The Sacrament of Matrimony
This sacrament of matrimony is a celebration -- a celebration that expresses the realization that in marriage Christ touches the very core of our lives. It is a fundamental way to journey with Christ to the Father. But it is not just a sacrament at the time of the ceremony; it is a sacrament all through our lives.
This is the reason that the vow "to be true to you in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health and to love you and honour you all the days of my life," is not as crazy as some today would have us believe. In a time when more than a third of the couples who get married in the west will not stay married, it is an achievable goal.
It is an achievable goal because a sacramental marriage is not based on any notion of law. It is based on love. Christ did not emphasize lists of laws to follow, rather he said to "love the Lord your God with all your strength . . . and. . . to love your neighbour as yourself" (Mk 12: 30-31). Christ's life was a message of love and his love for the couple entering marriage is a model for their love of each other.
A sacramental marriage, based on love, is not a contract between two people. It is a covenant. A contract is a legal arrangement which protects the rights of the individuals involved. It focuses on equity -- that each partner get what he or she wants from the relationship, and that rights are protected. The contract can end when one of the partners breaks one of its conditions. In effect a contract is a hedge against failure.
A covenant speaks to the relationship between God and his people. The church, through the Second Vatican Council, points out that, "As God of old made himself present to his people through a covenant of love and fidelity, so now our saviour . . . comes into the lives of married Christians through the sacrament of matrimony."
When two people make their marriage vows, they are promising, as God promised in the covenant with his people, that the elements of love, forgiveness and faithfulness are always present. They are not hedging on their love or their promises. Christ taught that the Father was all-forgiving, merciful and that he would not abandon his people. So too in a sacramental marriage, the commitment is unconditional and open-ended. Change or the unforeseen does not end a covenant. The partners make their decisions based on love -- they promise to give all freely and to expect nothing in return.
The “I will” spoken on the wedding day is only the beginning. Our behaviour in married life tells if we have taken the commitment seriously. Our daily practice of love is what really matters, what will help the married relationship grow strong enough to sustain the ideals of the covenant, the ideals of the Christian sacramental marriage.
II. Christ’s Love
Talk about Christian marriage as a sign of Christ's love can remain vague and abstract if we do not describe concretely the meaning of Christ's love. What, after all, is love? Of the many characteristics that could be mentioned, the following, culled from the gospel picture of Jesus, serve a particularly important role in creating a happy marriage:
1) Self-revelation. Jesus invites people into relationship by revealing himself to them. He tells his disciples of his love and hopes for them. He discloses who God is for him and shares with them the values important in his life: generosity, forgiveness and prayer. He lets them know he disagrees with certain religious attitudes and legal interpretations of the religious leaders. He expresses both approval and disapproval of his disciples' behaviour.
Marriage, too, is built on self-revelation-mutual self-revelation. The couple whose love is sacramental freely discloses to each other what they believe in and what they stand for. They open up to each other their fears and hopes, their dissatisfactions and desires. They share something of the meaning that God and his Kingdom have for them.
2) Human warmth. Jesus expresses his love in a bodily way. He hugs children and is in physical touch with women. Reaching out in body-to-body contact, he heals and consoles. He manifests his feelings in an open way. He weeps over the death of a loved one and is moved to compassion for the hungry and afflicted. He rejoices with his friends and celebrates their love with food and drink.
Marital love is also enfleshed and human. Our culture and our heritage, however, militate against freely speaking tender emotions and showing physical affection. Men hesitate to cry. Married people seem reluctant to sit close together in a car or to hold hands in public.
Christian spouses must work to overcome these cultural influences. A couple grows closer through healing touch and comforting embrace. In sorrow and in joy, in distress and in tranquillity, they communicate the power of personal presence through bodily expression and bodily closeness. Such demonstrations do not happen automatically or by chance; they take determination, time and energy.
3) Availability and service. Jesus' purpose in life is to be for others: to serve, not to be served. He washes feet and hosts a meal of bread and fish for a hungry multitude. He changes his schedule to visit the sick and to teach the gathered crowd. He spends long hours listening to others and being present to them.
Service is also a key element of marital love. A loving couple make themselves available to each other. They are willing to put their calendar aside in response to the moment's need. Listening to the other takes precedence over reading the paper. They do not feel obliged to divide chores according to stereotyped roles, but with thoughtful consideration of the pressures each feels.
4) Fidelity. One of the most basic and striking elements of the new covenant of Jesus' love for his people is his fidelity. When his disciples are unfairly criticized, he defends them. When they are in danger at the time of his arrest, he insists that they be allowed to go free. When death becomes the clear consequence of his preaching and healing, he embraces it in faithful dedication to God and others.
The hallmark of sacramental marriage is fidelity. In a world marked by disposable relationships and fair-weather friends, one's spouse stands as the single, last bulwark upon which one can rely. In sickness and sorrow, in joy and triumph, a faithful spouse is at one's side as comfort and companion. In the midst of unfair criticism one's spouse is one's defence. In the trials and struggles of daily living a faithful spouse gives inspiration and hope.
5) Forgiveness. Forgiveness does not pretend that wrongs have not taken place. It does not sweep hurts under the rug. It makes no pretence that further conversion and healing are not required. Such is the forgiveness of Jesus. He confronts the Samaritan woman with her five marriages; Peter with his triple denial, the soldier with the unwarranted slap dealt him. While he forgives all sinners with understanding and compassion, he bids them go and sin no more.
Spouses need to confront each other with what is wrong, hurtful and damaging in their relationship. They should do so not in a spirit of hatred and vindictiveness, but with the hope and purpose of building a better relationship. This requires forgiveness. It also demands honest acknowledgment of guilt and a sincere desire to correct faults and to work harder at becoming more lovable.
6) Respect for freedom. Jesus' self-communication to others is never coercive. It always respects the person's freedom to respond in whatever way he or she chooses. Jesus leaves the rich young man free to go away and cling to his wealth. He allows Mary to respond to him in a different way than Martha. He defends a woman's right to anoint his feet with expensive perfume.
In marital love a couple freely gives and receives each other as gratuitous gift. A loving couple is not manipulative or domineering. They allow for spontaneous response and creative reciprocation. They do not measure their marital responsibility in terms of mere contractual rights and legalistic obligations. The gift of marital love by one spouse calls forth the free acceptance and the free giving in return of the uniqueness of the other's being.
7) Acknowledgment of personal dignity and equality. One of the most remarkable aspects of Jesus' love recorded in the Gospels is his ability to transcend the social barriers of his society. He touches the leper, speaks to a Samaritan and eats with sinners. He converses with women-even those whose reputations are soiled.
A couple whose love is authentic and mature lack prejudice. They respect the dignity and equality of each other. They acknowledge the worth and God-given rights rooted in one another's personhood, irrespective of any other differences. They know but one Standard that applies equally to each of them.
III. Human Partnership
Each partner had prearranged specific responsibilities. When one or the other could not deal with the responsibilities, the relationship deteriorated. They were living by law rather than by love. They ignored feelings; they didn't listen to one another. Marriage breaks down for several basic reasons. These include:
- Lack of self-understanding. Oftentimes, a person reflects little self-understanding of the behaviour that contributed to the breakdown of the marriage.
- Lack of understanding of the spouse. At times, a person's own needs are so intense that an understanding of the spouse is seriously hampered.
- Inappropriate motivation for marriage. So
often a person entering marriage is motivated by reasons other than the
responsible goals achievable in marriage. Some motives which are
- marrying to escape an unsatisfactory home life,
- marrying because of social pressures,
- marrying to "reform" another person's behaviour,
- marrying on the rebound,
- marrying to please the parents,
- marrying to spite the parents,
- marrying because of pregnancy,
- marrying with little knowledge of human sexuality,
- marrying in spite of obvious interpersonal difficulties during the dating period.
- Poor models of marriage. Some people get married with a negative attitude or impression of marriage. Perhaps their parents did not have a good marriage, or they have been exposed to the unhappy experiences of other couples. Usually they will have little insight into the tremendous potential for fulfilment and happiness in marriage.
- Poor communication techniques. Some people get married without understanding how to communicate, how to relate to each other effectively. Because of a lack of understanding of self or of the spouse, and a lack of motivation, fear and anxiety develop in the relationship.
A caring or loving relationship is based on the awareness of needs. Each partner in a relationship must listen to the other and try to understand what the other is experiencing. Critical to this awareness is a commitment to the relationship. Only with commitment can the partners be real and open so that mistakes or problems do not lead to disaster.
Commitment alone, however, without awareness, is prone to failure. It becomes a hollow promise when one person in the relationship does not learn how to live lovingly for the partner. This kind of loving takes self-knowledge and knowledge of the partner -- knowledge that develops in an open, accepting atmosphere.
Spirituality is a set of beliefs, values (and so needs) and attitudes about God, the other (world) and us through which we perceive reality, make sense and respond (or react).
One of the best ways to understand our behaviour is to come to know our values and needs.
First let's take a look at values:
A value is a principle, standard, or quality considered worthwhile or desirable. The minute we use the word "considered," we are saying that a value rests in that part of our personality which we have called reason. Therefore, our values come about through some sort of reasoning process. We begin to say to ourselves, "I think that this principle or this quality or this person has a positive value for me." So at the present time much of our conscious behaviour comes from the values we have developed over our lifetime. They direct our behaviour to a large extent.
For example, if I am an actress and I value recognition, I might do some things which are illegal or immoral to gain recognition. I remember reading in the newspaper a while back about Arthur Bremer, the young man who allegedly shot George Wallace. Upon being apprehended, Arthur reportedly made the comment, "I will now go down in history for what I just did; I am no longer a nobody." He valued recognition to the point of breaking the law. Think of other areas like money, cleanliness, enjoyment, punctuality, etc..
Reflect on the following significant values for a successful married life: a) recognition, b) kindness, c) independence and d) responsibility.
Values are reflected in the judgments we make, and thus are associated with the reasoning area of our personality. From the standpoint of reason, then, values give direction to our behaviour. Another part of our personality deals with what we call needs:
Hunger is a need. When I am hungry, I feel the physical pangs which tell or "drive" me to eat. So in technical terms we can say that needs produce drives that are associated with our physical or emotional being. Emotionally I might feel the need for affection. This need creates a drive which seeks satisfaction by obtaining affection from another person. Actually this emotional drive can be as strong as a physical drive, such as the one for food, and can sometimes even create what feels like a physical drive.
Overeating is an example. It is usually considered to be more of an emotional than a physical problem. Yet people who overeat say they feel hungry even though they know they have consumed enough food to meet their physical needs.
There are some interesting aspects about needs. We can feel a need even though we can't give a good reason for its existence. I remember a man once saying that there were times when he experienced the need to get drunk. When asked why and how the conditions existed he couldn't give a reason. Another interesting aspect about needs is that we become frustrated if we experience a need and don’t satisfy it. Our frustration keeps building as the need remains unsatisfied until finally we lash out at some person or thing.
Another way to learn about needs is to come to recognize them in ourselves and in others. We can do so by learning what is meant by positive and negative needs. Second, we can look for behaviour that helps us to identify needs. Below is a list of positive and negative needs as they function in our relations with others.
I. POSITIVE NEEDS
A. WARM NEEDS: (warm needs bring people together through positive feelings).
1. The need to GIVE affection
2. The need to RECEIVE affection
3. The need for COMPANIONSHIP
4. The need to SHARE warmth through sexual activity
B. NEEDS FOR EFFECTIVE COMMUNICATION: (these needs bring people together through understanding).
5. The need to be OPEN to messages from others
6. The need to UNDERSTAND the messages.
II. NEGATIVE NEEDS: (these needs disrupt our relations with others because they tend to keep people apart).
1. The need to be AGGRESSIVE
2. The need for one person to DOMINATE another
3. The need to TEAR oneself down
c) Being Real
In general older personality theories emphasized pessimistic factors and negative goals. In contrast, modern theorists stress optimistic factors and positive goals. They state that if the right conditions exist between two people, they can be of great help to one another. These "right" conditions are fairly simple and can be learned by almost any two people willing to make the effort. Three of these conditions are:
1. The two people must be real to each other.
2. They must try to understand what it is like to be the other person.
3. They must care for each other in such a way that neither one feels trapped by this caring.
In technical terms we call these three conditions being genuine, being accurately empathetic, and being non-possessively warm. If one of the conditions is missing, the growth of the relationship will be affected.
It's easier to talk about genuineness than it is to practice it in our daily lives, because sometimes people make it hard for us to be genuine. It's as though they erect barriers which keep us from being our true selves when we do really want to be. That's why it can be very helpful to recognize that there seem to be some common barriers between men and women which prevent each other from being real.
When we discuss being real, the couples brainstorm about sex differences which seem to create barriers to genuineness. In other words, the women discuss what there is about men that makes it difficult for women to be genuine, and the men go through the same process. The results of these brainstorming exercises are remarkable in their consistency. Disregarding age or geographic location, almost all groups say the same thing. Specifically, women cite the following attributes about men that make it difficult for women to be real:
1. Men get angry too quickly.
2. Men's egos are so fragile.
3. Men hide their emotions.
4. Men try to be too logical.
5. Men confuse affection with sex.
6. Men want to dominate.
7. Men give women little credit for having any brains.
8. Men won't allow women the free expression of feelings.
9. Men won't communicate; they pout.
10. Men are jealous of the friendships that women have.
Now many other traits are brought up as well, but these ten seem to be the most frequently voiced. Since they surface almost every time in every workshop, it would seem safe to say that men must keep these ten characteristics in mind and be aware of any effect these masculine characteristics might have on their wives.
Men bring up the following ten barriers that women create that keep the men from being real:
1. Women talk too much.
2. Women can't make decisions very easily.
3. Women use tears to control men.
4. Women use sex as a weapon.
5. Women want independence, but when they get into trouble, they want the men to rescue them.
6. Women want to keep up with the Joneses.
7. Women are inconsistent; they say one thing but mean another.
8. Women's feelings are too easily hurt.
9. Women are too sensitive and emotional.
10. Women are jealous of male activities, such as hunting, fishing, and sports.
Particularly in the marriage relationship both men and women must be aware of the behaviours which make it difficult for the partner to be real. These lists are in no way indicative of how all men or how all women behave, but it is useful to know that many couples have cited these traits as creating problems.
When we cannot be genuine in a relationship, it is usually because we feel threatened. A threat makes us defensive or frightened and it is difficult to be real. One way to protect ourselves is to create a barrier between us and the threat. We call this barrier a defence mechanism. Let us consider five of them and if possible give some examples from your life:
1. Emotional Insulation: Reducing emotional contact with a person because previous experience has caused embarrassment, frustration, or pain. The individual withdraws in order to avoid further hurt or harm. Please give three examples of events that you have either experienced, or seen others experience, that caused emotional insulation:
2.Rationalization: When a person experiences a failure, s/he attempts to prove that her/his behaviour is "rational" and justifiable, thus worthy of social and self-approval. It is a way in which the ego protects itself by giving an excuse for a failure. This excuse is an attempt to be reasonable. Give three examples in which you have experienced, or witnessed others experience, the need to use rationalization when they had failed and had to give "reasons" for failure:
3.Projection: Projection carries rationalization one step further. It is used when one experiences a failure but then attempts to blame it on another, or when we accuse others of having faults which we ourselves possess but won't admit to. Give three examples of situations in which you or someone else needed to project away a failure:
4.Displacement: Displacement occurs when we cannot release pent-up anger with someone, and instead lash out at an innocent party. Usually the lashing-out is directed toward people, animals or objects that are unable to defend themselves. Think of three examples of displacement that you have observed happening to you or to others:
5.Denial of Reality: Denial of reality occurs when we protect ourselves from something unpleasant by refusing to recognize it or face it for what it is. Another way to deny reality is to show concern for insignificant things, or things unrelated to the real problem. Give three instances in which you or someone lese has refused or could not face up to a real trauma or difficulty.
V. Becoming One Body
A vast variety of relationships constitutes the fabric of human life: parents and children, close friends and casual acquaintances, professional colleagues and business associates, jogging partners and fellow weight-watchers. Diverse as these relationships are in terms of intimacy, none claim the kind of oneness that ought to exist between wife and husband. Only marriage is designed to constitute two people as truly one.
This oneness is not achieved automatically or overnight. It is a lifelong process in which two persons gradually live out their commitment to become one body. This concept of becoming one flesh is unique and fundamental to marriage.
An entirely different picture emerges when we enter marriage as an adventure. An adventure is open-ended. The Success of this adventure depends on a firm commitment to grow in support, trust and love of each other. We create our path and discover our way as we go. Though there are risks, we are moved by a sense of excitement and expectation. While there might be unforeseen pitfalls and obstacles, we have the power to create new discoveries and surprises, new levels of joy and satisfaction. The adventure is never over until death causes physical separation.
Finally, we must understand the meaning of the word one in our perception of marriage as "becoming one body." The unity spoken of here is not a merging of two personalities into one. The sacrifice of precious individuality does not make a loving union. Nor does this union result from the domination of one person by another. A relationship in which the opinions, decisions and desires of one person are controlled by the other is less than life-sustaining. Authentic marital union demands that neither person's freedom be impaired by the other. The response to the will of another that promotes genuine oneness in marriage must be made with free, self-determined love, and not because of fear of one's spouse or fear of one's inner self.
Equality does not mean sameness. Equality in no way obscures the obvious sexual differences between female and male. Nor does it cloud over the real diversities that exist between any wife and husband in the area of gifts, capabilities and responsibilities. These diversities, however, cannot be stereotyped according to sex.
What constitutes the basic equality of persons is the radical human potential for intelligence, love and free self-determination-precisely what differentiates humans from all other creatures. In marriage two persons share that which makes them equal as humans: their minds, their hearts, their free choice to become one with each other.
Two people achieve real oneness in marriage when they become increasingly present to each other as gift in love. In this way they enter into one another. They dwell in each other. They become a part of one another. They think and care about each other more and more. Their lives, hopes and destinies become increasingly intertwined. Deep empathy develops between them. At the same time, this belonging to each other must leave both of them other. Each must remain beyond the total comprehension, possession and grasp of the other. They must ever be two un-repeatably unique individuals, each of whom grows in her or his uniqueness and independent self-esteem, in the Context of a deepening relationship.
Marriage as a sacrament of Christ's love is most clearly illustrated in the life of a couple who love each other and who find personal significance in Jesus Christ. Christ is not a distant figure far removed from their daily lives. In faith they experience his guiding presence, his compassionate understanding, his comforting love. Their relationship with Christ challenges them to express their love for each other in a Christ like manner. Their prayerful awareness of Christ's presence enables them to feel his warmth in their own love for one another.
Like all married people this ideal couple have faults and sometimes experience hurts and misunderstandings in their marital relationship. Their belief in Christ's boundless mercy leads them to work through difficult moments toward greater acceptance and forgiveness of each other. Like most persons, this couple must struggle economically, unsure of what the future holds. Neither do they escape the trials and suffering that are an integral part of family life. But through it all they find a certain peace and joy rooted in their trust in Christ's abiding presence and in their hope that in Christ all life has ultimate meaning.