Today is our wedding anniversary. At 11:00 a.m., October 14, 1995 our Nuptial Mass began with us singing “Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee” alone before God, face to face. I remember her radiantly joyful face! Oh, and I think there were other people in the church that day as well. And as we finished praying together this morning in thanksgiving for our marriage and children, we looked out our hotel window and saw this on the beach below:
Since I have not had time to write this week, I thought I would edit and post something I wrote last year but never posted. I hope it benefits someone.
[St. Thomas Aquinas says that] after the love that unites us to God, conjugal love is the “greatest form of friendship.” This unique friendship between a man and a woman acquires an all-encompassing character only within the conjugal union. — Pope Francis
Augustine finds a way to make the “self-donation” of the spouses a function not primarily of natural inclination, but of the long, hard, purifying pedagogy in the loving humility of Christ which begets the only true joys. — John Cavadini
There was a man I know who was having trouble in his marriage, and he asked me recently if I would have lunch with him to speak about his situation. He is a man of deep faith with whom I have enjoyed many wonderful faith-filled conversations. He later gave me permission to share his insights anonymously.
He and his wife, who have several children, have grown distant over thirteen years of marriage. At the time I spoke with him, he said they lived in a state of “total war.” They fought all the time, mostly about parenting issues. “But,” he said, “it’s not the children that really are the issue. It’s that we just don’t like each other any more. We stopped having sex two years ago and can’t even talk about it.” As we talked about why that was the case, he said, “Look, we used to be best friends. There was no one I wanted to be with more than her, and I know she felt the same. Early on, everything came so naturally to us. But then life happened, kids came, my constant job changes, her parents’ resentment of my taking their daughter and grandkids away. It’s the hardest thing imaginable to live with someone you feel you don’t even know anymore. I feel like she hates me.”
Then he cried.
Life had gradually distracted them from each other and, as he said it, “practical things, busyness, children, work all robbed us of the time we used to take to keep each other the main focus.” He was silent for a moment, and then said, “Let me be more honest, Tom, and say we let them rob our time away. At least I did. You could say I thought we had plenty of gas in the tank to make the trip without refueling. The biggest mistake I made was to coast, take ‘us’ for granted. It’s so easy to do, and it seems lots of folks seem to just make it work. But we are just to intense for that to work. I just thought everything would always be the same between us and then everything else just got in the way.”
As we talked further, we talked about how they didn’t really consider how their marital promises had transformed their friendship into something radically new, transitioning from a private into a public reality — a covenant — opening the intimacy and exclusivity of their love to all the others who were now part of their covenant love, i.e. extended family, children, work, church, society. All of these would now depend on and benefit from the beauty and strength of their faith, love and friendship. Yes, the two become one flesh, but that covenant drag a whole lot of other ‘flesh’ in with them!
This demanded of both of them something greater, stronger, more selfless, more open than they had been accustomed to before their marriage. Before, it was really just the two of them. I said, “On your wedding day, it’s like God placed in your joined hands a seed that would germinate and grow into a larger and larger family tree. Think of all the people who have come into your life! People who have come between you and strained your joined hands. To keep your hands joined as that tree grows and not let its increasing weight break them apart, takes mighty work; mighty love; mighty prayer; mighty grace; mighty support. Your love for each other needs to become more fierce and focused and intentional. It’s not too late.”
We talked about marriage as a Sacrament of God’s love. I said to him something like this (very summarized and formalized here),
Marriage reflects that way that the eternal, exclusive, pure love between Father and Son opened itself up to include the whole human race in that love when God became man. Think of what this opening up, this ‘going public’ demanded of God! You can think of the way Jesus speaks of and prays to the Father as a model for how you deepen and manifest your love for your spouse to all who come between you. The Father’s love for the Son, and the Son’s love for the Father extended itself to the bloody mess of humanity for us; so we might share in the unfathomable beauty of that immortal friendship of Father and Son. That opening up took the form of the Cross, which perfected the love between Father and Son (Mark 14:36; John 10:17; Heb. 2:10, 5:8) even as it intensified the love of Father and Son for humanity who had been invited to come between Them (John 3:16, 17:1-26).
You need to ask the Holy Spirit to teach you both the meaning of marriage again. Let Him in, together. He’s the author and perfector of marriage, He’s the bond of love between Father and Son, between the Son and humanity. In a real sense, He is marriage. He dreamed and created marriage and He wants to share with you both all He has to offer. Wisdom, grace, love, healing. Your marriage is a Sacrament of His love, so you have to let Him do His thing.
We sat for a few minutes in silence after this, and then he said, “Let’s pray.” We prayed, discussed a marriage counselor I recommended and got up to leave. He said, “We can do this. I know we can.”
The next week, I went to Confession. The words this older priest shared with me I at once emailed to that man. The priest said,
Remember, son, there is no one else on earth God commands you to love with all your heart, soul, mind and strength. Of course he wants you to love your children and your parents and others in your life, but your wife alone deserves everything. Only God Himself requires such an absolute commitment. It’s really remarkable and sobering. She gets first dibs, first consideration, the best attention. She needs to know you better than anyone else and you need to know her better than anyone else. If you want to love your children, or anyone else, or even God, it starts and ends with how you love her. You will love everyone else well if you love her first. Understand? That’s the litmus test for everything. Every day when you examine your conscience, I want you to ask yourself, ‘Would my wife say she feels that is true?’ If not, say, “Lord have mercy on me, a sinner” and get to it.
Marriage truly is the Sacrament of divine friendship in human vesture. Joyful, Joyful we adore Thee!