Marriage – An Apostolic Endeavor
If marriage’s call to holiness is an apostolic endeavor for each spouse to make the faith more alive to the other, then each partner is called to discover God through both ups and down, and difficult patches of their relationship as well as the easy. In other words, husband and wife seek God through each other not only in becoming physically one, but also in ordinary ways: the daily grind of running a house, working a job, raising children. Growing in faithful love takes place both within and outside the home. The physics of love, so to speak, include communication on many aspects of the common good of the family—for example, finances, household chores, meals, entertainment, neighborliness, practical concerns about the common good of the society (voting, joining voluntary associations, etc.)—whether or not the couple has children. Each partner must learn to shoulder the burdens or resentments that emerge from the conflicts from the other. This “accompanying” requires large doses of patience, dialogue, forgiveness, humility, all of which are means that shape the spouses so that they grow in character with the help of God’s grace. This journey to holiness and ultimately to heaven is arduous and requires courage. This accompanying is more than following the “right reason” of ordinary natural virtue; it requires the infused virtues (theological and cardinal) together with the sevenfold gift of the Holy Spirit. In other words, it is important to act as becomes a spouse as morally as possible, but without God – hence the marriage sacrament – would not be possible.
Though religious and priests of the Western Church also seek God as their ideal, they do so more directly since they lack human spousal partners. They rely more on the grace of God in their separation from the sinful world, yet remaining connected with others to a certain extent. Cloistered, semi-closured religious interact with and are aided by their communities but not to the intensity of husband and wife. They withdraw from society in proportion with their call to spend more time directly with God.
Meanwhile, the diocesan priest stays in the world, and in addition to his communion with God, he has multiple duties to his parish and possibly other responsibilities given to him by the bishop. One might say he is “married” to his parish and diocese as a religious sister also is married to Christ as her spouse. The religious man is also bound to his dearest friend, Jesus. In the end, all priests and religious have their scourges of purification to go through, but they are accompanied by their confessors, spiritual guides, friends, and often superiors.
Discernment, as the word is used in contemporary Church language, is key to making decisions relating to all the challenges of any way of life, including marital life. Traditionally called prudence (in the married vocation, spousal prudence), it take into account the plethora of circumstances surrounding the couple in all the areas in which they accompany one another. To achieve this virtue, the married person must seek counsel not only with his spouse but also with other families, friends, and people who are more knowledgeable or more experienced. Knowing whom to turn to for prudent counsel is key: one does not question an investment broker on matters of fixing a car, for example, or a doctor on what kind of a paint for a house. When it comes to difficult moral decisions, the ultimate guides are Sacred Scripture and the sacred Tradition of the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, as interpreted by the sacred Magisterium. Prudence, however, demands that spouses have the other virtues that follow from personal sacrifices for the good of the family and for the common good of society and from obeying the commandments of God—praying, receiving the sacraments often, living the spiritual life
Integration of Weakness
Integrating weakness, that is, tolerating one another’s disagreeable outbursts of imperfection and sin, is the long-term challenge of married life. Each partner has weaknesses, manifest and hidden, that begin to grate on the other spouse’s nerves. Everyone has to learn the consequences of original sin and personal sin, such as weakness of the will, error in the mind, emotions not integrated with faith and reason, and the imagination and memory which often harbor wounds of past hurts. Only Jesus and the Blessed Mother were without sin.
While fraternal correction between husband and wife is often needed, it is not always effective in actually eliminating human imperfection and sin. So, each spouse must bear with the other’s burdens (Gal 6.2). These “upsets” of the other can become great sources of purification and grace to grow deeper in love for the other. Ultimately of course, the highest form of love is reserved for God Himself.
Due to the sexual revolution and the breakdown of religious practice, secular culture sadly no longer considers children a blessing from God. Medicines, which should always cure or relieve illness, now are often used to prevent the natural conception and birth of children, so that contraception and abortifacients are looked upon as promotors of women’s “health.” This euphemism has hidden underneath it the notion that children get in the way of intimacy, a career, or more income for material things. In addition, gender ideologies and the false understanding of marriage as a short-term relationship have eroded at people’s natural desire for a lifelong and faithful marriage between a man and a woman. Nevertheless, where sin and error abound, grace and truth abound even more to those who are willing to trust in Divine Providence. Married couple must remain open to life itself and, indeed, a great many long for children.
In raising a child from the womb to infancy, from childhood to adolescence and adulthood, a mother and a father are accompanying their little one(s) on the journey to adulthood. Each phase of having children, from pregnancy to caring for a young adult, requires vigilance over the physical and spiritual welfare of the child. Welcoming new life begins even in the way both mother and father treat the fetus, from loving touches given outside the womb to proper diet, avoidance of tobacco to heavy lifting, and refraining from stress as much as possible, which could impair the health of the unborn child.
An infant needs loving caresses, breast feeding when possible, and patience when he cries for food or attention. The loving presence of primarily the mother and secondarily the father remaining until young adulthood is necessary for the little person to feel himself loved, to know experientially that it is good to exist, to trust his parents. Otherwise, social problems emerge as he reaches the age of reason, and moral problems overwhelm him later in adolescence, perhaps leading to drug or alcohol abuse, inappropriate sexual expression, and neglect of character. Good parents, and education supporting the values of the parents, are the foundations of setting the child on the road to virtue. Maturing in virtue relies on the wise voice of one’s parents and extended family (and a solid societal culture assists) in putting into practice the truth of human and graced nature, when the child’s peers and the prevalent culture do not adhere to reason and faith. Without good parents, the child develops a false conscience. In short, parents must accompany their children on their paths to holiness until at last they choose their vocation.
To accompany rightly, however, parents need constant growth in parental wisdom to discern when and how the child or young person has physical or moral problems requiring attention. At the heart of wise accompaniment and discernment is the overarching value of religion, which the child soaks into the heart and mind by seeing and feeling his immediate family praying, receiving the sacraments, and learning to forgive. Being an adopted child of God calls a child to an ideal that far exceeds natural goodness, the ideal being to love our Lord Jesus above all things and our neighbor as ourself. In helping a child to achieve this ideal, the home exude a supernatural sense by means such as sacramentals, family prayer, and charity toward neighbors and friends. The faith is not simply learned by studying a book and memorizing doctrinal formula, but through the practice of virtue.
Finally, children and teens commit sins, fall into weaknesses, experience fears and anxieties, and make mistakes. They might express anger to their parents through insulting language and action, neglect their responsibilities, complain, manipulate, waste time, blame others for their own blunders, demand impossible material things, lie, or cheat. Parents then are called to practice merciful (though stern) love, so that sin might be replaced by virtue and grace. “As it is the parents who have given life to their children on them lies the gravest obligation of educating their family. They must therefore be recognized as being primarily and principally responsible for their education.” Irresponsible parents may renounce their role and let their children do as they like, a profound error. The journey on the road always includes many detours and missteps, sometimes on the part of both parents and children but frequent confession and prayer – the family that prays together stays together – leads to family unity rather than rebellion.
In the heart of every parent a sense lies the duty to prepare children to face earth first but ultimately, eternity. This really means correcting and occasionally rebuking children, reminding them that their ultimate home is in heaven and this life is a temporary setting, real, but not the final homeland. They must know that there will be death and judgment, and that they must choose whether or not they throw in their lot with virtue or vice. Famous examples like that of St. Monica abound, who prayed for years that her son, later St. Augustine, would convert and live a holy life. At the same time, parents are readying their children for their vocation in life, single, married or religious. This choice is based on personal talents and the circumstances of the society, but above all on the ordinary inspirations of the Holy Spirit.
A parental heart of merciful love can discern how to integrate all of these above challenges despite the great difficulty, but it requires more than ordinary virtue and prudence. It is consoling to read what the Council of Trent says in this regard:
But no one, how much soever justified, ought to think himself exempt from the observance of the commandments; no one ought to make use of that rash saying, one prohibited by the Fathers under an anathema–that the observance of the commandments of God is impossible for one that is justified. For God commands not impossibilities, but, by commanding, both admonishes thee to do what thou are able, and to pray for what thou art not able [to do], and aids thee that thou mayest be able. (DS 1536)