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Marriage: Cross and Crown

Looking to my own experience and that of so many married friends and acquaintances, it is hard to escape the conclusion that marriage is the most difficult vocation in the world. This is not to say that it does not have its beautiful and wonderful side. It was fitting that St. Paul should compare the union of Christ and the Church to the communion of spouses, for in the world of creation there is no greater experience of two beings becoming one—even if this oneness, in the fallen order, never achieves total perfection. And surely there are few things more amazing than holding a newborn baby in one’s arms, or seeing him smile for the first time; it is like Adam awakening to see the sun on the day of his creation.

What I have in mind is more subtle. Prior to marrying, it is almost impossible to fathom the selfishness latent in one’s soul and in the soul of one’s companion. The sacrament has a mysterious way of exorcising evil by calling it forth and compelling one to deal with it. For years and years, spouses have to work through every sort of difficulty, personal and familial, internal and external—and the difficulties, like weeds, never entirely disappear but spring up in new and unexpected places. If the couple are strong in faith, they will make progress, slowly, humbly, placing their faith in divine Providence, and begging God’s help. It calls for the perseverance of saints-in-the-making.

Let’s be honest: the life couples lead before marriage often keeps them so face-to-face and emotionally absorbed in each other that they are not yet able to discover (and so, to begin patiently working through) their numerous faults, the hidden burdens they bear from their past, the unspoken, perhaps unconscious, and frequently unrealistic expectations they have for their future. Living in close proximity in that peculiar state of prenuptial revery, a lover or beloved can be so centered on the present moment and the presence of the other that it is hard to get sufficient perspective on past and future and oneself. This can make a marriage tougher later on, but it’s impossible to see how one could entirely avoid a certain amount of illusion; indeed, a cynic might say that the only reason people get married is because they don’t know what they’re getting into. Christian realism might endorse that sentiment on a global scale: the Lord in His mercy holds back the future from all of us, since, as T. S. Eliot says, we cannot bear too much reality. That is why we pray for our daily bread, not for a year’s worth of bread. He reveals His will to us here and now, in the love we owe to the person(s) He has placed in our care. We will inevitably fumble as we carry out the task and sometimes make a mess of things. Our awareness of being mere creatures of dust, mere children, will prevent us from either exaggerating the disaster to the point of despair or downplaying the need for repentance and forgiveness.

God knew what He was doing in making the sacrament of matrimony monogamous, lifelong, indissoluble. Humanly speaking, there are times when you may want to kill your spouse, or, more modestly, get as far away on the planet as possible. Hard to believe, isn’t it? My betrothed and I thought we would be the Platonic ideal couple, always understanding each other, always so full of kindness and gentleness. How could it be otherwise, when this special person “means the world” to me? But, as we know from experience, there is such a thing as world-weariness. In hard times, which can last for days or weeks or months, your selfish self (if I may so put it) insists that you stand on your rights, that the other unconditionally surrender, or even that you should sever a relationship so unconducive (as it may seem) to your own happiness.

Here is where blind faith comes in. You say to yourself: “I have made a solemn vow in the presence of God. If I break this relationship, I have broken faith with God. That means I am an atheist or a devil. But I am not an atheist, and I do not want to be a devil. Therefore, I will not break this relationship; in fact, I will do everything I possibly can, in spite of my feelings, to heal, to forgive, to go forward.”

In the secular world, at just that point, most people say: “Okay, we have to get a divorce, we’re not ‘compatible.'” (As G. K. Chesterton famously said: “I have known many happy marriages, but never a compatible one. The whole aim of marriage is to fight through and survive the instant when incompatibility becomes unquestionable. For a man and a woman, as such, are incompatible.”) And so they are in danger of moving on from one relationship to another, in a semi-permanent state of discontentedness, because they have never radically surrendered their freedom. Catholic marriage and religious life have precisely this in common: a radical surrender of the freedom of self-determination. Both of them promise, over time, the radical regaining of a freedom far superior to the one that has been given up.

This, it seems to me, is the massive truth at stake in the debate over marriage and family: spousal love’s inherent demand for totality, fidelity, permanence, and, yes, self-sacrifice to the very end, without which it is not love but a shadowy imitation of love, something unworthy of the children of God. As Pope Benedict XVI writes in Deus Caritas Est:

Corresponding to the image of a monotheistic God is monogamous marriage. Marriage based on exclusive and definitive love becomes the icon of the relationship between God and his people and vice versa. God’s way of loving becomes the measure of human love. (§11)

Marriage was created by God in order to show us an image of His own total, faithful, permanent love. In turn, God’s grace makes it possible for human marriage—so weak, feeble, and fragile after the fall—to be this image and to endure as an image in spite of all obstacles. The Church’s defense of indissoluble marriage is nothing less than a defense of the nobility of human love, created, like man and woman, in the image of God’s own love, and, when healed and elevated by His grace, capable of sharing in His indomitable power to overcome evil.

If we reject this image of God, we are rejecting God Himself; dishonor paid to the image passes to its archetype. No matter what their good intentions may be, those who are promoting the admission of the divorced and civilly remarried to the banquet of Holy Communion are promoting the cult of a false god, an idol; their religion cannot be that of the Church, the spiritual Israel. Indeed, in a diabolic reversal of Pope Benedict’s statement, human love (or rather, its shadowy imitation) becomes the measure of God’s love. Now He  is expected to be unfaithful to the demands of His own covenant. Polyamorous relationality becomes the icon of an incoherent and conflicted deity.

Let there be no mistake about it: even a so-called “pastoral accommodation” means the worship of a god other than the Blessed Trinity. Nor are there true sacraments in this worldly religion, since the spousal bond of Jesus Christ with the Church is no longer the measure and model of all of reality—including the reality of Christian man, his capacity to love and be loved, to forgive and be forgiven, to suffer and to die. The pastoral accommodation is a rejection of Christianity as such, in its deepest and most characteristic trait, namely, the revelation of a love that is both inconceivably demanding and unfathomably merciful, as it confers on its recipients the very desire and ability to live out the Gospel.

I do not wish to be interpreted as saying that anyone whose marriage is failing or has completely fallen apart, or anyone who has taken the step of attempting remarriage while still married sacramentally to another man or woman, is a “lost cause,” incapable of redemption. But the sober truth is that people in this situation have been drawn into a deeper participation in the Cross of Christ. They are being called upon to bear witness to the truth of the indissoluble union of Christ and His Church by honoring the bond that unites them in this vale of tears to another baptized soul, no matter how sinful, cruel, or negligent the other spouse may have become after marriage. If separated and alone, it will take the form of a “dry martyrdom” of loneliness and reparation for the many sins committed against human life and divine love. If separated but “remarried,” the martyrdom will be a holocaust: it will necessitate giving up adulterous sexual relations and living together as brother and sister, so that Confession may be approached with sincerity of heart, and Our Lord Jesus Christ may be received in the Most Holy Eucharist with a clean conscience. We know that there are situations where a person is more sinned against than sinning, but the vocation to honor the sacrament of marriage no matter what cannot be evaded if one wishes to save one’s soul from eternal death.


Spiritual growth is governed by a law, a sevenfold pattern, as applicable to one’s relation­ship with God as it is to one’s relationship with a spouse. Growth is often premised on passing through this furnace alive. (1) Trial, offense, disaster. (2) Despondency, anger, bitterness, recrimination, sulking. (3) Period of struggle, angels wrestling with demons. (4) Victory of the angels, by God’s grace. (5) Discovery of root problem, with shame, humiliation, and contrition. (6) Forgiveness, healing, consolation. (7) Stronger, deeper, richer love, ready to face the next trial, offense, or disaster. Something like this cycle happens again and again in most marriages. What keeps the marriage together is, in the end, two things: total commitment to the vow, and total willingness to forgive. Neither is possible without imploring and receiving God’s grace, through personal prayer and liturgical prayer. God has not left us orphans, but we often act as if we were orphaned by not turning to our Father.

How full of supernatural common sense is St. Thomas Aquinas when he states:

The indissolubility of the union of male and female belongs to good morals. Because (1) their mutual love will be the more constant if they know that they are indissolubly united; (2) they will also be more carefully provident in the conduct of the household, when they realize that they are always to remain together in possession of the same things; (3) again, this precludes the origin of quarrels which must needs arise between the husband and his wife’s relatives, if he were to put his wife away; and those who are connected through affinity have a greater regard for one another; (4) moreover, it removes the occasions of adultery that would occur were the husband free to put away his wife, or vice versa: for this would encourage the seeking of further marriage.

All of these reasons are perfectly clear and right. If you know that you must remain with your spouse, you will seek to improve your relationship by showing signs of love and working out difficulties, you will even seek to improve yourself to please your spouse. In 1 Corinthians, St. Paul seems to think it a drawback of marriage that it compels the spouses to think constantly of one another rather than of the Lord. Fully acknowledging his unanswerable apologia for the religious life on account of its single-minded devotion to the Lord, it is no less obviously true that a husband’s or wife’s constant concern with the other spouse’s needs and desires is a peerless school of purification from self-centeredness. Put it this way: For most people, if you are not going to be a religious who has handed over everything to Christ, you need to be cured of your innate egotism by the grueling school of service called marriage and family.

Continuing with St. Thomas’s argument, when you know that you’re “stuck for life,” you are that much more inclined to be provident in your management of the goods of the household. If you could easily break with your wife, just think of the difficulties it would create with her family and friends who live in the vicinity or have other contact with you. (Admittedly, this argument carried great force in a world of far more tightly-knit social relations and far less relocating.) If you could easily break up, the first serious difficulties, or any lingering dissatisfaction, would become the pretext for divorce and the never-ending search for a “perfect partner” who simply does not exist in this vale of tears. You might find another who would satisfy you a short time, and then you’d split with him or her, too. This is exactly what we see in the modern phenomenon of rampant fornication, promiscuity, multiple divorces, and the enormous heartache caused to spouses, children, and other relatives who must live among the rubble of a collapsed marriage.

God’s wisdom in establishing the great and indissoluble mystery of marriage with its blessings of fidelity, offspring, and sacrament is obvious on so many levels—but only to those who, peering with the light-filled eye of faith and the eye of reason sharpened by faith, can see that unchanging wisdom. They know that there is something better than this life, higher than human freedom, deeper than autonomy. They know the ultimate truth of the Gospel: “He who loses his life for my sake will gain it.” To adapt a saying of 2 Peter: “You will do well to pay attention to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts” (2 Pet 1:19).

We, as the human race today, as the Western world, as the Church on earth, are in a dark place—but the lamp of Christ’s doctrine is still shining for us today as it was yesterday and as it will tomorrow, saving the souls who embrace it as the way to eternal communion with the Blessed Trinity. The Morning Star, Jesus Christ, is risen, and He rises anew in every faithful soul.

Originally published on April 8, 2015.

12 thoughts on “Marriage: Cross and Crown”

  1. This is one of the best, if not the best, article that I’ve seen on sacramental marriage.
    Maybe because it so closely resembles my own experience in marriage. 25 years come October.

    There is no question in my mind or soul, that God intends matrimony as a life long commitment open to new life. He also has given us the gift of the sacraments as a means to attain a successful marriage. For myself most especially the Eucharist and Penance (as well as Confirmation). Christ himself is the ultimate model of giving, sacrifice and love. Married persons must make the utmost utilization of those gifts that Christ gave us thru His Church.

    Thanks, Professor.

  2. Very good article.
    “If separated but “remarried,” the martyrdom will be a holocaust: it will necessitate giving up adulterous sexual relations and living together as brother and sister, so that Confession may be approached with sincerity of heart”
    Really, they should go their separate ways, since they have no real right to be together.
    Otherwise, very good.

  3. Marriage and women’s health:

    A new study from Duke Medicine published in ‘Circulation: Cardiovascular Quality and Outcomes’, a journal of the American Heart Association, found that divorced women suffer heart attacks at higher rates than women who are continuously married. A woman who has been through two or more divorces is nearly twice as likely to have a heart attack when compared to their stably-married female peers, according to the findings.

    Even among women who remarry after the stress of divorce, their heart attack risk remains elevated according to the study.

    Matthew Dupre, PH.D., associate professor of medicine at Duke and the study’s lead author, said “this is one of the first studies to look at the cumulative effect of divorce over a long period. We found that it can have a lasting imprint on people’s health.”

    The findings were based on the responses of a nationally representative group of 15, 827 people ages 45 to 80 who had been married at least once. Partcipants were interviewed every two years from 1992 to 2010 about their marital status and health. About one-third of participants had been divorced at least once during the 18-year study.

    Although men are generally at higher risk for heart attack, it appears women fare much worse than men after divorce, although the differences were not statistically significant.

  4. In the movie St. Joseph of Cupertino, the mother says to her son after the funeral of his father and her husband, “Your father was a wonderful man to love but not to live with.” … After a time, living becomes more important than loving”.

  5. I wish there was a way for everyone to understand what this author is talking about. But alas, we live in a fallen world.

    I has taken me 38 years in my marriage to realize these things.

  6. I am looking for practical information about the sacrament of marriage in the context of abuse.

    In my experience, a commitment to the indissolubility of marriage meant that my spouse had no reason to avoid cruelty or excessive control; since I “could not” leave, then he had nothing to lose by forcing me to comply with his will. He could destroy my possessions, since I had no recourse. In the dynamic of indissolubility, he could even have committed adultery with impunity, knowing that nothing could affect our valid marriage.

    In the process of trying to salvage our relationship, I am trying to understand the concept of marriage as sacrament. But when the reality falls so short of the ideal, it is difficult to understand how to live out a relationship that supposedly mirrors the Trinity, when it is impossible that one Person of the Trinity could attempt to destroy another.

    Does anyone have any resources for understanding the Catholic concept of marriage as a sacrament in the context of abuse?

    Thank you for your help!

    • I am truly sorry about your situation, which is shared by so many faithful people, including some who are very close and dear to me. I am sure you have read about St. Rita, whose life was what you describe. When this kind of meltdown occurs, it becomes clear that the Lord is asking us to share more deeply in His own passion, his desolation and abandonment on the cross. The indissolubility of marriage is its intrinsic reflection of Christ’s perfect love for the Church, and not a guarantee that the human “copy” of it will live up to its exemplar. That is true for all of the baptized — few of us are living up fully to the Christ whose image we were made at the time of our baptism.

      But it is also true that even the most disastrous situations can be turned around, and that, even if one spouse remains unwilling to change and seek forgiveness, the other can become stronger in commitment to praying for the spouse and striving to love, in spite of the lack of support. In my own life, knowing that this relationship could not be dissolved forced me and my wife to seek help and advice when we needed it — so don’t give up hope and don’t give up trying.

      Maybe another reader can provide better resources for you. Some resources are gathered here:

      I will pray for you.

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