My wife and I were married in early October this year. This naturally meant that every conversation we’ve had with anyone over the previous few months arrived at the question, “So how’s the wedding planning going?”
On one particular occasion, our interlocutor actually launched into a pseudo-religious analysis of marriage, describing it as a “tragic rite.”
He characterised it thus because, “of our inevitable failure to understand one another.”
Having had time to ponder his painful point, and now happily married, I here offer my own less-pseudo religious riposte.
Marriage is a “triumphant rite,” because we can still love completely, without complete understanding.
And I suppose that is part of the reason marriage is such a profound sacrament.
It is a concrete testimony of devotion that mirrors our own often troubled relationship with God—a relationship that God, nevertheless, continues to persist in despite miscommunication and lack of understanding; entirely on our part.
Because, ultimately, that is what love is: a manifest desire to persist in the good, for the good of the other.
Now it is true, of course, that we can only love what we actually know—otherwise we are just speculating about an abstraction.
And it is always very difficult to properly “know” ourselves, let alone other people, or even God.
In fact, it is not possible to know God in his essence in this life. Yet we are still able to love him completely nonetheless.
As the 20th century Irish Jesuit William Johnston once wrote: “He can be loved, but not thought.”
And in the same way, though a husband and wife may never be able to entirely understand one another, they are, even so, perfectly capable of completely loving one another despite that lack of knowledge and understanding.
It is also true that what we do love shapes our perception of reality: it forms our view of the world and our attitudes towards the people and events that we encounter and experience.
Which, I suppose, is why marriage is fundamentally different from long-term cohabitation; the attitude, the reality that is perceived, is different.
If a couple marry, understanding the innate imperfections they both have—and will discover over time—and are nevertheless committed, from the outset, to accepting those trials and persevering in their love, then they continue to represent the unfailing commitment and love of God for each one of us.
Marriage is then the beginning of that life-long, unflinching, unwavering commitment that mirrors the eternal, undying, unfailing fidelity of God towards us.
Whereas cohabitation—or perhaps even marriage, on occasion by some people—is viewed as something to be embraced only so long as the inevitable difficulties of life do not prove too onerous and the truth of our natures as weak, fallible, sinful, imperfect human beings does not become too taxing.
That “beginning” is then the onset of an inevitable end.
It was remarked to me recently that Romeo and Juliet, often considered the archetypical “romantic” couple, might not have lasted terribly long as an item had they lived beyond Act V.
Romeo, in particular, seems rather unstable in his capacity for commitment.
At the beginning of Shakespeare’s play he is madly in love with Rosaline, whose beauty he finds most striking:
“The all-seeing Sun never saw her Match since first the World begun.”
Yet all it takes is one glance of Juliet across the Capulet great hall, and he has no further thought of his previous infatuation:
“Did my Heart love till now? … because I never saw true Beauty till this Night.”
Recounting his love for the newly-arrived Juliet to Friar Lawrence the next morning, the sage religious spots a slight problem:
“Holy Saint Francis, what a Change is here! Is Rosaline, that thou didst love so dear,
“So soon forsaken? Young Men’s love then lies,
“Not truly in their Hearts, but in their Eyes.”
It certainly makes one wonder what Romeo would have done once Juliet inevitably aged and was no longer as beautiful as when first they met at that party.
Marriage is an extraordinary commitment, not only because we know we will age, develop interesting personality traits, and inevitably hurt one another even without intending to do so—that is the nature of life—but above all because it is the embrace of the question-mark, the mystery, that is another person.
I do not really know who I shall be 10 minutes from now, given the welcome and unwelcome surprises that life tends to throw at us.
And I certainly do not know who anyone else is likely to be 10 or 50 years from now, given those same unpredictable, uninsurable circumstances.
Once again, this is why marriage is a concrete representation of our relationship with God—the ultimate mystery.
It is a pledge of commitment despite and in the face of all and any trials, crosses and tribulations that might arise and that could not have been foreseen.
I have become fond of saying that “insurance”—of house, car or whatever – is really most often for those problems that we can foresee.
Yet, as we know from experience, the most painful predicaments in life are those that we not only did not foresee, but did not even conceive; could not have conceived.
They were beyond our ken. And “other people” inherently belong among that rather large glad-bag of tricks that is beyond our ken.
So I would ask you to please pray for us and for all married couples.
That any “inevitable failure to understand one another” that occurs is nevertheless overcome by an equally unfailing commitment to love one another completely, despite that lack of understanding.
Let us pray that all marriages may be representations of that “triumphant rite” that is the unwavering love of God for his people, so that we might all one day join together at the Wedding Feast of the Lamb—that realm of perfect peace, complete understanding and unfailing love.