Thought 1: Marriage is a gift.
Single people often hear the message, “If you want to get married, make yourself someone worthy of marriage.” It’s in magazines and media. It’s in the advice of friends and parents. Be interesting. Take up another hobby. Smile more. Make yourself more beautiful, skinnier, and happier. Be aggressive. Go after what you want. It’s in the competitive air we breathe. Marriage is seen as a personal achievement. It’s a life goal, a marker that you’ve made it. You’re one of the elite, the worthy ones, willing to do the hard work of earning marriage. And if you aren’t willing to work hard, you’ll be left out. It’s a dog eat dog world. Blood, sweat, and tears, and all that. This is battle, people.
The Catholic world talks about being “worthy-of-marriage” a little differently, but it’s the same idea. Read more Theology of the Body. Have experiences that make you an interesting person to be around. Meet the Holy Father. Go on pilgrimage. Be holier. Don’t curse. Pray more, and for goodness sake find a patron saint to pour your lonely heart out to because people don’t want to hear about it. Also be skinnier, happier, and more beautiful. If you just become a better Catholic, you’ll find a spouse. The obvious implication in “worthy-of-marriage” talk is that being unmarried is the fault of the single person. In the words of Janis Joplin, “You just gotta try a little bit harder.”
The very idea of making oneself “worthy-of-marriage” undercuts the reality of sacramental marriage, which isn’t a reward for the holy but a gift for holiness. The love of another cannot be earned; we cannot make ourselves worthy of being held in the gaze of the beloved. Indeed, to demand that another love us or to think that we could earn their love is actually a kind of anti-love, the basis of which becomes coercive. The love given exchanged between spouses is entirely unmerited. Man and wife stand before one another and before God, impoverished, unworthy, and loved.
Thought 2: Marriage is a discipline.
Simone Biles captivated me during the Olympics this summer. I even tweeted at her to tell her I loved her commercial for CorePower, which was all about her commitment and discipline to her sport – and Core Power, I guess. The tag line of the commercial was, “Yeah, I could’ve hit snooze.” For someone who hits snooze five or six times a morning, I felt galvanized to break this bad habit. I didn’t, not even once. Simone Biles isn’t a great gymnast because she doesn’t hit snooze, she is great because she disciplined, and not hitting snooze is a small practice of discipline. Like gymnastics or writing or praying, marriage is a discipline – it’s the doing of the thing day-in and day-out.
A natural parallel to the idea of “making yourself worthy for marriage” is the idea that marriage is a reward; that it fits into the overall program of self-improvement and personal happiness, which is why it is so easy to opt-out when we find our results have plateaued and our happiness decreased. Marriage isn’t a promise of happiness. It is the promise of love. It is a discipline, and disciplines require commitment and sacrifice. It means waking up to the same face, day after day, year after year, a face that will grow increasingly time worn and imprinted with the joys and sorrows of life. It means meeting the gaze of another, a gaze that will sometimes sparkle with joy and pierce the heart, a gaze that will sometimes be clouded with anger and contempt, a gaze that will sometimes be exhausted and indifferent, a gaze that always makes a claim on you.
Sacramental vows initiate spouses into a life-long process of learning the meaning and discipline of love. Marriage is a school of love. In the words of Wendell Berry, spouses continually practice “submitting to the redemptive power of love,” by which they “ ‘die’ into their union with one another as a soul ‘dies’ into union with God” (Sex, Economy, Freedom and Community, 137; 138). It is the heart of community life because in marriage our love learns to bear with the indignities of life, the idiosyncrasies of the beloved who passes gas during sex or in her sleep, who hums absentmindedly, who never gets the dishes cleaned, or who laughs when she is uncomfortable. Marriage is a discipline of making room for the vulnerabilities of the other. It takes everything. You can’t be partially in because partially in won’t get you through the messes, the real messes of disease, addiction, heartache, and loneliness. But if you’re all in, the messes become the icons of hope.
Thought 3: Marriage makes room for others.
The discipline of marriage makes space for others. Marriage is a particular form of commitment, but not an isolated self-enclosure of these two and no more except for the occasional dinner party. Marriage is “the heart of community life,” making room for children, for godparents, for friends, and for the poor. “Lovers,” writes Berry, “must not, like usurers, live for themselves alone. They must finally turn from their gaze at one another back toward the community…. They say their vows to the community as much as to one another” (137-8). Some of the marriages I most admire are those that invite others into family life, where front doors are left open for the friend who might walk in unannounced, where babies are turned over to whomever might be able to lend a hand, where children often have snot crusted on their noses and dirt under their fingernails, where the floors are sticky from who-knows-what and littered with blocks and musical instruments. Marriage makes room for human messiness, for the chaotic practice of love that radiates out from its bonds and draws others in.
Featured Photo: Selbe Lynn; CC-BY-NC-ND-2.0.