21 Jul Classic Articles from the Vault #1
Marriage is a journey of love
By Johnny Doherty CSsR
It is very noticeable when you are around the family and friends of a young couple who are getting ready for their wedding day, how much of the conversation is about them losing their freedom, especially the man! People talk about getting married and settling down. The implication is that all the fun of life will now be over. Of course, this is generally good humoured. But there is also an element of seriousness about it.
This betrays the mentality that marriage is a destination that is reached on the wedding day. We wish the couple every success in their life together but without any great expectations of joy and happiness. And just in case those expectations are present, there will be people warning them to wait until the honeymoon is over!
However, if we approach marriage as a journey that begins with the wedding day, the possibilities change dramatically. For any journey, the first thing that is decided is: Where are you going? That is an essential question for the journey of marriage and one that a lot of couples don’t fully ask themselves.
The second question for every journey is: How do you get to where you want to go? It is essential for couples to look for and take on board all the resources that will help them travel this journey together. They don’t have these naturally. They must learn them and keep learning them at every stage.
It is said that a successful marriage is that of a couple who enter between 15 and 20 different marriages with each other during a lifetime. Marriage is a way of life that is always on the move. It changes as a couple’s circumstances change. The secret is to enter fully into the marriage relationship that is there at every stage. The temptation is for people to yearn for things to be different to such an extent that they miss out on the possibilities of the present.
Marriage is the journey of a couple towards one another. Within the context of Christian faith, unity with one another is held up as the goal, the destination, as it is of all human life and of all creation. In the Book of Genesis this is expressed for the married couple in the words: “This is why a man leaves his father and mother and joins himself to his wife, and they become one body”. (Gen. 2, 25)
This journey into unity is never completed ‘until death do us part’. It is a life-long commitment to love one another ‘for better, for worse; for richer, for poorer; in sickness and in health’. What an extraordinary promise that is. It is only the generosity of love that can enable any couple to make it.
Every couple, on their wedding day, means that promise. Not every couple is able to deliver on it for all kinds of reasons. It is often so tragic when a couple has to separate or divorce and the dreams they had are shattered. The wonder of it is, though, that so many couples make it through into old age with their dreams intact and their generous love fulfilled.
A ceremony that often takes place during the wedding Mass in the Catholic Church, is the ceremony of the three candles. At the beginning of the Nuptial Mass, just after the couple come together at the altar, they light the two outside candles. This is often thought of as representing the fact that they are two individuals coming together for their wedding. A much better way of looking at it is that these candles represent the candles that their parents and godparents were given at their Baptism to keep burning as a light of faith. Then after the couple exchanges their wedding vows, they light the middle candle to signify that something different has taken place between them. They are now taking charge of their new life together which includes their life of faith.
Sometimes at this stage a couple have been advised to blow out the other two candles. This is a mistake. Their call is to build together on the faith that has been given them in Baptism and handed on in their families. Their task is to become one while always remaining two individuals. How can this possibly happen?
In the Acts of the Apostles and the Letters of St Paul, the Word of God teaches that unity is built on three pillars: unity of mind; unity of heart; unity of affection. This is true of unity at every level of life. It is particularly true of the unity to which married couples are called and to which they have vowed their love.
It’s amazing the number of couples who say things like: “we think the same way about everything” or “we feel the same way about everything” and are convinced that this is a sign of how close they are to each other. Maybe it is such a sign, but it is not what unity of mind is about. Rather, unity of mind is about developing a common goal for their marriage, a common purpose around which everything else circulates.
It is about putting their marriage at the centre of their priorities. All decisions then must be measured by how these add to or subtract from the health and vibrancy of their marriage. This takes a lot of effective communication that is made up of regularly talking to each other and listening actively to one another about what is best for each one and for their marriage.
Our Catholic tradition sees marriage as a Sacrament. This involves the acknowledgement of it being a three-partner relationship which cannot work fully with only two. Because of this, prayer together is an important part of discerning what is best for the marriage at each stage of the journey and for gaining the grace of generosity to make the necessary decisions that can at times be difficult for one or other to face.
The marriage vows that a couple exchange on their wedding day are a commitment to build up the goodness of each other through affirmation and praise. Disillusionment in marriage generally begins when criticism becomes part of their relationship. This leads to rows and can eventually bring them to the point of separation.
Unity of heart means making praise and thanksgiving a constant part of the journey of marriage. Don’t let the faults and failings of each other drive you apart. Let the goodness and generosity of each other unite you. Forgiving each other is a constant need if you are to practice this essential power for your marriage.
St Paul gives two important teachings on this. “Don’t let the sun go down on your anger” (Ephesians 4:25) and, “Forgive each other as soon as a quarrel begins” (Colossians 3:13). In other words, don’t let your rows fester, but deal with them immediately so that you can continue moving forward on your journey together. Praying for and with one another is vital for this forgiveness. Sometimes, it is also important to get help from a counsellor or someone else to get you beyond the block whatever it happens to be.
Affection is not just about how a person feels. It is much more about how a person speaks and acts. In the marriage relationship, affection in word and action needs to be practiced to make the journey of marriage an adventure.
Affection in word: The simple, profound sentence ‘I love you’ needs to be constantly spoken, firstly in order to be heard and believed, and secondly in order to be followed.
Affection in action: It is amazing how many couples lose the ability to touch, to hold, to embrace, and kiss each other in their journey together. It is an ability that needs to be reclaimed and practiced. Without this, love-making becomes more an act of need than a gift of love.
Affection in word and in action helps a couple to rejoice together in good times and to support each other in the times that are not so good. It is essential for every stage of the marriage journey. And it is the fulfilment of the marriage vows. Make praying together a part of your affectionate love and let God’s affection for you as a couple warm your love for one another.
Fr Johnny Doherty, CSsR is from County Donegal, Ireland. He is the founder of A Movement of Continuous Prayer for Marriage and Family Life.This article was first published in Reality magazine. Reprinted with permission.