19 January 2009

Marriage Therefore Love, Not Love Therefore Marriage

I found this interesting post on the blog, Unam Sanctam Catholicam, on the topic of courtship and dating. In our age filled with romance novels and "date movies" and so on, too many people have an unrealistic expectation of the Sacrament of Matrimony and confuse infatuation and "being in love" with what love truly means as the foundation for building a relationship.
I reject (my opinion) this modern fascination with “discerning who God wants you to marry.” Obviously we want to discern God’s will in all things to the best of our ability, but what exactly are we discerning and how precise can we be with our discernment? In my extensive reading of history, here is how it has always been done:

The discernment process has always been whether or not to get married, not to whom one gets married.

That is, in the Middle Ages and beyond there is a great focus in spiritual writings on discerning whether you are called to celibacy or the married state. But once one discerns they are called to the married life, there is almost nothing like we see nowadays about “figuring out who God wants you to marry.” There is a lot written, however, about how to best “pick” your spouse. That is to say, the choice of a spouse was not seen as a matter of God’s will but as a matter of human prudence, much like picking a good house or picking a good piece of fruit from the market. Love was never seen to be the basis for a marriage, though it was sought after to arise after the fact by mutual affection and sharing of a common life. The woman (or man) who married simply out of love was considered a fool, and there are no records that I know of any person being taught to ask who God wanted them to marry. It was seen as something that a person was supposed to use their human judgment (common sense) on and not try to be all vocationally oriented with. A man chose a wife based on several factors, and once the marriage was consummated, love was seen to be a worthy thing that could grow on the basis of that union, but it was not deemed essential. My RCIA classes always marvel when we get to the class on the Sacrament of Matrimony and they see that “love” is not required for either the form or matter of the sacrament.

But I want to stress this: the “discernment” came when you decided whether or not to be married at all. That is because, of course, there used to be a great emphasis on the superiority of the celibate state. However, nowadays, pop-Catholic culture would
have everybody spend as much time discerning their spouse as they would the question of whether or not to remain celibate.This is because in the past 40 years, marriage has been stressed more and more as a “vocation,” or a calling. This has always been admitted, but the emphasis was different before. In the past, there was those called to virginity, and then there was everybody else. Nobody spoke of being “called” to marriage – marriage was referred to, with virginity, as a “state in life”; i.e., a state that you may find yourself in, not necessarily some heavenly calling. Obviously God has a will for everybody, and you are fulfilling that will to the extent that you conform to God’s design for your life. Therefore, God has a will or a call as to what career I should pursue in life, for example. But people don’t usually refer to their jobs as “callings” in the religious sense. God has a will for everything we do, but we don’t always apply the words “calling” and “vocation” to them. I think in the modern Church, because of the drastic decline in consecrated virginity, people are over-anxious to apply the terms “vocation,” “discernment” and “calling” to other endeavors besides consecrated virginity, in an attempt to make it seem like everybody is still seeking God’s will even though there are a drastic reduction in vocations. God, however, has not stopped calling people – but people have stopped listening.

But that is a digression. So, what criterion does one use to pick a good spouse? Traditionally, the pick of a spouse was foremost an economic decision, and I don’t think this was an entirely bad idea. Economics are very important in marriage, and a home is more likely to be happy if it was financially stable. Therefore, a bachelor might look for qualities in a woman that would lead him to believe she could help him establish a financially secure home. Did she have good work habits? How did she bear up under trials? Was she patient? In some cases, did she have strong arms and a sturdy back? Because a husband wanted his wife to be respectable as well, she had to be of solid moral character: Was she devout? Was she loyal? Would she make a good mother? Therefore,the husband did not so much choose a wife because of an intense love or a desire to do God’s will, but of practical considerations based on what the
addition of the wife to the husband’s household would bring to the family collectively children, financial security, a pious atmosphere and respectability. Of course, all men wanted their wives to be attractive. Attraction is the basis for all of these things, and it was the most fundamental type of desire from which true love could grow. After a man secured a wife who would fulfill all of these requirements, he was considered happy and blessed if, in time, he came to truly love her and she him. But love was seen as secondary and in the end non-essential. It was an ideal to be strived for, not a building block that everybody felt like they had to have to get started.

To some sense, I applied these principles in my own life when I was dating my wife, though I was only 19 and still pretty ignorant. When I was dating my own wife, I looked at her and admired certain qualities about her: her fidelity, joy, industriousness, beauty and virtue. Therefore, based on these factors, I approached her and informed her that I thought we ought to get married. It is kind of amusing: I never asked her to marry me, nor did she ask me, nor did I ever ask permission from her father. If I could do it over, I would no doubt do so. But at the same time, there is a simple logic in the way I went about it: I simply approached her like it was a mathematical formula and said, “Based on X, Y, and Z factors I think we are a good match and ought to get married.” And she agreed (she was young and ignorant, too: only about 18 – that’s the only reason she agreed to marry me!).

That brings up another point: if you are trying to discern whom you should marry, the worst time to do that is while you are already dating them. How can a person make an objective judgment about this when they are already emotionally involved with another person? Just like in college, guys who joined the pre-Theologate program were forbidden from having girlfriends. The reason was obvious – one has a hard time hearing a call to the priesthood if you have a girlfriend distracting you. In the same way, you can’t figure out if you should marry a person after you are already involved with them. This is why so many people get married while they are infatuated, fail to see their partner’s flaws and then accuse them bitterly of changing” after the marriage is complete. (Or worse yet, see these flaws but overlook or discount them believing instead that "he/she will change.)

Here’s how I think it should work: a man ought to observe a woman from afar, from a vantage point of friendship only, and a remote friendship at that. He should look at her objectively, asking himself questions about her virtue, modesty, industriousness, etc. Only if she fulfills all of these requirements ought he to go ahead and pursue a romantic relationship – and even then I don’t think he has to say for sure “yes, this is the person I think God wants me to marry,” but she should at least be a potential. By the way, you will never know if the person you marry is the one you should have until you are old and ready to die. Only then can you look back on your life and really reflect on it. J.R.R. Tolkien said that all marriages were, in a sense, a gamble, and that most were probably mistakes. Here’s what he wrote to his son on the issue:

"Nearly all marriages, even happy ones, are mistakes: in the sense that almost certainly (in a more perfect world, or even with a little more care in this very imperfect one) both partners might be found more suitable mates. But the real soul-mate is the one you are actually married to.

"The last line emphasizes my thought exactly. Instead of worrying about who God wants you to pick (because you’ll never be able to be sure, and even if you are, you’ll second guess yourself as soon as things get hard and then start blaming God for your poor judgment), use the same common human prudence, enlightened by grace, that you would use if you were making any other long-term commitment. Date and marry based on this, and realize you are not marrying to make yourself happy but to make another happy and to establish a home – and in that your happiness will arise, and with it love.
There's more of the post here.

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