Posted January 30, 2018
In today’s second Reading (1 Cor 7: 32-35) St Paul tells the Corinthians that a married person is too busy trying to please their spouse to be wholeheartedly devoted to the Lord. ‘The married man’, he says, ‘is anxious about worldly affairs, how to please his wife, and he is divided’; whereas ‘the unmarried man is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to please the Lord.’ This is strange, because St Paul is all the time exhorting Christians to be perfect in holiness, and never once does he qualify his exhortations with statements like: ‘I realize that this is scarcely possible for those of you who have the misfortune of being married.’ As far as we know, St Paul did not send his churches two versions of his exhortations, one for the unmarried and a dumbed-down version for the married.
The idea that marriage is somehow a hindrance to wholehearted devotion to the Lord has had a very bad influence on Christian attitudes over the centuries, leading to the view that there are two classes of people in the Church, the professionals, who live mostly in convents and monasteries, wholly devoted to the Lord, and the weaker, wordly types, distracted from single-minded devotion to the Lord by procreation and the school run.
When the Second Vatican Council states that ‘married love … wells up from the fountain of divine love and is structured on the model of Christ’s union with His Church’, and when it says that: ‘Authentic married love is caught up into divine love and is governed and enriched by Christ’s redeeming power and the saving activity of the Church’, it clearly did not subscribe to the view that married Christians were somehow impeded from full devotion to the Lord. Rather, the Council was being consistent with its own statement of principle elsewhere that ‘All Christians in any state or walk of life are called to the fullness of Christian life and to the perfection of love.’
When marriage is seen in this more positive perspective, then far from coming between Christ and each other, spouses are the very sacrament of Christ’s presence to each other: they touch Christ in their married lives as vividly as Thomas touched the risen Christ, as surely as the Magdalene clung to him. Their marriage, in its day-to-day reality, is the medium of their union with God. How can spouses be a hindrance to each other in the way of holiness, when their very vocation is to foster in each other the perfect love of Christ, to be co-responsible for each other’s spiritual flourishing, to lead each other to God and at last to be with God together in eternity? ‘As husband and wife fulfil their conjugal and family obligations,’ the Council says, ‘they are penetrated with the Spirit of Christ, which floods their whole lives with faith, hope and charity.’ You could hardly get further away than this from the notion that spouses somehow distract each other from their union with Christ. And, indeed, what a wonderful thing it is for two people to set their sights on boundless horizons, to walk towards God together, supporting and encouraging each other at every step!
Needless to say, for all this to be real, the spouses must care about it, must want it: they must have the vision and the will to prioritize this aspect of their marriage. There is nothing about marriage per se that will hinder wholehearted devotion to the Lord: but, conversely, there is nothing about marriage per se that will make such wholehearted devotion to the Lord inevitable. There are married Christians whose sights are locked onto what St Paul calls ‘worldly affairs’, but it was not marriage that made them so. It would have been the same had they remained single; even had they entered a convent. A person who is absorbed in the transient and the worldly does not become like that by getting married. Spiritual myopia is something you bring to your marriage; it is not something your marriage inflicts upon you.
Like other vocations in the Church, marriage is a God-given opportunity. I think about this when couples come here to be married. How wonderful it is to see a couple embark upon their marriage with a living faith, who see their wedding day as the beginning of a shared venture that will lead them to God. But again, for all this to happen, you yourself must have your sights set on sublime, eternal things: and you must be confident that your partner has too. Some would say that a Christian ought to marry a Christian in order to ensure all this. Well, yes; though it depends what you mean by Christian. For it is possible for real faith and spiritual vision to be missing even in a marriage between Christians. Conversely, I see couples of different faiths marry here, and yet I often have the sense that they share all that they need to share in order to make of their marriage a journey together into God’s presence, enriching each other and the world on their way. But such couples, like all other couples, have to know what they are doing, and care about it a great deal, as part of their love for each other.
And where there is no faith at all, where one of the partners has no sense of the spiritual, no aspirations beyond this world, no sense of the transcendent, perhaps even no aspirations beyond the sham world of materialism and media culture? Well, I pray that even there all will be well: but marriage will not necessarily change things. Sometimes it does; mostly it doesn’t. It will not do to be lured into marriage by passing attractions when your eternal future is at stake. You must choose your partner according to deep, spiritual criteria, for fear of ending up with a marriage which, to use St Paul’s ominous word, leaves you divided. It has been well said that marriage is not so much about the spouses gazing at each other as about both spouses gazing together at a common goal. But this presupposes that they are agreed on the goal, and that that goal is the right one.
Saint Paul’s words to the Corinthians were rather negative, weren’t they? Perhaps the explanation is that St Paul, in First Corinthians, saw fit to focus on what can happen, and what often does happen. There are marriages that leave a Christian inwardly divided and distant from the Lord. But that having been said, bear in mind that the First Letter to the Corinthians is part of the same canon of sacred writings as the Letter to the Ephesians, which speaks of marriage as the great mystery that mirrors the relationship between Christ and his Church. For marriage is but a particular expression of that sublime vocation that the author of Ephesians has in mind when he prays earlier in his epistle that ‘Christ may live in your hearts through faith, and then, planted in love and built on love, with all God’s holy people you may be able to grasp the breadth and the length, the height and the depth; so that, knowing the love of Christ, which is beyond knowledge, you may be filled with the utter fullness of God.’
No doubt there is wisdom in First Corinthians as there is wisdom also in Ephesians. Let us take it all on board, and ask God to let his wisdom illumine our minds and the minds of our young people, and to enable us all to journey towards him with undivided devotion.
Fr Tom Deidun