Monday, May 10, 2010

"I Do" should start with "Do I?"

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.


  1. Your premise about the "correct starting point" is very sound. However,growth & change are inevitable & really 'healthy' in the individual person & also in all human relationships. In fact, if a marriage remains at it's 'infancy' ( ie honeymoon or one-week/one month anniversary stage)- it's stagnation & that is the death knell of any relationship however promising.As a person undergoes life changes ( be it emotional, social, spiritual & physical ) her experiences & rate of development may not mirror that of her partner's. As such, if there is no understanding and nurturing of the relationship, their growth-path in the marriage would be divergent & not convergent. Is it any wonder then, that they are or feel that they've become incompatible - even though they are still God - fearing & were like "2-peas in a pod" at the beginning of the story? - tessa

  2. Tessa,
    People do change during the course of a marriage; however, if one begins with an I do to God first things will essential fall into place. What I mean by this is that it transcends more than just mere words, but baptizing every action in God and reaching for sainthood. When one has this outlook on life, God is applied to every aspect, nothing is autonomous.

    Possessing this mindset is essential to success of Christian marriage because it is a covenantal relationship between 3 parties: God, the groom and the bride. If everything is baptized in God, attempted to be consecrated to Him, the parties will not grow apart; rather, they will grow together, as motives in the marriage grow out of the motive of pure love. Pride that can exist within the relationship will often diminish and be replaced with humility.

    Many times when marriages begin to grow apart or disintegrate, it is due to lack of communication or because of greater love of self, but when God is put at the center of Marriage it is hard to be egocentric.

    Therefore, the "I do" to God is essential as it sanctifies every action and the entirety of the relationship, and the spouses will grow together not apart, as their concerns will not purely self motivated. Now, this is not to say that individuality cannot exist within a marriage; however, one must temper their own wants with necessities of marriage and the dignity and love which it deserves.

  3. I think that another correct starting point for baptized Catholics is that we should internalize the vows we take - the vows are not to be taken frivolously. Once we realize that we have to live the vows, & that the vows are permanent, we will work harder at sustaining our marriages.

  4. Very interesting perspective on marriages.

    Let's face it, every marriage has its ups and downs.

    But I believe that one which is built on a foundation has a better chance of not becoming a statistic when the storm comes a-blowing.

    For some, the foundation can be faith in God. For others (non-christians) , it can be taking the exchange of vows as not just words but as a lifelong and firm commitment.

    In both cases, what's most important is that neither can be 'conditional'. Unconditional faith and unconditional adherence to the vows is really alien in our society where everything is so transient and we will hang in there as long as the conditions suit us.

    Failure in whatever form, is always part of us. Vows are forgotten. Temptation abounds. Children stray. I am sure you heard them all.

    And when that happens, we need to seek forgiveness. And that's when faith comes back into play.

    Couples today must learn to build a relationship with each other on something more substantial than servicing a housing loan.

    And with a goal much further than the honeymoon.

    When one has a realistic idea of what the road ahead is, building a marriage with God as a partner isn't an option. It's absolutely critical.

  5. Dear Fr. Luke,

    When I was a little boy, growing up in the 60's I had never even heard of the word divorce. You see, I never actually knew of anyone who was. As I came to understand what it meant - as far as I was concerned, divorce happened to other people, in other distant lands, and certainly not to Catholics!

    Oh, how the world has changed. What has happened to us?

    Several years ago our dear Fr. Amiotte, former parish priest of OLSOTS, asked us, in one of his homilies to pray, "Father in Heaven, help me to love my wife/husband more and more each day". A simple prayer, almost child-like; but one I pray regularly.

    Unless spouses are prepared to die to one another (ie. Love one another) each day, it's going to be tough, and this is true whether one is Catholic or not. Therefore, as married couples we need all the help we can get.

    Pray for good marriages. Pray for good marriages. Pray for good marriages. And while you're at it, throw in Fr. Amiotte's prayer for good measure.

    God Bless

  6. I asked for a Christian wife but God sent me a Catholic spouse instead. “Never mind, she will be converted eventually”, I believed. And she prayed, “He will become a Catholic …in His time” With that, we got married. None of us really practiced our faith for the next few years. I guessed no one really wanted his/her God into our lives to mess things up. Happiness and unhappiness were both lived out by our own strengths.

    It was some years later that I immersed myself into the community and found the Catholic Church to be a holy place (rather than the “evil place” the world purports us to believe). To cut the long story short, I got baptized. But the story didn’t end there.

    Seeing me journeying and growing in RCIA, she too was fired up in her faith. My wife and I now had a “common” God. Our marriage had gone from good to better…most times. But the unhappy times became more hurtful. Somehow, we shared the same faith but not the same God. We had different expectations of what Jesus was intending for us in our marriage.

    It took us a while to see that we were putting our personal Jesus before one another. In a way, we are back to our starting point where I wanted to convert her and vice versa. It took us months of bungling, talking with friends and soul searching to find out why we are experiencing more peaks and troughs in our relationship. It was the eventual letting go of this “boxed-in Jesus”, and letting him hold our hands instead that we came to know what a covenantal marriage is.

    Through the grace of God, we ended up in Marriage Encounter with Fr Luke as our ME priest. Thanks to him and the dedicated team of ME facilitators, our marriage has gone from better to even better (we resist to use “best” here but we are still finding this out).

    Seeing our ME priest blog about “mixed marriage”, we thought we share our own experience. Our common ground that many years ago was just that we were God-fearing individuals practicing our own faiths. Even when we shared the same faith, we had trouble sharing the same God. What about now? Oh yes! We still have our ups and downs…but Jesus is on the same boat with us …he makes the ride happier.

    Pete & Mary

  7. Dear Father Luke
    thank you so much for writing especially this entry. And yes I am a single Catholic, thank you for thinking of me. For me your words have taught me so much, things which I've never managed to dig out from within me although I know that deep inside, I desire all that you have written here: to find my life mission that God has brought me onto this earth for, thoughts of how to view marriage, of why the Church has always encouraged Catholics to marry Catholics. But I've always, all my life, wanted to find out whether God intend for me to marry a Catholic or even marry at all! Whether my mission in life includes having a spouse to share it with and to push it forward, I do not know. And yet, your words have changed my life direction - I need to learn to love God first before I can love others. I will continue to pray that my life will be guided by God and used in the way God meant it to be. I need to realise this. Thank you for teaching me this. Please always write as I thank God for you, Father Luke, always being in our lives.

  8. why did the church "prefer" marriage btw baptized catholics?? simple reason.. a) commanality in faith i.e jesus as the center of life. b) children .. to bring them up as catholics.. c) eternal home.. in heaven.. that is true destination of a christian.. where both husband and wife pray and long for to meet again in eternal home.. once their live on earth is up.. dun 4get our life here is a transition or a pilgrim to eternal home.. so marry somebody of diff faith that guy or gal may not understand.. If you want to marry a good catholic or christian.. just observe him or her and his or her fear or "reverance" for the lord.. eg attending mass eg lax or proper i.e on time.. attidudes to sin.. and christian living..

    pax christi
    deus tecum

  9. Dear Fr Luke
    As a catholic, I married a soka buddhist and took the path that we will love and respect each other's faith in the years to come. Since then, it has been 11 years. At first, it was not easy to talk spiritual matters as my wife do her chanting an hour a day or more as a leader in her faith.

    I got to know many soka lay leaders and all my in laws were buddhists who only knew me as the one Christian in their midst.

    In the early years, I had to look after my aged mother with a maid until her passing away 2 years ago. Somehow we had not been able to have children and our mutual love and respect grew as we interacted and learn from each other. For her, she learn to love unconditionally and to practise forgiveness as I do my best to bring Christ to our married life.

    Till today, I believe our different faith could be God's purpose for both of us and my role could be to be the light for my buddhist and muslim friends too. At times, I get to tell the buddhist leaders what true Christainity is about. Praise the Lord!

    Martin & Josephine

  10. Yes it would be wonderful to meet and marry a catholic for all the reasons you state.Is God not the father of all men? Sometimes however we see Christ reflected in non Christians - they may not believe in Christianity because of their negative experiences with Christians. Knowing what Christianity truly is, we see it reflected in how they live their lives. They are implicitly Christian.They restore our faith in humanity - a faith sometimes destroyed by the actions and words of Christians.

  11. Dear Fr,
    First,I must say sorry for what I am to say.I do not think catholics better choice of marriage is with catholics.
    Before I marry, I really hope to marry a fellow catholic. But my husband was not and we went through ordinary wedding. There are times I was far from the church. As a wife of a non believer, there are some trying times.
    But thinking back, it was all God's plan.
    When my first child came, I had this calling that I must baptise her. The priest told me I could not because my marriage was not solemnised in church.
    And so, my husband and me had our marriage vows again, in church; not only for the kids but for me as well. It was a plain but very important step for our marriage.
    That gave all our 3 blessed children the precious gifts of becoming children of God.

    And then, God works in my family thro my children especially the youngest.
    With him, we attend mass weekly. When once I was lost, I found back my way and not only that I bring my husband to know God,slowly.
    It was a long hard road especially when my husband was a total disbeliever of any religion.
    Then one day, I realised my mission on earth and thro the wonders of God, I accompanied my husband to RCIA. And if you think it is that simple it is not. It was only 30 years of praying that finally he is called and accepted by God.
    We are now a very happy family of God. We will be celebrating our 35 years of marriage this year, the marriage God arranged in another way.
    My daughter is now married to a taoist but with God's will, we pray, all will be fine.

    My sister was lucky in the beginning in marrying a catholic. However, it was sad that they had broken up and their only child was the only link between them. I believe, keeping close to God is more important than being just a borned catholic.

    I agree with Martin & Josephine: Till today, I believe our different faith could be God's purpose for both of us and my role could be to be the light. Praise the Lord!

    God works in many ways beyone our understanding.
    Let us pray that God show us the way.

  12. I guess all the comments made about this particular blog entry requires of me some response. I thank you all for your comments, and your opening up of your lives to the world to read.

    I think the only thing I will be saying is this - it was probably misunderstood by many that I was saying that Catholics should marry Catholics on the basis of their being baptised. This is the Church's intention, and it really is based on something very sound. It is with the understanding that the baptised Catholic be one who truly understands his or her faith, truly accepts God as the sole giver of his or her life, and fully embraces all the teachings of the Church.

    When that happens, a marriage is surely set on the right road. But, as many of you have pointed out, there are marriages between Catholics and non-Catholics, even between two Catholic parties, which have become estranged, and added to the statistics of divorce. I am quite sure that the genesis of this would have been when one party veered away from keeping one eye on God and the other on the marriage.

    I am sure that God can and does work marvelously outside of a sacramental marriage too. If God can only work within a sacrament, then there will be limits on God, and it would make God extremely powerless.

    I am very happy for the many whose marriage to parties outside of the faith has worked out well, and I do hope that those who are dispensed from marrying Catholics will receive a grace to encounter God through these marriages.

    My premise for the blog entry was not to malign, slur or discredit these non-sacramental marriages, but rather, to help especially the younger Catholics who are hoping to marry, to set the foundations right.

    God bless

    Fr Luke