The Grace of Subordination


Before bedtime, I make rounds to find out where all of my children have landed. They have a distinct bedtime, but there’s still a lot of shifting that occurs once the lights are out. I’ve found children bundled up in a nest in the closet, lying horizontally across a shelf with the linens, crouched down in the narrow space between the wall and their beds, and occasionally, nestled up with each other.

How do they do this? I always wonder at the seeming effortlessness with which they sleep, as though their bodies just power down while doing something else. Meanwhile, I’m a third-trimester insomniac: restless legs, sore back, occasional asthma–which often has me propping myself up in a sitting position with a hundred pillows so I can–maybe–fall asleep vertically.

My husband is oblivious, mainly because he slept out on the hammock one mild summer night, and he’s only slept inside a handful of times since then. I don’t blame him, as sleeping next to a pregnant woman must be its own particular nightmare, and I feel more self-conscious and wakeful when he’s there, trying not to disturb him.

These past few days, as the temperature has dropped and remnant winds from the East Coast hurricane keep up a threatening hum around our house, I wondered if he’d give up his outdoor season. Instead, he rummaged through all the closets in search of my old -30 marmot bag purchased for a college backpacking trip in Europe. Once he got settled with his sweat pants and sweatshirts, an acre away from the house, cocooned in down and suspended in the wind like a spider’s lunch, he called me on his cell phone, “It’s really nice out here. You should come out.”

I could see that there was something like a full moon outside, and I’m sure it was lovely, nevertheless, “I think I’m going to let Sandy keep you company tonight,” I answered, before saying goodnight, and embarking on the work of finding my own way to sleep.

In the morning, I was still at it, still adjusting pillows, and rolling from the right to the left every thirty minutes or so like a rotisserie chicken, acknowledging the approaching day with dread, knowing that the night had not accomplished what it was supposed to accomplish for me.



The morning’s Magnificat readings noted that “after a long night of sleeplessness or suffering, sunrise brings joy and hope for the day to come”–as we might anticipate dying and being resurrected in Christ.

I wasn’t feeling it. No joy or hope with the morning, just:  “WAIT! I’m not done yet! It wasn’t restful!”–and I had to wonder if at the end of my life, I’d still be clinging to the darkness–wishing to be unconscious when there’s a new day of living to do. Sometimes you can see all the blessings in your life, those sleeping kids, the tenacious husband, and still convince yourself, somehow, that because you didn’t sleep well, you’ve got nothing to be glad about.

It’s one of those mysteries of Christian life–how do you return to God the less savory aspects of life on earth– in this case, sleeplessness, or terrible weather– with thankfulness and gratitude?


When I was twenty-two years old, I went on a retreat modeled on the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatious Loyola. One of the first meditations concerned our status as created beings, “creatures” of a Divine Creator. In the silence following the guided portion of the meditation, I remember feeling very dissatisfied with the idea of my being a “creature.” I was raised in the seventies and eighties in public schools, and the minimal religious education I received revolved around my status as a “special person.” You are unique. There’s no one like you. Think for yourself–you’re probably right. You’re free to be your own creation.

It was appealing to be special, to be different, because the self that I could fashion would be entirely to my taste and preferences, and anyone who didn’t “get me” probably just had an inferior sense of understanding, rather than the more likely scenario that I had modeled myself too oddly to be understood.

I wore the black clothes in high school. I hung out with an alternative crowd. But I still had every confidence that I was more special even than my chosen peers. There was no one like me after all. So it was easy to depersonalize even my closest friends.



I once devised a method of ranking different types of people into groups. Type A’s had book smarts, made good grades, probably had enough of a soul to write bad poetry, but peeling back those essential layers just didn’t reveal much. Type B’s were truly exceptional people: geniuses and artists, lunatics and saints, novelists and distance runners–that small civilization of people born with an elite capacity for originality and superior thinking. And poor Type C’s were everyone else, essentially–people who weren’t me, and weren’t a threat to me, because I had a feeling I fell into either category A or B, or was exempt from categorization, as creator and devisor of my own personal ranking system. In other words, I was the god of a very simplistic imaginary universe.

Learning that I was a creature, just one among many creatures in the universe, put me on equal ground with the rest of creation, those As, Bs, and Cs that I thought I had figured out, plus an infinite variety of people I’d never encountered before–creatures one and all.

If I were a creature, it would also mean that I was subject to this Creator who made me. I was unique, yes, and had a purpose–but the purpose was no longer my own. I was made for someone else’s purpose.



“Nothing glorifies God more than for something of no consequence to rely on divine mercy so as to become identified with God himself,” I read in the daily prayers. “This is the grace of subordination.”

It’s a grace to be one of the little ones, I can’t help observing in my sleeping kids. You rest easy when you know your needs are cared for, when you have no worries, when you depend on greater powers than your own–the “grace” of subordination.

There may be nothing but grace that can convince a self-important person that her trials, while huge in her mind, are relatively small in the scheme of things.



In the Mass readings, Saint Paul exhorted wives to be subordinate to their husbands, and for husbands to love their wives as themselves, for the two have become one flesh.

I’ve never found the idea of wifely subordination difficult to stomach.  I have found it difficult to practice at times. And I wonder if difficulty practicing it has less to do with understanding subordination, than with understanding the second part of Saint Paul’s mandate: “the two shall become one flesh.”

Saint Paul backs out of explaining what it means to be of one flesh, saying, “It’s a great mystery, but I speak in reference to Christ and his Church.”

Considering my husband and mine’s recent sleeping arrangements, if the one flesh union is all about sex, we may have reason to panic. And yet sex, in and of itself is not a great mystery. Anyone can have sex. And not everyone who has sex with another becomes one flesh with them.

“One flesh” suggests a continuous union, which is problematic if it’s only about sex. I picture Francesca and Paolo in Dante’s Inferno, glued together forever in an embrace that becomes their torment. Speaking of never getting any sleep…

The reference to Christ and his Church implies that being of one flesh is more about the Kingdom of Christ becoming present on earth and in the family, than about the sex that always comes first to mind.

I imagine the two becoming one in the bodies of our children. If the Kingdom of God is like the yeast that leavens several measures of flour, making it all rise, then making babies requires a little of my DNA, a little of my husband’s, a bit of yeast, and poof, little dough-balls rising in corners all over your house, growing while you sleep.

And yet, strangers can make babies together without undergoing the mystery of one-flesh union. And some married couples never conceive, but it doesn’t mean they are not of one-flesh.

I imagine then, it’s the orientation of our family–the constant challenge of directing ourselves towards God– the prayers we say with the kids at night, before we all go our separate ways to sleep. It’s the one-mind we share in this sleepless, suffering night–that in the morning, we’ll dwell together in eternity.

Or perhaps, it’s the way surrendering my constant need to be the authority on all possible opinions that may affect our family creates peace between my husband and me.

I think it’s all these things.

What holds man and wife together in the flesh? Sometimes its the kids, sometimes the sex, sometimes the prayers, sometimes the community in which we live, sometimes it’s the bond of thinking alike. All of them work together like blood, bone, heart, and head to keep the flesh intact.

But it’s the grace that breathes life into this body, grace from the Sacrament, yeast making it all rise.

In this way, I submit myself to something more than just a man, rather, to the one-flesh union in the Body of Christ.



Creature is such an ugly word.

Sometimes you have to get out of the house to remember what a lovely thing it is to be a creature. This is why my husband sometimes takes videos of the sun rising from his hammock and then comes inside like a little boy saying, “Look at this! See what you’re missing?”

And sometimes you have to look inside other people to see what a lovely thing creatureliness can be, which is why I’m always calling my husband over to put his hand on my stomach and feel the baby move.

Exulting in little things, in our own littleness, diminishes our trials and discomforts, and takes away the sting of subordinating our inclination to make ourselves center of the universe.

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About Elizabeth Duffy