There is a widespread presumption today that the Catholic Church’s vision of marriage is antiquated and in need of an update, if not a serious overhaul. Beneath the multifaceted debates around the issue lies a question about love: when we say two people love each other, what are we talking about? If two people are happy together, let them be together. If they are miserable together let them separate. It is (seemingly) that simple.
As Scarlett Johansson says, “Marriage is very romantic… [but] I don’t think it’s natural to be a monogamous person”. Alan Cumming rejects monogamy because it is “not something we are conditioned to do as animals”. Monogamy is unnatural, unrealistic and, besides, as the Economist puts it, “What’s wrong with infidelity?”
After hearing a bit of what contemporary culture says, let’s start with a question. Are we really going to content ourselves with saying that we “animals” are incapable of fidelity, and well… the best thing to do is to simply lower our expectations? Really? It’s one thing to forgive someone for a moment of weakness (a truly human – if not divine – act); it’s another thing altogether to deny what being human is all about (I take offense to all this “come on… we are animals” talk).
What if Christianity did not invent marriage, rather just took a deep look at who the human person is and decided to be faithful – no matter how much “bad press” it got – to what it saw? What if the Church simply applied her stethoscope to the heart and started taking notes? What if what she heard was the heart’s visceral desire for a love that is unique, lasting, inextinguishable and ever-growing?
Does this mean that it is easy? No. Does this mean we should judge or put pressure on people who don’t live up to this ideal? No, that just makes it worse. We should be understanding, encouraging, and first give witness that it can be lived. Does it mean that if you haven’t lived this, it’s all your fault? No. Doesn’t the prevalence of divorce and infidelity disprove what I am saying? No. On the contrary, the fact that many struggle to find this love in their relationships, only to break up and seek it elsewhere, proves that we are all indeed seeking after it. Granted, some paths are better than others.
We all bear wounds within, wounds that seem to want to quash not only the one who wounded us but also the heart that was so exposed in the first place. There is no fiercer hate than betrayed, wounded love. But the heart is stronger than the wounds – no exception.
Sometimes we forget, however, that the strength of the heart is in its capacity to forgive, to reconcile, to heal. Grudges, blame, hatred, and disenchantment are understandable and comprehensible for a time, but if left to fester, they do nothing but weaken the heart. Many problems will remain, but if we have the courage to want to heal, they will lose their power over us and we will learn to live with them. Healing requires time and suffering. But it is the one path that will one day allow us to exclaim: “I have found my heart!”
I imagine many are skeptical and they will have their reasons for being so. But, tell me, if our hearts lose faith, what’s left? Repeat after me:
“All I want is (or, I am at least content with) a love that is one-like-any-other, short-lived, spineless and degenerate.”
Persuade me of that absurdity, and I will consider admitting that the Catholic vision of marriage is “out of date.” Before you do though, let’s take a deeper look at the 4 characteristics that I think are intrinsic to the very nature of love itself.
1. The heart is unique and it desperately wants to be loved as such.
Just moments before this shot was taken, the photographer, James Day said to Adrian (the husband): “I have a question for you, but I want you to tell the answer to Roslyn and not me.” I continued, “Out of the billions of people on the planet, you’ve chosen to spend the rest of your life with Roslyn. Can you tell her why?” The photographer goes on to say that, “In a matter of moments I could start seeing Roslyn’s eyes glisten, then the most beautiful tears streamed down her face.”
“To reveal someone’s beauty is to reveal their value by giving them time, attention, and tenderness. To love is not just to do something for them but to reveal to them their own uniqueness, to tell them that they are special and worthy of attention.” – Jean Vanier
A unique person desires and deserves to be loved in a unique way. But uniqueness necessarily implies some form exclusivity. If I say, “yes” to everything, then my “yes” means nothing. As Chesterton puts it:
“Every act of will is an act of self-limitation. To desire action is to desire limitation. In that sense every act is an act of self-sacrifice. When you choose anything, you reject everything else. That objection, which men of this school used to make to the act of marriage, is really an objection to every act. Every act is an irrevocable selection and exclusion. Just as when you marry one woman you give up all the others, so when you take one course of action you give up all the other courses.” – G.K. Chesterton
But we are afraid to say, “No.”
“No” scares us. We fear that we will lose our freedom, our happiness, ourselves.
“We are sometimes prepared to give money and a little time, but we are frightened to give our hearts, to enter into a personal relationship of love and communion with them. For if we do so, we shall have to die to all our selfishness and to all the hardness of our heart.” – Jean Vanier
**Thanks to an constructive critique that I received from a reader, I want to clarify the fact that evidently not everyone will or needs to have a perfect, ideal moment like Adrian and Roslyn had. Such expectations can actually make things a lot worse. These kind of moments are touching, but they aren’t by any means what’s most important. Still, I think the photo is eloquent in that it expresses the desire that we all bear in our hearts. For more on this perspective, I would invite you to read this post: 5 Truths About Marriage That Those Who Are Single Probably Don’t Understand.
2. The heart doesn’t want to be loved just for today, but forever.
In the moments of darkness, one must remember the light. A lover must remember the first kiss; a disciple must remember the first moment of his calling. The idea isn’t to simply reproduce certain emotions, but rather to remind ourselves that what we are trying to live is authentic (supposing that it is). If your “yes” was authentic, then (almost) any crisis can be overcome.
Love hates transience. Love demands eternity. Why? Because if you say that you love someone one day, but not another, then it’s pretty evident that you didn’t love the person, rather, just one of his or her qualities.
Perhaps you loved her beauty, his intelligence, her talents, the feelings that she incited in you. And, it’s true, all that can pass away. But throughout all those changes, there is something, or rather someone, that remains. Even when the splendor of certain qualities fades, that uniqueness remains and emerges in new ways, desiring once again to be loved and accepted.
Now, if you really want to change marriage, let’s be sincere and change the rite. As it currently goes:
“I, (Name), take you, (Name), for my lawful wife/husband, to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death do us part.”
Updating to wedding vows, version 2.0, let’s try something like this and see how it goes:
“I, (Name), take you, (Name), for my lawful wife/husband, to have and to hold, from this day forward, as long as we are good, rich, and healthy together. If you get annoying, boring, poor, sick, or ugly, well… we will just have to see. Amen.”
While this is often what people have in mind today, I still dare you to tell me that this is all that your heart desires. Honestly, is there not something inside of you that rebels against such mediocrity? I am not saying that this is easy. I am not saying that there are not grave circumstances that prevent this or that, or that even sometimes warrant separation or the request for annulment. I know that there are.
But does any of that deny what our heart is looking for and that we should do all that we can to reach that goal? Or should we just tone things down a bit and get comfy on our couches of reciprocal egoism?
While we are at it, why don’t we just leave the tag on the wedding ring and consider it to be more of a rental than a purchase? Although, seeing how the ring, a circle, is a symbol of eternity,what we are saying is a contradiction in terms. Why don’t we find a different symbol altogether?
3. The heart’s greatest fear is that its wounds make it unlovable.
As we see in this video, true union, true intimacy requires a long journey of trials and sacrifice. Every time we are required to break through the walls of egoism and suffer the puddles and accidents that life presents us with, we are taking one step closer to true union.
This means that a crisis in a relationship doesn’t necessarily mean “everything has been a lie.” Many times they are invitations to grow in maturity, an invitation to peel away certain levels that were beautiful (or ugly) but superficial and rediscover something even more stunning.
When the light of love shines it brings warmth and illumination, but it also reveals the shadows. The trust in a deep relationship should allow us to reveal our wounds and limitations. As the years go by, these wounds and limitations manifest themselves in new ways, or seemingly, always in the same way. Yet, every time they appear, the heart asks: “am I lovable with this wound? I know I am weak and egoistic at times, do you still wish to be with me?”
Paradoxically, in a sort of adult version of hide-and-seek, some people even try to push the other away, just to see if they will come back, to see if they are worth coming back to!
There are days though when the other person struggles to accept you with your wounds and limits. You might be tempted to blame your emptiness on the other person. And if he or she is the source of pain, separation presents itself as a path of liberation and happiness. But what if our pain really comes from within? In this case, separation from the loved one is a separation from your own heart. You try to hide the wounds and bury them deeper (“next time it won’t be like this!”). But, in doing so, all you do is make those fears even stronger.
4. Uniqueness is a Vocation
From the moment of our conception, we all receive a beautiful gift of uniqueness. But whether or not we become who we truly are depends on the decisions we make every day. Even in the most intimate relationship, there remains an unequivocal solitude, a depth in our heart that poses questions that no one can answer but ourselves.
That beautiful moment when Adrian whispered in Roslyn’s ear what made her unique is not the goal line, rather it’s the starting point, a premonition of what she is to become. It is a vocation, a call towards being who she is supposed to be.
Unfortunately, many people venture into serious relationships without having ever truly discovered their true selves. They are what Conrad Baars called “unaffirmed”:
“Unaffirmed individuals, on the contrary, can be said to have been born only once; their second or psychological birth never took place (or, since it is a protracted process, was never completed). They were not made to know and feel their own goodness, worth and identity. They have been thrown back upon themselves by denial on the part of significant others in their life. They are like prisoners — locked in, lonely, and self-centered — waiting for someone to come and open the door of their prison, waiting to be opened to their own goodness and that of others.” – Conrad Baars
So, instead of entering into a relationship to share their experience of love and unique goodness, they are really grasping for a crutch to walk on, for a welcoming place to rest their lonely soul. When the other can no longer carry that burden, the relationship begins to deteriorate and a crisis emerges.
Evidently, we need to receive love and affection. But there’s a world of difference between a a healthy relationship of mutual self-giving and an unhealthy relationship of self-taking. Each one of us must find ourselves in order to give ourselves. We cannot give what we do not possess and love can never live off of mutual possession, only mutual gift. But, again, growth is needed, not separation.
This means that before you throw in the towel on the relationship, take a hard look at yourself. Get to know yourself. Stop ignoring the wounds. Here are some practical tips:
- Stop trying to fill up the emptiness with relentless activism. Dedicate more time to silence. I highly recommend the rosary as way to guide you.
- Find a third party who can help you, whether it be a professional such as a psychologist, a priest with a warm heart, or a friend who has already walked this walk and can now help you to do the same.
- Journal. When emotions of emptiness, disappointment, sadness, or hopelessness come, don’t push them away. Listen to them. This doesn’t mean that you should abandon yourself to them, rather just listen to what they have to say. They all come bringing a message that will help you to discover the fullness you are looking for.
Ultimately, our sense of belonging and our sense of identity cannot come from any other but the source of uniqueness, from God. This is an act of faith, but it has plenty of evidence in day-to-day life: No soul mate in the world can magically satisfy all the needs of our heart.
Whoopi Goldburg puts it like this: “Sometimes in a relationship, people can’t always get what they need, and if you have reputable people you can turn to in order to get what you need, I say go for it.”
Her words offer a good example of modern day view of relationship: mutual gratification. On the one hand, is the relationship just about getting what one needs? On the other, I couldn’t agree more. They won’t always be able satisfy our needs. So, two options: I betray and start looking for it with someone else (or if that doesn’t work, then I try with someone else and so on…), or I start looking for it in God.
It’s not enough to be one in a billion… it’s not enough to be one in anything. We desperately desire to be unique in a way that no other human being can reveal to us, only our Creator. For this, there will come a stage in our lives when we must turn inward, a time when we must let go of the many expectations that we lay on others and accept them as they are: creatures. Our hearts are truly made in God’s image, they can never be filled by human love alone. There is a solitude within us that only God can fill. We must turn to Him.
Once we have truly encountered Jesus Christ, we will discover a newly found freedom and spontaneity, a sense of independence in our relationships that had previously been based on dependency. Only in Christ can we discover our absolute uniqueness. In Him we become who we were created to be. In Him we find ourselves, and only then we will be able to truly give ourselves to another. Our love will become a gift, not a pretext for demanding that the beloved satisfy my needs.
“Even the most beautiful community can never heal the wound of loneliness that we carry. It is only when we discover that this loneliness can become a sacrament that we touch wisdom, for this sacrament is purification and presence of God. If we stop fleeing from our own solitude, and if we accept our wound, we will discover that this is the way to meet Jesus Christ. It is when we stop fleeing into work and activity, noise and illusion, and when we remain conscious of our wound, that we will meet God…” – Jean Vanier
A few book suggestions that might help to you guide along:
Thomas Keating, Crisis of Faith, Crisis of Love
Jean Vanier, Community and Growth
*These are Amazon Affiliate links (read about our policy here). Support Catholic-Link when you purchase books and other goods online with no added cost to you! Thank you!
**To be clear, the goal of this article is in no way to judge, criticize, and much less condemn anyone who has had to separate or has gone through a divorce. My goal is to explain why it’s worth living today – even with all the difficulties and tribulations that come with it – and what lies at the heart of Church teaching on this matter.