I had someone contact me after reading my recent post on ‘saint-making marriage,’ and ask me this question: ‘So, after your friend shared with you his understanding of marriage as saint-making, what again was the exact insight you came to understand?’
Great question. Here is a knee-jerk stab at it that has all the romance of a theology book.
I shared with this inquirer in reply that there were two things in particular I have come to appreciate from his comment as our marital years have evolved: (1) marriage lived as a sacrament is about walking the ‘narrow way’ to holiness and (2) the ‘personal fulfillment’ to be had in marriage is not primarily me-centered but thee-centered.
The sacramental theology of the Catholic tradition says that the grace of the sacrament of marriage is effected not by the ordained minister witnessing the exchange of promises, but by the couple in their free consent to enter into a lifelong, till-death covenant. Their consent allows them to participate in God’s unbreakable covenant of love for humanity that was ratified and consummated in Christ. This means that the spouses are themselves sources of sacramental grace, and as with all sacraments what is received and given in the sacrament of marriage is Christ’s self-giving dying and rising.
This means that by freely accepting the sacrament of marriage in the exchange of promises, the couple accepts into their relationship, like holy Communion received in the hand, the substantial fire of Christ’s self-sacrificing love. By accepting this holy sacrament at the moment they say ‘I do,’ husband and wife pledge to live out that sacramental dying-rising love together every moment of every day, till death rends their one-flesh union.
And as we know what nuptial love looks like in Christ, we know it ain’t pretty. But it is beautiful.
My Good is Your Good
This marital covenant fidelity, cemented by the couple’s free pledge of undying and self-giving love, is a very costly love that is the soul of marital holiness. Nuptial holiness involves daily acts of hidden heroism as each spouse chooses again and again to love the other, with relentless resolve, and each chooses to place the other first.
As a married man, my definition of personal fulfillment always includes my wife and the children that God has created from the clay of our one-flesh union. Spouses, in effect, say to one another every day: ‘my happiness includes your happiness; my fulfillment includes your fulfillment.’ Not in a dysfunctional co-dependent way, where my happiness is wrongly dependent on your happiness, but rather in a healthy interpersonal way, where I include you as my quest for happiness by choosing at all times what is in our best interest.
What makes this shared quest for marital fulfillment really challenging is that both spouses are broken sinners, imperfect lovers, and so their mutual love has to also be a redemptive love willing to bear the other’s burdens. Spouses help lead each other, from the midst of their grace-soaked marital union, from brokenness into wholeness. And just as Christ loved his sinful Bride even unto death at her own hands, so the couple must suffer together a certain arduous toil in loving their flawed beloved, and flawed children, from sin into grace. Seen thus, spouses faults aren’t the unfortunate obstacles to each other’s happiness, but opportunities for heroic love.
This vision of marriage as a vocation of redemptive love is what makes it a form of lived martyrdom, of dying to self for the sake of the beloved. And to succeed fully as a recipe for marital success, both spouses have to own this vision.
This ‘redemptive’ character of spousal love is what medieval theologians believed to be one of the primary ends of marriage – remedium concupiscentiae, ‘the remedy of concupiscence.’ Concupiscence, which is the way theology describes the moral dysfunction of sinful humanity (sexual and otherwise), finds in marriage a powerful salve, a healing grace that allows God to untie the knot of our twisted desires and teach us to love aright. And how perfect that he accomplishes this healing in the heart of the very relationship from which all sin first sprang. O happy fault, as Adam and Eve gave me the chance to love my bride with a costly love!
Marriage is Beyond Me
In marriage, you also enter into something much greater than yourself, and the whole of marriage is greater than the sum of the two parts. In marriage, you consent to cooperate with Christ in healing the broken human race, beginning with yourselves, and in opening humanity to a most intimate share in the divine life/love poured out out for us in Christ. In this sense, one might say the future of humanity, its very salvation, depends on fidelity to the gift of marriage entrusted to humanity by God from the very beginning, and on the gift of sacramental marriage entrusted to the Church by Christ.
In addition, our children are constant visible reminders of our self-transcending commitment. They are living, breathing, walking signs of our choice to remain for the long haul and be for them God’s earthly home.
In a culture that tends to define happiness in terms of the autonomous and self-sufficient individual, whose ‘pursuit of happiness’ is perceived to be in competition with other individuals’ self-interests, this approach to marital bliss is hard to digest without creating ethical heartburn. The fact is, having a ‘good marriage’ is really hard work. But it’s love alone that makes all hard work seem easy.
Christ-less = Crisis
But we are Christians, and so it’s not all about hard work and effective strategies. First an foremost it’s about hard prayer and effective cooperation with God’s manifold grace. Marriage is what God has joined, not about what we have joined. Which means that living a sacramental marriage of necessity requires explicit and sustained intimacy with Christ, the giver and content of the sacrament. It’s Christ whom I am loving in my wife, and it’s Christ who empowers me to love her worthily and forgives me for not.
In fact, to attempt to live a sacramental marriage without Christ is like a priest trying to confect the Eucharist without Christ — it’s an empty gesture devoid of power.
A last point. When I worked at the Missionaries of Charity Gift of Peace hospice in 1991-92, I was lovingly confronted one day by the superior of the house, Sr. Manorama, after she listened to me bitterly complain about the hardships of serving a difficult patient I was caring for. His name was Robert.
After hearing me out for nearly an hour, she simply said, “Tom, it’s not about you. It’s about Robert. And inasmuch as it’s about Robert, it’s about Jesus. And that’s why we’re here. It’s just not about you.”
It’s never about me, but always about thee and we and the thrice-holy Three, that life-creating, lovely and undivided Trinity.
And that insight is for me the utterly and absolutely revolutionary key to marital and parenting success.