By Frank Wessling
When primitive men and women first felt a strong mutual attraction that raised a desire to live together and seek a communion of life, we can doubt that they were thinking much beyond the ecstatic, transcendent experience of love itself.
The mind, especially the young mind, tends to concentrate on that relationship as if everything depends on it and nothing apart from it really matters.
Some things don’t change. We still go through that portal to full human experience, many of us more than once. We even have a day on the calendar, Feb. 14, for celebrating the feeling.
This is probably being read a few days early, but Happy Valentine’s Day!
Now let’s allow the mind to work so that what we do with the feeling is worthy of human beings.
The impact of love is so great because it breaks us out of self-isolation. It pushes our skin aside, in a sense, so that another — an “other” — can be with us and we with her or him in the fullest possible way that we call intimacy. No wonder it tends to produce the new life of children.
When we get serious and marry that exciting “other,” we discover that we’ve started on a road into mystery, and the mystery is pregnant with surprise. Not all of the surprise is welcome. Some of it feels like suffering, raising thoughts of abandonment. We discover things about the “other” and about ourselves that don’t easily fit together. As Jesus warned Peter in the Gospel, the time comes when we are taken where we would rather not go.
Little by little in the life of love we confront this dying experience as two my-selfs are sanded and ground and molded into an ever-expanding and ever more open our-self — two in one flesh, as St. Paul expresses it. If the project is succeeding, its continuing openness to new life is a model of the ultimate relationship with God.
That is why at least one respected Catholic theologian sees marriage as the primary sacrament, the one that most speaks to us through experience of what we call the paschal mystery of Christ, his dying and rising to glory.
If love begins with a razor sharp focus on the one “other,” its fulfillment emerges as we let ourselves take in the fullness of what is other. In the Catholic marriage ritual we “take” each other. That is the promise of love that endures, love worthy of human beings. We become open, ready, receptive to a future we will not control. We pledge to serve it with the creative energy that makes us human.
That creative energy is love grown up, love tried by fire and stronger than any steel. The taking of marriage is the opposite of a selfish taking, which is why it isn’t an undertaking fit for children. At every wedding it is the fervent hope and prayer of many among the witnesses that these two people are close enough to maturity to carry out what they are attempting.
We say that a wedding in the Church between two baptized persons is a sacrament, a sign of grace, the presence of God. That is true, but sacraments are not magic. The two people who bring the sacrament to each other have to be capable of what they promise, and one doesn’t build a union of enduring growth in love, a rhythm of dying and rising that symbolizes the love of God, on Valentine sentiment alone.
That’s why Pope Benedict was so emphatic last month when he said that a wedding in the Church is not a right available to everyone. There is a readiness involved.
Every married couple knows that no one is ever completely prepared for the reality of the life. But there are ways to exercise in preparation for the kind of exercise it will require. For Christians nothing is better than attention to the life of Christ and worship with the community that follows Christ. If the pattern of married life is the pattern of Christ, who gives his life for others, then to know and follow him is the best marriage preparation program.
It makes the celebration of love last infinitely beyond Valentine’s Day.