Living and Growing

Posted: Friday, August 03, 2001

I have a pair of scissors at home. When I first found them they didn't work too well. They were rusty, the blades were dull, one of the points on one of the blades was chipped and the nut and bolt that held them tight were quite loose. Essentially, they were non-functioning. I decided to put a little work in to making them functional. I used some steel wool to clean the blades and then oiled them. I filed down the ragged edge on the chipped point and then sharpened the blades. Finally, I tightened the nut and bolt. Amazingly, they became as functional as a brand new pair of scissors and I still use them.

We expect a brand new pair of scissors to operate well. Given time and use (or misuse) they can lose their capacity to operate as intended. The solution, of course, is preventive maintenance: oiling the blades; assuring the blades are fastened tightly together; making sure the blades are sharpened. When a mishap does occur to cause them to function below their capacity, they almost always can be repaired. It just takes more work to repair damaged scissors than prevent the damage from happening in the first place.

Several weeks ago, I presided over a ceremony at the Shrine of St. Therese at which a number of married couples renewed their vows to each other. Most had been married for some time. Most had had struggles along the way. Yet, they were committed to making their marriages work. In a day and age in which half of marriages end in divorce, there is need for such witnesses. While not all people of faith view marriage as a sacrament, as do Catholic and Orthodox, many people do appreciate that their marriage is a spiritual reality which places it in a faith context. Certainly this is the case with Judeo/Christian traditions. In this context, I offer some insights about marriage.

A marriage in faith is meant to be a holy union between a man and a woman. The Christian Gospel notes that "...what God has joined no human can divide." When a man and woman profess their vows to each other, they enter a deeply spiritual relationship. For Christians, this is a relationship in Christ. This relationship becomes a covenant that reflects God's love for his people. As such, it is meant to be lasting. Unfortunately, while most couples enter marriage planning to be together for all of their lives, a significant number will divorce. The thing for couples to do, obviously, is preventive maintenance. Still, even in those cases when one or both partners have caused serious harm to the relationship, it can be repaired if both parties truly desire it and are willing to do what is necessary to heal the wound. There is a Catholic principle which holds that grace builds on nature. While grace is a free gift from God, we must cooperate with the grace of God for it truly to bear fruit. Thus, there are certain elements that are required of any couple if their marriages truly are to work and bear fruit.

First, the marriage expects fidelity. Fidelity in marriage means much more that not committing adultery. It means being faithful and committed to the demands of a relationship. A marital relationship requires a couple to share their lives: to allow time and opportunity for real communication; to spend quality time expressing their love for each other; to pray with each other and to worship as a couple and a family. Without fidelity to the demands of a relationship, a couple ought not to expect to grow too deeply in their love of each other. More than likely they will grow apart.

Second, marriage expects permanency, it is meant to last. Marriage vows that have developed over the centuries remind us that marriage is for better or for worse, not only in health, but in sickness, not only when life is going well, but when life brings struggle: "...until death do us part." While there may be good reasons to justify a breakup, such as to protect a person from the violence of an abusive spouse or danger of the economic ruin of a family as a result of an addiction, the presumption upon entering marriage is that couples will need to do what they can to work through their problems.

Third, marriage expects the relationship to be life-giving. While children are the clearest fruit of marriage, it is also an institution that has developed for the well-being of society. It is meant to be life-giving beyond the immediate couple and family. Holy and healthy families help make, not only holy and healthy communities of faith, but a healthy society. Couples who appreciate this dynamic in their marriage, have a tremendous capacity to bring life to whatever area of church and/or society they are involved.

Both spouses bear equal responsibility for a marriage. Just as pair of scissors requires two sharpened blades to allow them to function, so does marriage. If one spouse is responsible for 80% of a married relationship, they should not be too surprised if the marriage eventually collapses. Like a pair of scissors that function well when new, so too do most marriages, but they need to be attended to or they soon may become dull. Rather than wait until repairs are needed, it is always better for both spouses to work on the relationship right along so that problems do not surface in the first place.

Michael W. Warfel is bishop of the Diocese of Juneau.

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