Sometime ago two faithful came to us to ask a special blessing for their fiftieth wedding anniversary. The ceremony in the Roman Ritual is very beautiful. It first consists of the renewal of the matrimonial consent. It is always a moving sight to see two spouses joining their wrinkled hands and confirming their promise to remain faithful to each other until death. This is true love, love made strong through trials endured together. It has been said that a woman never knows the manly friendship which can be enjoyed by soldiers on the battlefield. However, Ed Willock, editor of the famous Catholic magazine Integrity, explained that long-married couples can really experience the affection of comrades at arms since they take part in a spiritual battle. It was not difficult to see in the eyes of our dear parishioners the love coming from their hearts united by the sacred bond of matrimony. They could say to each other with a smile (and a few tears): “We have been through so much. Look at our bold scars...but our banners are still flying!”
Catholic marriage is indeed a wonderful adventure. But for it to be a successful adventure, you must pay the price, dear readers. And the price is self-sacrifice. This is very well expressed in the “exhortation before marriage” contained in the Ritual:
“Not knowing what is before you, you take each other for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death. Truly then, these words are most serious. It is a beautiful tribute to your undoubted faith in each other, that, recognizing their full import, you are nevertheless so willing and ready to pronounce them. And because these words involve such solemn obligations, it is most fitting that you rest the security of your wedded life upon the great principle of self-sacrifice. And so you begin your married life by the voluntary and complete surrender of your individual lives in the interest of that deeper and wilder life which you are to have in common.
“Henceforth, you belong to each other; you will be one in mind, one in heart, and one in affection. And whatever sacrifices you may hereafter be required to make to preserve this common life, always make them generously. Sacrifice is usually difficult and irksome. Only love can make it easy; and perfect love can make it a joy. We are willing to give in proportion as we love. And when love is perfect, the sacrifice is complete.”
The ceremony also includes a few prayers of thanksgiving before the final blessing by the priest. Fidelity is indeed a grace from God. It is quite normal for husband and wife to be grateful when they reach 50 years of marriage. God gave them the courage they needed to carry their cross together. So now they can pray thus before the altar: “O God, whose mercy is infinite and whose goodness is inexhaustible, we thank Thee for all that in Thy loving majesty Thou hast given to us. We ask that Thou who always answerest those who pray, mayest in Thy mercy not abandon them, but prepare them to receive their eternal reward. Amen.”
This fiftieth anniversary ceremony will be the starting point of our meditation on conjugal fidelity. Some of you may have read this quote of Chesterton:
“When we defend the family we do not mean it is always a peaceful family; when we maintain the thesis of marriage we do not mean that it is always a happy marriage. We mean that it is the theatre of the spiritual drama, the place where things happen, especially the things that matter. It is not so much the place where a man kills his wife as the place where he can take the equally sensational step of not killing his wife.”
Who will not recognize the great truth hidden under this humorous statement? Many faithful have difficulties in their marriage. There are so many causes of hidden suffering for husbands and wives: “She does not discipline the children ...He does not show his affection for me...She finds fault with everything I do...He does not give me enough money to run the house...She cannot cook and keep the house tidy...He cares more about his mother than about me, etc.” All priests have listened to similar complaints from their parishioners, and have admired the charity with which spouses try to bear with each other’s defects.
When young people enter marriage, they often think that they are entering into a life of complete and total happiness. After a few years (in some cases a few months) they quickly lose those romantic illusions when they experience the first serious difficulties. Then come frequent disagreements and quarrels leading to a breakdown in communication. Married life is definitely not the perfect bliss they had dreamed of, and coming to terms with reality is painful.
But I can hear some readers sigh: “Ah, if I had a more perfect companion, things would be so different!” This is also an illusion. Sacrifice is essential in any marriage (even if you had the ideal partner). “Your whole reason for being Christians is that you may offer yourselves as victims with the Victim present on the altar. You offer all your trials, all your sufferings, all that you are. It is the sole reason for your being on earth, because by the offering of your sufferings you are saving your souls” (Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre).
As you know, both Louis and Zelie Martin, the parents of St. Therese of Lisieux, were beatified. The Church formally declared their holiness. But does this mean that the life of this exemplary couple was free from suffering? On the contrary. If you read the story of their life, you will see that they too had their share in the trials of married life. Even St. Joseph had to suffer from the silence of Our Lady when she was expecting Our Lord, and Our Lady suffered from seeing the anguish of St. Joseph. This is the “Royal Way of the Cross.” Read again this beautiful chapter of the Imitation of Jesus Christ (Book II, Ch. 12).
I remember a conference that John Senior once gave on married life. It was a meditation on the twelve “fruits of the Holy Ghost” enumerated by St. Paul in his epistle to the Galatians: “charity, joy, peace, patience, benignity, goodness, longanimity, mildness, faith, modesty, continence, chastity” (Gal. 5: 22-23).
The Spirit of Love wants to work in us in order to produce these beautiful actions through our virtues and gifts. As Father Farrell explains: “The term ‘fruit’ is itself significant. It practically demands a bit of dreaming, as the scent of a flower in midwinter will snatch us out of ourselves into a forgotten summer day’s caress of sun and wind. We are almost doing the word an injustice if we do not have a picture of long rows of old trees, gnarled like an old woman’s hands which have seen too much hard work. And there is in the word ‘fruit’ something like the pride of accomplishment, that makes the woman forget her hands, looking back over the years and see what those hands have made possible for a son or a daughter. Just so a tired old tree could look back through the long days from the first budding leaves, through the beauty of blossom and the anxious days of young fruit, to this final day when the ripe, luscious fruit is offered as the supreme accomplishment and the tree prepares to die for another winter.”
Husband and wife should work hard at co-operating with divine grace in bringing forth these precious fruits. St. Paul contrasts them with the “works of the flesh”: quarrels, dissensions, jealousy, immodesty, etc. When we look around us, we are obliged to see that many married couples are “liars in the balances,” as St. Robert Bellarmine says in his commentary of Psalm 61: “They are devoid of true wisdom and they miserably deceive themselves by willfully making use of ‘false measures.’ Indeed, the greatest good that can be secured is grace in this life, and happiness in the next. And yet, when they come to decide what to do, they often choose the apparent (natural) good and reject the real (supernatural) one.” What we need to do is put the first Commandment first, to live our Catholic Faith with generosity, to give our whole heart to God.
Fidelity to your marriage vows requires grim perseverance in daily self-denial. It is not easy for our fallen nature. But there is no other secret for reaching true love. And do not forget that in overcoming your selfishness, you are not only growing in your spiritual life, but also expiating your past sins. (Purgatory is a thousand times more painful than any sacrifice we impose on ourselves). G. K. Chesterton said: “The enemies of marriage imagine that the ideal of constancy was a yoke mysteriously imposed on mankind by the devil, instead of being, as it is, a yoke consistently imposed by all lovers on themselves. It is the nature of love to bind itself. There is one thrill that is known only to the soldier who fights for his own flag, to the ascetic who starves himself for his own illumination, to the lover who makes finally his own choice. And it is this transfiguring self-discipline that makes the vow a truly sane thing.”
If the tree of love is to bear fruit, it must be pruned. As Bishop Sheen says: “As the violin needs tuning, as the block of marble needs cutting before it can make a statue, so the love of husband and wife needs purification before it can rise to new heights.” Dear readers, when you experience disappointments in your married life, do not give up. Remember that “Our Lord was on His Cross for three long hours, nailed hand and foot, to merit enough grace for you to carry your cross. When the soldiers, in cruel mockery of their dying Savior, cried out: ‘Save Thy own self. Come down from the Cross,’ did He come down? Then don’t come down from yours.”
John Senior has these consoling words: “You remember on the birthday or the wedding, just when you cut the cake, that was the best, the eating always seems sort of a let down. You expected who knows what and it was cake. Love is not just cake. It is the moment just before. That’s the mystery of it, because all love is a waiting for something we don’t even know about yet. Especially the love of husbands and wives will always be a yearning and a sigh.”
In other words we are not wrong in wanting love, but we are wrong in thinking that a human being can completely satisfy our craving for love. What our soul longs for, without knowing it, is God. As Bishop Sheen says: “The abyss of one’s own poverty cries out to the abyss of the infinite richness of Divine Love. Instead of thinking that the other partner is to blame for this emptiness, which is so common today, one ought to peer into his own soul. He wants the ocean, and he is drinking from a cup. If there is a thorn in the flesh at this moment of life, as Our Lord gave a thorn to the flesh of Paul for the purpose of purification, the thorn is a summons to climb to the Flame of Love which is God.” Let us, therefore, turn our gaze to heaven and ask the God of goodness to help us carry our cross with patience and perseverance so that we may one day enjoy our final reward, which He has prepared for us if we are faithful: the Supreme Happiness of the Beatific Vision.
On the Second Sunday after the Epiphany, the Gospel is the one of the Wedding Feast of Cana. As Msgr. C. H. Doyle says: “Our Lord changed water into wine at the merest suggestion from His Blessed Mother. When the wine of love runs short in your marriage, turn to Our Lady for help. At her prayer, her Divine Son will change tears into the wine of love again.” In marriage, as in Cana, the best wine is kept for the last. And Perfect Love and Perfect Happiness will only be for Heaven.
As John Senior said: “The way to restore the family is to bring to incandescent exercise the latent fruits of love in husbands and wives. They have received them as supernatural habits in the sacrament of marriage. These fruits are as strong as death, stronger than any poison from our enemies; with them no family ever failed, even when the war outside was lost.”
“Dear readers, look at your crucifix. From the wood of the Cross Christ reigns over the household, presides over the family prayer, strengthens in time of family trial, rejoices in time of family feast, is a pillar of strength in time of family sorrow, at all times teaches the lesson of family sacrifice. Wise those parents who build their homes upon the solid foundation of the altar, for though rains fall and floods come and winds blow, their homes will not fall because they are founded on rock, and the rock is Christ” (Father Smith).
Let us trust Divine Providence. We will conclude with these words of Ed Willock:
“There is a strength far beyond our own that mans the helm of our family ship. Each joy and sorrow has a place in the divine scheme of things. Take one iota of trouble away, and the balance would be lost, the happiness less poignant, the peace less complete. This is Christian marriage, a stark, real, practical and full adventure; a thing of days, nights, years and eternity. The price we pay is merely to reiterate the original vow, ‘I will,’ saying over and over again ‘Yes’ to God and ‘Yes’ to each other.”