Last weekend I went out for drinks with several girlfriends of mine – a very rare occurrence in my life, these days! I am blessed to still be friends with several girls I have known since childhood and high school and it’s always nice to get together and see how everyone’s grown – one of the biggest transitions these days being that so many of us are getting married and having children and finding out what real responsibility is. During the course of our little girls’ night, one of my friends mentioned how surprised she was to find already, after only two and a half years of marriage, how hard it can be to sustain a marriage. Looking at the divorce rate in our society – even among Catholics – I’d say that’s a surprise to a lot of people. But what’s the problem?
I’m sure there are many different reasons why marriage can often be a struggle and why some, eventually fail – infidelity, abuse, etc… But I think, for the most part, it comes down to this: Marriage is a call to total self-surrender. It calls for humility, fortitude, a spirit of sacrifice and docility and, despite what you may think on your wedding day, those wonderfully amorous feelings you have for your spouse will not last forever – at least not constantly. And here is where the will to love often falls apart.
That’s right, the will to love. Ultimately, “Love,” Mother Angelica reminds us, “is not a feeling. It is a decision.” It is a commitment. And to truly love means to keep on loving – “through good times and bad”, as they say. Even when sadness, annoyance, anger or other emotions temporarily drive those happier emotions out of our minds. It seems easier said that done, but help is close at hand:
Marriage sustains love? What does that mean? The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains:
1638 “From a valid marriage arises a bond between the spouses which by its very nature is perpetual and exclusive; furthermore, in a Christian marriage the spouses are strengthened and, as it were, consecrated for the duties and the dignity of their state by a special sacrament.”
1641 “By reason of their state in life and of their order, [Christian spouses] have their own special gifts in the People of God.” This grace proper to the sacrament of Matrimony is intended to perfect the couple’s love and to strengthen their indissoluble unity. By this grace they “help one another to attain holiness in their married life and in welcoming and educating their children.”
1642 Christ is the source of this grace. “Just as of old God encountered his people with a covenant of love and fidelity, so our Savior, the spouse of the Church, now encounters Christian spouses through the sacrament of Matrimony.” Christ dwells with them, gives them the strength to take up their crosses and so follow him, to rise again after they have fallen, to forgive one another, to bear one another’s burdens, to “be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ,” and to love one another with supernatural, tender, and fruitful love. In the joys of their love and family life he gives them here on earth a foretaste of the wedding feast of the Lamb:
Finite human love needs to be nourished and strengthened by the Infinite. Marriage is a sacrament, not just because of what it symbolizes (Eph. 5:32), but because of the grace that is needed for husband and wife to be that icon in the world. The most important thing for a married couple to keep in mind is that it takes three to make love:
The basic error of mankind has been to assume that only two are needed for love: you and me, or society and me, or humanity and me. Really it takes three: self, other selves, and God; you, and me, and God…One cannot tie two sticks together without something outside the sticks…Love of self, love of neighbor and love of God go together and when separated fall apart (Abp. Fulton Sheen, Three to Get Married, p. 43)
Couples who wish to grow in love must remain close to love’s Divine Source by regularly make time for prayer and receiving the Sacraments as often as they can. That doesn’t mean that married life will never be unpleasant or rocky. But, that the marriage bond will be strong enough to endure hardships when they arise.