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A Meditation on a Mature Marriage

A young couple looks at marriage through the eyes of romance. The freshly minted bride and groom foresee a great adventure which will be lived in a whirlwind of joy. These feelings and expectations arise understandably because romance appears to be the fountainhead of love, the spring from which the unitive purpose of marriage draws its life, the inexhaustible source of lifelong wedded bliss.

Well-instructed young Catholics will be careful, in theory, to avoid reducing love to romance. But in the midst of romance it is very hard to escape its exhilarating grasp. Feelings of euphoria make it too easy to be led astray even by various contemporary “orthodox Catholic” theories of wedded love. The same misconceptions seem to keep slipping in, as it were, through the back door.

I see two such theories particularly at work at the present time. First, we have what we might call the theory of the sufficiency of orthodoxy in marriage. Here the young couple is led to believe that they can avoid the pitfalls of the secular emphasis on romance simply by being intellectually faithful to Catholic teaching. “We know the truth,” the couple may say, “and so our marriage will work out fine.” Knowing the truth is important, of course, but it is a grave mistake to think that this will take the toil and trouble out of marriage, miraculously transmuting an initial romance into a deep and abiding love.

Second, we have what we might call the marriage counselor’s theology of the body. Taken as intended, John Paul II’s anthropologically brilliant theology of the body provides a wonderful understanding of the nuptial design of the human person; I do not mean to minimize it. But some commentators would lead young couples (locked, remember, in the heady throes of romance) to make a shrine of their marriage bed and strive to recreate in their own marriage the state of original justice which was irretrievably lost to all of us when Adam and Eve sinned.

Without thoroughly analyzing such misconceptions here, suffice it to say that these theories too often provide young Catholic couples with new ways to cling to the same viewpoint I mentioned at the beginning: “We’re not blind to the errors of the pagans,” they may argue, “but if we just get our theory right, we will transform ordinary romance into Catholic romance, and that will make all the difference!”

Romance: Purpose and Limitations

The problem, of course, is that romance is never ordinary and, in itself, it is incapable of being specifically Catholic. The obsessive power of romantic love is not banished by theories; on the contrary, it has a tendency to cause us to get hold of the wrong end of the stick. Romance is wonderful, but it isn’t married love, and it will never be married love. In fact, if we’re fooled by it, romance can obscure love as easily as it enhances it. Now don’t get me wrong: Romance has a great and noble purpose. But it is the handmaiden, not the fount, of married love, and its purpose is to secure a couple’s relationship long enough for them to begin to learn what married love really is.

That’s why, in looking back now on 38 years of marriage (and by the grace of God still counting), I can honestly say to newlyweds that, in imagining your “forever young” future, you are not exactly wrong, but you don’t know the half of it. A great many of those funny old couples who—after 30, 40, 50, or 60 years—look to you like they’ve worn out nearly everything  good about marriage actually know a depth of love that you aren’t yet even capable of understanding.

This isn’t meant as a criticism of the young, on whom marriage (unlike education) is by no means wasted. Rather, it is meant as an affirmation of an institution which cannot be negotiated successfully with romantic love, but only with a sacrificial love that grows deeper and more powerful day by day. In the beginning, romance overshadows a little teacup of love, so easily spilled here and there, which in a successful marriage will grow into a vast reservoir, so deep that we can no longer plumb its depths. I hesitate to call it infinite, though an important part of it is, but I’ve also given up on finite comparisons. Romance may have been astonishing in the beginning, but those whose marriages grow in Christ over time will never, ever trade the end result for mere romance.

Goal: Complete Mutual Self-Giving

We must begin by not kidding ourselves. First, marriage is based on a couple’s complete mutual gift of self. Second, in reality we never succeed in completely fulfilling that gift. Though we’re often unaware that our own discontents are evidence of a lack of self-giving, the truth is that it is always a struggle to give a little more and a little more. The marriage contract itself gives juridical form to this self-giving; we must reflect a minimal understanding of this commitment for a marriage even to be valid. But success consists primarily not in saying we honored the principle on our wedding day, but in actually honoring the principle bit by bit, over and over again, in daily practice.

It should (but does not) go without saying that a couple honors the principle of complete mutual self-giving first by recognizing that all other romantic or sexual liaisons, be they simultaneous or serial, are forbidden for those who commit themselves to marriage. Interestingly, apart from the Catholic Church, there is almost no real institutional recognition of this concept anywhere in the world today. Some religions permit polygamy, other Christian groups permit divorce and remarriage, and the civil order practically revolves around the right to change your mind. We may look at the high percentage of young couples who no longer bother with formal marriage at all, and we may lament that they are not prepared to make a commitment to the principle of complete mutual self-giving. We may say, “They ought to get married!” But why? In most cases, formal marriage as they know it no longer really represents a commitment to this principle anyway.

Not so in the Catholic understanding. Thinking back to a dimly remembered passage of Scripture, we might recall the question our Lord was asked about divorce:

They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of divorce, and to put her away.” But Jesus said to them, “For your hardness of heart he wrote you this commandment. But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder.” And in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. And he said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another, commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” (Mk 10:4-12)

Jesus also made marriage a sacrament. The Church knows that this means he himself will provide the strength to keep the commitment, so that with Christ marriage really becomes a case of “baby makes four” (or six, if you count all the Persons of the Blessed Trinity). The hardness of our hearts (left unhealed) makes marriage extremely difficult, and perhaps even impossible, but grace softens hearts and works the necessary miracle. Did I forget to mention that marriage is now a miracle? Engraced marriage opens us to a love and joy and peace of which we are not capable on our own. You may argue that the unmarried can know a divine love and peace and joy, and this is certainly true. But the miracle of marriage is that it enables a love neither merely divine nor merely human. It enables a love inextricably bound to one unique, unrepeatable human person in Christ—a love that enshrines the infinite, so to speak, not only in the Other but in the other, a love that is paradoxically unlimited precisely because it is circumscribed.

This circumscription is perhaps even more obvious in the procreative end of marriage. The supreme instance of complete mutual self-giving is the conception of a child, who is two-in-one-flesh personified. Therefore it ought again to go without saying, right after the virtue of fidelity, that the very nature of marriage requires a generous openness to conceiving, bearing, and raising children. Indeed, any form of deliberate contraception undermines the very character of the marriage bond, and tends to cut off its fruit, not only in offspring but in love. Yet modern couples cannot fail to get the message that children bring hardship and suffering as well as joy. Facing this squarely brings us to an important point.

When the Hardships Come

The human person does not have the luxury of being merely in love with love. The danger is too great, for we nearly always confuse love with the feelings that surround it. In consequence, we constantly insist on loving ourselves in the name of love, and we do this very badly. For example, a man or woman in love with love will cast off one partner after another, choosing the fresh romantic feelings of a new relationship again and again. On the contrary, human love cannot develop and grow unless it is directed not only to God in the abstract (a poor word for the spiritual) but to God through someone material, concrete, finite, imperfect, and actually in need of love. The parish priest will experience this through his flock (and, inevitably, through his bishop and brother priests); the religious through others in the community and through those encompassed by the community’s charism; the single lay person through those who participate in and benefit from the work to which the person is called.

In all of these cases, the choice is to some degree generic; it is a choice of a general manner or setting of love. But the rub comes after that choice, for then one must love this flock or this group or this superior, whether one likes the particular situation or not. The single lay person may more easily escape such “thisness,” though eventually he must embrace it or cease to love. But in contrast, the person called to marriage chooses very specifically the sole finite and imperfect recipient and conduit of his love, and most couples do so under conditions in which love seems natural, easy, and inevitable. But once they’re locked in, they must love this one person no matter what, even if they can no longer imagine how they ever thought this love was natural, easy, and inevitable. (This same unalterable “thisness” resides in the couple’s children, whom they must love whether they fit their dream or not.)

Hardship in love is always a function of the qualities and behavior of those we are called in a special way to love and of the difficulty we have in giving ourselves completely, even when we mistakenly think we already have. And so we must distinguish the success of our love from its consolations. Only a sanctimonious fool would argue that if a priest will only pray as he should, he will be filled with an imperishable sense of sweetness in all his pastoral work. In the same way, only such a fool would insist that every married man or woman will constantly (or, indeed, ever) enjoy the sweetness of marital bliss if only he or she will turn to God and remain faithful. To the contrary, immense difficulties—sometimes rooted primarily in those we must love rather than in ourselves—can and do arise, and immense suffering sometimes follows.

That this suffering often arises partly from our own deficiencies does not make it easier to bear. But one does not need to be the least bit sanctimonious to realize that it is precisely through persevering in love even when the consolations of love are absent that our love grows most rapidly, and that we are made ready for an eternal love which cannot disappoint. What this means is that our best course is always to draw on God’s own strength to persevere, even though we are not guaranteed a corresponding consolation. At the same time, because our love must always be directed toward one or more imperfect human persons in imperfect human situations, we should also have the good sense to draw on whatever human aids and support we can in addition to prayer and grace.

It Is Deep, This Settled Married Love

I admit freely that I have no direct personal experience of a marital situation in which the other party has made it extremely difficult to persevere in love. My understanding of this sort of unfortunate situation comes only from the experiences of others. Thinking of my own wife, I can honestly say that Barbara is more sinned against than sinning. So I find myself extraordinarily blessed, and I can only hope that my many consolations spur rather than retard my own growth in love.

Still, at least my blessings enable me to convey something of what it is like to reflect back on a long and fruitful marriage, which may serve as an encouragement to those who are in some more difficult middle years. Indeed, I find that these days I cannot pray the second Luminous Mystery of the rosary (The Miracle at Cana) without reflecting again and again on what a rich blessing marriage is, and specifically my own marriage, for the whole point is that each marriage reaches universal love only through a love that is exceedingly particular. There is first of all the wonder of still being unalterably committed in love after 38 years, with all the shared memories and experiences this implies. And since love cannot stagnate, but by its very nature must either grow or die, this settled married love is so much deeper now than on our wedding day that it yields from moment to moment a brighter anticipation of what it must be like to be taken up by God’s love in heaven.

Of course married love multiplies not only through its unitive purpose its procreative purpose as well. In our own case, we have six children (four boys and two girls), with three more adult children grafted on through marriages of their own, and eight grandchildren so far (counting two in their respective wombs). We believe that our children and their spouses are the most remarkable creatures God ever fashioned, and our intense happiness at their own fidelity to Christ and his Church is something we find almost impossible to express.

But when it comes to our grandchildren, faith doesn’t enter into it at all: It is simply self-evident that they are the best the world has ever seen! That they are a new generation being raised to know, love, and serve God adds wonderfully to our joy. But this doesn’t stop us from praying daily for all of them, in the midst of the manifold material and spiritual dangers of their lives. This fact of prayer also creates a special message for those whose children and grandchildren may not yet know Christ: Whether in season or out of season, prayer is both the common denominator and the key.

In any case, the vast majority of those who put their spiritual backs into marriage will know these manifold blessings—the growth and deepening of married love, and the multiplying of life and love in children and grandchildren. Couples should enter into marriage not only praying for these goods but actually expecting to receive them. Such blessings, though not inevitable, are proper to marriage, which is why they are specifically enumerated in the rite of matrimony.

In addition, couples should be aware that the self-giving of marriage is a school of sanctity. As the spouses grow more deeply in love with each other, they also grow together more deeply in love with God. This is an often unspoken result of marriage, especially of sacramental marriage, and it is precisely this which enables the circumscribed space of married love to open out to the infinite. It is also this which gives to married couples their deep peace and joy and confidence through all the hardships, struggles, and victories they face together.

Those who are long-married possess a deep awareness of the fruitfulness of their bond. This same sense pervades, or ought to pervade, even those marriages which, through no desire or fault of the couple, are childless. The essence of all love—but of married love in a particular way—is fruitfulness. Those who cannot have children (or who have lost them) may be assured that they are being called to be fruitful in a different and less usual way. They will be called to something they can do specifically as a couple to provide materially and/or spiritually for others. Even the acceptance of their cross in a spirit of joyful surrender to God’s will for the sake of others is a powerful work of love and mercy.

God’s word never returns to him void, but accomplishes the purposes for which he has sent it (Is 55:11). So to all married couples, including childless couples, I have this to say: Has he not blessed your union? In the economy of salvation, the sacrament of matrimony, its graces unleashed and employed, is always immensely fruitful.

Fruitfulness in Loss

It is a rare and wonderful gift to grow old together in marriage; it is a devastating pain and loss to be widowed. For most, this will be part of the package, experienced in a lingering departure or in a final loss either sudden or slow. Someone once described widowhood as having the props knocked out so that the widow or widower might depend more completely on God. This is true, but even in this suffering—perhaps especially in this suffering—married love can be increased and transformed and purified into all that our Lord has always intended it to become. Which one of us, having lost the spouse of a lifetime, would wish that we had never married so that we might avoid this pain?

In this context it may be easier to comfort those who experience a different sort of loss: the irremediable breakdown of a marriage—the departure of a spouse, despite one’s best efforts to the contrary. The Catholic thus left in the breach bears a heavy cross. In some cases, he or she must suffer the loss of existing or future children. And in all cases, the faithful Catholic spouse must suffer the demands of continued fidelity to the marriage bond without any possibility of enjoying the expected consolations of marriage. The Left Behind series of books doesn’t hold a candle to what the surviving half of a married couple feels when he or she is left behind, either by the death or the departure of the other spouse.

Here again we must know deep in our bones that it really is not baby who makes three. The sanctity of the marriage bond and the recompense for spousal love is guaranteed by the Silent Partner, the One who never betrays and cannot die, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. I have already said that only the sanctimonious will insist that a reliance on this holy principle will bring consolations as certain as they are continual. All we can say is that, as God never tempts us beyond our strength, if we really need a consolation to survive this or any other marital test, then we shall have it in some surprising and even inexplicable form.

And more than this: Whenever we remain faithful in any strained or broken Catholic marriage, Jesus Christ, the Bridegroom of our souls, will supply everything we need for our injured marriage bond to remain fruitful—fruitful in the order of grace, fruitful in happiness and salvation for all our natural and supernatural offspring, fruitful in eternal life and eternal love. This takes the breath away. When I said earlier that the young don’t know the half of it, I did have a point, but truly I was wrong to single out the young.

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