(This was written in preparation for a series of conferences on vocations and states in life that I gave at Saint Benedict Center in the Spring of 2005. Please see the end of this piece for a small table of contents with links to the other conferences.)
We have spoken of choosing a partner and of the preparation for matrimony that we call courtship. Now I would like to speak of married life itself. I will do so in very general terms, as an exhaustive list of dos and don’ts would be too much. My hope is that, in grasping the more general considerations, when it comes time to think of the specifics, you will at least know what questions to ask and what subjects merit your attention.
I should not have to tell you that there is a profound disorder in the world. In the Church, and in civil society; things are in horrible disarray: private life, family life, education, parish life, local, state, and federal government, world affairs. It’s a mess. The reason it is a mess is that God and His one true religion have been forbidden entrance into all these spheres. Cardinal Pie famously told Napoleon III: “Sire, since the time has not come for Christ to reign, then the time has not come for government to last.” The same can be said of other societies, the family having a primacy among them all. Jesus Christ must reign as King everywhere. Where His Kingship is not welcome, chaos necessarily follows.
Just yesterday, Spain’s parliament passed a horrible law allowing unnatural “marriages” between degenerates. We already have this shameful institution in some states here in the U.S. This is simply the latest outrage in a very long diabolical war against marriage and the family. I reviewed some statistics the other day which showed an alarming increase, between 1981 and 2001, in the numbers of people living in sin: i.e ., couples living together without being married. In one diocese in Italy, half the people taking church-run marriage instruction are already living together. Divorces are on the rise, as are second marriages. The marriage age for first-time marriages is rising, and the number of children born to unmarried parents has increased. In England and Wales a full half of all births are to “couples” who are not married. This is profound disorder. Certainly “an enemy hath done this” (Mt. 13:28).
God’s Plan for Order
All this looks very bleak. However, we must set about the work of undoing the disarray with confidence in the help of our Lord and our Lady, and with what old soldiers call “battle-joy.” Reasons for joy and confidence abound.
Our Lord has a program for order in the world. God’s response to the fall was not the destruction of the human race, but His merciful plan to unite humanity to Himself in the Incarnation and, on the Cross, to pay the debt of sin our race contracted through Adam. The power of the Precious Blood is still here. Not only did our Lord pay the debt of sin, but He made it possible for us to be united to Him by being members of His Mystical Body, the Church. Through divine grace, the theological virtues, and the sacraments, we are united intimately to Jesus as living members of His Body. O felix culpa! — O happy fault! — exclaimed St. Augustine. God overshot the mark. Instead of simply paying our debt, He chose to make it possible for “as many as received him” (Jn 1:12) to be elevated to a life of eternal intimacy with Himself.
The divine plan for order in the world is not merely the sanctification of each individual by his direct, personal union with God. No, that’s a Protestant notion: “Just me and Jesus. We don’t need intermediaries — no pope, no priests, no saints, no Blessed Mother, no sacraments — just God and me, we can do it all!” God calls men to worship Him in a society: the Church. He wishes this Church to preach to all nations — nations that should bow their heads to His Kingship. This is the social Kingship of our Lord Jesus Christ, a doctrine the liberals have been trying to destroy and have all but succeeded.
Nations are built up of the smallest but most important social unit: the family. And to have a family, there must be one man and one woman united in matrimony. God’s plan for order is to sanctify all mankind by sanctifying each and every human society. Yes, anyone can become a saint even if he or she comes from a non-Catholic family in a non-Catholic area of a non-Catholic nation. Each of these negatives is an obstacle that can be, and must be, overcome in the soul’s cooperation with the illuminating and sanctifying light of divine faith, along with the purifying fire of divine charity. God wants Catholic nations and Catholic families, so that the members of these societies can help each other to work out their salvation.
Matrimony as Sanctifying
That matrimony plays an essential and providential role in God’s plan for order and for sanctity in the world is obvious by the fact that it is a sacrament, which makes it one of only seven external signs instituted by Christ to give grace. While matrimony is not what is called a “state of perfection” (as religious life is), this does not mean that married people should not strive for perfection. St. Paul tells us that all the baptized are called to perfection: “This is the will of God, your sanctification” (1 Thess. 4:3), says St. Paul. And elsewhere, that same Apostle gives directives on how married people can achieve sanctity (Col. 3, Eph. 5, Titus 2).
Pope Pius XI, in his encyclical on matrimony, Casti connubii , says this about marriage and perfection: “This outward expression of love in the home… must have as its primary purpose that man and wife help each other day by day in forming and perfecting themselves in the interior life, so that through their partnership in life they may advance ever more and more in virtue, and above all that they may grow in true love toward God and their neighbor… and by God’s grace to arrive at the summit of perfection, as is proved by the example set us of many saints.”
This is a tall order, but it can be done.
Primary / Secondary States
Finally, before moving on to some general tips on the married life, let me remind you once again that, in this matter of states in life and vocations, the fundamental thing to remember is that the secondary state in life is really the manner by which you live your primary state in life. That “primary state” — that first vocation — is the state of being a Christian: a member of Christ’s Mystical Body. In other words, your primary vocation is the “call” (vocatio in Latin) to the life of grace here below and of glory in heaven. How you achieve that is determined by the “secondary state” you embrace as part of God’s plan for you, whether that plan be priesthood, religious life, the single state in the world, or the married state.
If you approach holy matrimony as anything less than that, as anything less than a way to live as a child of God, you will fail — if not totally, by a complete marital shipwreck in this life and hell in the next, then at least partially, with adverse effects for yourself, your spouse, your children, your extended family, and your neighbor.
After the Honeymoon
Now for the practical:
So, you’ve married. The two of you — Mr. and Mrs. Right — have had the ideal Solemn High Nuptial Mass and have had the perfect honeymoon in the Swiss Alps — or maybe the Rockies. You come home to your new place of residence. [You shouldn’t take up with Mom and Dad, unless it’s because of serious economic need, and even then only very temporarily .] The Mr. carries the Mrs. over the threshold and you begin your life together.
First of all, you should know that this is a very awkward time. The young lady is still getting used to her new name. Certain expressions of affection that you couldn’t perform before are now lawful, but not yet habitual, so you feel a little odd about them; and as you now live together, certain things about each other begin to manifest themselves that were unknown before. About those things, I’ll speak in a little while. First, I should make this very important point: There is something like an incubation period for the first year or so of the marriage. There should be lots of time alone with each other and away from crowds. You are building your castle and do not want invaders to come. Soon enough, children will be on their way. Right now, it’s time for the two of you to learn to live together and love each other. Mom and Dad — his or hers — should not be around very much. A sacred veil of privacy should come over your early married life. If the necessary emotional processes that God made to happen during this time are neglected by too much intrusion into your privacy, you will not be able to make up for it later.
Now for some of the surprises you’ll get: The wife may be frightened in the morning to behold her husband unshaven for the first time: what a horrible shadow on his face! The husband may find out to his chagrin that a large percentage of the external beauty of his beloved comes out of jars and bottles. The early-morning crankiness of each before that first hallowed cup of coffee may become too much to bear. If any of these things happened on the honeymoon, chances are you were too blinded by the stars in your eyes to notice them. Now, however, things are different.
Yes, she really does brush her teeth in that most irritating manner every morning. Yes, he really does slurp when he puts the over-full tablespoon of soggy breakfast cereal into his mouth every morning. That laugh of hers, which you found so musical at first now sounds like a hyena’s, while the awkward jokes he first charmed you with are now tiresome, after you’ve heard the same one for the eightieth time. Till death do us part!
This is not an effort to put things in a bad light; still less am I trying to make light of an institution I am advocating as a positive means of salvation. My goal is to give you a “heads up” on the realities that set in after the honey-moon. The crosses, contradictions, and difficulties of married life will soon be manifest. “Life on earth is a warfare,” declared holy Job. The warfare doesn’t end when you say, “I do.” Let’s make sure husband and wife are not the opposing sides in the war.
The lesson that I want to drive home is that the daily crosses of the married state are not evils to rid yourself of, but opportunities for advancement in the spiritual life. Remember that Pius XI said that “man and wife [must] help each other day by day in forming and perfecting themselves in the interior life.” Put that together with the third of the three requirements of true friendship — self sacrifice1 — and you get the following: Bearing with the real or perceived shortcomings of your spouse for a supernatural motive and in the state of grace is a powerful way to practice love of God and neighbor. This makes it a powerful means of becoming a saint.
Naturally, this does not mean that husband and wife should torment one another to become saints. The difficulty entailed in living with someone who is trying to please you, if he does not know he’s being displeasing , is sufficient to make for many trials.
The Big Vice
In all the trials that will befall you, in all the difficulties and disagreements that every couple undergoes, the one big vice to avoid is selfishness. It’s a huge obstacle to married happiness. It’s also a huge obstacle to the spiritual life. Selfishness is the very antithesis of love of God and love of neighbor. It is to love oneself more than God and neighbor and at their expense. Let us stop for a moment to appreciate God’s plan: If the same thing which opposes God’s sanctifying action in our souls also opposes marital happiness, don’t you think that God intended it that way? In thousands of little ways, day after day, husband and wife can rid themselves of disordered self-love and grow in love of each other. At the same time, the rooting out of self-love will tear down the barrier to God’s grace. The interior life will grow.
Let us put it another way. Our perfection is determined by the degree of theological charity in our souls. St. John tells us that we cannot possibly love God whom we cannot now see if we hate our brother whom we can see, and who is an image of God (1 John 4:20). This is his adaptation of the double precept of the New Law: love of God and love of neighbor. Who is more your neighbor than your spouse? So, the “summit of perfection” Pope Pius XI referred to can be achieved by love of spouse. Is that not the highest possible application of the second purpose of matrimony: mutual assistance?2
“Charity begins at home” goes the pithy old saying, and it’s true; but let’s get it straight: charity, even among spouses, is far more than “lovey-dovey.” This is why St. Paul’s portrayal of married life being an image of the union of Christ and the Church is so powerful. Look at the crucifix if you want to see true love. “Husbands, love your wives as Christ loved the Church and delivered himself up for it” (Eph. 5:25).
There is nothing more tragic, more sad, more heartrending, than unrequited love. It is the age-old subject of sad songs and sad literature. Even our Lord complained of it to St. Margaret Mary in the revelations of His Sacred Heart. On one of the only three occasions He wept in His public life, He did so because of unrequited love: “And when he drew near, seeing the city, he wept over it, saying: If thou also hadst known, and that in this thy day, the things that are to thy peace; but now they are hidden from thy eyes” (Luke 19:41-42). He goes on to tell His Apostles what horrible things will befall Jerusalem. What caused this? If we go back six chapters in St. Luke’s Gospel, we get the answer: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, that killest the prophets, and stonest them that are sent to thee, how often would I have gathered thy children as the bird doth her brood under her wings, and thou wouldest not?” (Lk. 13:34). It was Jerusalem’s failure to return love for love that would bring God’s wrath upon it. And what happened to the city? Among other things, it was literally stoned. Huge portable Roman engines were brought in, and massive rocks were hurled from them upon the city, smashing it. Scholars point out that stoning was the Old Testament penalty for an adulterous wife. God had chosen the Jewish nation, the Old Testament church (synagogue, literally) to be His spouse. Since they had rejected Him in spurning His Son, He chose another spouse: the gentile Church. To prove His love for her, and purify her in His Blood, the Bridegroom was crucified. The divine Victim, being perfect and without sin, adorned His Bride with every perfection, and one of these distinguishing perfections, a characteristic note of this new and eternal Dispensation, is holiness. There will never be lacking, in any time, at least some of the Church’s members who will return love for love. These are the saints.
So how do you keep from being selfish in matrimony? You must be true to the duties of your state. The Catechism of the Council of Trent lists these as the duties of the husband:
To treat his wife generously and honorably.
To provide for the family by some honest pursuit, at the same time avoiding idleness.
To keep the family in order by seeing that all discharge their duties.
And the duties of a wife:
To be subject to her husband, with a quiet and meek spirit, in imitation of Sarah’s fidelity to Abraham (the Catechism quotes St. Peter on this point — 1 Pet. 3:1ff.).
To train children in the practice of virtue, providing for the good order of the home.
To love to remain at home, unless compelled by some necessity.
Perhaps the most practical tips will be in terms of these obligations.
Mistakes of Wives
Ladies first: You are to be subject to your husband. We spoke of this at some length already. What I would like to stress here is the positive role that this subjection has. What feminists will not tell you is that the submission a Christian wife has to her husband is ennobling. It makes her a queen, not a slave. Women have a certain power over men by which they can make men better. But to do so, they have to imitate Sarah’s meekness to Abraham, as St. Peter pointed out. So, ladies, study to please your husbands. In all that is lawful, do what he prefers. You have no idea the power for good you can exert over him in this regard. St. Peter points out that husbands were converted this way. St. Monica converted her husband Patricius this way.
One mistake wives make is to live for their friends and not their husbands. They will dress for them, live for their applause, follow their advice. Instead, they should consider the tastes and dispositions of him whose helpmate they are.
Wives should make a house into a home. It should be clean and orderly and have the sounds and smells that make her husband happy. If she studies to make the home a pleasant place, the husband will love to come there at the end of the day. If she does not, he may find excuses to stay at work longer, or worse. This can lead to many evils.
Wives should stay in the home. Be a domestic queen, not a wage slave. Here is Pope Pius XI speaking against a false equality of men and women in public life:
“This, however, is not the true emancipation of woman, nor that rational and exalted liberty which belongs to the noble office of a Christian woman and wife; it is rather the debasing of the womanly character and the dignity of motherhood, and indeed of the whole family, as a result of which the husband suffers the loss of his wife, the children of their mother, and the home and the whole family of an ever watchful guardian. More than this, this false liberty and unnatural equality with the husband is to the detriment of the woman herself, for if the woman descends from her truly regal throne to which she has been raised within the walls of the home by means of the Gospel, she will soon be reduced to the old state of slavery (if not in appearance, certainly in reality) and become as amongst the pagans the mere instrument of man.
“This equality of rights which is so much exaggerated and distorted, must indeed be recognized in those rights which belong to the dignity of the human soul and which are proper to the marriage contract and inseparably bound up with wedlock. In such things undoubtedly both parties enjoy the same rights and are bound by the same obligations; in other things there must be a certain inequality and due accommodation, which is demanded by the good of the family and the right ordering and unity and stability of home life.”
Moms: Teach your children manners! This begins from infancy. In his The Restoration of Christian Culture , Dr. John Senior makes the point that manners are the custodian of the moral life just as the moral life is the custodian of the interior life. If I don’t keep Catholic morals, I cannot live the spiritual life. If I don’t have at least basic manners, I will not be able to keep good morals. This is a sure formula.
Children have to be taught such things as keeping still at the table, not answering back, treating all adults with respect and courtesy, saying “please,” “thank you,” “yes, ma’am,” “no, ma’am,” “yes, sir,” “no, sir,” being silent when adults are speaking, saying “excuse me,” cleaning up after themselves, not dumping all the toys from the box to the floor only to walk away in five minutes because they are bored with what’s there, not running in front of any adult, especially old people. If you think I’m stressing the obvious, look about you. We are becoming a society of barbarians. Teenagers with every aperture and extremity of their body pierced, riveted, and chained were not taught manners. They are barbaric. If you want to raise a pagan, begin by not teaching him manners. You won’t have to do much beyond that. But when he is a teenager and begins to beat you, don’t be too surprised: barbarians do that .
There are good books on child rearing. During courtship, get one. Read it together with your betrothed.
Mistakes of Husbands
Gentlemen, now it’s your turn. You must treat your wife “generously and honorably.” Do you know what that means? Treat her like a lady. Open doors for her, pull out chairs for her, thank her, do not take her for granted. If she cooked your favorite meal, tell her how much you enjoyed it. Have manners in her presence. Do not belch or make other disgusting noises in her hearing unless she’s nursing you back to health, and you can’t help it. Never joke about her appearance, her cooking, or her parents to your friends. She may smile and laugh it off, but you have just plunged a dagger into a sensitive heart. Tell her frequently that you love her — and mean it. Then act as if you mean it. Don’t treat her like an idiot, especially in public. To see a husband degrade a wife and treat her like an imbecile is a horrible sight.
Let me quote what a great spiritual writer, Father Mary Eugene Boylan, has to say about this: “For those who have discovered that the only thing that matters in this life or in the next — the only thing that can give true happiness — is to love and to be loved; married life can be a source of continual and untold suffering, even when on the surface it appears to be a success. What women may have to suffer in this way is beyond the power of any man to describe. There are husbands who consider their wives as glorified housekeepers or secretaries, as an ornament in their home and a hostess at their table, a social acquisition, a mere means of pleasure and self-gratification, in fact, as anything, but as what a wife really is: another and better self, a partner in living, one who is a continual influence in the development of all that is good. So few men realize that a man’s wife is his best friend. So few men realize to what an extent their family life, and in particular that part of their family life that they share with their wife, should be the principal part of their life in this world. They work for their own ‘advancement’ — whatever that may mean. They have a ‘career,’ and they feel everything else must be subordinated to that.”
He goes on to rail against the husband who spends nights out of the home, whether it’s for some career advancement, fun with his friends, or — believe it or not — even for some good Catholic cause, about which, he says this: “They are giving away something that is not their own; they are stealing from their wives to serve — as they imagine — God. God does not want such service. Far, far better for a man, and more meritorious, to spend the evening at home with his wife, or to take her to some entertainment which they can both share, and so to develop and manifest his love for his wife and their community of life. He will find Christ in his wife on such occasions more certainly, more fruitfully, and more intimately, than he will in all his needy neighbors, or even — we would venture to say — in a visit to the Blessed Sacrament. For Christ is present and is to be received, wherever His will is to be done. And His will is that they whom He has joined together should not be put asunder by any man.”
When we consider that these words come from a strict Trappist monk, one who lived a mortified life of monastic enclosure, spending much time before our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament, we get some indication of the importance of finding Christ in your spouse.
Child Rearing and Home Life
About child rearing, I will say very little. Again, there are good books on the subject. Avail yourselves of them before it’s too late. Teach your children manners, as I’ve already said. Realize that you are to show God to your children, not only in your words about the catechism, but in your actions. The way they see you treat each other will teach them volumes before they can read. God is a loving Father. Show your children what it is to be a loving father, and they will, through you, love the Eternal Father.
Stay at home as much as possible and recreate together. Don’t buy a TV or have video games in your house: it’s all trash. Learn to play your own music, have family games, read together — out loud for the little ones, and in silent groups together in later years. Learn the lost art of telling stories. Think how much money you can save on video games and idiotic battery-operated things if you tell your little ones stories of your own making that will make them delight in you, while at the same time making them love you rather than the silly plastic thing that will end up in pieces in some closet.
Fathers, teach your boys manly things. Mothers, teach your girls womanly things. If boys keep their hands occupied with wholesome and constructive projects, it will help them to remain pure in later years. It will also make them useful. If girls learn to make modest clothing in their youth, they will never be slaves to the latest low-cut spandex piece of “fashion” being hawked at the mall. And, yes, they also should know how to cook.
Pray together. Say the family rosary (with a few extra prayers at the end that are peculiar to your family). Do this regularly and you will build up the body of Christ. You will populate heaven; you will make saints.
Finally, keep in mind, you will have a sacrament to help you in all this. I will end with a daring quote of St. Robert Bellarmine, the great Jesuit Doctor of the Church. He is comparing Matrimony to the Eucharist:
“The sacrament of matrimony can be regarded in two ways: first, in the making, and then in its permanent state. For it is a sacrament like to that of the Eucharist, which not only when it is being conferred, but also whilst it remains, is a sacrament; for as long as the married parties are alive, so long is their union a sacrament [an external sign] of Christ and the Church.”
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Here is a small table of contents with links to the other conferences in this series. If a given conference is not linked, that means it is not posted yet on this web site. (Back to top.)
1. The Big Decision: Your Options, God’s Plan.
2. The Better Part: The Religious or Priestly Vocation.
3. Flying Solo: The Chaste Single State.
4. The Great Sacrament: Holy Matrimony.
5. Who will it be? Choosing a Partner.
6. The Chaste Preparation: Courtship.
7. Till Death Do Us Part.
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On Marriage in General:
Casti Connubii, Pope Pius XI.
Cana is Forever by Father Charles Hugo Doyle.
This Tremendous Lover by Father Mary Eugene Boylan. (An eminently practical book on the spiritual life which is at the same time very doctrinal. It has a sublime chapter called “Marriage and Holiness,” which I recommend all couples to read together.)
Chastity, a Guide for Teens and Young Adults, by Father Gerald Kelley, S.J. (Discusses choosing a partner. Highly recommended for older teens and up — of both sexes, and also parents. It will help them to explain the right use of marriage to their children, when that time comes.)
Handbook for Parents, Father Paul Wickens.
How to Train up a Child, by Joseph A. Webb. (Not Catholic — Amish, I think, but has good practical tips).
Sins of Parents, by Father Charles Hugo Doyle.
For Men / Boys:
Young Man’s Guide, Father Lasance.
Living Temples, by Father Bede Jarrett, O.P (A book of meditations for boys.)
For Women / Girls:
Counsels of Perfection for Catholic Mothers, by Monsignor Lejeune.
Catholic Girl’s Guide, by Father Lasance.
The Wife Desired, by Leo J. Kinsella.
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1 In an earlier conference, the three qualities of true friendship were explained at some length. True friendship (1) makes each friend morally better, (2) is based on some agreement (common interests, likes, dislikes, etc.) between the two, and (3) exacts self-sacrifice of each for the good of the other.
2 A preceding conference explained the two ends or purposes of matrimony. The primary purpose is the procreation and education of children. The secondary purpose is generally divided into two: mutual assistance and the quieting of concupiscence.