Growing up, one of my favorite games was The Game of Life. I loved getting my little car and filling it up with my husband and children, all the while making decisions about education, careers, houses, and the like. I guess it was so engaging because this is how I imagined my real life would be. The world is certainly a different place than when I was a kid, and I hesitate to think what the game would look like today. Marriage is under attack from all sides – divorce rates have skyrocketed and the very definition of marriage has been challenged (and overturned) in many parts of the world. Some figures suggest that a mere 20% of families are made up of a mother, father, and their biological children. Little wonder that so many young couples are opting not to get married at all… But is this truly the answer? As Pope John Paul II once stated so aptly, “One cannot live a trial life or die a trial death. One cannot love on a trial basis or accept a person on trial or for a limited time.”1 Marriage isn’t easy, but the best things in life usually aren’t. We know it’s possible for love to last a lifetime because God wouldn’t have given us this model if it were impossible to live!
Marriage as a Vocation
Over the years, my husband and I have been inspired by the example of our parents who have both surpassed significant milestones – 54 and 52 years of marriage. As I reflect on their lives (and my own), I find myself wondering how we have managed to “beat the odds” despite all the ups and downs along the way. Not having grown up Catholic, I wasn’t familiar with the idea of vocation. But now I understand it as God’s plan for our lives, a calling to love in the way that will bring each of us the greatest fulfillment, whether that be the religious life, the married life, or the single life. My husband and I met in university, dated, fell in love, and just decided to get married.
Like many people, I entered married life with a very romantic and idealistic view of marriage. Our society has come to think that human happiness is tied up with romantic love, and I completely bought into that notion. Perpetuated by soaps, tabloid magazines, chick flicks, and “reality” shows, this unrealistic expectation of marital (and extramarital) bliss has tainted our view of true love. The idea of “till death do us part” is often seen as outdated or unrealistic, even unattainable. So how do we handle this disparity between romance and reality?
God’s Plan for Marriage
First, we must look to God as “the author of marriage” to see what He intended and why.1 We know from Sacred Scripture that marriage is meant to be between one man and one woman, that we were, in fact, created for one another, and that our mutual love is an expression of God’s own love for mankind. This union is intended to be a complete and total giving of oneself so that the two become one flesh (Gen 2:24). The Bible tells us that the couple literally becomes something completely new, like mixing flour, eggs, and water together and ending up with pancakes. It not only looks and tastes completely different, but the ingredients are changed in such a way that it’s not possible to separate them. That’s the kind of substantial change that God wants us to experience in marriage – to make each other better.
In order for this transformation to take place, we must have a proper understanding of true love and what it entails. Very simply, love is wanting and doing what is best for the other. This means that at times we make sacrifices – we put someone else’s needs before our own. Jesus demonstrated this kind of love by His Passion and Death (and there was nothing romantic or sugary sweet about that). This kind of love is supernatural, and to live it in our marriages, we must invite the Lord to join us; we must embrace Him as the third Person in the relationship. (This is one time when the expression, “Three’s a crowd,” doesn’t apply!)
Marriage and the Sacramental Life
See, here’s the thing. Whenever we open ourselves up to God, we experience an aspect of life that is new to us; we delve into realities that are permanent and irrevocable. He transforms us in such a way that we are never the same again. We see this most profoundly in the sacraments. For instance, when we’re baptized, it’s once for all time; we are freed from the bonds of original sin and regardless of what we may do later, we can’t be “unbaptized.” When a man becomes a priest, an indelible mark is placed on his soul, and he is “configured to Christ…”2 Similarly, when a man and a woman enter into the Sacrament of Marriage, they become a new creation. It’s as if they are grafted together, becoming inseparable in God’s eyes. As finite creatures, we yearn for permanence, for things that will be eternal; the sacraments open us up to that possibility.
The Sacrament of Marriage is unique in that it is the only one we give to one another; the priest or deacon doesn’t bestow it upon us, but is merely a witness to it. This fact in and of itself should tell us something about the nature of marriage – it holds a very special place in God’s plan for creation. It shouldn’t surprise us then to also consider that of all the possible ways, God chose marriage as the means to perpetuate the human race. He knew that the solid foundation of love and care, which are at the heart of marriage, would provide the ideal atmosphere in which to bring up children. Therefore, we should never underestimate the grace that comes to us through this sacrament, the power to help pull us through good times and bad. As a wise blogger recently observed, “God’s plan for marriage and family isn’t natural…it’s supernatural!”
– Kelley Holy
1 Pope John Paul II, as quoted in the Youcat (Youth Catechism of the Catholic Church), 219.
2 CCC, 1603.
3 CCC, 1563.