No amount of preaching shapes a soul as much as does the influence of a good Christian life. If that is true, and it is, then no marriage course is ever as powerful to teach about marriage as is the witness of a good marriage.
I understood this first-hand a few months ago when I attended the 50th wedding anniversary of an uncle and aunt. Theirs has been a good marriage—good harmony, good hospitality, good family, sustained faith.
However, and only they know the full price tag, this did not always come easily. They spent enough years without money and without extras, raising a large family. His first job, clerking in a store, paid him 50 cents a day. She couldn’t find any work at all—”women weren’t needed in the job market in those days!”
There were as well, as in all families, countless other struggles and, in their case, countless more hours spent by both beyond their own family concerns, working in church and community circles.
Nearly 300 of us, family and friends, gathered to toast and roast them. At the end of the banquet my uncle stood up to thank everyone.
He ended his comments with the words: “When we got married 50 years ago, we didn’t have much, but we had an unconscious trust that if we lived by the Ten Commandments and the laws of the church then things would turn out all right . . . and I think they did.”
What an understatement! They turned out more than all right. A good marriage can best be described, I believe, by four images and theirs is the prime analogue of each of these:
- A good marriage is a warm fireplace. The love that two people have for each other generates a warm place. But the warmth it creates does not just warm the two people in love, it warms everyone else who comes near them—their children, their neighbors, their community and everyone who meets them.
- A good marriage is a big table, loaded with lots of food and drink. When two people love each other sacramentally that love becomes a place of hospitality, a table where people come to be fed—figuratively and really. Again, love, in a true marriage, feeds not just the two people who are generating it, but, because it is sacramental, it always contains more than enough surplus to feed everyone who is fortunate enough to meet it.
- A good marriage is a container that holds suffering. An old axiom says: “Everything can be borne if it can be shared!” That’s true. Anyone fortunate enough to have a true moral partner in this life can bear a lot of suffering.
That is even truer in a good marriage where the wife and husband, because of their deep moral and emotional affinity, can carry not just their own sufferings but also can help carry the sufferings of many others.
- Finally, to draw upon a deep Christian image, a good marriage is Christ’s body, flesh that is “food for the life of world.” Christ left his body to feed the world. A good marriage does precisely that, it feeds everything and everybody around it.
Many of us have experienced this in some of the married people we’ve met. Having them in our lives is a constant source of (moral, psychological, religious and humor) nourishment.
The marriage of my aunt and uncle is exactly described by these images. Their relationship to each other is a fireplace, where many people, including myself, have found warmth. It is a table—all their houses have always had big tables, big loaded refrigerators and big doors that have welcomed and given hospitality and food and drink to everyone who crossed their threshold.
And their relationship has been a container for suffering. Through the years, thanks to their love for each other, they were able to bear with faith, dignity, soft hearts, and ever-deepening charity, all the pain, tragedy and suffering that came their way. But they were also able to help many other people, to carry their sufferings.
Finally, their relationship has been, and remains, Christ’s body, food for the life of the world. Virtually everyone whose path ever crossed theirs has been fed, nourished, given vitamins in their soul by this marriage.
An age that no longer understands sacrament might, I submit, look at a marriage like this one to better see what shapes soul and what constitutes sacrament.
Sometimes the answers we seek are not found in books but in the house across the street. Sometimes too the sacrament we need to feed our souls is found, not just at the communion rail, but in a warm living room and at a loaded table. Joe and Amelia Gartner—ad multos annos!