It is always a joy when a young couple comes in to ask for marriage preparation. It is such a blessing to see the loving joy and hope radiating from their faces as they desire to choose an important step in life. So many hopes and aspirations…yet, so many misconceptions and misunderstandings of what marriage really is as well. Many of those things they bring to the table sound very lofty and nice in a perfect world and scenario, yet we all know we are not perfect and relationships are messy. Perhaps our Hollywood movies and television shows have given people false hopes, overly-idealistic images of the wedding day, or fancied “happily ever after” portrayals of marriage. Far from them, real relationships and marriages are not perfect nor idealistically desirable. Yet, all of those whom we admired worked hard to make their marriages not perfect but simply real, personal, and intimate…many times, with all the creative problems and tensions still existing.
As our world becomes more secularized, marriage is becoming more contractual. It is often viewed as a part of the process of dating, sexual relationship, living together, and doing something to satisfy the family. “Going to the altar” sometimes seem to be a dreadful thing in order to make the older people happy. Since the wedding industry is heavily invested in a picture-perfect ceremony, romantic or catchy settings to get the most profits, destination or theme-based weddings are now the rave and dream of many young people so they can have “the wedding of their dream” — like what they have seen on the internet or in bridal magazines. They think that a romantic, #epicwedding or #weddinggoals ceremony is what to aim for; sadly, romanticism and idealism cannot and will not make a marriage everlasting.
Some come to me with a set date since “We’ve booked the venue” or with special requests like, “We’d like to have our wedding at a barn/beach/resort!” Which I have to slow them down and try to explain to them what it is really about. I often tell them:
“Don’t worry too much about making your wedding perfect because many will be too wasted or preoccupied to remember the details. It’s very important that you know what you’re entering into and what you’re saying yes to — forever. That’s why I want to give you justice by offering you enough tools to prepare both of you for a lifetime journey.”
Honestly speaking, I believe many are too worried about the wedding date instead of preparing themselves holistically for the married life. Many are too worried about the decorations and fancied dream-like ceremonies and picture settings instead of what will give them life as husband and wife. Many are too worried about the party or how to wow people instead of learning, preparing, and opening one’s heart for the lifelong journey that is filled with many blessings and challenges. Perhaps our post-modern focuses have duped people by the apparent, picture-perfect, but quickly-fading day instead of preparing something for the lifetime.
Often times, when a couple comes to see me, they are too preoccupied with the party or ceremony plannings that they just want to brush through the marriage preparation process. They think that the Church and her ministers take joy in making their marriage planning process miserable by making them jump through more hoops and hurdles. Doing the personal inventory to get to know one’s self and the other side is not necessary because “What can it really offer us since we live or have known each other for a while now?!?” Meeting with a sponsor couple who have lived through many ups and downs of the married life is not important since they are too outdated and “What do they know or can offer us?” Going through a weekend retreat to reflect, pray, and learn about the theological and spiritual significances of Christian matrimony is not important because “We love each other and that is enough.” Learning about one’s holistic and natural fertility cycle in order to spiritually discern a personal and intimate natural family planning process is not necessary because “Those things do not work! We do not trust them. We prefer to keep things under control ourselves.” It seems like whatever tools the Church tries to give to people, they immediately turn them down because they are too focused on only getting what they think they want — as soon as possible.
There is something wrong when people are becoming too focused on one day instead of getting to know and to prepare for a lifetime of many blessed and trying moments. Marriage is not perfect will be very far from perfect, and with the current trends surrounding us, our young people need more support, knowledge, and understanding in order to strengthen the vows and to make it work. So, the real questions that we need to begin asking are:
- What is your understanding of marriage? What do you think it is?
- What makes the Christian marriage different?
- How do you understand your marriage vow? What does it mean when one says “forever”? Is it unconditional or with conditions? It is “until death do us part” or whenever it gets too hard or become an inconvenience?
- If marriage is not simply a social contract or ceremonial exchange, what do you think is necessary for forming the understanding and preparing the couple for everlasting?
These are important questions to ask because they ground us in what is necessary. If it is simply symbolic or contractual, it will become easy to walk away or be defined as we like. If it simply part of a process or something that one has to do, it will be very tempting to live as we want as long as “we love each other” until this or that feeling or emotion runs dry. If it is simply something ceremonial, it will be tempting to choose to stay when things are perfect, as planned, or manageable but easier to walk away from when we do not get the expected emotional attachment or appealing ‘return on investment’ from the other side. We need to do a better job forming our young people now so that they do not think that it is simply a contractual or ceremonial exchange but a lifelong commitment that leads both sides to many blessings and struggles. I still remember what a person told me when they had a talk with the future spouse of their child: “This is my daughter and I love her. She’s my world! If you aren’t serious about spending the time to learn and prepare for your marriage, you’re not worth my time since you won’t be loving enough to sacrifice and willing enough to make a lifetime commitment.” I believe if parents explain the important reasons why for marriage preparation in a personal and loving way so that the couple understands that it is not just a process, they would better relate and not treat this as another item on the checklist.
Marriage is hard and it takes A LOT of works, sacrifices, commitment, and perseverance. As with any relationship, the sweet, beginning period will end. Even the period of initial mutual endurance will end! Each stage of growth comes with its own set of challenges. The initial love will not save the couple because it will run dry and become ineffective. Just as our life has its different stages of growth, marriage has its unique challenges that will seem overwhelmingly hard at times, too. There will be times that the couple cannot stand or like each other. They will question their decisions and have doubts regarding their choices. There will be temptations to find pleasure or happiness elsewhere and to walk away when things get hard or become too dry. That is why on top of perseverance and commitment, the preparatory lessons will become helpful to return, relearn, and apply throughout the marital journey. Marriage preparation reminds us that we are uniquely made, with different ways of thinking, from diverse backgrounds, and with the particular understandings and handlings of things. We are people who are not just this or that person — not a product or mean of pleasure — but unique individuals that have to be appreciated, treasured, respected, and understood holistically. We cannot do it alone, especially when the hard times come, so it is important to establish wise, healthy relationships and learn from those who have struggled and chosen to love in the midst of their trials. Last, but most important of all, it is important to not only love one’s spouse based on feelings or emotions but with spiritual commitment, perseverance, and prayer. All these things that I have mentioned to you are covered in the marriage preparation process so we can add the important, necessary layers of support for the young couple because the real, raw, and true marriage is not easy.
Most important of all, it is not simply symbolic or contractual because the Sacrament of Matrimony is a reflection of Christ’s love for the Church, and she, to her Savior. Saint Paul said this beautifully in his letter to the Ephesians:
“Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ loved the Church and handed Himself over for her to sanctify her, cleansing her by the bath of water with the word, that He might present to Himself the church in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. So [also] husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one hates his own flesh but rather nourishes and cherishes it, even as Christ does the Church, because we are members of His body. ‘For this reason a man shall leave [his] father and [his] mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ This is a great mystery, but I speak in reference to Christ and the church. In any case, each one of you should love his wife as himself, and the wife should respect her husband.” (5:25-33)
Often times, many people misunderstood what the saint actually said by thinking that he demanded subordination like slavery. Nevertheless, he was speaking about the true respect and love that comes from the heart. He invited the husband and wife to see and understand one another, as to love one another, just like Christ loves the Church. This is the knowledge that the Scripture talks about, not just of information, but a personal and intimate understanding of the other person in loving respect and mutual self-giving. When the husband and wife love one another from the heart, respect, forgive, care, and give themselves genuinely, personally, and intimately to each other like Christ to the Church and she to Him, the couple would be able to overcome their trials and love one another even in the hurts.
Matrimony for us Catholics is much more than something ceremonial or a process. It reflects God’s original purpose when the two become one. The Lord said this clearly in the Gospel of Saint Matthew:
“Some Pharisees approached Him, and tested Him, saying, ‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause whatever?’ He said in reply, ‘Have you not read that from the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female’ and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore, what God has joined together, no human being must separate.’ They said to Him, ‘Then why did Moses command that the man give the woman a bill of divorce and dismiss [her]?’ He said to them, ‘Because of the hardness of your hearts Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so.’” (19:3-8)
He raised what was originally natural from the beginning of creation to the spiritual and sacramental level. Therefore, marriage, in order to work, cannot simply be stuck or naturally inclined but has to be raised up to a transcendental and spiritual level. That is why both spouses cannot just lovingly feel and hastily leave one another on the natural level. They have to be committed and love each other holistically, especially on the spiritual level, by praying, forgiving, and persevering in hurts, trials, and pains with each other just as Christ loved, died, forgave, and rose again for us. Each marriage — each couple — has to learn to die to one’s self, going through the trials, and embraced the hurts for love in the process in order to be transformed and reformed by what goes beyond the natural attractions, dissatisfactions, or temptations. In order for the marriage to last, it has to be Christ-like, Christ-founded, and Christ-centered. That is why it is important for the couple who comes into marriage preparation not to worry about the apparent decorations or ceremonial stuff for the videos or pictures but focus on understanding, appreciating, and preparing for the lifelong journey of many adventurous trials. The real strength and love that they can have for one another have to be in and through Christ because their feeble attractions, desires, and willingness can only last for so long. It is only He who can fill and transform their empty jugs of human love, change its flavorless definition of love into real wine, which is the pure, genuine, personal, intimate love that takes time to grow, be crushed, mature, develop depth and flavor. (cf. John 2:1-12)
So, what is marriage all about? The answer would be Christ. He has to be the center of the marriage as both sides learn to love one another like He has loved us. It is holistic because it is not just made to be functional or temporary since love takes time to mature, grow, and develop through the blessings and trials of the journey. One should truly come into marriage with an open heart to learn, understand, appreciate, and respect one another’s uniqueness and challenges. They should learn to love each other beyond the functional level — genuinely and personally from the heart. I believe the words of one of my friends on their anniversary capture this deep meaning of love in and through the Lord: “Through all our struggles, it was truly an act of God for us to become one. Real love isn’t just euphoric, spontaneous feeling. It’s a deliberate choice. A plan to love each other for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, and in times of insanity.”
That is why it is important that the couple should learn to seek help from others when faced with false temptations and apparent pleasures that blind their judgment and cowardly ask them to abandon the marital vow in times of trial. They should be comfortable and lovingly able to pray for each other as to love and forgive one another’s failures in and through Christ Jesus. Therefore, when one asks you who have been married for a good while, do not be afraid to answer with genuine humility and give witness to the greater love learned in Christ. When one asks you why marriage preparation is important or why can they not be able to do what they want, dare to say that real love and marriage is too important to brush through in order to focus on just one day or ceremony. If we understand all of this and can pervade it from the heart, many will begin to see their wedding more than just a ceremony or a picture and video opportunity. It is truly a humbling and genuine experience to come in front of God and the Church to make a solemn and public vow, depending on His grace and asking for the witness and prayers of others in attendance. Marriage is more than human love or what it can give for it is Christ-centered and grace-powered as the couple comes to lay down their “I” in front of God and the Church in order to become a new “we” — two becoming one. How beautiful it is to witness the vows being said and exchanged by both the husband and wife: “I, ____, take you, ____, to be my (husband/wife). I promise to be true to you in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health. I will love you and honor you all the days of my life.” It is beautiful and sacred because the husband and wife choose to love one another beyond the functional level in order to embrace, love, and offer one another up through Christ and in Him. This is what Christian marriage is all about!