Long before the last nail was driven into the coffin of my Baptist identity, I had come to the conclusion that my faith tradition did not offer anything greatly significant to say regarding the realm of marriage and all the issues surrounding it. One of the reasons I started seminary was because I had this “dream” of writing on marriage and family issues from a Christian perspective and so I figured that getting educated would be wise. Then I would at least have some clue as to what I was talking about and could speak from a theological perspective and not just be blowing smoke. Crazy, I know. I was just that serious about it, though.
All my adult life I’ve been a connoisseur of Christian culture, especially when it comes to the issues of marriage and children and femininity- the whole bit. I used to listen to Focus on the Family and read Christianity Today; I paid careful attention to women’s Bible study materials, books on parenting and marriage, and the like, just waiting for some words of wisdom so I could glean what influential Christians had to say on these issues. What I discovered in doing this was that these were exercises in futility and the result was that I wanted to stick my head in the oven. Seriously. I could not believe the hollowness of what was offered. From what I read and heard, I felt utterly alone in thinking that there could possibly be something more than what was preached.
What is it that eventually agitated me to the point of wanting to throw things whenever I heard an evangelical broach the topic? I suppose it was a host of things; among them, the sentiment that marriage is a “you scratch my back, I scratch yours” proposition. You know, keep your mate happy so they’ll want to make you happy. Then there were the broad generalizations that seemed to be aimed at the lowest common denominator and weren’t much different from secular psychology, such as the “fact” that all men can barely communicate beyond grunting (when they’re not busy hanging out with the guys and sweating it up on the basketball court or watching NASCAR) and all women, when they’re not nagging their husbands, like to watch the Lifetime Channel Movie of the Week and cry.
What really sent me over the edge though, was the suggestion that the lone purpose of being married was for licit, guilt-free sex. Of course, this was never said outright, but it’s certainly what I gathered from what I heard and from what I’d been taught. It’s not that there wasn’t a small element of truth to some of these things, but that I found that they always stopped short, and dreadfully so. This want of meaning was disconcerting; shouldn’t there be more to marriage, especially for Christians, I wondered? After all, marriage was held up as the be all and end all, so wouldn’t it follow that there is something particularly important about it?
I felt that it cheapened my relationship with Jason to look at it as merely a shelter from sin. (You know, from those eeeeeeeeviiiiilllllll, unspeakable things that we can’t even talk about. Of course, once you get married, anything goes. I always found that to be puzzling as well, but maybe that’s a post for another day.) At least in my experience, my decision to marry was a big deal. Furthermore, the choices we made regarding when we would welcome children into our marriage and how that would affect my chances at a career were informed, first and foremost, by our faith. I saw all of these things as inter-connected; they weren’t a bunch of random events that didn’t matter. Why then, didn’t my church encourage me in a meaningful way in regards to how I lived out my marriage?
And now I must admit that I think I was born with a Catholic, not a Protestant brain, because everything I suspected about marriage was confirmed by what the Church has to say about it. Imagine my surprise and joy when I discovered that the Church considers marriage to be a vocation, that is, a way to live out God’s call in our lives. As stated in CCC 1604:
God who created man out of love also calls him to love– the fundamental and innate vocation of every human being. For man is created in the image and likeness of God who is himself love. Since God created him man and woman, their mutual love becomes an image of the absolute and unfailing love with which God loves man. It is good, very good, in the Creator’s eyes. And this love which God blesses is intended to be fruitful and to be realized in the common work of watching over creation.
If you think about it, being called to something carries a bit of weight, doesn’t it? Rather than thinking of marriage as something someone does because that’s just what people do, or for any number of reasons, it is because some are called to live out their life with a particular person. Vocation also indicates something that cannot be easily shirked. How, indeed, do you tell God that you think He got the wrong person in calling you? It is undeniable that Christian marriage is in a bad state everywhere, Protestants and Catholics alike; would that those who entered into marriage considered it to be a calling and not just a convenience (or inconvenience).
When I think of marriage as my vocation, it also inspires me to live it out, as the Catechism says, to work on making sure that our “mutual love becomes an image of the absolute and unfailing love with which God loves man.” When viewed in that light, it causes me to consider every attitude and action I take toward my husband and children, knowing that the image our family projects is seen not just by us, but by everyone around us. That seems rather daunting, but at the same time, it is also a relief to know that despite all the false images the world has to offer, there is a higher purpose to Christian marriage.
And it feels even less daunting when I consider the sacramentality of marriage. Simply put, God gives us the sacraments so that we can participate in His divine life. In the case of marriage, we are given grace so that we can grow in grace together. If there was ever hope for marriage, it is to be found in the cross:
This unequivocal insistence on the indissolubility of the marriage bond may have left some perplexed and could seem to be a demand impossible to realize. However, Jesus has not placed on spouses a burden impossible to bear, or too heavy – heavier than the Law of Moses. By coming to restore the original order of creation disturbed by sin, he himself gives the strength and grace to live marriage in the new dimension of the Reign of God. It is by following Christ, renouncing themselves, and taking up their crosses that spouses will be able to “receive” the original meaning of marriage and live it with the help of Christ. This grace of Christian marriage is a fruit of Christ’s cross, the source of all Christian life. CCC 1615
In short, I think the Catholic conception of marriage blows the typical Protestant understanding out of the water. It is far better articulated (and I think that is, in part, because the Church hasn’t been fumbling around over what marriage even *is* in the first place). Instead of offering band-aids or cutesy anecdotes, the Church offers actual grace and a purpose. Whether people choose to accept that is up to them.
Stay tuned for more thoughts on vocation.