Words of Truth
Building our Lives on Love
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. But that was the 70’s and 80’s, and the world was a very different place. I hate to speculate how many alterations would need to be made if The Game of Life were to reflect the reality of our world today! For starters, the traditional, nuclear family that has been the foundation of society for generations is now the exception, not the rule. Some current figures suggest that a mere 25% of families are composed of a mother, father, and their biological children. Despite these dismal statistics and the fact that the very definition of marriage has been called into question, we know that it is possible for love to last a lifetime. God wouldn’t have given us this model of marriage if it were impossible to live!
Over the years, my husband and I have been inspired by the example of our parents who both recently celebrated their 50th wedding anniversaries; similarly, last May, David and I marked 25 years of marriage. As I look back over all of our lives, I find myself reflecting on why, despite all the ups and downs along the way, we have beaten the odds. Not having grown up Catholic, I wasn’t familiar with the idea of a vocation as God’s plan for our lives, a calling to love in the way that would bring each of us the greatest fulfillment, whether it 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 marriage with a very romantic and idealistic view of what it would be like. 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 The idea of “till death do us part” is often seen as outdated or unrealistic, even unattainable.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 utter 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; He wants us to make each other better.
In order for this transformation to take place, we must have a proper understanding of what true love is and what it entails. Very simply, love is wanting and doing what is best for the other. This means that at times we will have to make sacrifices. Our Lord demonstrated this kind of love in His Passion and Death. It was gruesome and messy and painful; there was nothing romantic or sugary sweet about it. This kind of love is supernatural, and to live it in our marriages, we must invite our 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
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. 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 are mere witnesses 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 ways possible, 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, that power that pulls us through good times and bad. When I reflect on what has kept my parents’, my in-laws’, and my own marriage strong, I can see a common thread. It really boils down to a few things: a strong faith in God and reliance on His grace; compassion and forgiveness; and allowing room for change and growth in the relationship.
The Foundation of Faith
In the early years when my husband and I were first married, I remember those strong feelings of affection and enjoying being together 24/7, when even doing the dishes together didn’t seem so bad. We commonly hear this period of time referred to as the “honeymoon phase,” that stage of wedded bliss when the other can seemingly do no wrong. However, at some point, the rose-coloured glasses are torn off, and we see the other as they truly are with all their strengths and weaknesses. We may feel somewhat disillusioned and wonder, “Now what have I gotten myself into?”
The problem is, emotions are fleeting and unreliable indicators of the depth of our love. In every healthy marriage, there are different layers within the relationship and even when we are not caught up in the throes of passionate love, there should be a strong underlying love that is based upon friendship, mutual interests, and common goals. Yet while these aspects of our relationships are wonderful and desirable, it’s still risky to build our lives on anything other than God. If He is at the heart of our lives, He will also give us the grace to live out that to which He’s called us. Grace plays out so differently in individual situations, but some of the ways we can see it working is in the ability to forgive wrongs, to overcome differences, and to continually renew our commitment to one another. We undoubtedly receive this grace through the Sacrament of Marriage, but we must be strengthened by the other sacraments as well. Reconciliation with its power to heal and the Eucharist as food for our souls can help us to reorient our lives on God, reaffirming in our hearts and minds that our vocation to marriage is a beautiful way to encounter and serve God and one another. Furthermore, our attitudes play an important part in all this. If we want to build a marriage that will last, we must approach it with this mindset. Like the man who builds his house on rock (Lk 6: 48-49), we will then be able to withstand the storms that come our way.
Treat with Care
Though of utmost importance, faith alone will not sustain us if we lack compassion or are unwilling to forgive one another. No matter how good our intentions may be, it is inevitable that we will hurt one another at some point, especially in a marriage relationship where we live in such close contact. Many marriages fall apart because of hardness of heart, when we no longer feel compassion or tenderness toward the other, focusing instead on faults, hurts, and unfulfilled needs. We must never allow this to happen in our marriages because, unlike our relationship with God, we can reach a point where the damage is irreparable.
Each of us has probably witnessed the destruction that occurs when a person’s heart becomes hardened to another. This idea was brought home to me recently when I took in a pair of leather boots that hadn’t been worn in many years. They’d been in the back of the closet, untouched and forgotten. From the outside they still looked okay, but unbeknownst to me, tiny, almost imperceptible cracks had formed and the leather had become dry and brittle. The repairman told me that if I had continued to wear them or had treated them with oils or creams, the boots would have remained soft and supple. In fact, they would have continued to loosen and soften until they were completely molded into the shape of my foot. Our hearts work much the same way. We must keep them soft and supple, allowing them to be shaped into God’s own heart. This requires putting others before ourselves, wanting the good of the other, admitting our faults, and forgiving without measure; in other words, not keeping score. The example of compassion that Christ gives us is not easy, but it’s what He desires and will place in our hearts if we allow Him.
Cemented with Hope
Every structure needs stability to stand up to the pressure placed upon it, and the framework of marriage is no different. As people living in the world, we cannot completely remove ourselves from its influence. Paradoxically, what gives our marriages stability is change. While never abandoning our principles or commitment, we must learn to be flexible, allowing each other the freedom to grow and change. Even in the most unified of marriages, there are still two very distinct persons involved. If we respect and support each other’s interests, the possibilities for growth can be endless. That’s a very exciting prospect when we contemplate spending our whole lives with one person! We see that God’s plan for marriage is indeed attainable. To keep us from becoming discouraged, God places His hope in our hearts as “a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul” (Heb 6:19).
Undoubtedly, the man I’m married to today is very different from the one I said “I do” to all those years ago. And I’m sure that’s true for me, as well! But the mystery of discovering the many aspects of our ever-changing relationship keeps it new and fresh. When we enter into this holy covenant of marriage, God infuses our lives with all of the theological virtues – faith, hope, and love – as each are necessary to live out this vocation given to us.
Built to Last
Each of us needs witnesses of faithful and enduring love from which to draw strength. My husband and I can attest to the importance of the good example and support from our parents and from like-minded friends. We have seen that marriages can really last, not merely surviving but truly thriving for many years, made possible with God’s gifts of faith, hope, and love that we must nurture over time. Furthermore, we must not allow the mindset of the world to creep in, that idea of “out with the old and in with the new.” All that we’ve experienced in life has helped make us into the persons we are today. We can trust in the promise that “…in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose” (Rom 8:28). If we imitate Christ’s love, giving a bit of ourselves away each day, we will see that we actually lose nothing. Rather, He will fill that space, and our lives will be transformed. Building our lives on Christ as the cornerstone will unite our families, our communities, and the world around us, establishing love not only for our lifetime, but also for generations to come.
– Kelley Holy
1 CCC, 1603.
2 CCC, 1563.