Thoughts On Marriage


A couple of months ago I was meeting with Sr. Antonia. Somehow our talk touched on marriage. Sister asked me to jot down a few ideas on marriage and bring them with me the next time we met which was to be a month later. Later she told me about the retreat she was planning.

When I left the House of Prayer, I was thinking about what I would say about marriage. The first thing that came to mind was "God created man and woman in his image, in the divine image he created him; male and female he created them." (Gen 1:27)

Unfortunately, other than that, I really did not have much to say on the matter. At least, not until I read the Pope's encyclical, Evangelium Vitae.

I wrote up a few thoughts on marriage and mailed them to Sr. Antonia. When I next saw her she greeted me enthusiastically. She liked what I had written and asked if I would give a talk on it at the retreat. So here I am.

I was surprised to see how frequently John Paul has written about the family and about marriage. Besides the references to marriage in Evangelium Vitae I also found an Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris Consortio (On the Family) and his Letter To Families.

It is clear that the union of man and woman in marriage is an important part of God's plan for creation, that is, his plan to share his divine life with man. "That is why a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, and the two of them become one body." (Gen 2:24)

This is why the Bishop Amphilochius extolled "holy matrimony, chosen and elevated above all other earthly gifts" as "the begetter of humanity, the creator of images of God". Thus, a man and woman joined in matrimony become partners in a divine undertaking: through the act of procreation, God's gift is accepted and a new life opens to the future. (Evangelium [43])


By virtue of the sacraments of their marriage, spouses are bound to one another in the most profoundly indissoluble manner. Their belonging to each other is the real representation, by means of the sacramental sign, of the very relationship of Christ with the church.

Spouses are therefore the permanent reminder to the church of what happened on the cross; they are for one another and for the children witnesses to the salvation in which the sacrament makes them sharers. (Familiaris [13])

But what is the nature of the relationship? How does it reflect the divine image? What are the challenges that confront a married couple? What is the benefit of a sacramental marriage? And finally, what does the future hold for marriage?

God created man and woman in his image, in the divine image he created him; male and female he created them.

References to marriage occur throughout the Old and New Testaments. The relationship of God to Israel is sometimes compared to a bridegroom and his bride. Jesus' relationship with the New Israel, his Church, is described as Jesus the bridegroom and the Church as his bride.

God did not need to make marriage a part of his divine plan for creation. He could have had man and woman procreate just as the animals do. But, of course, then man and woman would be no better than the animals and certainly they would not be created in God's image and likeness.

So God did not create Adam and Eve to be two separate individuals to live independent lives and associate with each other only as individuals. He created them one for the other. This is clear from the second story of creation: "The Lord God then said: 'It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a suitable partner for him.' So the Lord God cast a deep sleep on the man, and while he was asleep, he took out one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. The Lord God then built up into a woman the rib that he had taken from the man. When he brought her to the man, the man said: 'This one, at last, is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh. '" (Gen 2:18, 21-23) He created them to love one another and through that love to "be fertile and multiply." (Gen 1:28)

The love of a man and woman for one another reflects the love of the Father and the Son for one another. Just as the Holy Spirit proceeds from the love of the Father and the Son, so too, in most instances, a child is born to a man and woman. John Paul II stated:

"When a new person is born of the conjugal union of the two, he brings with him into the world a particular image and likeness of God himself .... We wish to emphasize that God himself is present in human fatherhood and motherhood quite differently than he is present in all other instances of begetting 'on earth'. Indeed, God alone is the source of that 'image and likeness' which is proper to the human being, as it was received at Creation. Begetting is the continuation of Creation". (Evangelium [43])

The union of the two creates a trinity of sorts between the father, mother and child. This trinity, the family, becomes an important opportunity to learn about God.

Think about who comes closest to representing God in the life of a child. Certainly it's the child's parents. A child has all of his needs met by his parents. Nourishment comes when demanded. Clothing and shelter are provided free of charge. When a child is hurt she comes to mommy for comfort. A child learns obedience and what is right and wrong; safe and dangerous. It's easy to see how children learn about God from their parents. But have you thought about parents learning about God from their children?

Have any of you ever had a child reject your love? I've had that experience. One time I thought my daughter needed help and I tried to offer it. She was very upset about something and wouldn't let me comfort her. I tried being sweet. I tried being stern. Nothing worked. It was as if she had hardened her heart. I finally had to walk away. But I let her know I loved her.

I felt she was rejecting my love. I felt helpless. You can't force love on someone. It has to be freely accepted.

It struck me that this is what sin is. Sin isn't so much offending God as it is refusing to accept the love he so freely offers to us.

So you see, the unitive relationship of a man and woman in marriage is an important part of God's plan for creation. Not just because it perpetuates the species but because it becomes an important opportunity to learn about God.

But sometimes the wrong lesson about God can be communicated. Several years ago I had a Renew Group that met at my house. One night a priest joined us. We were talking about God as a loving father. The priest shared with us a problem he had been dealing with for a long time. He had difficulty seeing God as a loving father. The reason for this was he had had a bad relationship with his own father. He didn't have the experience of a loving father. So it's possible to learn things about God that are in error simply because parents sometimes don't live up to their responsibility to live as the image and likeness of God.

So, if the love of the man and woman for one another is such an important aspect of the relationship, why insist on marriage? What's wrong with just living together?

Because the divine image is embodied in the unitive relationship of a man and woman, the unitive relationship must include divine characteristics.

One of God's divine characteristics is his commitment to be faithful. In the Old Testament we have his covenants with Noah (Gen 9:11), with Abraham (Gen 17:7-8), and with Moses (Ex 19:5-6).

With Noah God promised never again to destroy all of the bodily creatures by the waters of a flood. God promised Abraham that Abraham would be the father of a host of nations. God promised to be Abraham's God and the God of Abraham's descendants. To Moses God promised the Israelites would be God's "special possession, dearer to me than all other people, though all the earth is mine."

In the New Testament we have Jesus' promise of a new and everlasting covenant. (Mt 26: 26-29) Jesus promised the forgiveness of sins and life everlasting for all who ate his body and blood.

God has demonstrated over and over the importance attached to commitment. Is there any reason to doubt that he would require, as a condition of the unitive relationship of a man and a woman, that the man and woman commit themselves to one another unconditionally? No. And the commitment cannot be present when two people only live together for the moment. That kind of commitment is only good for today. Tomorrow will require a new commitment. Such a relationship does not embody in it the divine characteristic of unconditional commitment, that is, unconditional love, and therefore does not reflect the divine image.

There are many challenges that couples face. Among them are having too little money or having too much money; having children or not having children; marital indifference and marital infidelity. The union of man and woman reaches its highest level in the sacrament of Matrimony. The bond created in matrimony strengthens the relationship in ways that cannot be matched in a non-sacramental union.

Marriage is a covenant of persons in love. And love can be deepened and preserved only by Love, that Love which is "poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us" (Rom 5:5). (Letter to Families [7])

Marriage involves falling in love over and over again. Couples need to constantly rediscover what it was that caused them to fall in love in the first place. Is it just by chance that two people meet, fall in love and vow to spend their lives together? Out of all the people we have met and continue to meet, why did we choose the one we married? Science may talk of a chemical reaction somewhere in the brain that triggers this feeling of love but that explanation sounds woefully inadequate. If that's all there is to it why is the love reciprocated? Why don't I just fall in love with you and you just go on your merry way? No, there has to be more to it then chemicals. This seems especially true given the importance of marriage in God's plan for salvation. The couples have a duty to continue to fall in love over and over again.

What would happen if one morning one woke up and believed he or she no longer loved the other? If the couple were just living together the decision to pack up and leave would be pretty easy to make. Certainly feelings might make for emotional difficulties when leaving, but there would probably be little concern felt by the leaving party.

What about in a non-sacramental, or civil, marriage? One would expect that when a man and woman have pledged their love to one another for life it would be harder to destroy the marriage relationship than in a simple living arrangement. Yet the reality is, with the divorce laws making it so easy, and society making it socially acceptable, these marriages are almost as easy to destroy as a simple living arrangement. In fact, even sacramental marriages do not seem to fare much better. So, then, what is the benefit of a sacramental marriage?

The benefit is the nature of the sacrament itself. In the book, Rome Sweet Home, by Scott and Kimberly Hahn, Scott quotes an unnamed priest: "Marriage is not hard; it's just humanly impossible. That's why Christ reestablished it as a sacrament." In matrimony, the man and woman are bonded together spiritually. Not only are they bonded to one another but they are bonded also to Jesus Christ. Thus the couple share in a special way a connection with the Mystical Body of Christ.

Going back to my introduction let me repeat what John Paul II wrote:

By virtue of the sacraments of their marriage, spouses are bound to one another in the most profoundly indissoluble manner. Their belonging to each other is the real representation, by means of the sacramental sign, of the very relationship of Christ with the church.

Spouses are therefore the permanent reminder to the church of what happened on the cross; they are for one another and for the children witnesses to the salvation in which the sacrament makes them sharers. (Familiaris [13])

So what does this mean? John Paul explains that marriage, like every sacrament, is a memorial, actuation and prophecy:

As a memorial, the sacrament gives [the spouses] the grace and duty of commemorating the great works of God and of bearing witness to them before their children. As actuation, it gives them the grace and duty of putting into practice in the present, toward each other and their children, the demands of a love which forgives and redeems. As prophecy, it gives them the grace and duty of living and bearing witness to the hope of the future encounter with Christ. (Familiaris [13])

I want to focus on actuation. The love which forgives and redeems is Christ's love. Therefore, God's plan for marriage also includes the spouses as being actively involved in Christ's plan for salvation. This gives the couple a definite advantage over others not in a sacramental marriage.

If the sacramental marriage provides so strong a bond, why is it so threatened?

In Evangelium Vitae, John Paul II discusses the roots of the contradictions between God's definition of freedom and the current popular notion of freedom:

We can find them (contradictions) in an overall assessment of a cultural and moral nature, beginning with the mentality which carries the concept of subjectivity to an extreme and even distorts it.

So what does this mean? Subjective about what? Well, about truth.

Jesus said before Pilate, "For this I was born, and for this I have come into the world, to bear witness to the truth." (Jn 18:37) To this Pilate replied, "What is truth?" (Jn 18:38) Pilate's question reflects the world's view of truth, subjective. What may be true for you is not true for me.

Jesus spoke of God's objective truth when he said, "You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free." (Jn 8:32) (Veritatis [87])

John Paul continues:

At another level, the roots of the contradiction between the solemn affirmation of human rights and their tragic denial in practice lies in a notion of freedom which exalts the isolated individual in an absolute way, and gives no place to solidarity, to openness to others and service of them. (Evangelium [19])

Now, I have taken this somewhat out of context. John Paul is talking in terms of abortion and euthanasia. But I think this also has relevance to this talk.

The great American myth plays up the image of the rugged individual. True freedom means to do whatever one wants, go wherever one wills. The westward expansion is filled with stories of areas becoming too crowded so that when you could see smoke from your neighbor's chimney it was time to move on. In many ways this notion of freedom is still alive today.

Yet Jesus brought a message of love based on serving one another. He demonstrated this when he washed his disciples' feet. He also spoke of obedience and showed it by dying on the cross. Christ's notion of freedom manifested itself in a community of believers who help one another to live a life based on truth.

He continues:

It is precisely in this sense that Cain's answer to the Lord's question: "Where is Abel your brother?" can be interpreted: "I do not know; am I my brother's keeper?" (Gen 4:9). Yes, every man is his "brother's keeper", because God entrusts us to one another. And it is also in view of this entrusting that God gives everyone freedom, a freedom which possesses an inherently relational dimension. This is a great gift of the Creator, placed as it is at the service of the person and of his fulfilment through the gift of self and openness to others; but when freedom is made absolute in an individualistic way, it is emptied of its original content, and its very meaning and dignity are contradicted. (Evangelium [19])

In fact what we have then is not freedom but slavery. This notion of freedom is a grave threat to the sacrament of marriage. In my earlier example of waking up one morning and believing love is dead, it is precisely this notion of freedom that causes the waking party to seek release from the relationship rather than seeking to regain the love that was thought lost.

When my primary concern is for "me" and not for "you" then all sorts of evils can be perpetrated.

Within this same cultural climate, the body is no longer perceived as a properly personal reality, a sign and place of relations with others, with God and with the world. It is reduced to pure materiality: it is simply a complex of organs, functions and energies to be used according to the sole criteria of pleasure and efficiency. Consequently, sexuality too is depersonalized and exploited: from being the sign, place and language of love, that is, of the gift of self and acceptance of another, in all the other's richness as a person, it increasingly becomes the occasion and instrument for self-assertion and the selfish satisfaction of personal desires and instincts. Thus the original import of human sexuality is distorted and falsified, and the two meanings, unitive and procreative, inherent in the very nature of the conjugal act, are artificially separated: in this way the marriage union is betrayed and its fruitfulness is subjected to the caprice of the couple. Procreation then becomes the "enemy" to be avoided in sexual activity: if it is welcomed, this is only because it expresses a desire, or indeed the intention, to have a child "at all costs", and not because it signifies the complete acceptance of the other and therefore an openness to the richness of life which the child represents.

In the materialistic perspective described so far, interpersonal relations are seriously impoverished. The first to be harmed are women, children .... (Evangelium [23])

How often do we see a family that has been torn apart because the spouses no longer "love" each other. This "love" is not really love but rather an emotional response that means desire. And this desire is usually on the surface level. The true love, the unconditional love of a man and a woman, is not so easily lost. But the partners have to keep reminding themselves of that love. They have to keep finding ways to serve one another. Modern society makes it too easy to give up.

Where children are involved the popular thinking seems to be that the children are better off not living in a home where the parents are constantly fighting. I agree. The parents should seek to heal the wounds to their marriage so as to bring peace to their family. But society's solution is for the parents to divorce. Who suffers in that situation? Most often it is the mother and the child. There are frequent reports in the news of the millions of dollars in unpaid child support; of the thousands of single mothers who cannot find employment for themselves that will pay for shelter and care for themselves and their children; of the mothers on welfare and how that degrades the individual.

But the fathers also suffer. Usually they are separated from the child they love. Often the father can only afford to provide food and shelter for himself. All in all, there are no winners with this solution, only losers.

John Paul sums it up:

But not all of the consequences are taken into consideration, especially when the ones who end up paying are, apart from the other spouse, the children, deprived of a father or mother and condemned to be in fact orphans of living parents. (Letter to Families [14])

I was talking to a friend the other day about this talk. He told me about an incident that had occurred the night before. He and his wife had been putting their two sons to bed. He was talking to his wife about something he didn't want the boys to know about so he spelled his message. Suddenly his six year old asked, "Are you and mommy separating?" Mike asked, "What do you mean?" Frank said, "You know. You go live one place and we live someplace else." "What made you think that?", Mike asked. "Well, at Nathan's house, his parents spelled words and they separated."

This destruction of the family, whether in a marriage with children or without children, has repercussions well beyond the obvious ones affecting the immediate parties.

In seeking the deepest roots of the struggle between the "culture of life" and the "culture of death", we cannot restrict ourselves to the perverse idea of freedom mentioned above. We have to go to the heart of the tragedy being experienced by modern man: the eclipse of the sense of God and of man, typical of a social and cultural climate dominated by secularism, which, with its ubiquitous tentacles, succeeds at times in putting Christian communities themselves to the test. Those who allow themselves to be influenced by this climate easily fall into a sad vicious circle: when the sense of God is lost, there is also a tendency to lose the sense of man, of his dignity and his life; in turn, the systematic violation of the moral law, especially in the serious matter of respect for human life and its dignity, produces a kind of progressive darkening of the capacity to discern God's living and saving presence. (Evangelium [21])

"The eclipse of the sense of God and of man -- when the sense of God is lost, there is also a tendency to lose the sense of man, of his dignity and his life... The systematic violation of the moral law produces a kind of progressive darkening of the capacity to discern God's living and saving presence." Don't we see this every day?

Matthew tells us: "Then the King will say to those on his right, 'Come, you who are blessed by my father. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me. Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.'" (Mt 25: 34, 35-37, 40) We will be judged by how well we discern Jesus' presence in others.

This darkening of the capacity to discern God's living and saving presence occurs in the destruction of families. Remember, the sacrament of marriage creates a bond not only between the man and the woman but also with Jesus Christ. This attack on the sacrament of marriage is itself a direct attack on the Mystical Body of Christ. Therefore, the husband and wife have a grave duty to preserve and protect the marriage.

"Faced with the countless grave threats to (family) life present in the modern world, one could feel overwhelmed by sheer powerlessness: good can never be powerful enough to triumph over evil!" (Evangelium [29])

How, then, do married couples deal with these threats that face them?

"The love which every human being has for life cannot be reduced simply to a desire to have sufficient space for self-expression and for entering into relationships with others; rather, it develops in a joyous awareness that life can become the "place" where God manifests himself, where we meet him and enter into communion with him." (Evangelium [38])

"For this to happen, we need first of all to foster, in ourselves and in others, a contemplative outlook." (Evangelium [83])

The married couple needs to realize that each one has a primary relationship with Jesus. "Christ is the center of all Christian life. The bond with him takes precedence over all other bonds, familial or social." (CCC [1618]) Therefore, each needs to develop his or her individual spirituality in order for the two of them to attain their highest degree of unity within marriage. In this way they receive the fullest benefits of the sacramental union and with the supernatural graces associated with the sacrament, good can be powerful enough to triumph over evil!

What does the future hold for marriage?

Undoubtedly there will be more attacks on the sacrament itself. What is needed is for the husband and wife to understand the importance of marriage in God's plan for creation. They must strive for the commitment of unconditional love. They must see one another as someone God has made each responsible for. "In our service of charity, we must be inspired and distinguished by a specific attitude: we must care for the other as a person for whom God has made us responsible." (Evangelium [87]) Freedom must be viewed in light of God's plan, not man's distorted notion. Finally, husbands and wives need to put their individual relationships with Jesus first.

"On the eve of the Third Millennium, the challenge facing us is an arduous one: only the concerted efforts of all those who believe in the value of life can prevent a setback of unforeseeable consequences for civilization." (Evangelium [91])

philneri, 6/29/2000

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