This is more or less the text of a talk I gave on marriage at the 2017 Arlington Diocesan Rally on October 22nd, 2017
Marriage in the context of our popular culture is really idealized. When you think of marriage in the way we see it portrayed on tv, you think of two people living a happily ever after; we think of a nice, white picket fence, maybe a puppy, and maybe even a couple of babies. It’s all very cute, sweet and perfect for chick flicks, but it’s not real. Perfection isn’t real. It’s not realistic to think that one person alone is actually capable of making another person happy every single day for the rest of their lives.
I had some odd jobs after I graduated from college and at one, I met this woman who was just going through her fourth divorce. She’d been married four times. And she said to me that, this time, she was definitely never getting married again. I kind of smiled and asked how this ex husband had definitively ruined her ideas about marriage. She said thoughtfully:
Because with this one, you know, I realized: you’re just trading one set of problems for another set of problems.
Here’s a little secret. There’s only been one perfect man and one perfect woman who have ever lived. One was Jesus Christ and the other one was his mother, Mary. So when you start thinking about how you’re just waiting to meet the perfect person, spoiler alert: your future spouse won’t be perfect, and you won’t be perfect.
The Catholic Church sees marriage in a much more realistic, pragmatic way, since it recognizes this very basic fact about humanity. If no two people are perfect, then we need a third element in marriage. Two flawed people aren’t enough, marriages need God.
The Church sees marriage in a much more romantic way because they’re totally happy to say that true love exists. They’re totally happy to say that a “perfect” marriage can exist between two flawed people and God. It’s romantic because, in God’s eyes, the job of marriage is actually to lay down your life for someone. It’s romantic because it’s real even with all of our flaws.
The thing is, God made you out of nothing, your life is a huge gift from Him. You repay that gift of your life by being a gift to someone else. We are a gift to our parents, family and friends. For most of us, we’ll most fully express the gift of ourselves through a life in service to one other person, eventually in the vocation of marriage. We’ll be a gift to our spouse.
I just used the word vocation and we’re all used to priests praying for “vocations”, but what does that word mean? A vocation is a calling from God. God designs you for marriage or God designed you for religious life. You can’t just assume that your vocation is marriage, you have to discern, learn how to pray, learn how to think about these things. Some people are absolutely supposed to be married and some people absolutely are not. Discerning is really hard, but if you pray enough, you’ll know.
MORE ON VOCATION
The Church says there are three ends of marriage: union with God, the procreation and raising of children and mutual help of the spouses. So we’re going to go over these three in detail real quick:
So the first is union with God. I mentioned earlier that the primary goal of marriage is to get each of the spouses to heaven.
Marriage is the one relationship in our lives (aside from, perhaps baptism) that we stand up in front of God and our families to promise love and service to each other. We actually promise that our number one priority in life is to get this other person into heaven! This, fundamentally, is what separates the sacrament of matrimony from what the world casually refers to as marriage.
To be married sacramentally is to promise to will the good of the other person. We want good for everyone in our families, but we especially want the good of our spouse. The greatest good that anyone could possibly hope for, is to spend eternity with God in heaven, right? So, the ultimate end of marriage must be to get our spouse to heaven. We do this through prayer, sacrifice, and love.
It’s easy to say that this is achieved through prayer and sacrifice, but what does that mean? Well, I’ve only been married for six years, but for us, it’s been things like, looking up Mass times at the random church we’re near when we’re traveling, to make sure both of us get to Mass every Sunday. When my husband deployed the first time in our marriage, he realized very quickly that he forgot his rosary at home, so we figured out logistics to get some rosaries shipped overseas. Every time we move to a new duty station, we try to find a house as close as possible to a Catholic Church, to make it as easy as possible for us to get to Mass. But lately, since we have three little kids, it’s been a lot of, I’ll wake up early and stay with the kids so you can get to Mass by yourself.
I think a really good way of for you to practice this now is to recognize what you find attractive in people and what people find attractive in you Because, honestly, it’s Jesus our souls are ultimately seeking. St. Augustine said, “Our souls were made for you Lord. Our souls are restless until they rest in You” There is a God shaped hole in each of us.
Saint John Paul II puts this the most beautifully when he says,
It is Jesus in fact that you seek when you dream of happiness; he is waiting for you when nothing else you find satisfies you; he is the beauty to which you are so attracted; it is he who provokes you with that thirst for fullness that will not let you settle for compromise; it is he who urges you to shed the masks of a false life; it is he who reads in your hearts your most genuine choices, the choices that others try to stifle. It is Jesus who stirs in you the desire to do something great with your lives, the will to follow an ideal, the refusal to allow yourselves to be grounded down by mediocrity, the courage to commit yourselves humbly and patiently to improving yourselves and society.
So, when you’re feeling restless, like nothing will satisfy you, and you’re tempted to think that if only you had someone to hook up with or a really cute girlfriend and then you’d be happy? That’s probably not the right answer. Is your body leading your soul or is your soul leading your body?
The second end of marriage is the procreation and raising of children. It’s interesting, a lot of people don’t see the connection between marriage and children, but the word matrimony literally means making of a mother. It’s the way God makes mothers and in Catholic marriage vows, you have to promise to welcome any life that God blesses you with.
Children are not just kind of a detail that is optional in marriage. That just doesn’t make any sense. God made men and women’s bodies to come together and have babies in the marital act.
When people have sex outside of marriage, it’s causes all kinds of problems that people really don’t want to acknowledge. Listen, I won’t lie to you. Not having sex until you’re married is really really difficult. It is possible, my husband and I were virgins when we got married. But there’s a reason most people don’t achieve that goal. Don’t ever think that you’re so self disciplined, your’e so strong that it’ll be easy for you. But just because it’s hard doesn’t mean it isn’t worth doing. By saving sex for marriage, you’re making the smartest possible choice and actively pursuing the Ivy League of marriages.
A really cool example of how God created every inch of our bodies and proactively designed sex only for marriage, is the hormone oxytocin. It’s a hormone that scientists colloquially refer to as “human super glue” but it’s actual name is Oxytocin. Oxytocin is a neuro peptide, a hormone, that is released by your brain during sex that promotes bonding,
Now, this is perfect in marriage!! It promotes emotional bonding, increased trust and even impaired memories of negative experiences.
But when it comes to sex outside of marriage, you can see how it could be potentially destructive. Let’s say there’s a couple who, neither of them wants to ever get married to each other because they’re not a good fit, or God forbid one of them is abusive to the other. There’s no real reason for them to be together, but they keep having sex because it feels good. They’ll keep doing that because it makes them feel close in the moment, when in reality it’s keeping them from what could be other promising relationships. They get stuck in a no win relationship where neither of them even like the other anymore, they’re just sort of obeying their base impulses. Ultimately everyone loses in that situation.
You’ll find that there are all kinds of temptations when it comes to sexual morality that can potentially hurt your future marriage: pornography, the hook up culture, people who deny the Church’s teaching that marriage is between a man and a woman. And you know what? You may or may not fall to all of these temptations. The amazing thing about being Catholic though, is that Jesus always forgives our sins. He always wants us to come back to His love. As Pope Francis has said, it’s not Jesus who tires of forgiving, it’s us who tire of asking for forgiveness. There is always reconciliation in the sacrament of confession.
I think you’ll find, as I have, that when I’m right with God’s teachings, I feel at peace and my life is headed in the right direction, but when I’m not, everything seems more stressful and complicated. God created us to become one flesh with our spouses, but when we disregard His laws, we disregard the design of our own bodies.
God does everything for a reason. He designed men and women’s bodies and minds for marriage and babies. God is love and God is order. Where there is obedience to God’s laws, there is peace and order. Where there’s disobedience to God’s laws, there’s disorder and confusion.
Finally, the third end of marriage is mutual help and spousal support.
In Catholic wedding vows, the couple vows to love each other and remain with each other for as long as they’ll live. This permanent commitment transcends the graying, wrinkling, sagging and slowing down that come with time. Imagine an elderly couple taking a walk in the park. They’ve been together forever and are still helping each other after decades of helping each other. They’re probably walking slowly, but purposefully and they’re probably in no rush. They’re focused on the journey, not the destination.
The Church would call a couple like this an efficacious sign. God created marriage to be a sign to His people that he would be with them forever. That no matter what happens, Christ would always be there, helping the Church. And so, it’s so important to choose a spouse who wants this. Don’t settle for someone who wants superficial things that are against the order God created.
For example, let’s say your boyfriend thinks you have to live together before marriage to really see if you’re compatible? First of all, this is ridiculous and I’m here to tell you that living together before you’re married is not necessary at all. But on a practical level, what happens if you’re living together and you break up? Moving out is expensive and awkward and horrible. But maybe even more complicated is, what if you decide to get married? It’s going to be the most anti climactic, boring, lame thing ever. So you’re living together and all of your stuff is in the same place. You decide to get married… how exciting is it going to be to come home from the honeymoon? Not, it’s just your own house.
They actually did a study about how couples who lived together before they were married had a much higher rate of divorce than couples who did not live together before they were married. Many respondents to that survey said that, at the time, it seemed easier to just get married instead of breaking up since they were already living together.
You want to marry someone who wants to be with you forever and wants to focus on the journey of life together. This is where choosing the right spouse is so essential, because your spouse should always be someone that you not only sincerely enjoy spending time with, but who you deeply respect and who deeply respects you.
I knew I wanted to marry my husband when I realized that, even if we broke up, I wanted to stay friends with him, I respected him so much. He was so smart and so disciplined, even if we didn’t get married, I wanted to behave in a way and treat him in a way that we’d remain friends. I just wanted him in my life no matter what. I honestly think of that even today when we fight or have the hard times that people don’t like to talk about in marriage. God made marriage to be forever and if you deeply respect your spouse, it’s easier to acknowledge the reality that there’s no getting out of marriage.
The goals of marriage are beautiful, wonderful and romantic, but you have to make choices now to make that happen. Practicing chastity and and practicing discernment now will help you achieve these goals. What does that mean in real life? It means not giving your heart away to anyone and everyone. You have to think now about what you want it to look like. The more you preserve of yourself, the more romantic its going to be since you’ll have more of yourself to give.
Don’t ever believe the lie that saving sex for marriage is unattainable, impossible or naive. Like I said before, my husband and I achieved it and while it was difficult, it didn’t require super human abilities. Having simple rules for yourself like not being out together after midnight and never staying overnight in the same house if there aren’t other people there will help you realize that goal. You have to be smart about it, but once you have a strategy, it is really not that difficult.
I want to share with you an excerpt from the Catechism on chastity:
Chastity includes an apprenticeship in self-mastery which is a training in human freedom. The alternative is clear: either man governs his passions and finds peace, or he lets himself be dominated by them and becomes unhappy. “Man’s dignity therefore requires him to act out of conscious and free choice, as moved and drawn in a personal way from within, and not by blind impulses in himself or by mere external constraint. Man gains such dignity when, ridding himself of all slavery to the passions, he presses forward to his goal by freely choosing what is good and, by his diligence and skill, effectively secures for himself the means suited to this end. (CCC 2339)
That is how you prepare for Catholic marriage. By learning self discipline, self denial and how to truly be free. By doing this, I think you’ll increasingly be made aware of what it really means to be a man and what it really means to be a woman, as God created each of you.
Don’t accept the lowest common denominator that the world has for you when it comes to marriage. You want the best. You want the Ivy League of marriages.
I pray that you only date people who are willing to take the number 2 spot in your life because God already has the number one spot. My prayer is for each of you to marry someone who sees you the way God sees you and values your relationship with God. My prayer is that you’ll marry someone who loves your entire person. My prayer is especially that you’ll spend the next few years practicing submission to God and in faith that He created and designed marriage to make men and women completely happy for their entire lives. Thank you.