Marriage, Prayer and the Cross (Part II of III)
In the last post we looked at St. Hildegard’s vision in which hell is at war with marriage. In this war, human cleverness and resourcefulness are of limited value. Only God can hold together what He has joined. In this post, we will ponder the power of God’s love as the ground of married love.
The Power of God’s Merciful Love. The merciful love of the Father is the mysterious love that joins husband and wife, and it is on the ground of this love alone that marriage stands: the Father’s love that makes marriage fruitful with children and grace. He yearns that we might know a communion together in marriage not unlike the communion He enjoys with the Son and the Holy Spirit.
Christ Crucified reveals and communicates this love from the right hand of the Father into the heart of every marriage. A gift of the Holy Spirit, married love must root itself in this merciful love of the Father, relying on nothing else – neither health, wealth, good times, nor earthly success. In the soil of tender mercy, marital friendship drinks the cup of salvation, embraces agony and descends to Hell. This crucified love is alone triumphant, raised on high to the heavens. Before the mystery of merciful love our very being must bow: it is to this mystery which we must submit all other loves, even marriage. Without this love, all other loves are not really love at all.
Prayer. To this end, there are some married couples who get by each day by praying through the troth they pledged to one another, intentionally and prayerfully declaring their vows of love before God, reconsecrating themselves to their sacred purpose with His help. They beg the Lord to give them what they need so they might stand firm in their betrothal. They want to honor the promises of love they have made even when their love is more bitter than sweet – they want this for their children, they want this for the Lord, they want this for their own integrity, they want this for each other.
Grace of the Sacrament. A real marriage, because it is a work of grace, unveils the mystery of sin and challenges us to confront things in ourselves we would rather avoid. Sometimes when we see this misery we lose all courage. It is overwhelmingly more than we can handle, and a kind of death grips our hearts as we struggle to find courage. Here, the grace of the sacrament helps us in a singular way to see our poverty, and in this poverty, our need for God. Here, at the Foot of the Cross, real prayer begins and something astonishing is born. And with real prayer, anything can happen because such prayer is animated by an invincible hope, that divine hope that flows from the One who reigns in heaven.
Purifications. Despite noble efforts and good beginnings, the pathway of married love must pass through painful purifications. The mystery of faithful love which animates marriage is a humbling, at times humiliating, desire that lives in the face of unbearable circumstances. By living faith, this crucifying pain bears fruit spouses cannot see. This is because when husband and wife are pushed beyond their own self-sufficiency, their faithfulness and trust is a window through which heaven’s warm light shines on earth’s cold darkness.
Often the obstacles they must confront are merely various forms of immaturity–mostly their own. Though Christ might seem absent, He is ever present in this suffering offering the pathway to maturity.
Sometimes the one they’ve pledged themselves to is facing grave physical and psychological suffering. Similarly the death or illness of a loved one, especially a child, can become a horrible trial in which one is assailed with all kinds of rash judgments and heartbreak. Though Christ might seem absent in these discouraging storms, He is ever present offering the only healing and wholeness that can ever address the brokenness of humanity.
Sometimes spouses find themselves standing alone filled with bitter questions concerning their effort at fidelity. Sometimes, after pastoral consultation and for safety’s sake, periods of separation become the only option. Yet even here, on the hill of this bitter cross, one must not give up believing in love – for we come from love and go to love in such a way that we must love even those who have become our enemies.
Hope in God’s Limitless Mercy and Love. Because He is truly risen and His power is truly at work in us, it is by means of a true hope – not escapism or fantasy – that we love one another and that we pray for one another even when all seems lost. On the Cross, He has definitively revealed that our misery has a limit in the limitlessness of the mercy of God. Even when families are so torn apart that the very sacramental bonds holding them together are frayed, He has bound Himself to us in a mercy that is still greater – for His loving mercy is infinite and our lack of love is only finite.
For all the pain, there is something so beautiful in these struggling friendships: those who live the sacrament of marriage by faith reveal something of the suffering love that binds Christ to the Church in a way that no other kind of relationship can. The miracle of married love, when it suffers under stress, becomes a powerful sign of Christ’s faithfulness – the faithfulness from which all true faithfulness comes. After all, what is so great or Christlike about a marriage that does not confront difficulties, in which everything is easy and there are no challenges?
Love triumphs over death – this is the heart of the Christian mystery and thus, the heart of the sacrament of marriage. Marriages offered to God with trust and openness, even when all human affection has failed, provide the Lord the space He needs to do something beautiful. How the Lord raises up what has died is always surprising, and rarely in accord with the limited answers we imagine. When it comes to His subtle work in the mystery of married love, He constantly surpasses our shallow expectations and accomplishes His greatest works in the most hidden ways, ways only faith can see.
In our next post, we will ponder the divine love which looks on marriage with resurrected eyes, and delve deeper into the kind of prayer faithful marriage requires.
Editor’s Note: For more of Anthony’s insights on prayer, don’t miss his new book, Hidden Mountain Secret Garden, an experience like no other. Anthony has an unusually profound understanding of mystical theology and lives a life of deep prayer. Among his many accomplishments and responsibilities, Dr. Lilles now teaches theology for the Avila Institute.
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