“I Want an Evangelical Marriage”

No one, on their wedding day, says that their goal is to wreck their marriage, to utterly sabotage it and undercut it at every turn. No one plans to undermine the very meaning of the sacrament of matrimony. And yet, I daresay many of us unintentionally set ourselves up for failure¬†because we don’t understand the very meaning and purpose of the sacrament of matrimony.

For the single Catholics, it can be easy to dwell on the personally satisfying elements of marriage– a kind of stability, a community, help in this life, affection, etc. These all are good things, and often come with marriage. Hopefully they do come with yours!

However, marriage isn’t about the subjectively satisfying. In fact, the fundamental meaning of marriage is conjugal love, and the fundamental purpose of marriage is procreation and education of children–this from our friend, Catholic philosopher Dietrich von Hildebrand.

Conjugal love presupposes a development of personal character, a self-mastery that allows for self-donative love. The Other becomes thematically central in marriage. There is, of course, reciprocity built into the idea of marriage– conjugal love is a two-way street. There is a temptation, whether single (in one’s imagination) or married (in practice) to fixate on the inbound lane of love. But we don’t love in order to be loved; we love because we perceive the other as beautiful, love-able, worthy of love. The lane to fixate on, the lane that we have control over, is outbound.

The exercise of our hearts in charity does more for the preparation for and living out of marriage than anything else we can do.

Another way of putting it is to say that we ought to be engaged in the lay apostolate if we want our hearts to be rightly ordered. What is the lay apostolate? It’s the sharing of Christ’s love with the world around us in a way that sanctifies the temporal order. It’s what lay people are called to do. This is fundamental to our hearts being ready for the sacrament of matrimony.

As for the purpose of marriage, the procreation and education of children imply educating in the whole of the Christian life, all of its dimensions. This includes the universal call to holiness as well as the corresponding call to mission. The Catechism says that the parents are “by word and example… the first heralds of the faith with regard to their children” (CCC 1656). This means that parents are bound in a special way, and graced for that duty, to be missionary in their marriage.

The two-fold command to love God and neighbor takes on special significance in marriage, as the children will model their faith by how they see their parents love God, each other (the most proximate of neighbors), as well as other, less proximate neighbors. Neighborhoods are to be enlivened by Catholic couples living within them, and children are to witness their parents interceding for neighbors, reaching out to neighbors, and becoming implicated into the web of relationships that start in the home and hold together society. For that to happen, the parents ideally have been trained in the work of the lay apostolate. And that training, again speaking ideally, began well before their marriage, and even before their courtship. I say “ideally” because it’s pretty well accepted in the Church that so few of us are prepared for this dimension of marriage that it hardly even is brought up in marriage prep or even in most marriage enrichment material.

The ideal is for children to see their parents loving God, loving each other, and loving and praying for their neighbors. It’s the lay apostolate: it’s formative, it’s essential, and it’s the core of the primary education of the children. And it’s worth emphasizing, because it’s been ignored for too long.

And yet this dimension, the lay apostolate, undergirds everything about the sacrament of matrimony. It prepares our hearts for conjugal love, and it prepares our lives to be witnesses to spouse and children of the fundamental expression of Christian life. The Christian life revolves around the two poles of love of God and love of neighbor, and that’s the life parents are to educate their children into.

When couples come together ill-prepared to live out their mutual work of an apostolic life, and worse, when they come together with a fixation on what they can get out of the union, their every word and deed potentially undercuts their marriage. If they don’t know the meaning and purpose of the sacrament of matrimony, they may think they’re aiming for a happy marriage and joyful life, but they likely end up unintentionally sabotaging their marriage.

If you are single and Catholic, one of the best things you could possibly do is embrace that two-fold command: learn to love God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself. And then aim to find someone else who has embraced that two-fold command. Don’t settle for someone who will love you well. Find someone who loves God well, and is living really and truly from the overflow of God’s love for them. The search shouldn’t be for a happy marriage. The search should be for a marriage whose love overflows into the world. The cry of the heart should be “I want an evangelical marriage.”

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