Don’t Laugh: Marriage as a Vocation
By now we in the Church are very comfortable applying the term vocation to any state in life that aims at serving God. We use the word broadly to indicate that everyone’s life has something to contribute to the up-building of the kingdom of God on earth and the salvation of souls. That God wills a particular form of life for each of the faithful justifies this broad usage.
But when St Josemaria first started connecting vocation with marriage in the Spain of the 1920s and 30s, it was understandably received with bemusement and laughter. As he says famously in The Way: “You laugh because I tell you that you have a ‘vocation for marriage’? Well, you have just that: a vocation” (no. 27). It was more than mildly shocking to hear marriage mentioned in the same breath as vocation, and St Josemaria intended it to sound as such. After all, only priests and religious were considered to have a state of life that could be properly called a vocation. Why is this?
Marriage is a natural institution—created and ordered by God for the propagation of the human race, the mutual love of husband and wife, and the building of families. Since this is common to all people of every time and place, marriage cannot be regarded as a specifically Christian institution. And, sad to say, it need not be a sanctifying one. Marriage can be lived badly, negligently, and the resulting family be dysfunctional.
The special call to serve God as a priest or religious was (and is) seen as a call out of the normal order of nature, to do that which is above nature: to live without an earthly spouse and the wholesome fulfillments that marriage affords: spousal love, children, and so forth. It’s obvious that such a life requires a particular call of grace to make it work, and to sustain it fruitfully for a lifetime.
St Josemaria sometimes complained that there was really not another word to describe what marriage is in the Christian life. To call it a “vocation” does, in fact, evoke images of priesthood and cloister. Not bad images by any means, but not quite what we mean by calling marriage a vocation. The natural institution that sanctifies demands not only an influx of grace, and lots of it, but also partners committed to tapping into that grace continually.
Where marriage and vocation interface in a properly Christian way is in the universal call to holiness. In Scripture, priesthood equals holiness. This is true of both the old covenant priesthood as well as of the various pagan priesthoods that existed in the cultures surrounding ancient Israel. Pagans had some sense of setting men (and women) apart for priestly office, often involving some external signs of consecration (whether in dress or in head shaving or some other insignia). The idea is clear: setting individuals apart for sacred purpose, as a bridge between earth and the supernatural.
So that when Exodus speaks of “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” and when the New Testament echoes the idea, whether in the Book of Revelation or St Peter’s “a royal priesthood, a holy nation,” we are given to understand a far-reaching holiness encompassing the entire people of God. But note, the primary analogate is priesthood. We cannot get past the notion of someone or something set apart as equaling holiness.
In some way, then, Christian marriage needs setting apart in order for it to be truly vocational, truly a holy thing, truly a service to God. The natural institution of marriage always retains its beauty and goodness. Yet how does the Gospel elevate it? How can marriage ever be more than a natural thing?
Perhaps the supernatural, holy aspects of Christian marriage do not show up in the outward signs proper to priestly consecration. The ring is an exception, and of course a decent style of dress should bespeak marital commitment. But we need to look inward to find the heart of holiness in marriage, the place where the state of life becomes vocation.
It all begins with “reverence for Christ” (Ephesians 5:21), in St Paul’s exquisitely beautiful treatment of Christian marriage in Ephesians 5. Out of reverence for Christ, out of love for Him, husbands and wives should submit to one another and give themselves up for each other as Jesus did for His bride, the Church. This inner attitude or motivation is what elevates marriage to the level of a mystery, a sacrament. No longer is marriage “only” about spousal love and the begetting of offspring; it is now about the quality of love that goes into each relationship in the family.
Natural love, the ties that bind family members, goes a long way. But what makes of marriage a vocation, a service to God and a sanctifying way of life, needs to be a love that, like Christ’s, is utterly selfless, utterly focused on the good of others, utterly sacrificial. It is a love that has no time for selfishness, for making unreasonable demands on others, and does not expect others to indulge our bad habits. It should be all of things 1 Corinthians 13 says about love in general: patient and kind, not jealous or boastful, not arrogant or rude, not insisting on its own way, not irritable or resentful, bearing all things, enduring all things (cf. 1 Cor 13:4-7). That is the lifetime program of Christian love and the daily itinerary of married love, where opportunities to practice these qualities is never lacking.
Just as priests and religious ever question themselves, “How can God be served here and now?” so the same question must habitually fill the hearts of married people. What love does my spouse need right now? Or my children? Or, even, and without the slightest trace of selfishness: What love do I need right now? –are all questions raised before the Lord and thus become integral to the prayerful living out of one’s state of life. We need to be on the lookout not only for opportunities to love, but also to have the prudence to love others rightly, and to know how we ourselves need to be loved. Knowledge of both helps us avoid self-indulgence, enabling bad behavior, and anything else that counterfeits true Christian love.
The fact that Jesus has not only restored marriage to its original dignity and exclusivity but also elevated it to a sacrament, reveals a grace present in the union that sanctifies the couple as they fulfill their daily obligations. But like all graces, we can choose to receive and act on them or let them pass us by. Here, we need to emphasize the couple’s confidence in God. Problems will come and some difficulties will seem completely insurmountable. Personalities and preferences clash, and each is immovable, each is convinced of the rightness of their point of view.
Even in the midst of the unpleasant conflicts in marriage and family life, the spouses must be convinced that God sees what they don’t see, and that He knows the way they should take. Think of how St Josemaría would entrust all of his concerns to our Lady by invoking a simple but powerful line from the ancient Marian hymn Ave Maris Stella: “Para iter tutum,” i.e., “prepare a safe path.” Imagine our Lady seeing all of the possibilities that you do not and cannot see, and by your willingness to trust in her guidance, you find the right path through the problem. This does not mean an easy path through the obstacle, but certainly the one God intends us to take.
We would have a poor idea of marriage and of human affection if we were to think that love and joy come to an end when faced with such difficulties. It is precisely then that our true sentiments come to the surface. Then the tenderness of a person’s gift of himself takes root and shows itself in a true and profound affection that is stronger than death. (Friends of God, no. 24)
Doesn’t all of this sap the romance out of marriage? Whatever happened to the Song of Songs? It’s all still there, but in a much deeper and better form. Our Christian vocation is not to relish feelings of love but to live in love, and not just any old love will do. It is to imitate and to be Christ for others—an eminently priestly task. And when we commit to this, we find a deeper experience of love and a fulfillment that only God can give. This is something you cannot know until you live it.
Only if a person forgets himself and gives himself to God and to others, in marriage as well as in any other aspect of life, can he be happy on this earth, with a happiness that is a preparation for, and a foretaste of, the joy of heaven. (Friends, no. 24)