By Frank Wessling
If asked to name the most enduring kind of human love, many of us would say mother love. Now and then there are horror stories of a mother who kills her children or sits by while a boyfriend abuses them. But normally the mother-child connection is an unbreakable lifetime bond in which mothers lay down their lives bit by bit in compassion and care for the children’s flourishing.
The U.S. Catholic bishops want us to look for lasting love somewhere else — in marriage. They adopted “Matrimony: Sacrament of Enduring Love” as the theme for opening the 2010-11 program year for religious education and formation beginning this month in parishes. Not that marriage is to be the focus of all formation programs. This seems to be more an effort in raising up the subject of marriage for reflection across the entire Catholic landscape.
The time seems right. Once commonly understood across our culture as the lifetime commitment of one woman and one man to “settle down” from the wilderness of youth and establish a stable home, with children of their own, marriage is being progressively stripped of significance. More and more it begins as a beach party or pretty picture in a park, not in the solemnity of a church. Vows are only the words that go between eyes gazing into each other, not a pledge taken on as a sacred trust.
Most people still see marriage as hope for enduring love. But the underlying energy needed to make it so is missing. Divorce is depressingly common. Living together without the commitment of marriage keeps rising: latest reports claim there are 6.4 million cohabitating couples in this country.
And all of this uncertainty, instability, tentativeness and disruption affects children. We now have 40 percent of births from unmarried women and millions of children who know in their bones the fearful breaking of marriage.
Christians should themselves know a certain fear of marriage — in the sense that we use the phrase “fear of God.” It’s a relationship that requires reverence in approach and preparation because it asks not for a piece of us or a part of our time on earth. It asks for all.
Marriage is commonly seen as the sign and symbol of love as a free gift. If we take this seriously, we need to look for guidance to a source where this kind of love shows itself. We find that in the Gospel, where Jesus demonstrates what it means. He lays down his life as food for others — and asks us to follow in his way.
So, if we want marriage to be the sign of enduring love, we know how to do that. Preach and, more importantly, live as if entering marriage means beginning a mutual climb on the mountain I/we will die on. It’s a fearsome thing, when seen clearly, but a path through and into enduring joy, as well.
Some faith — considerable faith, in fact — also is required.