Marriage As a Path to Sanctification

Author: Fr. William Most


"Marriage and the Christian family call for a moral commitment. They are not an easy way of Christian life. . . . Rather, marriage is a long path toward sanctification."

These words of Pope Paul VI, addressed to the Italian Feminine Center on Feb. 12, 1966, will come as a surprise, to many. For many people think; If someone wants to become holy, he/she will enter religious life or the priesthood; as for the others, they just get married. Yet, as we saw, Paul VI said marriage was a long road to holiness. And he is very right. If only people know how to use it in that way it will be a great means of real holiness, and also of a better kind of happiness in this world. It is not unusual to meet persons who find their marriage very difficult. During courtship, it seemed to them that they would live happily ever after - they needed only each other. But then after a year or two, what a change. But it need not be that way. Yes, the intoxication many find at the start does not last, and cannot last. But something much more satisfying can come. Let us see how it is.

We begin by noticing that every human life presents a large problem. For we are, of course, born as babies. God - we are glad of that - has made us so that we just automatically like babies. Otherwise we would find it hard to put up with their selfishness. For a baby starts life completely enclosed in a shell of self. It could not be otherwise, of course. If baby could think and speak clearly he/she would say: "Those big giants around me - they are here to give me what I want, when I want it, as I want it, or I will fix them: Waa!

But how are we to get from that poor start to the point of real maturity, without which we cannot enjoy life the way we should, and are even in danger of losing eternal life? Our Father in Heaven has designed a wonderful plan. If we follow our Father's plan, we will find that marriage is a wonderful means of holiness, and at the same time, of a great happiness even in this life, a happiness far better than what most people dream possible.

So how are we going to get from that start in a shell of self to the point of being really and deeply interested in, desirous of the well-being and happiness of another for the other's sake. (That actually is the real definition of love). It is obvious, to traverse that distance needs a marvelous design. Our Father has provided that, if only we know of it and consciously intend to follow it.

The process begins when baby begins to play with other little ones. It is not long before he makes a discovery he does not at all like: "Why that other fellow thinks he has some rights!. Not! I am the only one who has rights!" We mean that they are quarreling over a toy, and each thinks he has a right to it.

Of course there will be many such occasions. In them, baby slowly begins to grasp that there are others who have rights too.

Some years pass. Then, around age 9, there comes the time when naturally, little boys really dislike little girls: "They are just silly, giggling, gangly sissies." But little girls feel the same. They have no liking at all for uncouth little boys, who get filthy in the dirt and play with toads.

A few years ago I was teaching swimming for Red Cross. Next to my class was a class made up of all girls, except for one 9 year old boy. He stuck it out for a few weeks, but then told his mother he could not stand being with all those girls.

However, time passed, and then his mother met me again, and said: "Now he is combing his hair." Yes, chemistry changed, hormones developed.

Now two processes started to work automatically. First, this chemical, hormonal change began to put a rosy light, a magical light, around some particular girl. We cannot predict which one it will be, but it will happen. And a similar thing happens to the girls.

From the psychological point of view, there are three stages in love. First, one sees something fine in another. That leads, in second place, to the reaction: So fine a person! I hope he/she is well-off and happy. Then, thirdly, if this reaction is strong, one will not be satisfied with merely willing or wishing, but will act to make the other happy.

Now if this can happen when the other party just seems to be fine - what will it be when the other party seems to be "wonderful, marvelous"? The magic rosy light from chemistry does make the other seem wonderful. If a boy says a girl plays tennis well, is good in class work, etc. , nothing has yet struck him. But when he says "marvelous, wonderful," then he has been hit with an arrow in the heart.

Obviously, this process powerfully tends to produce love in the will. But it only tends - damage can come, as we will explain in a moment.

There is a second parallel process at work at this point. For even though as we said, love is basically in the spiritual will, which wants the other to be well-off and happy, yet in the human scene, feelings, chemistry, tend to go along with it. Psychologists who really understand, say such feelings are the somatic resonance to the deeper attitude in the will, to real love. For since we are made up of two parts, body and soul, matter and spirit, and since the two are so closely put together as to add up to one person, the result is this: if there is a condition on either of the two sides, then, for normal running, there should be a parallel condition on the other side. That parallel condition is called a resonance. When it comes on the bodily side, it is called somatic resonance (Greek soma means body). This is a second process that powerfully tends to develop the attitude of love in the spiritual will. But please notice, we said it tends - something could be damaged as we will see presently.

There are two ways to frustrate this brilliant plan of our Father. First, if a person uses sex for private fun, for masturbation, that turns him/her back into the babylike shell of self. It means a poor forecast for a successful marriage.

The second way into trouble takes two. If they use each other for sensual gratification, for premarital sex, then it will feel like love. There will be a feelings of warmth, tenderness, desire for closeness and the like. But it will be only chemistry. Real love is unlikely to develop in such a setting. For they are putting each other into such a state that if death came, that one would be wretched for ever. That is not desiring the happiness of another. It is closer to the opposite. As we said, it is using another.

Besides the offense to our Father, there is another tragic side to such a picture. For even though it will feel like love, so that each will say: "Oh, but I love him/her!" there is probably no love at all, just chemistry. They can be easily be fooled by these feelings into marrying without love. That is one of life's great tragedies!

But if he couple play the game the way our Father designed it, real love will develop. Each will be most deeply concerned for the well-being and happiness of the other.

How far they are then from the shell of self in which they started! Such is the power of the Father's plan, if only they use it the way He designed it, and intend to do so. It is only by playing it that way that they can be sure of having real love -otherwise, it is only a chemical counterfeit.

Now to go out of one's self and to be so concerned for the other, this is real spiritual growth. Our Father has sugar-coated it to induce people to follow the plan. If only they do it, and do it with the conscious intention of playing the game the way He designed it!

During the first period of marriage - commonly from six months to two years - is the period in which emotions run very high and things are apt to be smooth and very enjoyable. But after the emotion simmers down to a normal level, then the differences of male and female psychology begin to be clear. One Doctor told me that male and female are as different as can be and still belong to the same species. (I hope no feminists are listening!). But it is very true, and the couple discover that in time.

Then each one, even in an ideal combination, can say honestly: "I must give in much more than half the time to make this work." They will be right about that. But what a means of spiritual development: to give up one's own will for the other, in accord with our Father's plan. This is really spiritual growth, again, if only they consciously play it that way.

Then if children arrive, this generosity spills over onto them. Babies are very cute and enjoyable part of the time. But at other times, they can be trying. To accept all this not just as a natural nuisance, but as part of the Father's plan - again, this is very sanctifying. In a monastery a monk may get up at 2 AM to make a holy hour. He knows that when the clock has moved 60 minutes he can go back to bed. But if baby fusses or is ill at some small hour, then the parent makes a different kind of holy hour - it is a holy hour, if taken as part of our Father's plan.

And when the child begins to grow a bit, then there is more generosity to be seen even in rather ordinarily good parents. One insurance commercial said: "When you have children, their goals become your goals." Splendid generosity! There will be real sacrifice to provide for their needs, and later education.

"Marriage is a long path toward sanctification" said Pope Paul VI. Clearly, he was very right. He knew our Father's designs.

The selfish person is always intent on satisfying his own whims. But the one who lives out this plan will find instead that God so richly rewards it, not just in the life to come, but even in this life. There is a higher and greater kind of happiness that He generously grants to those who follow His ways.

Now we can see one reason why Jesus, the incarnate Son of God, saw fit to spend about 30 out of His 33 years on this earth in family life. He wanted to teach us how highly God Himself values such a life.

He most intensely wants to reward us with a happiness that is really divine, in the next world. So, why did He not just create us in Heaven, and not put us into this world, where there are trials? Because it is one thing for Him to want to give, another thing for us to be open and able to receive.

For that, we need development of soul. He willed a world in which we could develop by doing His will, and help others to grow. Living this life, with its difficulties, as He planned it, is the way to gain that development. And marriage, according to the Father's plan which we outlined, is clearly a major part of the way to develop.

Even in the Holy Family there were difficulties. We do not mean that anyone of the three was abrasive in character. Of course not. But Jesus worked and sweated in the carpenter's shop. Our Lady and St. Joseph toiled over their family tasks. St. Joseph got sick and died, in a human way, a great grief to both Jesus and Mary. The least of the ordinary routine tasks, sweeping, cutting boards, that they did, was something of immense merit, because of the love with which it was done, the desire to fulfill the Father's plan.

And there could be other kinds of trials. At age 12, He knowingly put them through the anguish of searching for Him until the third day, when they would find Him in the Temple. And even then, His reply was such that they did not understand, as the Gospel tells us. This does not mean they did not know who He was. Of course they did, as we explained in a previous essay. But His pattern of acting - normally so considerate and compliant - it was now broken, and He did not even clearly explain. He left them puzzled, so they could grow spiritually.

There was even a strain on our Lady's faith. She had had the message of the angel, had seen the events of Christmas. So her faith would tell her this Child is divine. But yet her senses, as she handled His baby body, took care of his very babylike needs, these would give a different, an opposite message. So there was a clash inside. To hold on in spite of that clash called for exertion in her faith.

The Church tells us - for example in the Mystical Body

Encyclical of Pius XII - that His human soul from the first instant of conception, saw the vision of God. Therefore from the very start He knew all that was to come upon Him. This would really eat on Him, as He chose to reveal later on when He said (Lk 12:50): "I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how am I straitened until it be accomplished." That means: I know what suffering lies ahead. I cannot be comfortable until I get it over with!

She too knew, knew too much for comfort. For when the angel said He would rule over the house of Jacob forever, any ordinary Jew - not just the one full of grace - would see that meant the Messiah, for only He would reign forever. But that would open up for her all the prophecies about the Messiah, including Isaiah 53, which told of His terrible death.

So they both had to live with it.

So their difficulties were in part different from ours in family life. Yet the difficulties were not absent, and a different kind of difficulty, one much harder to bear, was there.

Finally, we could call this the upside down family. The greatest, God Himself, obeyed human parents. Even though they were and are wonderful, it was still such a comedown for a Divine Person to obey. Mary, the greatest merely human person who ever lived (for her Son was not a human person. He was a divine Person) obeyed Joseph. Joseph was a marvel of nature and grace, yet far below her in sanctity and merit. )

So if we follow the way of the Holy Family, it will bring a happiness of which others do not even dream in this life, and be the key to divine, unending happiness in the next.