Years ago, I was having a conversation with a boss concerning the upcoming marriage of a friend. We were sharing our thoughts, excitement and joy about the moment, when he suddenly made the off-hand comment, “I don’t understand what motivates anyone to get married anymore. Unless it’s their tradition or belief system, there really is no point.” I was taken aback by his comment. Thoughts came pouring into my mind: defensiveness, anger, a desire to correct his erroneous thinking. Then I stopped and prayed, “Father, why would someone think this way?” And the answer came immediately, “Look around and see what marriage has become. If you saw the world as he sees it, would you not reach the same conclusion? Recognize his heart and reach out with mercy before condemnation.”
This exchange with my boss caused me to reflect on what has probably become one of the most defining questions of our time, “Why get married?” For generations, we had taken this question for granted and simply assumed that marriage was the natural progression of relationships. Well, we all know what happens when we assume. But now we are facing challenges to the foundations of marriage as the bedrock of social order, and we find ourselves struggling to find language to justify its very existence. We can no longer simply say, “That is the way it was, so that is the way it should be.” We must, rather, demonstrate to a progressively more faithless world the power, beauty and truth of the worldview that makes sense of marriage. Pope John Paul II knew this well, as does his successor, and both have labored mightily to offer us the raw materials needed to re-evangelize our faltering culture with the Truth.
The beauty at the center of their vision is that this Truth is written on our hearts. The call to nuptial love, to true communion, true intimacy, true love, is inscribed within every man and woman. We yearn to love and to be loved in a way that satisfies the soul and only a love that is both divine and human, like Jesus himself, will satisfy. Marriage, in a singular way, allows us to wed those two loves in life-giving, lifelong fidelity and proclaim the stunning truth that such a love alone satisfies.
In the last few years, I have seen two distinct films that wrestle with the question, “Why marriage?” – The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Away We Go. Though both films are utterly different in their style, each posit their alternate versions of marriage and argue, in sync with our culture, that living together without a vowed commitment is acceptable. At heart, however, what both films manifest is the deep fear which stands at the core of this proclamation. In Benjamin Button, it is fear of an incurable condition. In Away We Go, it is fear of dealing with past hurts. While I felt compassion for the central characters in the film, my compassion did not blind me to the elegant truth of marriage. The great tragedy in these films is that the characters, who could have discovered in suffering and failure new hope, instead settled for the compromise of fear.
I have had many conversations with couples that are in love and desire the very best for one another, but because of parental divorce, one or the other is simply afraid of getting married. Instead of seeing hope in a new future, they fear themselves bound to repeat the past. It is a great tragedy when we allow fear to govern our hearts. God is compassionate on our weakness, but His mercy also calls us out of our weaknesses into new strength. If our past taste of marriage has been bitter, God wishes to share the sweetness of His plan for love and make us, as He makes all things, new.
If we try to see marriage only in human terms, then we will end up, like my boss, unable to satisfy our wondering of “Why marriage?” The risk of love that is marriage, without God, becomes an unsolvable conundrum, a puzzle too difficult to comprehend. But through eyes of faith we see the mystery of ‘loving unto death’ as an invitation to seek grace, rather than despair in our own weakness. We recognize that for a marriage to be successful, it requires One who is Love to be an intimate participant in the union. Let us have the strength to face our fears, cry out to God, and not settle for less.