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In Part 3 of the Introduction to the Devout Life, in his Instruction to Married Persons, Francis de Sales reflects on the holiness of marriage and exhorts his readers to a married love that is “completely holy, completely sacred, and completely divine.” What makes the love of husband and wife, “completely holy, completely sacred, and completely divine”? Francis describes it in terms of three qualities.
Interestingly, the first quality that he mentions is the union of hearts. I find that interesting, because in our contemporary reflections on marriage, we have come back to the same quality. The union/unity of husband and wife is the core of the marriage relationship. Programs like Marriage and Engaged encounter are premised on the importance of that union. To put it another way: Our society has, unfortunately, bought into the myth of “happily ever after.” That myth raises the expectation that when you find the right mate and overcome any and all obstacles to coming together, you will live “happily ever after.” The corollary to that myth is that if you are not living “happily ever after,” you or your relationship is somehow flawed. That’s simply not true. And in fact, I don’t know any couples who have been together for any length of time, who have not had to negotiate differences in personalities, not to mention illnesses, financial or career setbacks or, perhaps the biggest challenge, adolescent children, who would claim that their life together has been unending bliss. But that’s not the point of marriage. Happily ever after is the stuff of fairy tales, not of real life.
The goal of marriage is, as Francis says, an indissoluble union of hearts. I knew a couple, parents of a student of mine, a number of years ago. The wife was afflicted with myasthenia gravis, a deteriorating, ultimately terminal disease, and she was an invalid. I had the occasion to have a number of conversations with both of them. Obviously neither of them was happy with the situation or with what it meant for their son, but they experienced and manifested unity of hearts. They were in this together, and they saw it through, up to the day when she died in her husband’s arms. Their unity was a manifestation of a holy, devout, incredibly strong married love.
In upcoming blogs I will reflect on the other two qualities of married love, fidelity and raising children.
Fr. Don Heet, OSFS