There are words signifying human arrangements or states of life which should never be emptied of their true meaning. Marriage and all that it signifies is such a word.
This remains true even if every soul in our culture succumbs to the temptation to treat marriage merely as a fungible civic “institution” or solely as means to a beneficial personal financial end. It becomes a mere human contract, and, compared to a contract to buy or sell land, is perhaps not nearly as serious or consequential.
The word marriage in our culture still implies love, intimacy, total, “ideally” unbreakable commitment between human beings. I think many would agree that it should be “sacred,” however one wishes to interpret that word. In the religious culture I embrace, it is one of seven Sacraments. It is prohibited to regard it merely as a civic, possibly temporary and reversible arrangement. It is eternal. It must be borne through all human trials of sickness or poverty. The universal evidence reveals it to be a source of enormous joy and fulfillment for multitudes and a natural and desireable state of being for all humanity in all times.
The Catholic Church and much of the secular culture still regards marriage, of necessity, to be between a man and a woman. And religious and non-religious peoples alike probably never expected that fundamental fact to be upended.
But that’s where we are in our culture. There is no telling where it will lead us.
Marriage is also fundamentally supposed to be about new life — children, family. This comes about through an intimacy that God-oriented people regard to be special and sacred and, in Catholic teaching, reserved only for the sacramentally married. The culture at large flaunts this shibolith in a spirit of indifference, even mockery, and in the name of “progress”. Like all the most special and sacred things that exist, the powerful human drive for intercourse can be grandly abused, but remains an infinitely serious form of human expression. No one, even the most unreligious and secular-minded, denies that, though many deny that abstinence is possible or desirable, sometimes regarding it to be “unnatural” in the wake of the so-called “sexual revolution”. (Whenever I hear that line urging us to “crown our soul with self-control” from “America the Beautiful”, I believe I’m hearing lyricist Katharine Lee Bates propounding the pre-modern understanding of how we should deal with everything from anger and hunger to sex. I guess that was the “old” America, “from sea to shining sea.”)
But in the new, still beautiful America, we have gradually embraced polymorphous means of being intimate, and unnatural means of conceiving children. No telling where this will lead us, either.
Sex, seen as merely a primal impulse or appetite, has largely been “divorced” — another troubling word — by much of the whole world’s culture from marriage. So has the necessity of procreation as a unific, inseperable aspect of sex.
So many, like me, are either guilty bystanders or active, sinful collaborators in this cultural unraveling –which millions define as “progress”.
Random sexual, temporary parings between the male and the female of the species are, based on scientific evidence, premordial. They are common in the animal kingdom. But the arrangment called marriage is for humans and involves a number of human norms and understandings. Sometimes people, regardless of their age, come together in this bond out of shortsighted immaturity and emotional infirmity. ( I ain’t preaching. I’m as frail and shortsighted as the next person.) We all know about those early, ill-considered, half-forgotten marriages. Those who engaged in them failed to grasp the seriousness or nature of the journey upon which they were about to embark – or didn’t know their future spouse as well as they thought they did. The list of problems goes on.
But, as it happens, the most thoroughly secular marriage I ever attended took place in a grand stone castle above a beautiful, mist-shrouded Massachusetts beach between two atheists, at least one of whom (the male) I know to have –to this day — an utter, insistently reasoned disdain for religion. He is a professor of philosphy.
Nonetheless, the Introductory Address at that wedding by the “celebrant” in the presence of a Justice of the Peace read as follows:
“In all cultures and at all times, people have entered into matrimonial union in recognition of the mystery of love, the power of moral commitment and the enlightening force of communication which connect them and give meaning to their lives. “
Further, that address went on to speak of “(L)ove, the fundamental bond which ties the human family together and which gives us hope for a world in which peace and community reign….”
Beautiful! And very serious, and true. This was well over thirty years ago. That couple is still married.
But I would submit that this atheistically-oriented address ( which, in my book, qualifies as a “prayer”), recited in the presence of the bride and groom, though they were never referred to as “bride” or “groom”, nonetheless invoked a number of theological concepts, e.g., “the mystery of love” and “hope” which Catholic Christians regard to be a theological virtue along with charity, often rendered as “love”. And “family”, too, is a bond that Christians or other religions see as of divine origin.
If there is no God, why should love be a “mystery”?
I have attended Christian marriages that did not seem so steeped in the beauty of things I, for once, see as of divine origin. In everything good thing we mortals do, if it is worth doing, there is an echo of eternal truth.
But then there is cohabitation — or marriages that are mere cohabitations. Here is where two humans can experience endless, deep, psychological and spiritual lacerations, live in a state of mendacity and illusion, anger, recrimination, sexual and emotional objectification, financial ruination, trapped like addicts in one another’s emotional grip, aware, however subconsciously, that they are merely hostages to one another. It is a nightmare, a horror. True love is obscenely mocked and strangled.
Then someone comes along and says to the unmarried, “you two should be married.” They cite Social Security benefits, scold a person who would deny the other party both the SS benefits and tax benefit. If the “mystery of love” is baffling, so, too, is the mystery of modern cohabitation among those we might diagnose as “codependant.”
It is understandable that those well-meaning kibitzers should be baffled– not realizing that they are urging those two souls to make a horror permanent; seal the bonds made of fear and emotional infirmity, born of what we have come to call, again, co-dependancy.
God help us. God help them. God help me, as a matter of fact.
To be single, alone, living and responsibly maintaining our own orderly, charitable lives, possibly experiencing lonliness, but bonded to all those we love and even find it necessary, through circumstances of our own making, to support financially — even to our own detriment and for as long as we live — this is truth, integrity and reality.
A decision to do so is every bit as essential as the decision to marry. Like true marriage, it is a state of life that can bestow true peace, engender true love. I, for one, believe this.
I pray for it.
God hear my prayer. God care for those I love and with whom I hope to escape all illusions, all disorder. Let me be an instrument of your peace, your love and your truth. And of divine and human — reality!