St. Thomas Aquinas once wrote that marriage belongs both to the order of creation and to the order of redemption. That is, people have a natural inclination to marry but marriage is also linked to Baptism — Jesus has made it holy so that we might share in his kingdom.
This abstract distinction has a particular poignancy for me. In the 1960s, when I was young and rebellious, one of my images of marriage was expressed by the ditty, Little Boxes. This was a sarcastic song about people who got married and lived in "little boxes made out of ticky-tacky" which "all look just the same." They raise their kids who all go to the university "and they all turn out just the same."
Well, I was determined that I was not going to be trapped into a marriage so totally conformed to the surrounding culture. So, one day when I was in about Grade 11, a nun who was my teacher asked me in class what sort of "girl" I wanted to marry. My response was immediate: "I want to marry a freak," a term which had its own meaning in the youth sub-culture of the day.
This response nonplused the nun and brought laughter from the rest of the class. However, I was totally serious. There was no way I was going to be drawn into a life of mindless conformity to a dehumanizing culture, live in a ticky-tacky house and produce ticky-tacky kids. If I was going to get married, it was going to be into a seriously deviant relationship.
Today, I am happily married to a wonderful, well-adjusted woman who is definitely not a freak, we have three well-adjusted (well, sort of) kids and we live in an undistinguished house in a well-adjusted neighborhood. What happened? Did I sell out to a life of ticky-tacky?
Well, no. Rather, I found God and I married a woman who also had found her way to God. Our marriage is not deviant, but redeemed. We want our relationship to be a manifestation of God's own love and faithfulness.
Still, there was an important insight in my youthful rebelliousness. I at least saw that marriage can be, ought to be, lived on some level higher than the natural order. Fitting into a socially-determined mold of respectability and normalcy is not good enough. We can be so much more than couples who have a romantic love for each other and who unite to form a new unit of production and consumption.
We can be people who are united, not by the culture, but "in the Lord" (1 Corinthians 7:39). Our marriages can be signs of God's love for humanity. They can be small communities which make Jesus more present in our world. In short, marriage can be a sacrament.
In another respect, however, I was wrong in my youth. Marriage lived purely on the natural level -- that is, without God -- is still good. Children, in particular, can best flourish in a situation of order and predictability, rather than one of deviancy. Order, ritual and homely comforts foster and promote human goods.
The sad irony today, which I could not see 30 years ago, is that our consumer culture has affected the aspirations of ordinary people to such an extent that it may soon be true that the only way to have a marriage which is good on the human level is for that marriage to be rooted in the supernatural.
Marriage lived solely as a human enterprise is being annihilated by the surrounding culture. This is a reality which, if left unchecked, could ultimately destroy society itself.
The marriages which will survive and bear fruit will be those built on a level higher than the natural level. Nor will they be, by and large, deviant relationships, those between two "freaks." They will be partnerships based "in the Lord." To have a good marriage, it will be essential for both spouses to have a strong faith.
This conclusion is based not on a judgment about the people who enter marriage today, but rather a judgment about the direction of our society. The pressures placed on families today -- on their time, money and desires -- are so strong and the social supports for maintaining a family have been so weakened that some other support is needed. That support can only come from the transcendent order, from a loving God.
To deliberately live, day in and day out, with the understanding that marriage is a sacrament is a radical act today. It is to live for God. It is also to live for human values. Further, it is a deviant act in a culture where both the sacred and the human are so under attack.
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