Wednesday, June 8, 2016

The Biggest Lessons in Marriage

Over the years I have done much marriage preparation and marriage counseling.  I have searched for many different techniques and programs to best hit at what marriage in the Catholic Church is about.  Some I have found lacking.  For example, I am not a big fan of FOCCUS.  It is a good compatibility survey, but does not treat marriage as a sacrament  as it does a civil contract. It is the limitation in such a survey.  I used the Theology of the Body course, which was good.  I am currently using Beloved from St Augustine Institute.  I love it.  It has programs for both those to be married and those who are married.

From this, I will extrapolate the following that I have learned:

 The fuel of marriage is self giving love.  Love isn't an emotion, it is a virtue.  It is not something we fall in and out of of.   It is one of the theological virtues.  This means is requires God's grace to grow.  It is a conscious discipline where the spouse, through sacrifice, self-giving, and even a willingness to suffer offers themselves up for the good of the other.  This happens on all levels: physically, mentally, and spiritually.  This is why we believe that the use of human sexuality is reserved to marriage; it is the place where such self-giving can achieve the ends (unity and procreation) for which it exists.

I see so many marriages break down when either an essential question was never really asked or quit being asked: How can I make your life better?  Many times in marriage counseling I will hear a torrent of the opposite: he/she doesn't do this for me.  This orientation changes  can do little more than create a fatality.  It struck me in one of the marriage enrichment videos where Dr. Edward Sri remarks that the persons within a marriage can not be like vacuum cleaners: they can't be perpetual sucking machines always demanding to be satiated.  This will never lead anywhere good.  In the course of marriage counseling I try to invite the couple to stop worrying about what the other does or doesn't do in the relationship, but what they are bringing and doing to strengthen or weaken the relationship.

Why?  Because no human being possesses the ability to make another person do anything.  We do not posses the power to make the correct series of synapses fire off to make a person see or correctly choose.  We do, however, have the ability through discipline to do this to ourselves.  With couples to be married, I try to convey that the focus needs to be oriented to the good of the other.

This self giving love is a reflection of the love of God Himself.  This is why a sacrament is needed to bind the man and woman into a bond that unifies and creates.  The latter may not be possible for all couples because of physical problems.  But the openness to this divine self giving love is crucial.  We are told in St. John letters that God loved us first; our love for Him is a response.  In a powerful way that repsonse is lived in marriage.

The willingness of the two spouses in the marriage to cultivate the virtue of love will determine the health and longevity of the marriage.  Health comes and goes.  It is a fact that in a marriage that lasts, one spouse will watch the other die.  There will be illnesses, sometimes chronic, that will test the family.  Wealth comes and goes.  So do jobs and careers.  Even the children grow up and move out.  Life comes with its stresses and tragedies.  A couple who cultivates the virtue of love weathers these storms.  That takes can never depend upon the fickleness of emotion.

That love is the central witness to the children.  Children see the love of God most powerfully on display in the love that their mom and dad have for each other.  The parents teach them that love is important and what real love looks like.  The parents show how love is truly oriented.

Finally, to make this love truly work, God has to be a part of the equation.  We cannot cultivate the virtue of love without His assistance.  No one can...not a spouse...not a one.  In Catholicism, it is the primary reason we have the sacraments: to help grow in the virtues of faith, hope, and love.  We are given concrete avenues for the necessary grace.  That's why you're not at Mass to hear a good homily (good when it happens) or good music (also good when it happens), but to get the grace of the Eucharist.  You need God to make this work.  Marriage is hard.  If it wasn't, there would be such thing as divorce.   Being a person who truly loves is not easy.  God knows this.  He gives grace, sacramental grace, to help you.  Your ability to love needs to be nourished by the sacraments.  Love is not about merely tolerating the spouse.  It is about a willingness to sacrifice for the good of the other.  This is what Jesus does on the Cross.

I tell my couples when they come in for their first marriage prep session that my job over the next 6 months is to keep you out of someone's annulment pile. However, I want so much more than that for them...I want a happy marriage that thrives regardless of the circumstances that life throws at them. That takes the virtue of love...that takes a relation ship with God Himself. 

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