July 20, 2007

Fall Marriage Supplement

Faith-filled marriage is possible only with the help of God’s grace

By Daniel Sarell (Special to The Criterion)

When we speak of the “spirituality of marriage,” do we really understand it?

Do we mean that we feel spiritually fulfilled by finding our “soul mate”—whatever that means?

Or are we really referring to the covenant of two persons, sealed with grace and committed to each other as witnesses of God’s love for his people and Christ’s redemptive love for the Church?

While this spiritual reality is most explicitly described in Chapter 5 of St. Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians, the whole Bible is really a testament to God’s spousal love for his people, God’s freely given fidelity, a total gift of God’s self to us.

This love is made complete and visible in the person of Jesus Christ by whose total gift of self—by joining our humanity, and then on the Cross and by his resurrection—gives us a road map for indissoluble, life-giving love.

While we can never fully understand this mystery—and the analogy of Christ as Bridegroom and the Church as Bride ultimately breaks down—the key for us to become living signs of this mystery, this spirituality of marriage, is grace.

Our bishops, over the course of the past decade or so, have identified that many of our religious formation programs have been notably deficient, not only in teaching the vocabulary of our faith in general, but also the concept of grace in particular has either been misunderstood or ignored.

Left to our own imperfect efforts, without the help of God’s grace, the demands and sacrifices of faithful married love are burdensome at best and impossible at worst.

Marriage is beautiful and life-giving, both figuratively and literally, but it’s certainly not all “butterflies and rainbows” throughout the long haul.

Thankfully, the couples we prepare for marriage today do tend to be more mature and relationship-savvy than they were in previous decades.

But on the flip side, the negative characteristic of believing that one can control everything with skillful planning and clever self-help rides shotgun to any discernible advantages that might accompany waiting until later in one’s adulthood to marry.

In recent years, we have seen the emergence of Bridezilla, who Rebecca Mead, author of One Perfect Day: The Selling of the American Wedding (Penguin Press, 2007), calls the freakishly control-obsessed bride who “forgets that anyone else has a life.”

Granted, as the old Engaged Encounter axiom goes, “A wedding is a day; a marriage is a lifetime,” but the manner in which many contemporary couples begin their married lives together demonstrates well how we largely misunderstand the spirituality of marriage and grace.

The wedding industry has been estimated at anywhere between $85 billion to $161 billion. The average wedding costs $28,000, and the Association of Bridal Consultants claims that the average American wedding involves 43 professional consultants.

Speaking recently about her new book on the radio, Mead reports that one minister referred to himself as a “religious decoration at the narcissistic cleavage convention we call weddings.”

My point here is not to slam all contemporary wedding celebrations, but to illustrate that marriage is a spiritual as well as a practical relationship.

When we lose sight of that reality and the need for grace in our lives then we will do anything to fill the void, whether it is an extravagantly superficial wedding ceremony complete with sacred “props” or turning to counterfeits of marriage like “friends with benefits” or uncommitted, albeit monogamous, ­cohabitation.

The National Marriage Project reports that fewer than 50 percent of American households consist of a married couple, compared to 56 percent in 1990 and 84 percent in 1930, while cohabitation has increased by 176 percent among unmarried adults of the opposite sex in the same time frame.

According to Purdue University sociologist and author James Davidson, 28 percent of couples today, where both partners are Catholic, are getting married outside the Catholic Church.

The main reasons cited include the inability to have an outdoor ceremony and the unwillingness to engage in six months of marriage preparation.

In describing how spousal love reveals to us the “radical character of grace,” the late Pope John Paul II cited

2 Pt 1:4-7, which speaks of God’s “precious and very great promises” that lead to freedom from sin and ­participation in God’s own life.

While we can never deserve, earn or fully understand the mystery of grace, the Apostle goes on to describe the cooperation entailed in living it “to support your faith with goodness” as well as knowledge, self-control, endurance, godliness, mutual affection and, ultimately, with love.

Faith-filled married love is designed to give us in the image of the human family a visible glimpse of the invisible transcendence of God’s love, the divine communion of the Holy Trinity.

Actually, living faith-filled married love, like wedding planning, is messy, imperfect and difficult, and it involves tribulations of every conceivable variety.

Yet, we can endure and see beyond the mess we make of things and find that glimpse of beauty and truth—even in the most frazzled Bridezilla—to experience the awesome simplicity of God’s love, the hope for eternal life to come and indeed ­reconciliation from sin. But awareness of our utter dependence on God’s grace is the “one thing needful,” the “better part” (Lk 10:42).

(Daniel Sarell is the director of the archdiocesan Office of Family Ministries.) †

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