Playing on the heart-strings does not always (or even usually) produce a good or proper melody. Such is the case of a recently published Washington Post Article entitled: A Family Learns the True Meaning of the Vow: ‘In Sickness and in Health.’ Actually, they do not. In fact they demonstrate the exact antithesis of what that vow means.
I want to be careful here, since this is a story about real human beings who have lived through a tragic situation. And while they have made decisions that I think are wrong from a biblical and faith perspective, I do not lack sympathy for them. There’s is a human struggle here and not all of us hold up perfectly in such struggles.
Yet, they themselves have decided to go public, in a national newspaper about their decision and, as a pastor of many, I am thus compelled to speak in a public way as well, lest others be misguided as to what a true Catholic and biblical response to this tragedy is.
The article and story is a very lengthy one. The full article is available above by click there in the title. I have also produced a summary here: A Story of Misguided Marital Vows. But the basic facts are these:
- Robert and Page Melton were married in 1995 and had two children.
- In 2003 Robert had a severe heart attack that left him with brain injuries. His motor skills were unimpaired but his memory was devastated. He remembered nothing of his wife and children and almost nothing of his earlier life.
- His behavior was also child-like and erratic which meant he needed to live in a nursing care facility.
- His wife visited him several times weekly and they developed a new sort of relationship. Though he came to know that he was her husband and the father of their daughters, he was not able to resume this role in any sort of substantial way.
- His wife Page was resigned to this, and still loved and cared for him as best as she was able.
- But then Page met an old friend, Allan who was divorced, and they fell in love.
- Allan also befriended Robert even as he was romancing Robert’s wife.
- Allan proposed marriage to Page.
- Page felt guilty, but wanted this new life. So she asked Robert.
- Robert said she should marry Allan, but wondered what would happen to himself.
- Page promised to continuing caring for Robert, but divorced him and married Allan.
- Robert continues today in her care and she is his legal guardian, but no longer his wife.
- The Post article assures us that everyone is blissfully happy, and will live happily ever after.
OK, a heart-wrencher to be sure. And the article is surely written to obtain our heartfelt consent by tugging at our heart-strings.
But be careful here, emotionally based reasoning is usually very blurry, and often quite wrong. And this is no exception. Lets look at some of the issues.
1. To begin with , there is the terrible title of the Post article: “A Family Learns the True Meaning of the Vow ‘In Sickness and In Health.'” Actually they do not. In fact they “learn” precisely the opposite of what this vow means. The vow does NOT mean that if one of the spouses gets sick, the other is free to leave the marriage and find love in the arms of another. It does not simply mean, as their “minister” falsely said to Page, that “so long as you make sure the other is cared for you have fulfilled this vow.”
Rather, the vow says that I will be true to our marriage even if you are sick and not able to live in a state that I would prefer. Sickness might mean that a spouse is no longer able to provide mutual support and companionship. It might mean that they are no longer able to be sexually intimate. It might mean that they can no longer provide financially or help in the raising of the children. There are any number of scenarios that the vow covers. It is open ended, and intentionally so.
In this case Robert was severely impaired from meeting most of his marital duties. Though he was not unconscious, his personality changed, he became more childlike and somewhat erratic. His memories were gone and, as the article implies, he was no longer interested in sexual intimacies.
Tragically this sometimes happens in marriages. But this is precisely why vows are made. And this leads us to a second point.
2. We do not make vows because life is going to be peachy and easy. Vows are not necessary to cover joyful and attractive things. Vows are necessary to cover less appealing scenarios, scenarios that are hard, and often unpleasant. And because they are such, we “vow” to remain true in spite of them.
Too many people today claim that vows are unreasonable when tough things come up. “Well if I had known that this would happen I would not have married.” But in fact this is the very reason you made vows, to cover the tough stuff. You did “know” in a general way, that difficult and painful things are possible and do occur. And this precise knowledge is why you made the vow: I take you to be my husband/wife, from this day forward, for better OR WORSE, for richer OR POORER, in SICKNESS and in health, till death do us part.
Nothing could be more clear, the vow says, “I will be at your side as your spouse no matter what.
This is the “true meaning” of the vow “in sickness and in health” no matter what the Washington Post says. Page, the wife, though sorely distressed and understandably desirous of an ordinary marriage, and “adult male compansionship” (as the article describes), has made a vow to her first husband that she must honor. That is the true meaning. A vow is a vow, a promise to act accordingly when the conditions are tough and warrant it.
3. But Father, but Father, she asked Robert and he said it was OK for here to marry Allan! Two responses must be made here.
First, as the article indicates, Robert has been affected mentally in a severe and substantial way. He is child-like in his reasoning, and not able to act on his own accord. He is in no position to be asked for a divorce or legally to grant one. The article indicates that Page was his legal guardian and, in order to procure the divorce, had to get Robert’s brother to act as his legal guardian. Even secular law accepts that Robert could not simply answer for himself in his condition. Hence his “consent” to the legal divorce is not valid from an interpersonal point of view.
Secondly, and more importantly there is the standpoint of biblical and sacramental marriage. Jesus says, They are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one divide (Mark 10:9; Matt 19:5 inter al). The “no one” here includes the spouses themselves. Thus, even if Robert was mentally competent and strangely happy that his wife was dating another man and wanted to marry that man, Robert could not give this consent for divorce from the perspective of faith. Perhaps the civil authorities could accept this, but no one who holds to biblical and sacramental marriage could.
4. There is a notion today that everyone is entitled to be happy and that we should gleefully accept whatever they do to find that happiness. Well, happiness is not promised here in the valley of tears. And life has a way of dishing out both its pleasures and sorrows. True and lasting happiness must wait for the heavenly realms.
Jesus spoke very clearly of the need to accept and carry the cross in this life if we would be truly his disciples.
Page, in this story, received a difficult cross, one that was unexpected (they usually are) and long lasting. We cannot glibly dismiss her struggle, but neither can we exempt her from what God has permitted and gives her the grace to accept. Life is not always what we wish, but God can grant us a serenity and a courage to face life’s trials with faith and fidelity to the vows and commitments we have made.
I know many spouses who have cared for years for an incapacitated or difficult spouse. They are heroic in their virtue and steadfast to their vows. My own father stood faithfully by my mother in her 15 year decline into alcoholism, just she had stood by him in his earlier struggle with the same. It wasn’t easy but it made them both holy. In the cross is our salvation.
And this leads to the final point.
5. Too many Christians are ashamed of the cross. Scripture says was are to glory in the cross (cf Gal 6:14 inter al) and proclaim its magnificent, though often painful power.
Many are able to glory in the cross when it is an abstraction. But when the cross gets real, many Christians collapse and seek a way out. Sometimes it is a way out for themselves, sometimes it is for others.
And the world of course sees the cross as an absurdity and will often call the Church and true Christians harsh, unloving and uncaring, for our insistence that, only by the way of the Cross, will we reach our heavenly goal. To the world’s strident and rhetorical questions, (meant to illustrate the absurdity of the cross) we must often answer a simple yes:
- Are you saying that people who are suffering at the the end of life cannot be put out of their misery by euthanasia?! – Yes
- Are you saying that two loving homosexuals cannot marry and must live celibacy?! – Yes
- Are you saying that people who are unhappy in a marriage should not be able to divorce?!? – Yes
- Are you saying that Page, who finally found love, after her years of suffering, cannot realize that love in a new marriage?! – Yes.
Sometimes the answer has to simply be yes and we cannot be ashamed to hold up the Cross of Christ who said, Anyone who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me (Matt 10:38). And again, If anyone is ashamed of me and my teaching in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels. (Mk 8:38), And yet again, In this world you will have tribulation. But take courage! I have overcome the world. (Jn 16:33).
Yes, this world will often rail against the Cross and call Christians who point to its demands hateful, inseneitive, heartless and so forth. Scripture says, For, as I have often told you before and now say again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ (Phil 3:18). And to a world that often regards the Cross with sneering indignation, we must insistently hold it up, for it alone, by God’s grace, is our salvation.
In this tragic story of a family, our hearts may well go out and understand the difficulties faced by Page. But that cannot make what she did right. I do not hold that she is per se, an enemy of the Cross of Christ. She obviously received bad advice from her “minister” and lives in a world wherein the Cross makes no sense.
But in this sad and poignant story is a lesson for us all and a reminder that vows really do matter, even when “stuff” happens later, that the Cross is not just and abstraction that we sings hymns about, it is about real difficulties that we are asked to face with courage and faith; faith in the utter and absolute power of the Cross of Christ to save us.
Here’s a Video of a happier outcome rooted in the Cross and vows: