Marriage is said to be a sacred union. But I have had cause lately to contemplate just what a sacred union is and is not. Two dear friends have endured painful separations from spouses. One couple has recently reunited; the other appears headed for an ugly divorce. Like most people, I’ve known many couples who have gone through separation and divorce. I’ve been so closely involved in these two cases, however, that at times I have felt as though I am experiencing the ups and downs with them. I have seen and felt things I can identify with as a married person myself, yet at the same time am at a loss to understand. Call it mystery, call it the human condition, call it disenchantment—what we call a sacred union can seem anything but sacred or unified.
Why do we marry? If it is indeed a vocation, as we are taught to believe, then it’s natural for married people to wonder, from time to time, Have I missed my calling? A vocation is a beckoning of the whole person, a call to serve and thrive, give and take, within a particular set of circumstances. As much as it is about work—using one’s talents to the utmost—a calling cannot be fully understood apart from the desire for self-fulfillment. When one thinks of vocation, one usually thinks in terms of applying one’s gifts in order to help or care for others. No less vital—and the opposite side of the same coin—is the need to feel and be nurtured, even if this is in an environment of nurturing another.
A decade ago my wife and I were fortunate enough to stumble onto a marriage counselor who was not only extremely gifted, but also ideally suited to each of us. Before marrying, my wife and I underwent what is often called pre-Cana under the loving and wise direction of a Jesuit friend. Those sessions were thought-provoking, prayerful and even practical; they went as far as they could in fulfilling their function. But it wasn’t until we were fully submerged in the realities of our married life that the realization and the learning began. Our counselor—let’s call him Vogel—guided us closer to an appreciation of sacred union than any pre-Cana program could do. Vogel was not simply exploring our abstract ideas and ideals about marriage; he was able to mine from the hard experience of anger, pride, hurt, success and failure.
Nothing prepares you for the hard work of a happy marriage like the pain of a rocky one. Seeing and hearing my friends’ recent struggles puts me vividly in mind of the dusky and dispirited days in my own fledgling marriage, when I suddenly recognized that the idealistic images and beliefs I held so dear simply did not match the reality I was muddling through. My ability to forge a meaningful partnership through effective communication, my willingness to approach conflicts with detached reason and, most important, my capacity to love unconditionally—all these cherished and (so I thought) well-honed aspects of my character proved sadly lacking when it mattered most in my marriage. I can see and admit this now, but when Vogel first told me so, I dismissed him as a well-intentioned dullard. In time, however, his perceptiveness became unmistakable, his blunt observations hit home, and I felt something holy at work.
We would walk out of many sessions more at odds than when we walked in, wondering What are we doing here? How did we end up together? and How can we possibly get over this impasse? As odd as it may seem, those were the moments of grace: sitting in our car in the parking lot after a session on a frozen January night, both of us sapped and speechless and sad, searching our lonely and longing hearts for answers that were more elusive and obscure than they had been an hour before. Sacred union, indeed.
Anguish is not always good, and unalloyed anguish is certainly bad. By no means an antidote to loneliness, marriage is, in part, another permutation of it. But for me it can be a redeeming loneliness, the kind from which each partner emerges on the other side with renewed commitment, understanding and wholeness, not to mention mutual joy and laughter and playfulness. What makes the inevitable dissonance in marriage ultimately harmonic is knowing the history without dwelling in it, being able to ingest the moment—whether a high or low or just so-so—while tasting and imagining the whole life together.
One day Vogel surprised me. “Everyone wants to be taken care of,” he declared. “This is why people marry. And it’s O.K.” What a revelation, what a validation for all the desire, hope and emptiness I had brought to the table. Marriage fixes nothing and, from what I have experienced and observed, opens as many wounds as it heals. But it is the hurts and the healing that test, even tarnish, but ultimately burnish a good marriage, at least as much as the preponderance (one hopes) of easy, effortless times. It is not the state or fact of marriage that infuses it with the Spirit, but the sharing of easy time together as well as the inevitable exasperation, conflict, loneliness—the purest love and the dross: the journey together, the search together, the falling and the getting up and the falling and the embracing again together. A human institution; an Easter lesson; a lifelong miracle.