This past week six couples in my parish joined about 850 other couples in the Archdiocese of Washington at the Basilica here for the Jubilarian Mass. Couples celebrating 25, 40, 45, 50 and 60 or more years of marriage gather each year to receive gratitude and recognition from the diocese for their witness to the fact that love never fails. We may fail, but love is our constant call, and, if we will let love have its way amor omnia vincit (love conquers all).
In times like these the witness of many years of marriage is all the more necessary and all the more inspiring. My parents made it to 45 years before my mother died. And I know they were not all easy years. I have written on that here before. But as the years ticked by Charles and Nancy Pope, my parents were quite inseparable. When my mother did die, and she died suddenly and tragically, I knew my father wasn’t long for this world. We kids wondered how dad would manage without mom. Shortly after her death he wondered aloud how he could go on living when half of him was gone.
Saying those words witnessed to the miracle of holy matrimony where God takes two and makes them one. My father and mother did not get to that place quickly or easily (there we some stormy years in their forties). But they got there, by God’s grace, they got there.
My Aunt and Uncle just celebrated their 50th. Again, many years, lots of love but also their share of struggles and sorrows. Yes, God is faithful, and he will do what he says: “They are no longer two, they are one.” (Matt 19:6)
In the Basilica last Sunday some one did the math and found that there were 33,000 years of Holy Matrimony collectively among the Jubilarians in that place. Amor omnia vincit.
Many will point to the crisis of Holy Matrimony today. I would not be so foolish to deny it and have discussed it here. But to those who say it is not reasonable or possible to expect people to get married and stay that way today, My mom and dad, my aunt and uncle, 850 other couples in the Basilica and 33,000+ years of marriage all stand in witness to the fact that God can do this, and God STILL does this.
I am not a married man in the conventional sense, but I have had the privilege of talking with many married couples over the years, and I have asked of, and been able to discern the ingredients of success in holy matrimony, and the priesthood, by extension. Here are few brief pointers that the successful have offered in one way or another over the years to me:
1. No Ideal Marriage - Many people want marriage to be ideal, if there is any ordeal they want to look for a new deal. And the problem is that they want marriage to be ideal. But there is not such thing. Every marriage is imperfect. It has blessings, but also burdens. Clinging to the “ideal Marriage” fantasy is a recipe for resentment and disappointment. Living in reality is essential. Many good marriages are far from ideal, but they are good. And the best should not be the enemy of the good.
2. Always remember, you are sinner, who married a sinner. God wants marriage, as a sacrament to be a means of salvation for both spouses. Hence, marriage somewhat presumes that work was necessary for both spouses upon the beginning of a marriage. Let God do his work, and that work is sometimes painful. Marriage is an important way that God teaches and virtues such as humility, forgiveness, patience, kindness, honesty, accountability, and so forth. Honestly, if we do not learn these virtues and receive them from God, we will likely go to hell. Marriage is one of the ways God works to save us. It is a call to holiness, and as a sacrament, it is a way to holiness.
3. Stay in your lane and work your own stuff first. Always begin by saying, “My marriage is not perfect because I am in it.
4. Some of God’s gifts come in strange packages. For those who are faithful, all things work together for good (cf Rom 8:28). Notice that, ALL things. Not just the good things, even the bad things. Spouses bring many blessings to one another in pleasant ways. But even the less pleasant and difficult things, for the reasons stated in # 2 above, redound to our good if we can learn to learn from adversity as well as pleasantries. A spouse, by God’s grace, is a means by which the other spouse grows in holiness.
5. What you feed grows - It is usually the case when couples date that they compliment each other and overlook negative things rather easily. But a few years into a marriage when the “I Do” has become “You’d Better” the negative is focused on. Couples in crisis all too easily have great recall of all the foibles and sins of the other, what they have done and not done is easily recited. When I ask what is good about the other, suddenly the memory is less clear and the recitation less articulate. It is a simple truth that what you feed will grow, and what you starve will shrink and die. Couples who have made often talk of being blessed with a poor memory, and a forgetfulness of hurts, and of being grateful for the blessings that their spouse brings. They have learned to feed the positive and starve the negative.
6. Beware the noonday devil - It often happens that when one sets about a good thing like marriage, priesthood or the religious life, or other paths, that at the four or five year mark a certain lethargy sets in that combines boredom, perhaps some discouragement and a desire to get free for something new. This is the noonday devil, the five-year itch. Beware it, but even more, ignore it. Those who make it through this transition are all glad they did. I say “transition” because that is what it is. Life cannot simply be based on newness and thrills. Our commitments must ultimately have deeper roots to be stable and it is important to transition to the daily living of the tasks before us. One ultimately adjusts to slowing down to the pace of life and comes to appreciate what is familiar and stable. If one can make this transition in marriage a more stable and mature love replaces the more mercurial love of romance and courtship.
7. Marriage is hard because life is hard. It is so easy to think life would be better outside the marriage or in another marriage. No. Life is hard. It is hard being a priest, it is hard being single, it is hard being married. Life is hard. Life also has joys in all these states. One of the hard truths that sets us free if we accept it is simply that life is hard. There is not escaping this. There is no where to go where this will not be so. Running from marriage because it is hard is futile. If you try to run from this truth you will meet yourself coming back. There is no escaping this, we live in paradise lost. Life is hard. Running never works.
8. Your spouse’s strengths and struggles are very much related. If we are honest we will discover that what we most like about people is only separated by 3 degrees from what we dislike. For example, we may know someone who is a great organizer or manager. And we very much like and depend on the leadership they have. However, the same person can also be controlling or a bit anxious about things. Their strength and their struggle are very closely related. Perhaps too we know of person who is passionately committed and creative. But that same person also struggles with the passion of anger, or the moodiness of the creative. Someone many be very outgoing and friendly, but they also, thereby, struggle to be committed to core principles and may be a people-pleaser. Successful spouses learn to take the bad with the good, and to accept that what they most like and admire about their spouse, is also accompanied by a less desirable side to it. But at the end of the day they are able to link the two, accepting the tension with appreciation for what it points to.
9. Happiness is an inside job - Most successful spouses come to love and admire many things about their spouse, and their marriage brings with it many happy moments. But, at the end of the day, most individuals are about as happy as they set out to be. Too often we think that happiness comes from external factors. It is true that external factors can bring comfort. But happiness has its origin in our own own heart. There are many people who have very admirable external settings who are not happy. There are also people who have difficult external situations but are happy and content. In the end, happiness is a gift that comes from God which we must allow him to work in us, whatever our circumstances. It is wrong and idolatrous to make another human being, even your spouse, the source of your happiness. Not only is it wrong, it is unfair to your spouse. Only God can grant true and lasting happiness. And we must individually cooperate with that work of God. Our spouse can and should help in this regard, but they cannot be the ultimate source of our happiness. Ultimately we have a God-sized hole in our heart that only God can fill. No human being can take that place.
10. Faith is Fundamental - While it is true that irreligious couples do succeed in marriage, the best guarantee for a successful marriage is for each of the spouses to report to and be accountable and obedient to God. The remedies of the sacraments, God’s word, prayer, sacred teaching and walking in fellowship with other believers are essential helps that we are foolish to try and live without.
11. Headship Matters - There is an old saying, Marriage makes two people one. The trouble comes in determining which one. – One of the biggest problems today in marriage is power struggle. In our modern age we have rejected the biblical teaching of headship in marriage. God establishes a husband in authority in the home. Every organism and organization requires headship. A creature with two heads is a freak. A creature with no head is dead. Having rejected the necessity of headship and the biblical teaching assigning that to the husband (eg Eph 5:19 ff) the result is power struggle between the spouses. Now a husband’s authority is not a worldly, autocratic authority but a Christian, servant based authority (Cf Mark 10:41-45). It does not follow that the husband always “gets his way.” Rather, if he is smart, he listens carefully to his wife and her wisdom. Practically speaking women have great authority in the home and its daily running and a smart husband will not seek to micromanage and usurp his wife’s role and her practical authority there and with the children. But in the end, two have to become one. Oneness requires headship, common faith, shared fear of the Lord, and a heartfelt appreciation for the gifts of each.
12. Your Marriage belongs to God, not you. The Scripture says, “What God has joined together, let no one divide. (Matt 19:6) Therefore note that God worked this work, not you. Your marriage is His work, it belongs to him. Respect what God has done and reverence it as of him, and by him and belonging to him.
Here then are a few things I have learned in 25 years of marriage counseling and talking to married couples. It is things like these, and more that I am sure you will add in the combox that adds up to 33,000 years of marriage and counting.
Here is a video from last year’s celebration. The couple seen in the still shot of this video box are Morris and Mary Freeman from my parish, who, that year celebrated their 50th. Mary died of a rapid form of cancer just two months after this video was taken. May she rest in peace.