Marriage as a Sacrament
Marital pain is a path to growth
By K. Bryan Kelso
Marriage is the first sacrament, established by God in Genesis before Christ came and instituted the other six sacraments. Sacraments enable us to receive divine energy from something physical (water and words during baptism). Sacraments are designed to enable us to be deeply penetrated by the Trinity’s love enabling us to share that love with others. CCC 1131
How do we find this path to loving like God? Why does marriage seem to lead most Catholics and non-Catholic Christians to become more broken or led into things that impair relationships (like passive aggressive actions, feelings of disappointment, frustrations, feelings of rejection, or resentments)?
As the saying goes, those who fail to plan, plan to fail.
Those who build on a flawed foundation, build in vain. Many couples enter marriage with a flawed plan.
This plan, rarely articulated, goes like this: I marry this person because we share attractions and or interests, and he/she makes me happy, or my attraction inspires me to serve or be served by them, or we are compatible. One might think, after a quick reading of 1 Corinthians 13 (“The Love Chapter”) that he/she is capable of possessing or giving this kind of love. A deeper reading, or time spent married, reveals even the best spouse is not up for it. Only God (or one fully empowered by him) can love like that. (Jeremiah 17:5-10)
1 Corinthians 13 describes the love we need and long for, which cannot be met by any human being. One might say, "my spouse can love me this way" or "before we got married/for a while after marriage, my spouse seemed to love me like that—but then he/she changed". It would be more accurate to say, he/she grew. The work of the sacrament enables one to become more real, even to discover things about us we ourselves didn’t know.
Most of us have no idea how broken we really are, or how broken our spouse is. A good marriage exposes our brokenness. "Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 5:3). More harshly stated, “blessed are they who figure out how completely screwed and hopeless they are without the help of God, for they are the only ones who end up pursuing everything God has to offer and longs to give us”
We thought we judged well that the person we married was capable and willing to meet most of our needs for love. This is a foundation of sand.
If this is true, then why get married?
We are blind to many of our faults. We need someone to reveal them to us. We do not typically enjoy this, but we need it.
Our longing for love and intimacy from others is actually a longing for God alone, the only one who can truly meet our need! A sacramental marriage forces this discovery through our experience of frustration, fear and anger as we try to get this person to meet our needs and find he/she is woefully unequipped.
One might argue, “This can't be true. I have felt true love from another human being before!” God is the author of love. Whenever someone deeply and sincerely loves, it is the love of God himself coming through him (1Jn. 4:7,8,19)
Why would God allow us to become so attracted to someone who could never fulfill us?
The “laws of attraction” are rooted in being created in the image of God. Simply put the strength of attractions toward others are rooted in the others ability (or our perception of their ability) to wield a God-like virtue we lack or want more of. Marital discontent then is bred from being tricked by this “foundation of sand”: Our spouse who I thought could fill me can’t, or worse yet we perceive… refuses to. So we become like those in ancient times who hate and smash their stone Gods who failed to deliver.
The solid foundation is then the Lord himself (Psalms 18:2)
In a sacramental marriage, God meets your needs. Your spouse is the physical means of exposing those needs. The action of sacramental grace helps us pursue God more aggressively, believing only He can satisfy that longing. As we become penetrated by God’s love and thus share it with another as God would have us do, we become better equipped to receive that love from someone else in the form of scandal or pain like Christ displayed here on earth. As we remember, he scandalized his followers so badly they would leave him! (Jn.6:66 13:38). The only solid plan for fulfillment in marriage is rooted in becoming more like Christ and turning to the father when betrayal by others comes or is perceived to come.
The Sacrament of Holy Matrimony is not magic (something done to us apart from our will). Our willingness to participate with God makes newly revealed wounds an invitation to enter into an encounter with God. Non-sacramental marriages have the same opportunities, but the grace of the sacrament significantly helps us turn these humiliations into a path to God, if we choose to dispose ourselves toward it.
Since your spouse often lacks the ability to wield the love of God, and you, in turn, lack it, God’s purpose in marriage is to become more intimate with the one who knows what its like to be married to an incompetent spouse (Christ himself, CCC 796), is fully equipped to handle it and use this deficit to bring us closer to the love that satisfies, the peace that surpasses all understanding (CCC 218-221).
When you find yourself and your marriage on a sandy, unstable foundation and incapable of living out the Corinthians 13 model of love, this failure becomes the means to produce a humble plea to God. In the humiliation of your perceived failure, cry out to God to join your marital pain with his pain on the cross. This simple act and disposition of turning away from expectations from your spouse, and instead towards God, will create trust and receptivity enabling you to access the unconditional love of the Trinity. This communion enables you to share it with your spouse and children. Practicing this kind of humility and receptivity from perfect love will transform your marital life from a sandy, uncertain foundation into solid rock, capable of maintaining peace while withstanding the most difficult storms of marital life.
Detailed article expanding on this topic
01-10-2006 - Traces, n.9
“Lady, Your Beauty
Seemed to Me Like a Divine Light in My Mind”
Julian Carron’s talk at the Pastoral Theological Congress, “The transmission of faith inside the family,” on the occasion of the fifth World Meeting of Families with Benedict XVI. Valencia, Spain, July 5, 2006
It is more and more evident that the maturity of the human subject approaching marriage cannot be taken for granted. The fact is that, even with the best will in the world, many young people marry without an adequate knowledge of the nature of the adventure they are embarking on. It cannot be taken for granted even for young Christians, who often approach marriage in circumstances very similar to those of their non-Christian friends, the only difference being that they marry in the Church, and at least desire to marry according to the conception of marriage that the Church defends and witnesses. This lack of awareness cannot be remedied by the pre-marriage courses that we know, since by their very nature they are unable to answer the needs of those attending them. This presents a huge challenge to the whole Christian community. It is a test of its capacity to generate adults, men and women, capable of approaching marriage with a minimum hope of success.
In a talk like this, it is impossible to tackle the problem of marriage and the family as a whole. I will concentrate on one question that I believe is essential for throwing light on that special relationship that is established between man and woman.
The crisis of the family is a consequence of the anthropological crisis in which we find ourselves. Husband and wife are two human subjects, an I and a you, a man and a woman, who decide to walk together toward destiny, toward happiness. The way they approach their relationship, the way they conceive it, depends on the image each one has of his own life, of his self-realization. This implies a conception of man and his mystery. “The question of the right relationship between the man and the woman” said Benedict XVI, “is rooted in the essential core of the human being and it is only by starting from here that its response can be found. In other words, it cannot be separated from the ancient but ever new human question: Who am I? What is a human being?”1
So, the first help that can be offered to those who want to marry is to help them to become aware of their own human mystery. Only in this way will they be able to focus adequately on their relationship, without expecting from it something which by their very nature neither can give to the other. How much violence, how much disappointment could be avoided in marriage relationships, if people were to understand their own nature!
This lack of awareness of man’s destiny leads people to found their whole relationship on a deception–the conviction that the you can make the I happy. In this way, their mutual relationship is transformed into a refuge, so desired, yet quite useless for solving the affective problem. And when the deception is eventually discovered, disappointment is inevitable because the other has not come up to expectation. The marriage relationship cannot be founded on anything but the truth of each of its protagonists. It is the loving relationship itself that contributes in a particular way to discovering the truth of the I and of the you, and along with the truth of the I and the you is revealed the nature of the common vocation.
In fact, the “eternal mystery of our being” is revealed to us by the relationship with the person we love. Nothing reawakens us, nothing makes us so aware of the desire for happiness that constitutes us, as the person we love. The presence of the beloved is so great a good that it makes us grasp the depth and the true dimension of this desire, a desire that is infinite. What the poet Cesare Pavese said of pleasure can be applied to a loving relationship: “What man looks for in pleasure is an infinite, and no one would ever give up hope of reaching this infinite.”2 A limited I and a limited you arouse in each other an infinite desire and they find themselves launched by their love toward an infinite destiny. In this experience, each of them discovers his own vocation. They feel the need for each other so as not to be paralyzed in their own limitations, with no other prospect but the boredom of loneliness.
But in the very moment in which the boundless dimensions of our desire are revealed to us, we are offered the possibility of fulfillment. Moreover, as we perceive in the person we love the promise of fulfillment, the whole infinite potential of our desire for happiness is enkindled. This is why nothing makes us understand the mystery of our humanity better than the man–woman relationship, as Benedict XVI reminded us in his encyclical Deus caritas est. “In love between man and woman, where body and soul are inseparably joined… human beings glimpse an apparently irresistible promise of happiness. … All other kinds of love immediately seem to fade in comparison.”3
In this relationship, man seems to meet the promise that takes him beyond his own limitation and enables him to reach an incomparable fullness.4 This is why historically man perceived a relationship between love and the Divine: “… love promises infinity, eternity–a reality far greater and totally other than our everyday existence.”5
This is the experience that the Italian poet Giacomo Leopardi spoke of in his hymn to Aspasia:
“Lady, your beauty seemed to me
like a divine light in my mind.”6
The poet perceives the woman’s beauty as a “divine light,” as the presence of God. Through her beauty, it is God who is knocking at man’s door. If the man does not grasp the nature of this call, and instead of accepting it as such stops short at the beauty he sees before him, this beauty soon reveals itself unable to fulfill its promise of happiness, of infinity.
“Now indeed he serves and loves the idea,
and not the lady whose body he embraces.
He is angered at last to realize his error,
his mistaken objective, and often, wrongly,
blames his lady.”7
This means that the woman, with her limitation, arouses in man, who is also limited, a desire for fullness out of proportion with her capacity to answer it. She arouses a thirst that she is unable to quench, a hunger she is unable to satisfy. This is what gives rise to the anger and the violence that married couples so often experience, and the delusion they feel, if they do not understand the true nature of their relationship.
The woman’s beauty is truly a “divine light,” a sign that points beyond itself, to something greater, something divine, out of all proportion with its limited nature.8 Her beauty is calling out before us, “It is not I. I am only a reminder. Look! Look! What do I remind you of?”9 With these words, C.S. Lewis’s genius synthesized the dynamics of the sign, of which the man-woman relationship is a moving example. If he doesn’t understand this dynamics, man makes the mistake of stopping short at the reality that arouses his desire, like a woman who receives a bunch of flowers and is so taken by their beauty that she forgets the face of the one who sent them to her, of whom they are a sign, thus losing the best thing the flowers brought her. If we don’t acknowledge the other’s character as sign, then we are led to reduce him to what appears to our eyes, and sooner or later he will prove incapable of answering the desire he has aroused.
Thus, if husband and wife do not encounter what the sign is pointing to, the place where they can find the fulfillment of the promise that the other has aroused, then they are condemned to be consumed by a pretension from which they cannot free themselves, and their desire for the infinite, which no one like the person loved arouses, is condemned to remain unsatisfied. Before this dissatisfaction, the only way out that many see today is to change partners, giving rise to a spiral in which the problem is merely postponed until the next disappointment.
The German poet, Rainer Maria Rilke, identified very keenly this drama in loving relationships, sensing that ending up in this spiral cannot be the only way out:
“This is the paradox of love between man and woman: two infinites meet two limitations, two infinite needs to be loved meet two fragile and limited capacities to love. Only on the horizon of a greater love do they not consume themselves in pretension and do not resign themselves, but walk together toward a fullness of which the other is sign.”
Only on the horizon of a greater love can people avoid being consumed with pretension, laden with violence, that the other, who is limited, answer the infinite desire he awakens, making impossible his own fulfillment and that of the person he loves. In order to discover this, one must be ready to comply with the dynamics of the sign, and stay open to the surprise that this can have in store for us.
Leopardi had the courage to run this risk. With a penetrating intuition of the love relationship, the Italian poet glimpses that what he was seeking in the beauty of the women he fell in love with was Beauty with a capital B. At the summit of human intensity, the hymn To His Lady is a hymn to the “dearest beauty” that he seeks in everything beautiful; his whole desire is that Beauty, the eternal idea of Beauty, take up tangible form.10 It is what happened in Christ, the Word made flesh. This is why Luigi Giussani defined this poem as a prophecy of the Incarnation.11
This is Jesus’ claim; we find it in some texts that at first sight seem paradoxical. “Do not think I have come to bring peace on earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. I have come to divide son from father, daughter from mother, daughter-in-law from mother-in-law; a man’s enemies will be those from his own household. Whoever loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; whoever loves his son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. … Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. (Mt 10:34-37; 39-40).
In this text, Jesus presents himself as the center of man’s affection and freedom. Putting himself at the core of natural feelings, he asserts his full right as their true root. In this way, Jesus reveals the importance of the promise his person constitutes for those who let Him in. It is not an interference on Jesus’ part at the most intimate level of human feelings, but rather the greatest promise that man could ever receive; for without loving Christ, Beauty made flesh, more than the person you love, this relationship withers, because He is the truth of this relationship, the fullness to which both partners point, and in whom their relationship is fulfilled. Only by letting Him in is it possible for the most beautiful relationship that can happen in life not to be corrupted and die in time. This is the audacity of His claim.
At this moment in time, the task of the Christian community appears in all its importance as that of favoring an experience of Christianity as fullness of life for all men. Only on the horizon of this greater relationship, as Rilke said, is it possible not to be consumed, because in it each one finds his human fulfillment, discovering in himself, to his surprise, the capacity to embrace the other in his diversity, for unlimited gratuitousness, to forgive over and over again. Without Christian communities able to accompany and sustain married couples in their adventure, it will be difficult, if not impossible, for them to have a successful outcome. In their turn, the couple cannot dispense themselves from the work of education in which they are the main protagonists, merely limiting themselves to thinking that belonging to a Church community will free them from hardships.
Here the nature of the marriage vocation is fully revealed: walking together towards the only One who can answer the thirst for happiness that the other arouses constantly in me–toward Christ. In this way, it will be possible not to move from one husband to another, like the Samaritan woman in the Gospel (cf. Jn 4:18), without finding satisfaction. The awareness that she was unable to solve her own drama by herself, despite changing husbands five times, made her perceive Jesus as a good so desirable that she could not help crying out, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may no longer be thirsty.” (Jn 4:15)
Without an experience of Christ as human fulfillment, the Christian ideal of marriage is reduced to something impossible to realize. The indissolubility of marriage and the eternity of love seem to be dreams beyond reach. In fact, they are the fruit of such an intense experience of Christ that they appear to the couple themselves as a surprise, as the witness that “nothing is impossible for God.” Only an experience like this can show the rationality of the Christian faith as totally corresponding to man’s desire and needs, even in marriage and the family.
A relationship lived like this constitutes the best educative proposal for the children, who, through the beauty of their parents’ relationship, are introduced, as by osmosis, into the meaning of existence. Their reason and their freedom are constantly solicited not to detach themselves from such beauty, that beauty which shines out in the witness of Christian couples that men and women of our time need to encounter.
1 Benedict XVI, Address to the participants in the ecclesial diocesan convention of Rome on The Family and Christian community, June 6, 2005
2 C. Pavese, Il mestiere di vivere, Einaudi, Torino, 2000, p. 190.
3 Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas Est, 2.
4 Ibid., 4. “The Greeks–not unlike other cultures–considered eros principally as a kind of intoxication, the overpowering of reason by a ‘divine madness’ which tears man away from his finite existence and enables him, in the very process of being overwhelmed by divine power, to experience supreme happiness. All other powers in heaven and on earth thus appear secondary: ‘Omnia vincit amor’ says Virgil in the Bucolics–love conquers all–and he adds: ‘et nos cedamus amori’–let us, too, yield to love.”
5 Ibid., 5.
6 G. Leopardi, Aspasia vv 33-34, in Cara Beltà..., Milan, 1996, p.86.
7 Ibid., vv 44-48.
8 “Put me as a seal upon thy heart, as a seal upon thy arm, for love is strong as death, jealousy as hard as hell, the lamps thereof are fire and flames. Many waters cannot quench charity, neither can the floods drown it: if a man should give all the substance of his house for love, he shall despise it as nothing.”
9 C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy, Fontana, London, 1959, p. 176.
10 G. Leopardi, Alla sua donna (To his Lady ), in op. cit., pp. 53-55. “If you are one of those/ eternal ideas, that the eternal mind/ scorns to clothe in solid form…”
11 Cf., L. Giussani, Le mie letture, Bur, Milano, 1996.