This is the third of a series of posts during this National Marriage Week.
By: Sr. Clare Hunter
“What is the secret to a lifelong marriage?”
I love to ask couples married at least 40 years this question. Typically, there is a bit of a wise crack: “She threatened to leave me with the kids,” followed by a thoughtful answer which includes what we might guess: sacrifice, compromise, hard work, communication, respect, faith, and the kids. I always hold out for the immortal words, so eloquently quoted from the romantic masterpiece, The Princess Bride: “It was true love.” Yes, love is very much part of it, but the real kind, not emotional, rather, a committed decision. Very often though, the response includes a very matter-of-fact statement: “Well, divorce was never an option, we had to make it work.” My idealistic and romantic mind bubble goes “Pop!” tearing down the Disney fantasies the world constructs for us. Yet, I appreciate the blunt honesty of their admittance that, well, quite frankly, they did not have another choice. Paradoxically, they tell me this is the most freeing part of their marriage.
I don’t want to be a Sr. Mary Pollyanna, declaring that marriage can work simply by looking on the bright side, or trying a little bit harder, or eliminating an escape route. There are many factors that go into the capacity for a marriage to survive, and at times, it is not possible. But I do want to challenge the modern attitude that fidelity and permanence are no longer possible, and in fact, call us to the attention that we might just need to risk entering into a vocation with the mentality that this is for life. Twenty years ago when I gave vocation talks about being a sister, the first question was typically something like: “Can you go to McDonald’s?” or “Do you have a television?” Now, without fail, from the first-grader to the 99-year-old, the first question is: “Can you stop being a nun?” The idea of permanence in a vocation is gone. Unfortunately, just as couples divorce, priests and sisters do leave their vocations. Is it too radical to suggest that what we have here is a failure to commit?
Yet, I appreciate the blunt honesty of their admittance that, well, quite frankly, they did not have another choice.
As I work with men and women discerning priesthood, religious life or marriage, I’ve been wondering if we are making things too complicated. Yes, discerning is very serious, and none of us want to make the wrong decision. I know an 80-year-old priest who confidently tells young people the secret to discerning a vocation is to “Do what you want to do.” I think that is insane advice, merely an invitation to danger and licentiousness. But for him, he always wanted to be a priest. And so 50 years ago, he did. It was simple.
I met a couple recently who had grown up in the same small town, went to the same school every year, never dated each other, and when it seemed about the time to get married, he asked her. She’s not sure why she said “Yes.” It just seemed right, and they knew and trusted each other and have worked hard to keep their 60-year marriage going. They knew that marriage was permanent, about common values, hard work and children. They might not have been passionately in love, but they respected each other, and apparently, the gamble worked.
The current generation bears many wounds that greatly impact the ability to trust, discern and commit.
“But Sr. Mary Pollyanna,” you are thinking, “it is not 1950 anymore.” I get it. I am not advocating that this is how vocations or marriage should happen. The current generation bears many wounds that greatly impact the ability to trust, discern and commit. But honestly, you have to agree, what we have now isn’t exactly working either. So how can we work on our fears of commitment, have healthier marriages and honestly live our vocations? Okay, I don’t have the perfect solution, but here are give things that I suggest we start with:
- Actively live your faith. Studies continually show that those who practice their religion regularly have stronger moral lives and marriages. Through prayer, knowledge of our faith and striving to live a moral life, we can more clearly see what constitutes a healthy relationship, and find someone desiring to live the same principles. (Interesting study – Relationships in America)
- Know yourself. Certainly, self-knowledge is a lifelong endeavor, but it is important to take the time to understand who we are, and who we are called to be. No one will fulfill all of our needs, only God has that ability. But we can grow in an awareness of the person we are, and who we want to be.
- Discern in motion. It is hard to discern marriage, priesthood or religious life in your room by yourself. We need to be in relationships and engaged in a process to help us to see where God is leading us. Yes, decision-making can be difficult, but we actually need to be in situations to make a decision about. One date or a visit to the convent will not result in marriage or final vows.
- Put the phone down and close the computer. While it may be corny , there’s a good little video on YouTube, “Look Up” reminds us of the things we miss by relating through technology. We all admit less patience, ability to communicate, addictive behavior and increased loneliness as part of our attachments to the phone or computer. It’s time to relate to people, creation…ourselves.
- Through prayer and the practice of our faith, we are gifted with God’s grace as we strive to participate in His plan. The frequent words of Christ: “Do not be afraid,” are to remind us that we might be called, like St. Peter, to step out of the security of the boat, and walk miraculously to Christ, on water! Yes, you will be called into a vocation that is filled with unknowns, yet, if we can enter into them with abandon, willing to trust and work through the difficulties, with God’s grace we can celebrate 40, 50, 60 or 70 years of a life of commitment.