself from my niece’s claim or scaring Courtney with an affirmation of Kara’s statement. Having successfully botched our one interaction, I figured that was the end of it. A few months later I got a text from my sister-in-law that Miss Ridge was recently single and open to the possibility of going out on a date with me. It’s important to once again establish my credibility in stating that I never requested this setup. My sister-in-law’s best friend just so happened to be the school secretary who had recently heard Courtney mention that she was single.
I emailed Courtney at her school email address, asking for her number so I could ask her out to dinner. Knowing that she was a math teacher, I considered including in the email a math problem that she’d have to solve to get my phone number. This idea was problematic because whatever creativity points I might’ve earned for the equation, the message would essentially have been an extended invitation for her to call me. I decided to opt instead for my usual tactic of overestimating my comedic talent and making several stupid jokes in an introductory email. Thankfully Courtney was willing to settle for less than she deserved; she responded to the email with a division problem I had to solve to get her phone number. We went out four days later and it was great. I found Courtney so attractive, so interesting, and so much fun to spend time with. Every conversation left me more interested in her than before, my tendency to overthink was overwhelmed by my enjoying her company, and my typically fickle heart was set on her. We went on dates, we hung out within our larger friend groups, I met her family and she met mine, and throughout all of these experiences, I couldn’t get enough of Courtney.
In August 2011, I was chaperoning a group of students in Madrid for World Youth Day. My prayer intention for the pilgrimage was to seek God’s will in my relationship with Courtney. I was fairly sure that I wanted to marry her, but I also knew that my heart wasn’t always the most reliable barometer for good decisions. One morning in Madrid, I woke up with a newfound confidence that I wanted to propose to Courtney. A huge group of us waited outside a church to be let in for a catechesis session led by Francis Cardinal George, OMI, and there was a commotion as a van approached the crowded church’s entrance. We learned that the relics of St. Therese of Lisieux, the Little Flower, were to be brought in to the church for veneration that day. A few of us were asked to help carry the relics into the church, and I made a deal with St. Therese as we walked in. I didn’t know much about St. Therese other than the fact that she was really into flowers and that her feast day is October 1, so I decided that I’d propose to Courtney on October 1st. That gave God, St. Therese, and Courtney almost two months to end the relationship if it wasn’t meant to be. Once we sat down, Cardinal George preached to a mostly teenage congregation about marriage, commitment, and love. He spoke so clearly about the necessity to make a commitment with one’s life when we’ve found a love worth living for. I don’t know how many of the 15-year-olds in the church that day could relate to what Cardinal George was saying, but I heard it loud and clear.
I returned from the pilgrimage certain that I would propose to Courtney on October 1st, but I really wanted to surprise her. Courtney had never prayed the St. Therese novena, so I suggested that we pray it together starting at the end of September. On the evening of October 1st, 2011, I surprised Courtney in her living room with lots of roses, lots of votive candles that I
stole borrowed from my parish’s sacristy, and the best words I could find to express my desire to spend my life loving and serving her. That night I also gave Courtney the letters that I had been writing for the past few years, wanting her to know that I’d been waiting years to meet her. Months later we realized that my first letter to my future spouse had been written on October 1, 2007, exactly 4 years to the day before I proposed to Courtney. I thought I had invited St. Therese to be involved in our relationship just two months before the proposal, but I’m now convinced that the Little Flower had been at work all along.
We were married on April 14, 2012, at Holy Family Church in Steubenville, Ohio. It had been a joyful but hectic week leading up to the wedding, full of seating charts, coordinating family events, and 15 million people asking me how I was doing. By the morning of our wedding, I was exhausted. I was certain that I wanted to marry Courtney, I was convinced that God was a fan of our relationship, but I was also wiped out. I knew our families and friends would be coming from far and wide to witness our joy, and more importantly, to be reminded of God’s ridiculously generous love for us.
That morning I was able to pray with the priest who married us before the wedding. My prayer was that the joy inside me would be visible on the outside; I didn’t want our families and friends to just see the exhaustion in my face. I wanted to be focused on the reality of the sacrament of marriage, not the endless details and plans leading up to the event. I walked up the aisle and waited for Courtney. Both her sisters and mine processed in as bridesmaids, and then she appeared. Courtney was absolutely breathtaking, but that wasn’t a surprise because I always found her to be incredibly beautiful. As I first saw her walking toward me, it was like my entire past flashed before my eyes. All my waiting, all my searching, all my asking God “why” or “why not” over the years, it all made sense in that moment. I saw who He had been preparing me for, and I saw in that moment what a great mercy it had been that He had said “no” so many times in the past. I saw what the Lord meant when the He told me that He wasn’t done just two years earlier, when it seemed like my future and my happiness had been the farthest things from His mind.
The frustrations and questions, the hurts and pains of the past, seemed like nothing at all compared to the joy He gave me in that moment. It wasn’t that the Lord simply fixed my past, but He was able to make use of everything Courtney and I had gone through in the past to lead us to that day. I experienced a glimpse of what Saint Paul referred to when he wrote, “For this momentary light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison” (2 Cor. 4:17). The hurt and loneliness I had felt in the past seemed so insignificant in comparison to the overwhelming reality of God’s goodness in my life. The beauty I encountered in that moment was a sharp contrast to the combination of laughing and ugly crying I was experiencing at the same time. With an all-male cast behind me on the altar, there was no one capable to help me process the emotions I was experiencing. The best these guys could offer me was a tissue. Even Courtney was caught off guard. When she made it to the front of the church, she whispered in my ear, “What are you laughing at?”
As everyone had warned us, the wedding day flew by. The reception was a perfect combination of our families’ personalities; my 30 nieces and nephews ran wild the whole night hopped up on candy and limitless soda refills, and Courtney’s father unicycled across the dance floor while her brother juggled flaming torches. When we finally drove away from the reception that night, the reality of our marriage began to sink in. For the rest of my life, I was given the vocation to love and be loved by the most incredible, smart, beautiful, and holy woman I had ever met. Seven years later I still can’t believe how lucky I am.
Throughout our relationship, the Lord has consistently reminded me that He knows our needs and that He is a loving Father who is willing and able to provide for His children. Looking back now, it’s crazy to think that I ever doubted Him. These past seven years of marriage have been incredibly blessed. Our children Ellie and Francis were born in Virginia, where I worked as a parish youth minister and high school theology teacher. Three months after Francis was born, we packed up and moved to a small town in Austria where we now live. I work for Franciscan University of Steubenville’s study abroad program, and two years ago we were blessed with another son, Isaac Joseph. Though Isaac was born in Austria, he still proudly cheers for American teams, measures his temperature using Fahrenheit, and refuses to acknowledge soccer as the world’s favorite sport.