Looking to my own experience and that of so many married friends and acquaintances, it is hard to escape the conclusion that marriage is the most difficult vocation in the world. This is not to say that it does not have its beautiful and wonderful side. It was fitting that St. Paul should compare the union of Christ and the Church to the communion of spouses, for in the world of creation there is no greater experience of two beings becoming one—even if this oneness, in the fallen order, never achieves total perfection. And surely there are few things more amazing than holding a newborn baby in one’s arms, or seeing him smile for the first time; it is like Adam awakening to see the sun on the day of his creation.
What I have in mind is more subtle. Prior to marrying, it is almost impossible to fathom the selfishness latent in one’s soul and in the soul of one’s companion. The sacrament has a mysterious way of exorcising evil by calling it forth and compelling one to deal with it. For years and years, spouses have to work through every sort of difficulty, personal and familial, internal and external—and the difficulties, like weeds, never entirely disappear but spring up in new and unexpected places. If the couple are strong in faith, they will make progress, slowly, humbly, placing their faith in divine Providence, and begging God’s help. It calls for the perseverance of saints-in-the-making.
Let’s be honest: the life couples lead before marriage often keeps them so face-to-face and emotionally absorbed in each other that they are not yet able to discover (and so, to begin patiently working through) their numerous faults, the hidden burdens they bear from their past, the unspoken, perhaps unconscious, and frequently unrealistic expectations they have for their future. Living in close proximity in that peculiar state of prenuptial revery, a lover or beloved can be so centered on the present moment and the presence of the other that it is hard to get sufficient perspective on past and future and oneself. This can make a marriage tougher later on, but it’s impossible to see how one could entirely avoid a certain amount of illusion; indeed, a cynic might say that the only reason people get married is because they don’t know what they’re getting into. Christian realism might endorse that sentiment on a global scale: the Lord in His mercy holds back the future from all of us, since, as T. S. Eliot says, we cannot bear too much reality. That is why we pray for our daily bread, not for a year’s worth of bread. He reveals His will to us here and now, in the love we owe to the person(s) He has placed in our care. We will inevitably fumble as we carry out the task and sometimes make a mess of things. Our awareness of being mere creatures of dust, mere children, will prevent us from either exaggerating the disaster to the point of despair or downplaying the need for repentance and forgiveness.