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Towards a Spirituality of Marriage

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Towards a Christian Spirituality of Marriage

Married people make up the vast majority of the Church's members, yet traditional theology and spirituality don't reflect that fact. We hope that the following pages will encourage you to help in the task of developing a more robust theology and spirituality of married life by commenting on them. For marriage from a psychological point of view see: A Secret That Can Transform Your Marriage.


Marriage as it was meant to be

The Universal Christian Vocation

When we hear the word vocation in a Christian context it immediately brings to mind phrases like a vocation to religious life, or a vocation to the priesthood, and only rarely and secondarily, a vocation to be married. But in a very real way there is only one Christian vocation, for there is only one goal and calling for all Christians, and what we usually mean by vocation is nothing more than the different ways, or different roads, by which we travel to that goal.

The fundamental Christian vocation is union with God, and that is not a goal somehow reserved for priests and religious as if married people are meant to pursue some other goal. We all share that universal vocation in virtue of our baptism and the life of Christ that is in us.

But if what we call vocations are simply different ways to travel to the same goal, then we have to readjust our way of thinking about the vocation of being married. All too often a certain atmosphere arose in the Church and poisoned our understanding of the nature of marriage as a vocation. This atmosphere seemed to say that religious life, or the priesthood, was the vocation par excellence, and those who married somehow fell into the category of the also-rans, people left to muddle around in the world and occasionally devote some small part of their energy to the practices of the spiritual life. Marriage was where people ended up who simply couldn't make it in religious and priestly life. Oh, yes, they did have a vocation, it was conceded, but somehow it was a lesser and lower one that had to do with living in the world, and indulging in sexual intimacy, which was redeemed by bearing children, and by an occasional burst of spiritual aspirations.

But this is all wrong. There is only one fundamental Christian vocation, and no Christian, no matter what path they take, can escape it. We are all called to go on the road that leads to union with God, and for most of the people in the Church the road they take to that union is that of Christian marriage. Whatever reasons we might want to ascribe for the low esteem in which marriage was viewed, it is time to rid ourselves of that old atmosphere and try to see Christian marriage afresh.

The Purloined Letter

But it is extremely difficult to see marriage as if for the first time fresh from God's creative hand and sparkling with dew. Marriage is so close to us that we don't know how to step back from it and find a new vantage point to view it from. Our nearsightedness when it comes to marriage reminds us of Edgar Allen Poe's short story, "The Purloined Letter." A man knew that the police detectives were going to come to his room within minutes to search for a letter. They would bring all their probing tools and vast experience to make sure that no possible hiding place would be overlooked.

Where could he hide it? Finally, the inspiration came to him. The police arrived and methodically searched very nook and cranny of the room, but went away disappointed. Where had the letter been hidden? It hadn't been hidden at all. It had been placed on the mail rack in open view, which was literally the only place that the police would not find it. It was too obvious and too much out in the open to be seen.

Marriage in the Beginning

We are so involved in the nuts and bolts of marriage in our actual living it out, we don't take enough time to reflect on what Christian marriage is meant to be. But how can we, find a way to step outside of marriage as we know it? On our retreats for married couples we tried the following experiment: we asked them to imagine what marriage would have been like for Adam and Eve before the Fall, and we read them these passages from Genesis:

"God said, "Let us make man in our own image, in the likeness of ourselves, and let them be masters of the fish of the sea, the birds of heaven, the cattle, all the wild beasts and all the reptiles that crawl upon the earth." God created man in the image of himself, in the image of God he created him, male and female he created them." (Gen. 1:26-27)

"The man gave names to all the cattle, all the birds of heaven and all the wild beasts. But no helpmate suitable for man was found for him. So Yahweh God made the man fall into a deep sleep. And while he slept, he took one of his ribs and enclosed it in flesh. Yahweh God built the rib he had taken from the man into a woman, and brought her to the man. The man exclaimed:

"This at last is bone from my bones, and flesh from my flesh! This is to be called woman, for this was taken from man."

This is why a: man leaves his father and mother and joins himself to his wife, and they become one body.

Now both of them were naked, the man and his wife, but they felt no shame in front of each other." (Gen. 2: 20-25).

Once we read these accounts in Scripture we asked the couples to break down in small groups and. try to answer the following, admittedly very strange, questions:

1. In that hypothetical state of marriage before the Fall, would the seven sacraments have existed?

2. How would grace have been transmitted to the children of our first parents?

3. Would consecrated virginity and priestly life as we know them have existed?

4. Would there have been sex before the Fall?

As you can see, these are, indeed, rather strange questions, and they probably haven't been asked in any serious way since the time of St. Thomas Aquinas and the medieval theologians, and perhaps some of their later successors. They certainly haven't been asked of married couples with no particular theological background. But our purpose in asking them was to get our couples out of their normal mind-set about marriage so that they could begin to think about it in a new way.


Take 15 minutes or so and try to answer these questions, with the help of your spouse if possible.

When we first did this exercise we really didn't know what to expect, and so when the groups came back to report their conclusions, we eagerly awaited what they had to say. Amazingly each group, on their own, had answered each question correctly. Let's look at the answers and use them as a springboard to try to understand the original state of marriage.

First, let's reflect on the two Scriptural passages. God says, "Let us make man in our own image, in the likeness of ourselves..." He doesn't say this in relationship to any other creatures He has made, but only in relationship to us. We are his image and likeness in a special way because of our spiritual natures. But the image of God is in us in a very distinctive way. It is in us precisely as male and female. It takes both sexes to truly reflect how we are the image of God, and this hints at a very important truth. When men and women look at each other, they should see a reflection of God.

The second passage helps us understand this theme better. It is the union of man and woman that is the full image of God. It is both of them together that allows them to express the full meaning of what it means to be in the likeness of God. So important is this union that it takes precedence over the sacred bond between parents and children, and this union has a deep sexual dimension, which is an intrinsic and natural part of it.

Let's turn to our questions:

1. Would the seven sacraments have existed as we know them? Each group answered no, and they were correct according to the medieval theologians. Baptism, for example, incorporates us into the life of grace that had been lost by the disobedience of our first parents. Penance is a remedy for our personal sins. The Eucharist celebrates the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus, and all of these events are intimately connected to sin. All the sacraments as we know them now are connected with redemption from sin, and if there were no sin, there would be no need of them in the way they currently exist. If there is a possible exception we could say it is the sacrament of marriage, understanding this as the original sacramentality of the married state, as those accounts in Genesis describe it.

2. How would grace have been transmitted to our children? The most reasonable supposition is that it would have been part and parcel of the very act of procreation by which they came into existence. As soon as God gave the child its spiritual soul He would have at the same time given it the life of grace. Or looking at it from the human side, just as the parents gave birth to the child in the natural order, they would have given birth to it in the supernatural order of grace, as well.

3. Would consecrated virginity and the priesthood have existed in the way we know it? There would have been no need for them. There would have been no reason not to marry and have children. And parents would have exercised the function of the priesthood in relationship to their own children, and in relationship to each other, for that matter.

4. What about sex in paradise? St. Thomas insists that not only would it have existed, but it would have actually been more enjoyable.

The picture that is beginning to emerge about marriage before the Fall can help us see what marriage was meant to be. To put it in the simplest and boldest terms, marriage was God's best and brightest idea. Marriage was the primordial sacrament. It was in our spouse and in our children that God intended to become visible to us. The family was the Church and the sacraments, as it were, and the living out of this married life was meant to be a delightful way in which to grow closer to God. Marriage was to be the place where the physical, psychological, intellectual and spiritual dimensions of our personalities could reach full development. From our first parents would have grown a mighty family that expressed ever more richly the beauty of God.

Naturally we can't recover the details of what that original state of marriage would have been like, but we can see the outline of its central features. God intended us to draw close to Him by seeing Him reflected in our husband or wife, and in our children, and by loving them, we would be loving God. Marriage was God's best and brightest idea in creating human beings, and we should not imagine that He gave up on it.                                                                                                          

Marriage, the fall, and the coming of Christ

Marriage and the Fall

Our first parents never got to live out that original state of marriage. God had created them as spiritual creatures with the ability of know and love. But it wasn't possible to create spiritual beings that didn't at the same time have the ability to misuse their freedom. If we are going to be able to love, we also have the ability to sin. In some serious way our first parents turned away from God, and this rejection of God had devastating repercussions for them and for us. It is interesting to see that immediately after the sacred author in Genesis describes the Fall, he or she writes, "Then the eyes of both of them were opened and they realized they were naked." I don't believe that this comment, coming where it does, is an accident. If marriage was God's best and brightest idea about how we were to draw close to him, then this original sin will have its first and most powerful effect on marriage itself. This seems to be confirmed when the sacred author continues a few verses later and has God say to the first woman, "I will multiply your pains in childbearing, you shall give birth to your children in pain. Your yearning shall be for your husband, yet he will lord it over you." (Gen. 3: 16)

The pain of childbirth is a symbol of the pain that a mother will bear in relationship to her children. The fundamental equality of men and women, essential in order that they can together manifest what it means to be in the image and likeness of God, has now become distorted. Men, stronger in physical nature, will begin to lord it over their wives, failing to see that their wives have other qualities which they have only in a less developed way. The first man, too, also receives his special punishment: "Accursed be the soil because of you. With suffering shall you get your food from it every day of your life." (Gen. 3:17)

When our first parents sinned, they not only damaged their relationship with God, but their relationship to each other, and their relationship to the rest of creation. The original beauty of sexuality has been distorted, as well. The eyes of our first parents have been opened, and they experience disordered sexual passions. The tragedy of original sin has fallen not only on their relationships to the people and things around them, but has put them at odds with themselves, as well, and nowhere is this inner turmoil more evident than in the realm of sexuality.

Marriage and Sex in the Old Testament

As soon as we turn to the pages of the Old Testament that followed these initial chapters of Genesis, the picture of marriage and sexuality that emerges stands in stark contrast to the primordial state of marriage and confirms what a powerful blow it sustained. We are greeted with a graphic portrayal of sexual disorder in terms of rape, incest and other examples of the sexual instinct gone astray.

Even the Patriarchs, our forefathers in the faith, have difficulty in managing their married lives. They have, for example, more than one wife, and to the multiplicity of their wives is added concubines, as well. And the amazing thing about this polygamy is that the Patriarchs seem oblivious to its ethical implications. They exhibit no sense that it is wrong, and a departure from the original state of things. When the Mosaic law is formulated it allows for divorce, and we do not find any developed notion of consecrated virginity in the Old Testament.

Marriage and the Coming of Christ

The original sacramentality of God in marriage had been damaged, and it had to be repaired by a new visibility of God that manifests itself in Jesus. There could be no going back to the beginning, no erasing of all the history that had transpired since then. Jesus had to come into the world as it was and begin to restore it from within. The visibility of Jesus during His earthly life is continued in the visibility of the Church over the ages, and the visibility of the Church is made manifest in the sacraments that bring us into a special contact with Jesus. So in a certain way when we come to the New Testament we find a whole new order of sacramentality, and this order is the foundation for the possibility of consecrated virginity and a celibate priestly life. It is in a fallen world in the process of redemption that consecrated virginity makes sense as a distinctive grace given to certain people to witness in a special way that the kingdom of heaven has really arrived with the coming of Jesus.

But what about marriage? Did God give up his original plan? The gift of God's love to draw people to Him through marriage remains without repentance, and it still remains the main way that God chooses that most of us walk on the road that leads to divine union. But marriage no longer exists in that primordial state, but rather, in a fallen and redeemed world. The coming of Jesus will mean the restoration of marriage. Christian marriage once again regains its fundamental sacramentality, but this time in and through Jesus, and in a world in which the redemption must be worked out day by day and individual by individual. This is what is meant when we say that Christian marriage is a sacrament.

Once we begin to see marriage against the panorama of the history of salvation certain passages in the New Testament yield a deeper meaning. In the Gospel according to St. Matthew, for example, we read about this incident in Jesus' life:

"Some Pharisees approached Him, and to test Him they said, "Is it against the law for a man to divorce his wife on any pretext whatever?" He answered, "Have you not read that the creator from the beginning made them male and female and that He said: "This is why a man must leave father and mother, and cling to his wife, and the two become one body?" They are no longer two, therefore, but one body. So then, what God has united, man must not divide." (Matt. 19: 3-6)

The Pharisees, of course, knew that Moses permitted divorce, and this was another one of the traps that they had been setting for Jesus in order to finally condemn Him. But what is particularly interesting here is that Jesus invokes the original state of marriage, and by doing so indicates that with His coming it has somehow been restored.

But the Pharisees were not to be put off.

"They said to Him, "Then why did Moses command that a writ of dismissal should be given in the cases of divorce?" "It was because of the hardness of your hearts," He said, "that Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but it was not like this from the beginning." (Matt. 19: 7-9)

In saying it was not like this in the beginning, Jesus in one stroke points to the original wholeness and beauty of marriage, and reaffirms again that He has come to make it possible for that wholeness to begin to reassert itself. It is the hardness of our hearts and the disorder of our passions that has blinded us to the original mystery of marriage. Through the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus we now have a chance to restore our marriages.

In the Epistle to the Ephesians we find another place that affords us a glimpse of the mystery of Christian marriage and how it is rooted in the very mystery of Christ and His Church. St. Paul writes,

"Wives should regard their husbands, as they regard the Lord, since as Christ is head of the Church 'and saves the whole body, so is a husband the head of his wife; and as the Church submits to Christ, so should wives to their husbands, in everything. Husbands should love their wives just as Christ loved the Church and sacrificed himself for her to make her holy. He made her clean by washing her in water with a form of words, so that when he took her to himself she would be glorious, with no speck or wrinkle or anything like that, but holy and faultless. In the same way, husbands must love their wives as they love their own bodies; for a man to love his wife is for him to love himself. A man never hates his own body, but he feeds it and looks after it; and that is the way Christ treats the Church, because it is his body - and we are its living parts. For this reason, a man must leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one body. This mystery has many implications; but I am saying it applies to Christ and the Church. To sum up; you too, each one of you, must love his wife as he loves himself; and let every wife respect her husband." (Eph. 5: 21-33)

We shouldn't become sidetracked from the deeper meaning of this text by worrying overmuch about how it might have been influenced by the role that women were allowed at that time. This passage speaks in a very powerful way of how the mystery of marriage has been taken up into the mystery of Christ, Himself. Just as Christ loves all of us, we should love one another, and especially our spouse who has been given to us in a special way so that together the mystery of Christ can be worked out in our lives. We are meant to see Christ in each other, and love each other as Christ loved the Church, and sacrifice ourselves for the other, so that the other may become truly holy. In marriage we become one body with our spouse, but the mystery of union goes far deeper than this so that our spiritual destinies become bound up together, and are worked out together, and our own union becomes the place where our union with Christ is meant to flourish.


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