It is our life’s work as Catholics to find beliefs, practices and people that are truly rooted in love, and to grow them within ourselves. All Catholic vocations, whether single, married or religious, can serve this purpose, but only one of them is meant for each of us to pursue. A vocation, in its broadest sense, is the catalyst for God’s work within us. As a single person, I am asked to look around, fill myself with observations about my personality and patterns of behavior, and better align myself with the will of God. For some, the call is truly here, and remains in this place for our entire lives. My own Uncle, well into his fifties, happily lives as a single person, and he has the ability to connect us together in a way our family couldn’t be without him. He is able to remain flexible and we are all grateful when his many talents are available to the intertwining lives of adults and children. But it is not my vocation to be single, as much as I admire my Uncle. I have searched and I know I am called to be married.
The Most Reverend Earl A. Boyea, Bishop of Lansing explains; “We have a vocation crisis in America. This is not what you think. It is a vocation crisis in marriage. Many are no longer getting married – and too many do not see their marriage as a sacrament, a means of grace for themselves and their families. Yet marriage and family are the natural heart of our society and the spiritual core of our church.”
To be married, in 2012, means that we are pulled in so many directions. So much freedom and so many options mean we have many decisions to make. Where should we live? Whose family should we visit on holidays? Whose career should take priority? How do we handle our finances? And don’t forget – the decision to become married at all, and how, and when, and with whose religion? And oh! How forgiving we must be! We are called by God to put away our grievances and give all of our support. We have to fight for our right to have time apart. We must be slow to anger (Ex 34:6) knowing the hurt we cause would last much longer and deeper than our own feelings. Perhaps most important, we must protect our vulnerabilities and know that we can only remain open and giving through practice, and prayer, through God. Especially when it is hard.
Marriage is supposed to be the easier answer, or at least much easier to explain to one’s peers and family than the call to religious life. However, discovering that answer alone is not easy. The process of discernment requires heartfelt listening for God. It is this uncertainty that makes this choice so difficult. Marriage seems to me the most self-sacrificial choice. Rather than choosing my own ideals for the sake of a large community of faith, as it would be as a religious, I am choosing to dedicate myself to only one person, full of doubt and sin and potential disappointment. To live and sacrifice for a community means there are ground rules, there is structure and routine, there is a group of people to meet my needs. Marriage, as an institution, has none of those support structures, they need to be sought and found. It offers few rules, outside of breaking vows, and requires that I and my spouse make every choice about our lives for ourselves. There is no hierarchy in modern marriage; there is equality and lots of pressure to live up to ever-changing cultural ideals.
As Catholics, marriage is not a simple agreement or legal contract. The institution of marriage without the understanding of the Holy Trinity means that we have settled for a half-truth. Our personal limitations can only be overcome through a third love, one stronger than our own. It is this love that begins a relationship and through the work of the God that allows this love to become fruitful as a lifelong calling. Marriage, not as a contract, but as a vocation, is a promise to love God first, and to love one’s spouse with that same deep, everlasting love. Through this mystery, we are better able to understand the relationship of God to the Church.
Scott Hahn observes: “The bride’s ‘unveiling’ was the culmination of the Jews’ traditional weeklong wedding feast…Like a bride, God’s sanctuary was veiled, to be unveiled only with the consummation of the New Covenant (see Mk 15:38)…That which is veiled is holy, to be unveiled only in covenant love…It is in the Eucharist that Jesus draws all humanity to the marriage supper of the Lamb. It is in the Eucharist that Christ can look upon the Church as Adam looked upon Eve and say, ‘This at last is the bone of my bones and the flesh of my flesh’ (Gen 2:23).”
God’s mystery, like the love between a couple who have entered into this lifelong commitment, is unveiled as our understanding grows. This slow unfolding of knowledge, of compassion, of respect and gratitude, is what gives us joy as relational beings. Marriage is the pinnacle of God’s relational love for us. The pinnacle of the union of Christ and the Church.
We are not naive, our generation. In fact it is perhaps because of our knowledge of popular culture and the homes of our friends that we have become frightened of the prospect of sacrifice to each other. The pop culture context of marriage underestimates both who we are and what we can do for one another. Our close relationships give us a place to practice forgiveness, of others as much as ourselves. Love is messy, disappointing, relationships are not static. Our purpose is to offer who we are to each other. I choose to learn to love well, and the hardest thing I can think of to get there is to be married. To accept the call to marriage is to venture into an all-consuming mystery.