Marriages are made in heaven. So are thunder and lightning.
That’s an old joke with obscure origins. But it does say something that I think rings true about what constitutes the basis of a lasting and holy union of two lives for the remaining years of their lives on earth.
I have been a Marriage Encounter priest for more than 6 years now, and one of the things that I firmly believe that sets our society on safe ground is a stable and holy marriage. The very fibre of our society becomes threatened and shaky once the institution of marriage as a permanent and lasting feature starts to become compromised. We see it happening all around us, and Catholic marriages are not spared the plague either.
There are plenty of mitigating factors that contribute to the complex problem of marriage instability and the possible eventual separation of a married couple. What most marriage counselors do is ‘damage control’ but it is precisely that – control of damage that has already been done. The kinds of ‘damage’ are commonly infidelity, mistrust, lost romance, or a growing incompatibility between marriage partners. I have had my fair share of helping troubled marriages myself (by the way, the Marriage Encounter programme is not for troubled marriages, but to help good marriages become better), and one of the most difficult things to do is to get them to meet at some common level from where a dialogue can commence with as little acrimony, anger and wound-opening occurring as possible.
As I grapple with the task of helping marriages to become whole again, my silent question to myself is often “where did it go wrong?” It came to me recently that perhaps it’s not so much a question of “where did it go wrong?” but more a question of “did the couple begin from a correct starting point before getting married?”
Perhaps I need to qualify what I am saying. My reflection on marriages in this morning’s blog pertains more to Catholics who marry Catholics. It is not an aspersion on what the Church calls ‘mixed marriages’, where a baptized Catholic marries an unbaptised person. The Church has always recommended that the two parties coming together are baptized, cherish and practice their faith with a maturity, and are in full awareness that all that they have, all that they are, is gift from God.
What is the correct starting point for anyone contemplating something as serious as marriage? It would be to seek enlightenment and divine assistance to marry someone whom God wills for us to marry. The same should be asked of by the other party.
Put plainly, a well ordered life, which leads to a well-ordered marriage, is to love God first before loving another human being. Married couples that love God first individually, whose love of God is the number one love in their lives, becomes rightly ordered. And before seeking a marriage partner, to have sought God’s assistance is akin to asking God “Lord, is it your will that I should marry? If so, please point me towards the right person who would help me fulfill your will in my life. Is this the person who will help me to fulfill your mission in my life? Do I see this person as the one who, together with me, will make us a couple set out for mission in the world?” Imagine the other party searching for someone in her life making a similar prayer. In the search for holiness and godliness, those two lives will be guided by God. And for mission.
But from the way I look at many marriages now, it seems that God’s guidance, God’s pointing of the way, or the desire to do God’s will is something that is so far from the mind of the baptized Catholic. Perhaps one is deemed too ‘holy’ if one begins from this kind of a starting point, and so, a man or woman-hunt begins without much divine assistance, without a seeking of God’s will, with nary a thought of the need to become mission-oriented in one’s life. When this happens, what kind of criteria does one base one’s choice of a life-partner on? A few of them come to mind – good looks, intelligence, material stability, sensibility, a sense of humour, and some semblance of compatibility. One doesn’t need a relationship with God to base one’s choice on those factors. In fact, very often, the problem marriages start become problematic precisely when those very factors change or become compromised.
The church has in its wisdom always strongly recommended that baptised Catholics marry baptized Catholics but not many couples seem to grasp why. It is not so that we can become more in-bred, as some may think. It is more so that our whole lives are begun on the right footing and that we are on a solid starting point in fulfilling God’s will with a mission mindset. Many I suspect, know that this should be the norm, but it is not fully appreciated for the wisdom and stability that it offers.
I know that there are many Catholics who have married partners who are not Catholics, and have cited reasons like “so that she/he can become Catholic one day” as their contribution to evangelization efforts. Red flags flutter in my mind when I hear this, because if one has an agenda for marriage that is not one of unconditional love, it puts the marriage on very shaky ground to start with.
Certainly, there is plenty of evidence that not all marriages in which both parties are baptized Catholics stay intact throughout. A baptism is a rite, but living a baptized life requires effort, disciple, and a certain asceticism that is full of sacrifice, in imitation of Our Lord Jesus Christ.
Perhaps my blog today is not so much targeted at couples who have been married, or even those who are struggling with being a loving couple. I do hope that there are single Catholics reading this, who are beginning their adult lives, and wonder how to start thinking about marriage, or if they should be married at all. Before looking for a partner, before putting down on a piece of paper what you want to see your partner having as your ideal qualities, perhaps the better thing to do to is to see if your relationship with God is such that he is the number one love in your life. And if he is not, do something about this; re-orientate your life so that God slowly does take up that prime spot. Because once he is, and your life partner shows a similar love of God, your marriage becomes something that is set on rock, because it will be the love of God that is sealing your marriage in a very real way.
So, long before the “I do” of the marriage vows are made; long before finding a partner, the question to ask is “do I?” - Do I love God first? Do I want to do God’s will in my life? Do I understand that my life is for God’s mission? Do I desire this more than anything else in life?
These questions will make the “I do” declaration before the Altar of God an acknowledgement that both parties are going to be partners with God to do his will on earth, as in heaven. And yes, these marriages will then be made in heaven, because these marriages will be made for heaven.