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The other day I was reading a pamphlet published by the Knights of Columbus Catholic Information Service entitled God’s Plan for Love and Marriage written by Dr. Edward Sri. In his introduction he notes that fifty percent of marriages end in divorce. But, he chose to focus on the “other fifty percent”, those marriages that stay together. He asked the question, “How are those marriages doing? Are they thriving?…Are the husbands and wives really happy in their marriage?…Do their relationships, day in and day out, reflect the total, committed, sacrificial love of Jesus Christ?”

My marriage to my wife of 36 years falls into that “other fifty percent” category so, quite naturally, I stopped and pondered those questions. I felt very satisfied with the answers and truly blessed for our loving relationship. I realized, though, that the answers to the first three questions were positive because the answer to the last question was positive. Until I became Catholic thirty years into our marriage, that aspect of marriage, unfortunately, hadn’t crossed my mind.

When I made my vow at age 25 I was still fairly naive and immature, and couldn’t see the future past next week. But, I was madly in love with that beautiful young woman and wanted to spend the rest of my life with her.

I wouldn’t understand it for another thirty years but one of the best things that could have happened to me was that she was Catholic and we were married in her parish church. I truly believe that God, through that Holy Sacrament, before Him in His house, gave us the grace to persevere through “better or worse” and to grow in love through the years. It’s why I can look my wife in the eye and honestly say, “I love you more today than the day we were married!”

Last Friday, March 1st, was one of those days when I was able to connect the scripture passages from the Liturgy – the O.T. reading, Psalm, Alleluia, and the Gospel – to a common theme, and reflecting on them helped me align many thoughts about marriage. I know there have been tens of thousands of books written on the subject of marriage and why so many marriages fail, but I want to broach the subject if for no other reason than for my own edification. And, who knows, maybe it will help you in supporting a young couple planning to get married or a struggling, already married, couple.

In the Alleluia, Jesus prays to the Father, “Consecrate them [the Apostles] in the truth. Your word is truth.” (Jn 17:17, NAB) Consecrate means to set them apart as priestly, or to be ordained, with their lives devoted to God. A priest’s life of devotion is his vocation, and its purpose is to do God’s will.

In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus corrects the Pharisees on their interpretation of divorce by saying, “From the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female. For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother [and be joined to his wife], and the two shall become one flesh’ So, they are no longer two but one flesh.” (Mk10:6-8, NAB) God takes two people and unites them into one flesh. Two things cannot be truly united if they work against each other instead of for each other. Thus, this union of two into one consists of a consecration, a declaration that their lives will be devoted to each other. And, living a life of devotion is a vocation with its purpose to do God’s will.

Just as “God’s will” didn’t cross my mind on my wedding day, it still doesn’t cross the minds of many couples before they enter into matrimony. Why is that? Well, I don’t think “God’s will”, is understood.

Thankfully, Pope John Paul II, in his Theology of the Body gives us a hand. Keeping it simple: God, who is pure unselfish love, created us in His image and likeness, that is to love unselfishly like Him. John Paul II calls this “self-giving” love. It is love that is 100 percent directed toward the good of the other. That is “God’s will” for us in marriage, to unselfishly give of ourselves for the good of our spouse.

Unfortunately, we each have an attitude of selfishness within us which, for many, may be too entrenched to be easily turned around. Why is that? John Paul II tells us it goes back to the Fall, when Adam and Eve realized their nakedness; when they suddenly realized their shame and became more concerned about themselves than each other. Their “self-giving” love became, as Dr. Sri calls it, “self-getting” love.

This selfishness is the root of most marital problems. As I look back on my own marriage I can see where most of our growing pains were caused by our (well, mostly my own) selfishness, an unwillingness to share emotionally, allowing worldly things to come before our need to be physically present to each other, and our lopsided faith.

You ask, “If this is a result of the original Fall of Man, then what can we do about it?” Well, it takes effort, and the hardest work of all, of course, is seeing within ourselves that which needs to be changed and then making the change for the good of another. And, it takes faith in God for the grace to make it work as perfectly as it should.

This brings me, then, to the Psalm, (Ps 119:12,16,18,27,34-35, NAB). The psalmist is asking God to, “teach me Your statutes” (v.12). He eagerly wants to know God’s will. He will take delight in them and “never forget Your word.” (v.16). He wants to see the wonder and beauty of them clearly (v.18). He wants to understand them so he can ponder them (v. 27), and then, “observe them with all my heart” (v.34), “for that is my delight” (v.35).

Therein lies the key to a successful marriage. We all know that life is never perfect, it never goes exactly as planned. It’s hard work and we struggle to make it better. Marriage is the same. The secret is to delight in loving selflessly with all our heart. Unfortunately, our human desire for selfish personal pleasure so easily overrides our desire to give of ourselves that husbands and wives often give up on trying to overcome it. And, without prayer for God’s divine assistance in their marriage, it is even more difficult.

Finally, I come to the first reading, Sirach 6:5-17. In this passage, the author talks about friendship; how to choose your friends cautiously and assuredly; the troubles that come with choosing the wrong friends; and the beauty of finally choosing good and faithful friends. He writes: “Faithful friends are a sturdy shelter; whoever finds one finds a treasure. Faithful friends are beyond price, no amount can balance their worth. Faithful friends are life-saving medicine; those who fear God will find them. Those who fear the Lord enjoy stable friendship, for as they are, so will their neighbors be.” (Sir 6:14-17)

Reading these words a second time, I replaced the word “friends” with the word, “spouse”. It all made sense. Many marriages fail because couples rush to be married before they invest themselves in knowing each other well. They don’t look in the mirror – they want all the attributes mentioned above from their partner, but fail to own and exhibit the same attributes themselves. And finally, but most importantly, they fail to trust in the Lord to help them be the spouses they need to be – husbands and wives who persevere with patience, who are prudent, who are just to one another, and who have the fortitude to love each other unselfishly.

I know every young couple wants their marital bliss to last forever. The reality, however, is that it doesn’t. The initial happiness and feeling of “being in love” wears off and husband and wife fall back into patterns of selfishness. There’s only one way to effectively turn it around and that’s through sacrificial love.

And this brings me back to the question at the beginning: “Do their relationships reflect the total, committed, sacrificial love of Jesus Christ?” When we think about Christ’s sacrifice we think about His Cross and we associate His suffering with it. But, Jesus didn’t hang there saying, “Hey, folks, this hurts so have pity on me!” Rather, He ignored his own pain the best he could and, out of love, offered his very life as a sacrifice for us. Thus, when we think about our own sufferings we tend to view them incorrectly as our crosses. Our suffering, our reluctance to give up the comfortable easy way, is not the cross we bear. No, our cross is to learn to love our spouse with a total and complete unselfish love, to do it, and, then, once we’ve figured it out, go back and find new ways to love them over and over in the ways they deserve to be loved. When couples learn and accept this, their relationships will flourish. By the grace of God, it will allow them to look their husband or wife in the eye after thirty something years and say with honesty, “I love you more today than the day we were married!”

May God bless you in your marriage and may you be an example for young couples to emulate.

“Good and gracious God, thank You for the wisdom of Your plan for our happiness. Thank You for leading me to my soul mate thirty seven years ago. And, thank You for Your mercy and grace ever since which has helped us grow closer and stronger together! Amen!”

(Understanding God’s Will for Marriage was first published on the blog Reflections of a Lay Catholic)

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