Now it’s time to pour some real life into the metaphorical essay, “What Does Christian Marriage Guarantee?” This is how it started.
A friend of mine recently asked: “What graces are promised in sacramental marriage? Is the guarantee and promise something that we give or something we expect to get?”
The answer is: The grace to do the work of marriage is promised to a baptized man and woman who unite in matrimony. What they do with that grace is another story, a wily story that goes by the name of free will. Christian marriage does not guarantee a diamond-gleaming fairy tale. It guarantees that God is faithful to set the glass of living water on your counter, as much as you will ever need. But for that water to permeate your entire being, you have to drink it.
The water is like grace.
The Holy Spirit gives us grace. Grace is Christ’s life in us. Grace is a mystery and in our culture today so many people are not comfortable talking about the supernatural. Here’s the thing: Even though you cannot fully comprehend the mysteries of God, you can grow in knowledge and love by pushing into the mystery further. Here are the basics from one of my favorite sources for simple explanations, my kids’ St. Joseph Baltimore Catechism.
There are two kinds of grace.
Sanctifying grace: 1) makes us holy and pleasing to God; 2) makes us adopted children of God; 3) makes us temples of the Holy Spirit; and 4) gives us the right to Heaven. (St. Joseph Baltimore Catechism, No. 1, Question 54-58)
We are offered gifts from the Holy Spirit called actual graces. Actual graces enlighten our mind and strengthen our will to do good and avoid evil. Actual graces are called special helps and we are given them when we need them and as long as we need them. (Questions 56-57)
All the Sacraments offer both kinds of graces, but to accept these graces, we have to receive the Sacraments properly. (Questions 140-142) We also receive graces through prayer and serving God. We have to want the graces and we have to strive to conform our will to the will of God.
So sanctifying grace is like being given the ability to drink. Actual graces are the glasses of living water that God is faithful to set on your counter. Receiving the Sacraments properly and praying sincerely are the ways you drink the living water.
This is how I visualize it in real life.
If this visual doesn’t work for you, then don’t use it. Someone once told me to visualize grace like a rope from Heaven, something I could grab when I was desperate. That didn’t work for me. I needed a visual that involved more than clinging to something, a visual that involved allowing grace to permeate my inner disposition. Besides, drinking “living water” together sounds more like how it feels—happy.
A Christian marriage with both spouses striving together to do God’s will, participating in the Sacraments and the life of the Church, and praying together is a happy marriage indeed. It is a happiness that is above the routines of daily life, a happiness that is still there even when you have a bad morning, you are late to work, you forget to pay a bill, or even when you have disagreements with each other. It is something deeply and intensely joyful.
However, because “drinking the living water” is a matter of free will, there will be times when one or both spouses will turn away from God. It is helpful to learn to recognize these times for what they are, especially in yourself.
Demons will tempt you in a Christian marriage. Do not ever think you are spared such temptation. Remember the last part of the Our Father prayer? “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil?” That is a prayer for protection from demons. Evil is a person. Pray prayers of protection often. If you feel insecurity, resentment, fear, or anxiety swelling up inside you, before you even try to figure out where it’s coming from, pray that prayer for protection. Demons can influence your imagination. They cannot control your thoughts, but they can cloud your thinking.
When you are experiencing these negative emotions, you can go through the motions of going to Mass without sincerely worshiping God, like holding the glass but not drinking it. Praying without really meaning it is like holding the glass without drinking it. We all go through such times, but it is helpful to learn to recognize when you are doing it, especially if you are also tempted to pride.
On other days, demons may tempt and insecurity and resentment may fester, and one day the wife may decide not to swallow the water, but instead to raise her hand high, toss her hair back, and show off her tall glass of goodness. Some days demons may oppress and anger and jealousy may slither in through the cracks and the husband may smash his glass against the wall because he’s had enough.
If you have a major fight in your marriage, and you probably will, first pray for protection from demons. If your spouse has a flash of anger or passive aggressive behavior, pray for protection from demons. You have to clear your marriage of such temptations and oppressions before you can deal with whatever disturbs your marital union. Sound a little too mystical and weird? Did you ever consider that perhaps demons want you to think that? To underestimate their presence? Don’t just take my word for it. Try praying. You’ll see what I mean, but pray like you mean it. You will know the clarity when it comes.
Despair may blow in and even though God in his infinite mercy keeps setting more full glasses on the counter, for years they may go undrunk.
This can happen. Sometimes you just can’t drink even if you want to. If it happens in your marriage, the first step to finding your joy again is to acknowledge that something is wrong. One of the hardest things to do when you are in despair is to actually voice the words of a prayer with conviction. If you feel like you cannot pray because you are too hurt, then force yourself to say them anyway. Through tears, through anger, through numbness, move your lips and pray even if the only word you can form is “Jesus,” a most powerful prayer. In that willingness to at least try, you will be granted those special helps called actual graces. It is like putting the glass to your lips, but it’s an effort in the right direction. Once you try a little, you’ll find that you can try more and more and eventually your heart and mind will pray sincerely. The key word is try.
Alone and broken, the wife may one day reach again for her glass. She may only cling to it, unable to bring it to her grieving lips.
When you try but your spouse does not
There may be times in your marriage when you try but your spouse does not. When this happens, you have to accept that you cannot force water down his throat. You cannot control his mind and heart. You can influence him or her, and to influence the right way, you have to ask for the graces yourself to enlighten your mind to know your spouse better so you can see the world through his or her eyes. Only then can you start to lead and guide your spouse to drink in the graces. Sometimes all you can do, in gentleness and patience, is stand there and hold out the glass while drinking in the graces yourself.
She may take her husband’s glass to him, and she may stand there the rest of her life, one arm outstretched offering water to his back and the other hand pouring water into her soul as she gulps to sustain herself.
Every married person should consider the extent of his or her commitment because if it is not unconditional, it is not really a commitment. Maybe you cannot know the answer unless you are in the situation, but would you remain faithful to your spouse even in the worst circumstances? Even if she cheated on you? Even if he abused you? Note: Faithfulness does not always involve living under the same roof. A wife can leave and take measures to protect herself, and still be faithful to her marital vow. The same goes for a man. Sometimes abuse is not physical. These are hard and painful questions, but thinking about them during calmness is easier than navigating them in turmoil.
Or if you’re like me, maybe it whacks you when you least expect it. One day at the end of a miserable three-day-long screaming fight, I heard myself say: “You know what? You know what? I am your wife, and you are stuck with me. Even if you stop loving me, even if you hurt me, even if you leave me, even if you civilly divorce me and disappear for the rest of my life, I will be married to you in the eyes of God and not even you can take that away from me. Ever!” Although I probably sounded crazy, I meant every word of it. Talk about diffusing a fight.
Marriage requires the virtue of fidelity, faithfulness to the other spouse, which can only flow from a first faithfulness to God. People do not talk much about virtue any more, but here’s the radical truth to remember. When you practice a life of virtue, you find freedom. A woman who heroically honors her marital vows even in the worst circumstances is freer than the woman who violates them and chooses a life of sin and anger. Just think how many times you felt free when you knew you did the right thing and had a clear conscience.
In marriage, to practice the virtue of fidelity, you have to commit, and your commitment after receiving the Sacrament of Matrimony has to be unconditional. You have to be ready to stand there with your arm outstretched, even to his or her back, for the rest of your life if that’s what it takes. You may not be happy in the moment, but the deep interior happiness of being united with Christ will sustain you if you let it.
One day the husband may turn around and see her, or one day she may give up.
You can hope. You can hope for the rest of your life. You can hope that your spouse returns to God. You can hope that your spouse returns to you. You can hope that you never give up, and if you do for a time, you can hope you find your way back by opening yourself back up to grace, by receiving the Sacraments properly, by praying sincerely, by trying. There is something significant to realize here. Virtue without God is not authentic virtue. You, a person, are made to be united with Christ and if you view virtue—even the virtue of fidelity—as oriented to the end of your life, you will fail to be authentically virtuous. You have to orient your life toward Christ, toward getting to Heaven and leading your spouse to Heaven. That’s why the cardinal virtues, prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude all need the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love. It’s all about love, a love bigger than the world, bigger than your marriage, bigger than you. You are made to love God. Don’t ever expect to be perfectly virtuous, because you cannot achieve that. Commit to practicing virtue, to trying.
One day they may drink together anew, and having returned day after day to drink what they need, in abject humility before God, on their final day the husband may caress her head as she receives her last sip.
We all are going to suffer in life. We suffer every day in small ways and in big ways. By practicing virtue, you’ll grow strong and confident, and the best way to practice virtue is to place yourself before God in abject humility, even if your spouse never does. Read the Sermon on the Mount if you have not quite grasp this concept. Read it even if you think you have.
Learning about your spouse
The beauty of marriage is the relationship between man and woman, and with Christ. You are individuals, but you become one. It takes work. It means that instead of loving an idea, you learn to love the real person, weaknesses, faults, sins, and all. You study the other person. You learn, for instance, that you don’t have to say everything that enters your mind. You can learn to triage what goes on in your mind and decide what ought to come out of your mouth. Does what you say help your marriage grow? Maybe keeping some thoughts to yourself will help you grow. One of the best things I ever did for my marriage was learn to shut up and listen.
Learn to appreciate the goodness in the other. If you stop fixating on the faults, you free yourself to discover the talents in both of you. It’s in the little things, and you’ll find them if you look.
I’ll give one example. I mistrusted my husband in the beginning of our marriage, for years. I feared that he would be unfaithful because men had been unfaithful to me before. When I quieted my fear by accepting grace, my eyes were opened to see something I’d never appreciated before. My husband calls his parents every day (even still). What faithfulness! In clouded vision I thought he called his parents to avoid me. What selfish nonsense! Something beautiful was right in front of my eyes. My husband, at the core of his being, is fiercely loyal to the ones he loves.
Supernatural peace and joy
By learning about your spouse this way, you will learn how to lead him or her to God. There are few memories more precious to me than the times I was able to remind my husband of all the good I see in him, when he needed to hear it most. I brought him grace, I communicated grace, I believed in him because I believe in God. He’s done the same for me more times than I deserve. This is the marital life that is beyond fairy tales, even when it’s hard, it’s so far beyond anything this world has to offer for it is about your own salvation and the salvation of the one you love.
Is it possible for a wife to come know her husband so well that she trusts him to drink? I think so, but that trust can only be known within the consecrated union. I even think it’s possible for one to love the other so much that he or she suffers for the beloved and never gives up hope because God is faithful. Therein lies a transcendence beyond days and glasses on counters. Therein lies a crystal peace beyond fairy tales. Therein lies the mystery of authentic fidelity.
I know this crystal peace today. It doesn’t mean my marriage is perfect, or even easy. It means that I have grown and I have a confidence and courage that I gained by doing the work of marriage, by being vulnerable, by being prudent, by learning to truly love my man for who he is, by realizing that fidelity was up to me because I have that power if I accept the graces that are offered, over and over and over again. Did you catch that word? Power. Don’t take my joy to mean that we do not suffer, or that I think we will not suffer in the future. Take it as a sign that what I say is possible, and true.