“There are people who try to ridicule, or even to deny, the idea of a faithful bond which lasts a lifetime. These people – you can be very sure – do not know what love is.” -- John Paul II, Letter to Families
We sometimes tend to think that this denial of the essential meaning of marriage is a modern phenomenon. But G.K. Chesterton, writing 100 years ago, defended marriage when it was held in contempt by George Bernard Shaw, H. G. Wells, and the rest of the cultural elite of England. On the idea of permanence of marriage they were particularly perplexed. To them, the promise to love and honor one person ALL the days or your life, was on the order of vowing something utterly outlandish, like a man swearing to not leave Hyde Park until he counted all the leaves on every tree. It was a nice poetic sentiment, but not to be taken seriously. It was predictable and understandable that the man in Hyde Park would get bored and go home to tea before finishing the first tree, and the man who promised to love one person all of his life, was going to find himself sooner or later feeling differently and it was perfectly ok for him to not be bound by his vow. In this view to make a vow was fine, but to make a vow where there was an expectation that you would keep it no matter what, that was too much! That was a reckless vow, and you shouldn’t make a reckless vow.
But Chesterton said no to his contemporaries: reckless vows are the best kind! Reckless vows (that are kept) are exactly what we need! In his essay, “In Defense of Rash Vows” he says:
“[The opponents of marriage] appear to imagine that the ideal of constancy was a yoke mysteriously imposed on mankind by the devil, instead of being, as it is, a yoke consistently imposed by all lovers on themselves. … It is the nature of love to bind itself, and the institution of marriage merely paid the average man the compliment of taking him at his word. Modern sages offer to the lover …. the largest liberties and the fullest irresponsibility; but they do not respect him as the Church respected him; they do not write his oath upon the heavens, as the record of his highest moment. They give him every liberty except the liberty to sell his liberty, which is the only one that he wants.
Five years ago, the beautiful Jacoba and I were in love, and wanted nothing more than to sell our liberty. To be bound together so closely that our love would take flesh and those children would be protected and nurtured by the very intimacy, exclusivity and indissolubility of our vows. The liberty to give yourself away is more than what we want, it’s what every heart needs, it’s the source of every vocation, and every child needs his parents to have made this seemingly reckless tossing away of liberty.
So how did we come to the moment of making those reckless vows, and learning just how wild and reckless they were?
Juniper and I met in January 2002, during a pilgrimage to Italy organized by Fr. Paul Dressler. As we were dating and falling in love, we felt more and more that we were called to marry each other. Two years later we returned to Italy on another pilgrimage, and were engaged in Assisi, at the Basilica of St. Clare.
We had a sense that big things were in store, we were both committed to a living out our Catholic faith, had a devotion to St. Francis in common, and felt convinced that we could serve God better together than as individuals. It seemed on every big issue we were so in sync. We also were so excited by the Church’s great vision and reverence for marriage and by John Paul’s Theology of the Body. On Valentine’s Day when we were engaged, Juniper bought us two books written by Greg Popcak-a Catholic psychotherapist: “For Better Forever: A Catholic Guide to Lifelong Marriage” and “The Exceptional Seven Percent: The Nine Secrets of the World’s Happiest Couples”. A main theme of the books was that marriage was about helping our spouse become the Person God created them to be, not what you want them to be, and that we need to love our spouse, even when we don’t think they deserve it or we don’t feel like it. That seemed an odd thing to say – we were so in love, we could never conceive of a moment where we would think the other person didn’t deserve our love and affection or wouldn’t feel like giving it. What on earth was he talking about? Stay tuned. … anyway, we devoured the books, and took all the quizzes. And according to our quiz results – we were practically already an exceptional married couple …. Well, an exceptional engaged couple I guess. We were so excited to start our lives together and do great things. In short, we felt very ready to get married (and quite honestly looking back, were just a little bit self righteous toward all the other couples getting married who didn’t quite “get it” like we did!)
And so on that day, I think Juniper and I were ready to drink from the well of grace of the sacrament, put our Dr. Popcak quizzes into practice, be the Theology of the Body made real in the world, magically transform into “holy married people”, raise some holy kids, convert the world, and then ride off into the sunset. Since we were so tuned into the meaning of vocation, and so excitedly asking God for all these graces, they were naturally going to start pouring out.
But I have learned though that when you pray for some virtue, God gives you the opportunity – many opportunities to put that virtue into practice, with His help of course, but also with your efforts. We were not quite ready for what that was going to mean.
Then, the honeymoon was over and reality sat waiting at home, prepared to punch us in the nose. Remember Chesterton said our vows were reckless, but honorable. They were reckless because we could not know what the future held and we could never understand ahead of time a common feature of every marriage. What’s this common feature of marriage? Again we turn to Chesterton:
"Marriage is a duel to the death that no man of honor should refuse". GKC (Manalive)
This became real for me when I was married about 10 days and learned the importance of twist ties. Every man in here knows that the purpose of the twist tie on a bag of bread is very limited. It’s to keep the bread in the bag on the way home from the store. When the bag is opened, you throw the twist tie away!! Bread bags are closed by holding the end, spinning the bag around, and then tucking the top of the bag under. Voila! Closed bread bag! Jacoba had this strange idea that the twist tie was to be kept, and used to close the bread bag. What was my response to learning of Jacoba’s preference? Was it agreeing to use twist ties from then on, because, even if I didn’t quite see why, it made her happy, and I had vowed only a few weeks before to love her and honor her all the days of my life, and wouldn’t doing that small thing without complaining or making it in to a big deal be a small way to honor her? No, what I did was explain to Jacoba that I was right, that my approach still keeps bread kind of fresh and more importantly saves two seconds every time you open the bag of bread, and over a lifetime of bread that adds up! Jacoba failed to see the genius contained in this solution. What happened? Chesterton’s duel to the death happened!!! All the carping and snapping at each other over twist ties and dozens of other things, after having just spent so much time reading and thinking and praying and preparing to start our life together was a little disconcerting.
But that’s the reality, there is indeed a duel taking place. But it isn’t a duel between Jacoba and me. It is a duel between who we are called to be and our selfish fallen natures. A duel between whether we will grow more like the Holy Family, or more like the Average Modern Family. That’s why Chesterton adds that no one with honor would refuse the duel, because it is the duel to become holy! And isn’t that the reason we wanted to get married in the first place! Well here was our chance. Not by big things, but in small things. You win the duel to become holy by living your vocation, which whether it is to marriage or not consists of one essential thing -- to make a gift of yourself, to forget about yourself for the sake of another. He must increase. We must decrease.
Flannery O’Connor had a character who said “she thought she could be a martyr if they killed her quick”. Sometimes the really big things, the big sacrifices are relatively easy. It’s the small every day challenges to faithfulness and dying to self that are for some reason so difficult, even for someone you love so much. Love in reality is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams, says Dostoevsky. But no one who has known real love would ever trade it for the love of dreams. Real love is Christ on the cross. Any real vocation is going to bring you there with Him.
And so here we are, we’re married. That is to say we have recklessly vowed to enter a duel to the death! We go to the duel hand in hand, with our children gathered around us, and with God’s help, we will win the battle, and one day we’ll all together see Him face to face.