I’ve reached that point in my 20-something life where many of my friends are getting married. August is for weddings, apparently. In between the various ceremonies, receptions, and gift registry orders, the most lovely joy simply has been to witness those close to me transition from one season in life into a new one with those whom they love.
With some of these friends, I have journeyed for years — having known them long before they met their significant other. Later on, it was only natural that I also became friends with the other person in their life. Seeing such relationships from the very beginning, when they first fell in love, and watching them progress and blossom into where they are now has been a most unexpected gift.
I have encouraged my friends who are engaged or married that their witness is a hopeful example for those of us who have yet to discover God’s call. For me, one of the most beautiful realities in the world is seeing a faithful, faith-filled couple joyfully living their marriage in midst of the peaks and valleys of family life and changes to it in recent decades.
It was not always this way. For many years, during my time in the Evangelical church when I first converted, I had taken marriage as a given. Additionally, although I had been raised as a Buddhist in my younger years (that is a story for another time!) and they have a celibate monkhood, I never considered that path for me. For most of my life, marriage was simply taken for granted and expected. You could say that I thought it was special insofar as any other calling from God was special.
In one sense, the Protestant reformers pushed back against what they saw as the diminishment of family life and the necessity and beauty of the lay vocation. However, in destroying Holy Orders and eliminating monastic and religious life from their communities, they threw the baby out with the bathwater. When I became Catholic an entirely new world of “vocations” was opened up in ways I had never known before.
The myriad of possibilities — religious life, becoming a priest, living as a brother or sister, among other callings — was such a new revelation. Here I saw revealed the full breadth and extent of what God could ask of men and women in order to follow Him: “Amen, I say to you, there is no one who has given up house or wife or brothers or parents or children for the sake of the kingdom of God who will not receive [back] an overabundant return in this present age and eternal life in the age to come” (Luke 18:29).
Simply put, the important point I learned when I became Catholic is that without the witness of the other possibility, the other callings, marriage becomes absolutized or practically treated as the only way to human fulfillment. This is an idea with drastic consequences, as shown by the recent challenges to our understanding of marriage in recent years. At the very least, I think this perspective tends towards the notion that one has to “find” someone to be complete or to live a full human life.
To be sure, marriage is a great good and holy marriages are something that we need more of in this world! As Sacred Scripture beautifully intimates, earthly marriage is an icon of the union between Christ and His Bride, the Church (c.f. Ephesians 5:25). It is the first school of living, a “community of life” where we are brought into the world and nurtured (Familiaris Consortio § 37). Pope Francis reiterated some of these points in his message to the 20 newly married couples last weekend at St. Peter’s:
[Marriage] is a demanding journey, at times difficult, and at times turbulent, but such is life! Marriage is a symbol of life, real life: it is not “fiction”! It is the Sacrament of the love of Christ and the Church, a love which finds its proof and guarantee in the Cross.
On the other hand, if we do not ever realize or reflect upon the marvelous reality that there are other ways of living an integrated human life, of growing in sanctity, of the many paths to sainthood, then we are missing out on another huge portion of our faith. The different vocations all nourish and refer to each other: without strong families, where would vocations come from? And without holy priests, sisters, and brothers, how can families flourish?
In my own life, it was not until I had befriended a sister who still remains dear to me that my mind realized, “Aha! This, here, is why we have sisters.” It was that point of encounter when the abstract became real: She welcomed me as a mother. Or he was a father to me in that Confession. Spiritual fatherhood and motherhood are such precious, rare treasures. Whatever the resultant call for our lives, when we encounter that kind of love, we are never left the same. “Were not our hearts burning [within us]…?” (Luke 24:32).
Having said this, in different ages, God has always raised new ways of living or revivified existing forms of life in order to enrich the Church. From the ascetics and monks of the deserts in the first period of the Church who called the dying Roman world to be reborn in Christ, to the great mendicants and preaching orders who revitalized the faith life of Christendom, to the ardent missionary orders who trod across the world, we have seen examples of such a movement of the Spirit.
In our age, we must first ask, Lord, what are you calling me to? How will you raise up family life? What do you want to reveal to the world through our lives? Religious and priests, likewise, can ask God how they may walk and support the laity in discovering this. Even if the answers remain yet unclear, the burgeoning growth of Catholic lay groups and the increased recognition of lay life after the Second Vatican Council give us hope.
What can we do in the meantime? First, please pray for the upcoming Synod on the Family, for our cardinals and bishops, and for our pope — especially for unity and common witness. We must also pray in our churches during Mass for Holy Marriages. We must advocate for a renewal of family life, pray for purity of heart, and implore God for healing from the broken forms of living in our culture. Most importantly, simple as it sounds, though hard as it may be at times, we must love our families.
Upon receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, Mother Teresa was once asked, “What can we do to promote world peace?” She answered, “Go home and love your family.” Sometimes it is not in great deeds, lofty prayers, or in eloquent writings that we change the world; rather, it may be the little tasks, the quiet prayers at bedside, and the saying of grace at mealtime that affects eternity. Moreover, no matter what form of life we may be called to, in doing this, we will learn how to truly love, to forgive, to prepare in this earthly life for that heavenly union with the Divine Family, the Holy Trinity.
It was a long time ago, the fruit of many generations, that there lived a little family in Nazareth. They did not have much in the way of material means, but they were rich in faith, hope, and love for each other. It was this that changed the world forever:
“And he went down with them, and came to Nazareth, and was subject to them. And his mother kept all these words in her heart. And Jesus advanced in wisdom, and age, and grace with God and men.” -Luke 2:51-52