A man and a woman meet and are captured by each other. Their relationship becomes intentional and their feelings for each other deepen. They find themselves caught up into each other’s dreams and they begin to share their tomorrows. They hold on to each other and promise to love for a lifetime. Then life happens.
The process of selecting a mate occurs with what might be construed as a promise of ease. Falling in love is so autonomic that it seems that even gravity participates in the compulsion to choose each other for life. It feels as though it’s beyond our control. For some couples their relationship doesn’t get beyond the “autopilot” stage where love feels like something that happens to you.
Then life happens. The experience of love becomes less just what happens to us. It becomes more something that we do. Or we refuse to be awakened by the essence of real love. We long for the ease of falling in love and love being done to us. That’s the fork in the road where married people find themselves, inevitably.
That essence of real love is choice. We choose our beloved and turn away all other possibilities. Love is more than how we feel. It is often despite how we feel. It is in this deeper stage of marriage that spouses live their vocation and become who they need to be for the sake of their marriage. Love shapes them and transforms them into God’s Presence.
The essence of real love is choice. And because we are imperfect humans, we don’t love perfectly and sometimes choose not to love. Father Donald Senior of Catholic Theological Union in Chicago said, “The heart of sin is the loss of memory.” We sometimes forget our promise. We forget the other’s dreams and remember only our own. This is why vocational marriage needs a community to help us remember when we forget—a community to call us back to our true selves when we have forgotten who we are and whose we are.
Then, also, vocational marriages need forgiveness and fresh starts. Vocational marriages are ever-reconciling, whether issues are large or small.
There is a Paschal Mystery character to vocational marriage. It is a daring promise to commit to an unknown future. We can’t do it without faith. There is suffering in embracing the chosen and mourning the un-chosen. Loving despite how we feel is suffering one another. And as we submit ourselves to the marriage and become shaped by its needs and demands, we die to ourselves. If that were all there is, it would be questionable whether it is worth it. But, there is more. It is in the becoming that a new creation emerges, more holy, more giving, more loving and more reflective of God’s Presence. We rise to our new selves to better lead our families and be light to our communities.
When working with engaged couples, we ask them, “What does forever look like?” It’s a rhetorical question that none can really answer. The danger is when we think we have a clear picture of it and use it as a guide for our tomorrows. Forever is beyond our vision, but it does exist. We can’t design it. But, we can follow it and be faithful to it and allow it to shape us.
After more than 40 years of marriage we find ourselves thankful that God didn’t answer our prayers by granting us what we thought we wanted at any given time or situation in our past. Though we’d rather not relive them, we are even thankful for the trials we have faced through the years. God’s answer to our prayers was the people in our lives who remembered when we forgot and reminded us of our goodness. God’s answer to our prayers was the gift of patience and forgiveness that gave us many fresh starts. God’s answer to our prayers is the vision of our marriage as being much bigger than us and having a purpose that goes beyond our individual or collective happiness. God’s answer to our prayers is our growing together in wisdom, age and grace and becoming who we need to be for the sake of our marriage, family and community.