I was at an Ecumenical meeting some years ago where we were discussing the nature of Christian love. Various people were going on about how wonderful love is and I am afraid I had to but in and tell them they were talking nonsense. “Love”, I said “Is not a nice feeling. It is an act of will.” They seemed astonished by my outburst. Clearly they thought I was some grim hard-bitten Catholic priest with no joy or happiness in my life at all, and determined to make everyone else’s life a misery as well! Anyone who knows me will know that this is definitely NOT what I am like. So what on earth was I getting at?
Well, I could have gone very Biblical on them and pointed out that when Jesus said “Love your enemies”, he suggest imply that this would be easy or fun, nor was his supreme act of love – dying on the cross a pleasant experience! But, of course, they might well have said “That’s different.” so instead I told them of two classic examples of love from normal life that are not enjoyable at all, and what are they? Probably something most of you have actually experienced – changing a baby’s nappy and caring for a sick child in the middle of the night.
That, of course, is the kind of love that Christians expect married couples to show to one another, a love that is sacrificial. Indeed you may have already been reminded in a previous talk of that passage from St Paul where he tells married couples that the husband must be like Christ is for us, and the wife must be like we are for Christ, and that means bluntly that the husband must love his wife to the point of being prepared to die for her, and vice versa.
When I was asked to give this talk Catherine asked me to speak about how the grace from the Sacrament of Marriage supports us in difficult times. We have to be careful here don’t we, for grace is not like a magic potion that we can simply take to put things right. Grace is something we have to actively respond to and I think there are two ways that this happens. The first is what we think about marriage – our Intention when we marry. Those who think Marriage is just a nice ceremony to mark the day are in trouble aren’t they. Did you hear about the young lady who thought Marriage Preparation meant deciding the colour of the bridesmaid’s dresses? No, what we are hoping for as a Church is that every couple will have a real perception of what the Sacrament is and how it actually changes them. This is more significant than you might think because how we humans think about ourselves changes the way we act. If I think I am rubbish then I will act as if I am rubbish etc. That is why the Christian emphasis that each of us is precious in the sight of God is so important.
The second is how we put into action our perception of what marriage is – what we actually DO to love our partner. Of course these two things interact. If a married couple put into action their love for one another then it will gradually affect their perception of what married love is. Put simply that means a bit of very old teaching, that if a couple get through a difficult time together – not least the first baby – then their marriage grows stronger.
What I want to do now however is share with you how the Marriage Preparation Team try to help couples preparing for Marriage to have a deeper understanding of what they are doing and try to give them some practical suggestions of how to put into action the love they have for one another
It is actually quite hard for couples preparing for marriage to realise that their married love must be an act of will and not just a nice feeling. They are, almost certainly, “deeply in love” and that wonderful feeling can easily swamp the more sober assessment of what kind of love they must offer their partner in the future. Indeed, you could argue that couples who have “arranged” marriages – not forced marriages which are quite wrong – but “arranged” , where the man and woman are happy getting married in this way – are more likely to see the need for sacrificial love in their relationship.
The Oxford Marriage Preparation Days therefore spend quite a lot of time on the practical side of the marriage relationship. We start by getting couples to look at their family background – who (Mum or Dad) did the cooking, who did the gardening, who managed the money, who planned the holidays. Then we get them on their own to write down who they want to do these things in their marriage. When the couples share their responses privately with one another, they can sometimes be quite surprised – although less so nowadays as so many of these couple are already living together.
When my wife and I started helping on these Preparation Days we were startled to discover for the first time in 36 years of marriage – it’s coming up for 46 now – why we found planning holidays so difficult. What we didn’t know, but found out when we filled in these questionnaires, was that my wife’s father planned their holidays, and my mother planned ours. We were therefore unconsciously expecting the other to take the lead, and had done so for all those years. It is so much easier now we know this.
We also talk to the couples about how to handle what are sometimes called the “pinches” in marriage, meaning by that those little things about one’s partner that one doesn’t notice when one is deeply “in love” but become more and more irritating as one lives together for a long time. We show them a picture of a couple deeply in love holding two bags – one they are showing to each other holds all the things about you that make you look good. It is the view of yourself you like to present to the world. The other bag is hidden behind one’s back. This holds all the things about you that the world doesn’t see but are revealed once you are living with someone.
We also do some work identifying what these little things might be. Often they can be those classic things that distinguish men from women – a women’s way of shopping on one side – a man’s obsession with sport on the other. This can lead to much laughter as people share but it also helps people realise that all couples face these and other such frictions in their lives. I sometimes tell the story of a young man called Adam who was living with his girl friend and things were going wrong. I suggested that he wasn’t understanding that women are different from men and suggested he read the Book “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus”. One of the things this book taught me was that when my wife raises a problem she is not asking me to provide a solution. Men tend to think – face a problem – provide a solution. Women tend to think – face a problem – talk about it. What a man therefore has to do when a woman raises a problem is not to panic and think she wants an answer when what she wants is for you to listen, to show that you care. Cutting her short with a solution not the way to go. So what did Adam do? He read the book and was very impressed with it, but the next time he and his girl friend had a conflict, instead of listening to her, he told me what he did. “Read this book” he said “And then you’ll understand”. She left him!
Of course it isn’t just the classic man/woman differences that people have to deal with in marriage, and these things come up too. He may be the one who like things tidy and she likes to strew things around. It isn’t always the man who drops his socks on the floor, although I believe that is more often the case.
WE then look at how to deal with such things so as to stop them becoming major issues! Maybe you have some ideas? Some need raising – but at the right time and in the right way. NOT I hate what you are doing…more I am sorry but I find what you are doing difficult to cope with. Some things just need living with don’t they? I always tell couples not to think they can change their partner. It is fatal way to begin a marriage. If he or she is untidy, there is a limit to how much they can change. There are even some things almost impossible to change. For example there is little point in hating your partner for snoring – a big problem for many couples. What we have to learn is how to adopt strategies to cope and to realise that all the strategies we adopt are part of our love for our partner. So the wife may decide it is impossible to take him shopping, better to go alone or with a friend, and he may have to realise that asking her to watch the football with him may just not work! Once again these are decisions to be made, each one is an act of will, something we have to work at, not a nice feeling that will somehow carry us through as if by magic. Indeed if couples rely on that feeling – “I am so in love with him that I can put up with anything.” – they are actually storing up troubles for themselves later when that “feeling” begins to wear off.
These two presentations, with the work the couple are asked to do together, come at the beginning of the day and are led by ordinary married lay people sharing their own experiences and difficulties, and how they have managed them. Only then does the Priest give a Talk on the Nature of Catholic Marriage. I always start my Talk by asking them if they can name the 5 elements that make up a real Catholic Marriage. I get them to spend a couple of minutes chatting with their partner before coming up with their answers, so let’s do the same now. Think about it for a few moments, have a little chat with your spouse or your neighbour and let’s see what you come up with. 5 things that make a marriage a real marriage. 5 things that the Catholic Church would say would make a marriage invalid if they were not present.
This is all about being one with one another. It includes things like love and trust and sharing. Notice that it is union, which preserves each person’s identity – what one might call our personal space – not unity which implies a complete merging. It includes sex of course, but that means the whole physical relationship. It is expressed in those famous words from the service “For better, for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death do us part.”
This was brought home to me some years ago when I went round to prepare Wayne and Tracy (not their real names) for their marriage. I had known them a bit since they were young and rather wild teenagers, who happily had sex with all sorts of people. In the end Tracy had become pregnant, but not by Wayne. The father wasn’t interested in supporting her, and gradually her friend Wayne became the one she turned to. He moved in, supported her through the birth of her baby, and got on with being a good father for the little one. When I visited them and got on to the subject of sex, they stopped me. “We don’t call it sex.” they said, “That is what we used to do. We call it making love.” I have used that story a lot since to remind people that in the modern world where sex is endlessly portrayed as something people who are NOT married do, learning to see sex as part of a deep and lasting relationship requires quite a mind shift – a constant battle against the way sex is normally presented. Try to think of a film or a TV drama where sex is shown between a married couple and you will see what I mean!
The most important part of a good sexual relationship is surely to see it as an activity where you express your love for your partner, and not principally something to give you sexual pleasure. This self-giving should be part of the whole marriage too. Those who get married because they think it will make them happier are in great danger. True Marriage must be an act of giving yourself to your partner and to any children that you have together, and unless people realise that then as soon as it stops being pleasurable for them they are likely to give up.
At the Marriage Preparation Days one of the married couples bravely shares with those being prepared what their sex life means to them. They point out that having children and facing their demands usually means a sudden reduction in your sex life and then just when they are older and settled
This is first of all being open to the possibility of children. So the service asks couples “To accept children lovingly from God.” This does NOT mean expecting them as a right. With twelve couples present, we always point out that on average at least one couple will have trouble having children. Children are not play things to make one look good or feel good and people who treat them like that, as an extension of themselves are NOT being good parents.
The right approach to any children a couple may have is summed up in the requirement in the service “to bring them up according to the law of Christ and his Church.” There is a lot more that could be said here but it would take us on to a different topic.
Family however also implies in Catholic teaching, the recognition that when we marry someone it is not just an individual affair, not just two individuals marrying one another. Whether people like it or not when they marry they are marrying into each other’s families. This can require a lot of hard work by the couple, can’t it? I only have to say the word “in-laws” and I can sense the groans, but whether one likes it or not, one’s partners parents are almost always something each of us has to learn to live with. Here again we are called to an act of will, to love them even if we do not like them. I would also add a note of caution that some of you may be familiar with. Your spouse may be as infuriated, if not more infuriated than you, by one or both of his or her parents. Maybe their opinions – maybe something they do. However if you criticise your spouse’s parents that may move them into defence mode, because however much they infuriate him or her, they are still their Mum and Dad, and there are many many memories that you cannot know about, where he or she as a child was loved and supported that are deep in our subconscious and can kick in if they are attacked by others. It sounds illogical, and it is, but it happens.
You are asked “Are you ready to love and honour each other as man and wife for the rest of your lives.” This is a big question and I always bring it home by reminding couples that nowadays both of them may live well into their 80’s which means that “or ever” may well mean at least 60 years! We forget that, until the 1950’s, at least one partner in a marriage probably died in their 60’s and some even earlier. To be blunt, this solution to marriage difficulties is no longer an option. It is therefore not unusual nowadays for a marriage that seems to have gone OK for many years to collapse upon retirement or soon after. The other time of strain is when the children leave home. Both are times when couples need to talk, to assess how they are now going to live together, to discuss maybe what they are going to do together and what they are going to do apart. In other words how are they going to manage a new phase in their life. I sometimes suggest that every married couple ought to give themselves, or ask someone to give them and annual MOT Test.
As I may have said already “Don’t expect to change your partner, but expect your partner to change, and some of those changes you may not like!”
THE PRESENCE OF GOD
Yes marriage is a sacrament and for us Catholics that makes it a very precious thing indeed. But, as I said earlier Sacraments are not magic, the need to be believed in and acted upon. It is worth remembering what the outward form of the sacrament of marriage is. In Holy Communion it is the bread and wine. There God is present. But what is the outward form in Marriage? …………………………………………………………………….
The answer is that the couple themselves are the outward form. They are the way God is present in the world in a wonderful focussed way. Marriage is not a blessing given from outside, it is a presence within the actual self-giving of the couple to one another throughout their lives. It doesn’t happen once at the Marriage Service as a kind of magic incantation, but is always present in the couple and it is up to them to make it work. In a similar way, a priest cannot rely on the Sacrament of ordination to magic him into a good and holy man, he has to live it and make it happen every day of his life. It is the same for every married couple.
YOUR FREE CHOICE
This sums it all up. Both the man and woman must choose freely to do this thing. If either of them is forced, or feels forced by circumstances, to get married then the Church can declare that it is not a Catholic marriage. If either is lying about something, it is not a Catholic marriage. Both are asked “Are you ready freely and without reservation to give yourselves to each other in marriage” Both have to say “I am” and mean it. Both are asked “Will you take N here present as your wife (or husband) and both say “I will” and must mean it.
Talk give at Abingdon Catholic Church n Wednesday 29th January 2014