The Challenges of Marriage, and God’s Sacred Plan
Ups and Downs
My wife and I teach Pre-Cana (marriage prep), and so we’ve had to become comfortable sharing our personal ups and downs both with strangers and not-so-strangers. And there have been ups and downs. Big ones. At one point, early on, we were on the verge of divorce. It was only our parents’ encouragement and the foundation of our faith that saved us. There have been other times when, though fully committed to never divorcing, we did not see how we could ever feel the love for each other that we once felt. And we are not the justice-of-the-peace, living the married-single lifestyle couple that is the norm today. We are serious Catholic who believe marriage is forever. With the help of the church, we have worked through those difficult times, and the love in our relationship now is tremendous.
Marriage is beset with pain. I believe this is true for everyone, even those who claim publicly that they have never had an argument. No one can hurt you like the person for whom you drop all your defenses. No one can disappoint you like the person in whom you invest all your earthly hopes. Marriages are fraught with arguments, misunderstandings, hurt feelings, and difficult negotiations; and that is when things are going well! To keep it functional, to keep it happy, we have to work at it. We have to expend serious emotional effort in communication, in negotiation, and frequently in reconciliation. Without constant vigilance, we find we have “grown apart”. But why? Why does it have to be that way? Why does marriage have to be so hard?
The Hard Truth
In his letter to the Ephesians, St. Paul said, “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved His Church.” And how did Christ love the Church? He suffered and died for her! So St. Paul, and through St. Paul the Holy Spirit, is calling us to suffer and die for our wives.
Suffering is not something we, as 21st century Christians, especially in the Western church, do particularly well. We run to the doctor with every little ache and pain and sniffle. We complain when we have to wait in a long line for confession, or when the priest’s homily exceeds 20 minutes. We make a big deal about giving up chocolate for Lent; and when we abstain from meat, we replace it with shrimp or lobster.
But when it comes to marriage, we HAVE to suffer, and we HAVE to die to ourselves. It really won’t work otherwise. When we don’t — when we insist on putting ourselves first — our marriages suffer and, in many cases, die. Every day is a fight to overcome our intrinsically disordered, selfish nature, if we want our marriages to last.
There is a Purpose
But why? We are, after all, modern man, with great intellect and a bookstore full of self-help books. We ought to be able to put our heads together, act rationally, and work together at life just the way we work with many co-workers who nominally have much less in common with us than our spouse does.
God doesn’t want us to treat our spouse like a co-worker. He wants us to love her, and not in an “Every Kiss Begins With Kay” sort of way. He want us to love as Christ loves, as God loves: selflessly, disinterestedly, unconditionally, with forgiveness and honesty and devotion. It is a love that is foreign to this world marinated in original sin.
The surprising answer is this: the love we learn in marriage is for more than our spouse, for more than our families. It is for the whole Church. As we learn to love our spouse in a Christ-like way, we learn to turn around and reflect that love on others we encounter in our lives. And that is God’s grand and wonderful and not-so-secret plan for our marriages. In marriage we learn not only to love our spouse and our children, but we learn how to love, period, and love is a pre-requisite for entering the eternal kingdom. Remember, Christ taught us that the commandments boil down to loving God first and loving our neighbor as ourselves.
So we, as married couples, have a special advantage in the path to holiness. We have a training ground for love, and a partner to take that training with us. The question is, will we take advantage of it? Will we pick up our crosses and soldier through those difficult times? If we do, the rewards will literally be eternal.