Thursday, April 3, 2014

The Most Important "Work" of Marriage

Lately there has been a lot of talk about marriage in the blog world (especially among Catholic Christians). Young couples enter into Christian marriage, perhaps, with starry eyes and optimism and even a bit of forgivable "overconfidence." We've been there, and felt that way. We know that time will teach them the hard work of married life, of unity and fidelity, of the experience of discord (even the Pope recently mentioned how "throwing plates around" is a normal experience of spousal argument).

But, above all, time (and their openness in faith and love) will allow them to experience the inexhaustible power of the grace of the Holy Spirit and the presence of Jesus in the sacrament of marriage. The hope, of course, is that Christian newlyweds are prepared in such a way that they truly believe in this grace from the beginning. Nevertheless, the whole of married life is an ever deeper verification of the reality of the grace of marriage and it's superabundant adequacy to endure and to grow through a vast array of unimaginable circumstances.

All of this is very true. Older married couples can list circumstances of good times and bad, sickness and health, a million awkward things about sharing life right down to who hogs the blankets every night. We can talk about the importance of nurturing our unity through these circumstances and through communication and trust and forgiveness.

All of this is very true.

But there is something lacking in this conversation. Maybe we take it for granted because it's so obvious. Or perhaps because it's so unique, and so seemingly "beyond us" when we think about ourselves as married couples that it gets left out when we theorize about marriage.

Eileen and I would say after almost 18 years -- and through many trials involving work, money, my disability, illness, and such -- that the experience of our marriage is marked overwhelmingly by five very precise, very unique circumstances that unite us deeply and personally, in wonder and prayer, in fear and trembling.  

Their names are John Paul, Agnese, Lucia, Teresa, and Josefina.

In the old days this was called the primary end of marriage, articulated in what may seem to be less than soul stirring language as "the procreation and education of offspring" (I've never been keen on the word offspring. It makes me feel like we're bugs or something. How about another word, like children.)

Of course, husband and wife must love each other. But this unity is inseparable from the fruitfulness it engenders; it exists within that fruitfulness. The sacrament of marriage is the fountain of that most basic community of persons, the family. Even if spouses cannot procreate physically for some reason, their unity has an intrinsic fruitfulness of radical constructive hospitality that God will reveal to them (whether it be adoption, foster care, or some other special charism of giving to the larger community).

So marriage is about building up the relationship, the "two-becoming-one-flesh," the friendship, the mutual help, the fidelity. It's a relationship between two people, a husband and a wife. And yet, precisely insofar as it succeeds in really being a genuine spousal unity, it will transcend these two persons, it will "take flesh" in life -- and not only in the agreements about things like leaving the toilet seat up or down -- but above all in other living human beings, which means that if nature is unhindered these will be new human beings, new persons created by God within the radical openness to Him that spousal love entails.

Let me put it simply: marriage is about children. That doesn't mean reducing an interpersonal relationship to a mechanism for "reproduction," for cranking out offspring. It means that married love is radically at the disposal of God's creative action. Married love is procreative; it is God's instrument for engendering and fostering human community. It is interpersonal love, and that is why it includes the possibility of human reason discerning the will of God regarding all the NFP stuff, because married love must always be radically at the disposal of God's creative action, even when a given expression of love is not seeking to result in a child. After all, men and women don't produce babies. Rather, their love creates a space of psychosomatic unity within which God creates new human persons.

Thus marriage is the stuff of families, of children and then of grandchildren, of communities and eventually of peoples who encounter one another. And the sacrament of marriage in Christ builds up God's people, who go out into all the world bringing the gift of his love.

When we speak about married life, let's not forget about family, about our children, or (as the nuptial blessing puts it) our childrens' children. The family is not in competition with the unity between the husband and wife; rather it is the place where that unity is most profoundly expressed and lived.

And children are never abstract. They are the history of the husband and wife loving each other in God. Eileen and I don't just have some anonymous "offspring." We have been given John Paul, Agnese, Lucia, Teresa, and Josefina. Each is loved uniquely by God, is uniquely His image and likeness, and is destined to live and love and share in His glory.

As Eileen and I journey together toward the Lord, our children remain the great, astonishing, incalculable surprises, the mysteries, the primary expressions and concrete engagement of our unity, and our most profound "common interest." In front of each of them, we remain in awe of God, and of each other.