I was asked to speak to a local vocations club (mainly elderly people who pray for and support young men & women who are discerning the Religious life) about marriage as a vocation. I expanded on this in person, but here’s the gist of the presentation:
Father, You have made the bond of marriage a holy mystery,
a symbol of Christ’s love for His Church.
Bless all those in the loving union of marriage
and make their love fruitful
so that they may be living witnesses to Your divine love in the world.
We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, Your Son,
who lives and reigns with You in the unity of Holy Spirit,
one God, forever and ever. Amen.
(Adapted from the Opening Prayer of the Wedding Mass)
It’s an unusual honor for me to be here. You’re used to hearing from priests and seminarians–I’m just a housewife, and my prince isn’t even here with me! He’s got students to teach, but he’s been praying for this meeting all week because this is very close to his heart too. I was asked to speak to you because of the vocations crisis–but not the one you’re used to thinking of. We have a serious vocations crisis…to the sacrament of Holy Matrimony.
The first time I heard that, it startled me. But if you think for just a moment about the culture we live in, you can see that it’s true. It’s considered normal to live together, to get divorced, to complain about your spouse. But a happy, holy family? That’s rare!
This isn’t just theory to me. I come from a broken, abusive home. When I was in my teens, if both of my parents were in the house at the same time, the tension was so strong you could cut the air with a knife. I lived with the fear of violence, the pain of being abandoned, and having parents who were suffering so much themselves that they were in no position to prepare me for adult life. I had already decided, years before, that I wanted to be a Sister, but my parents’ divorce–if this is marriage, I want no part of it!
I spent ten years in college & then grad school, praying about my vocation & trying to figure out where God wanted me. In 1996, when all my searching finally came together, I gave away everything except 2 boxes & 2 suitcases & went to Florida to join the Sisters of St. Clare as a live-in candidate. On the way to there, on my last whirlwind visit to family and friends, one of my stops was at a Baptism as the Godmother. The Godfather was a young man I’d met briefly a couple of years before at this couples’ wedding. He understood the struggles of discerning a vocation from his own days in the seminary, before God made it abundantly clear that He wanted him somewhere else. We started corresponding, and he was a great support as I floundered in trying to adjust to convent life. I didn’t know what I was doing & the Sisters didn’t quite know what to do with me. To make a long story short, in just over two months, the novice mistress told me to “go home and discern some more.” I’d been discerning for over 10 years. I’d put all my eggs in this basket. I had no fallback position. But I wasn’t in any position to argue either. I was utterly exhausted from trying to fit into a place that God wanted me to leave.
My head was spinning. The one piece of clarity I still had from my years of discernment was that I need community. I just don’t do well alone. But I don’t do well in large groups of people either. Community of two? To make another long story short, I gave myself to God through the Godfather I met on my way to the convent.
We had a distinct advantage in going this route–both my prince and I had spent years discerning our vocations. Both of us came to marriage as a vocation, as a sacred calling from God–a calling neither of us expected! At the same time, we knew we had our work cut out for us. If we just did “what comes naturally,” we’d end up just like our parents–a dysfunctional home was all we ever knew (which is pretty common nowadays)–and we were bound & determined not to let that happen! We were most grateful that we each had a grandmother praying for us!
We started studying marriage, asking hard questions and searching for answers. It’s been 15 years now & we’ve still got a long way to go. But we have learned a few things along the way.
First of all, what does the ideal marriage look like? What’s its point, its purpose? What are we aiming for? [Bride of Christ picture] Through Bl. Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body, we found the ideal marriage in the Bible, in God’s love for His people. In the Garden of Eden, God celebrated the wedding of Adam and Eve, because it is not good for man to be alone (Genesis 2:18). God is not alone. He is Trinity, a divine union of three Persons. We are created in His image–for communion. Over and over in the Old Testament, God says His people are like a faithless bride, who’s given herself to other lovers. But He still loves her, and He will win her back. In the New Testament, St. Paul says that Jesus is the Bridegroom Who loved His Bride so much that He gave Himself up for her, to make her glorious, holy and immaculate, without spot or wrinkle or anything of that sort. The Church is the Bride, surrendering herself to Jesus’ mission to make her beautiful (Ephesians 5:22-33). At the End of the Bible, in the book of Revelation, we see the Church as the Bride of the Lamb, radiant and pure and filled with joy (Revelation 19:7-9, 21:2). The whole story of our salvation is the story of a marriage!
This is what we’re aiming for. My prince is called to be an image of Christ, laying down his life for me, to make me holy. I am called to be an image of the Church, surrendering to my prince’s mission to make me spiritually glorious. Marriage is a participation in God’s love, a sharing in the communion, in the inner life of the Blessed Trinity! As husband and wife, our most important mission in life is to love each other into Heaven, to help each other to become saints. Everything else is secondary. This is radically counter cultural! And just as the Church is fruitful, bearing children for the Kingdom of Heaven through Baptism, so husband and wife are to be fruitful, bearing children and training them to be saints (God hasn’t blessed us with biological children, but Brian’s students are “his kids,” we have several Godchildren, and we pass the Faith along in various ways). In fact, the Church calls the family the “Domestic Church,” and says, “become what you are!”
When people see us, they should be able to say to each other, “That’s what God’s love looks like.” Marriage and the family is where God’s love takes on flesh in our world, today. Is it any wonder that so many people have such distorted ideas about God?
Marriage isn’t for wimps. Marriage is for heroes. And we’re all called to be spiritual heroes. That’s why Pope Francis is challenging young people to be courageous in love, to take the risk of making a lifetime commitment. That’s also why he’s called the bishops together for an extraordinary meeting next year to ask how the Church can help families even more than She already does.
Marriage–real marriage–is supernatural. We can’t love the way God loves on our own steam, through thick and thin. It requires supernatural power. That’s why God made marriage a sacrament–a source of divine power. God already lives in me through my Baptism, but through the Sacrament of marriage, God offers me His own divine love–to love my husband. It’s up to me to use that divine love, to choose to love when it hurts, to be like Jesus on the Cross. [crucifix] This is what married love looks like. And you know it doesn’t end there. The Bridegroom who lays down His life for His Bride rises again in glory.
God also strengthens us as spouses through the sacraments of Confession and the Eucharist. In Confession, He clears away obstacles to love. He gives us grace to overcome the sins we’ve confessed so we can love rightly. In Holy Communion, Jesus and His Bride become one flesh. This is marriage. We unite with Him and He with us in the most intimate way possible. And as we come into Communion with Jesus, we grow in communion with each other. We are united with the Body of Christ, which is the Host, yes, but the Body of Christ is also the whole Church and every member of the Church (I Cor 12: 12, 27). Holy Communion is the sacrament of union with Jesus, and with each other. In addition, Jesus feeds us with Himself. He strengthens us to become more like Him–better lovers. You become what you eat. There’s power here–supernatural power. We need to tap into it. The Church also offers blessings for families. [Book of Blessings] Besides the blessings built into the wedding Mass, there are blessings for birthdays, anniversaries, homes, pregnancy (and a new one for the child within the womb), children, the elderly confined to home, students, travelers, things like the advent wreath, the nativity scene, rosaries and other devotional items–the list goes on & on. Blessings are there for the asking–and we ask! We need all the help we can get & we know it! Every anniversary we catch Father after Mass & ask for his blessing. And our wedding rings are sacramentals–sources of grace–because they’re blessed.
Prayer–you know there is no vocation without prayer. As we spend time with God individually and together, He makes us more like Him. We learn how He loves–how we need to love in our relationships.
Do we live up to this ideal of love? Far from it! We have no laurels to rest on. It’s such a comfort to know that our marriage is God’s work, that He’s our guarantee, as long as we keep working with Him. He will never give up on us.
This is a landmark year for us. We celebrated 15 years of marriage last June. That’s the last anniversary my parents ever celebrated–nearly 30 years ago. By God’s grace, we’re as committed as we were the day we married (which was totally!). My prayer for our marriage from the beginning has been this: “Lord, help us to be an ever better image of Your Love for Your Bride, the Church, a witness of what You can do with a marriage that’s given over to You, even against the odds.”
You are here because you care about vocations. You care so much that you make sacrifices for holy priests and Religious. Holy priests and Religious come from holy families. And holy families need holy priests and Religious. They go together. We need your prayers for holy families, for shining lights of God’s love in a dark, self-absorbed world. My prince and I each credit our faith, and what success we have as a married couple, to our praying grandmothers. We like to say, “Never underestimate the power of a praying grandmother!” (it goes for praying grandfathers too, but we don’t have much experience of that). We need your sufferings–and I know you have them!–offered to God in union with Jesus’ crucifixion for holy families.
You can help young people catch the vision of Holy Matrimony as a sacred calling from God, as a glorious image of divine love, by the way you talk to them about your own lives and about your spouse (praise or criticism) and about what they’re going through. You can challenge the youth not to settle for less than God’s best, in whatever vocation He has for them.
I’d like to close with a quote from Pope John Paul II, soon to be canonized a saint: He said, “Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses.” You inspire vocations–whether to the priesthood, Religious life or Holy Matrimony, by living your vocation well, by your faithful devotion to God wherever you are. May God bless your ministry!