Venerable Cardinal Francis Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan exhorted the faithful while he was in prison, “If you desire peace, you will have to fight continuously.” This constant struggle is true not only for the heart but also for the sacredness of marriage. Our culture has come to despise the faithful love of husband and wife. Anyone who advocates for this ancient institution is an object of derision. Yet the real problem is not political or social: it is a primordial spiritual threat, the threat plaguing humanity from the beginning. Every generation and every couple that wants to remain steadfast to their vows and the holiness of married friendship must face it. If we want peaceful marriages and families, we too must take up this spiritual battle.
Hell, Marriage and God. St. Hildegard of Bingen describes an attack on marriage bellowing from the pit of Hell. Here, the great Adversary of humanity pits himself against the tender intimacy of marriage. He wants alienation and enmity, and so he engulfs the most noble of friendships in deception and division. Poisonous vapors and clouds of darkness bellow from the pit of Satan’s hellfire – an image of the self-reliant confusion that threatens marriage and family even today. Hell’s dark hubris makes married couples believe that their love for one another is dependent on themselves: that somehow it is within their own power or their spouse’s power to keep the bond of love alive. But, says St. Hildegard, this is not so.
Her reasoning is that if it is God who establishes a couple in matrimony, then only God has the power to save married love and hold marriages together. In other words, if we want to fight for our marriages against all the satanic and cultural forces that would destroy them, we must realize our inadequacy before this Great Mystery. It is only out of this poverty that we find the humility to turn to the Lord in prayer, begging Him to come to our assistance. Conversely, without God, marriage is impossible.
Marriage Difficulties. There was once a theologian who suffered divorce. Someone went to him for counsel complaining that his own marriage had become an overwhelming burden. This scholar very humbly spoke from his own experience. He explained, probably with bitter compunction, that in divorce a burden may be seemingly lifted from one’s self, but this is only because that same burden has been placed on one’s own children. These are words born of suffering wisdom – they sting our consciences because they should.
I am not sure any burden is ever even temporarily lifted in such broken situations, even the worst of them. Instead, when one abandons a difficult marriage, one is trying to walk away from a weight he simply drags behind him. Yes, there are abusive situations – even those requiring separation. There are also situations where spouses torment each other with mutual disdain. Such is the misery of humanity that we often murder one another in our hearts. Yet, that Precious Blood shed for our sakes does not allow us to believe that this is the deepest truth about the heart or our fallen efforts to love one another.
It’s rare that any marriage should not face the most severe crises in our culture. We live in a society that, by both law and practice, rejects marriage and all the moral truth required to protect it. Our politically powerful are rewarded for pursuing social agendas openly hostile to the vulnerable tenderness of the bonds of matrimony. Under the secularism of a post-Christian West, the whole social ecology of society is poisonous for the friendship of marriage and for children – for sacred humanity itself.
God’s Love and God’s Works. The presence of evil, even when it is in our own households threatening our most important commitments, is not what ultimately defines our life. The most defining reality of this earthly existence, no matter our hardships or failures, is God’s love. He loves us and has given Himself up for us — because He believes in us, in the goodness with which He created us and to which He restores us. It is a goodness in which He sees His own image and likeness – even when it suffers under the disguise of a difficult marriage. God permits His greatest works to be vulnerable to all kinds of evil because He knows that evil is not infinite and, at the end of the day, love wins. He yearns that we too might share in this joy, that instead of trying to overcome evil with evil, we might imitate Him in overcoming evil with good.
Marriage is one of His greatest works – a work in which He has completely implicated Himself, an institution in which He completely believes even when everyone else has lost faith in it. It is a sacrament – a visible sign of His power at work in the world. It reveals, through living signs, the fruitfulness and fidelity of Christ’s love for the Church. Those who do not give up on what God can do in marriage are living signs of hope. By humble faith in the midst of difficult struggle, they become signs of God’s presence not only for each other, but also for their children and the whole community. This is so even when, despite every effort of devotion to God and one another, friendship becomes seemingly impossible. God loves to astonish us with the perfection of His power in our failures and inadequacy.
Marriage, Prayer and the Cross. It is a deeply painful obedience which God asks of us so that His glory might be revealed. It is the Cross, and the Cross means war – war with ourselves, the world, and all kinds of hellish powers. We cannot have peace in our hearts and families if we do not raise the banner of Christ and fight. Yet, even when we fail in this struggle, His glory is invincible.
Our weapons, in this war, are prayer and penance, the Rosary and family prayer, the Bible and the Sacraments, loving sacrifices and renunciations of all kinds of entitlements, painful words of truth and readiness for reconciliation. Our allies are the Lord, the Virgin Mary and all the saints. Great mystics of the 20th Century, like Cardinal VÄƒn Thuáºn, tell us that if we do not drop our weapons or betray our friends, victory is assured.
In our next post, we will ponder the power of God’s love as the ground of married love.
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.
Art for this post on Marriage, Prayer and the Cross (Part I of III): Marriage Cross Christian Symbol, AnonMoos, 26 October 2010 own work, PD-Worldwide, Wikimedia Commons.