If we haven’t already said it then perhaps we need to be explicit about it now: every vocation is about love. About a search for love; about how to give myself in love; about how to be open enough to receive another in love; about how to let another’s love transform me; about how to allow my love transform others. Vocation begins to take shape in the first stirrings of love; it struggles through the times when love appears to have dried up and died; it hurries towards its fulfillment in love, which conquers everything, after all! (Amor vincit omnia – Virgil)
The human person is made to love, not because of anything I have done myself but because I was loved into existence. This is the magnitude of what St John says in his First Letter:
In fact, the crowning of the First Letter of St John, in chapters 3 to 5, is precisely John’s exquisite meditation on love, which surely rivals St Paul’s hymn to love in I Corinthians 13. Essentially, we love because we love – it’s our very nature, and to do anything to the contrary is to go against our very nature as human persons created in God’s image and likeness. St Bernard in Sermon 83 on The Song of Songs writes:
“Love is sufficient of itself, it gives pleasure by itself and because of itself. It is its own merit, its own reward. Love looks for no cause outside itself, no effect beyond itself. Its profit lies in its practice. I love because I love, I love that I may love. Love is a great thing so long as it continually returns to its fountainhead, flows back to its source, always drawing from there the water which constantly replenishes it.”The Song of Songs, St Bernard of Clairvaux
In our own time, Pope Benedict XVI offered us a profound teaching on the nature and goal of human love in his first encyclical letter, Deus Caritas Est (God is Love, 2005). What took many people by surprise was his very direct and positive treatment of physical, erotic love – eros – and its relationship with the highest form of love – agape – the love which is associated with utterly selfless love, the total outpouring which Christ makes real in his gift of himself to us:
“Yet eros and agape—ascending love and descending love—can never be completely separated. The more the two, in their different aspects, find a proper unity in the one reality of love, the more the true nature of love in general is realized. Even if eros is at first mainly covetous and ascending, a fascination for the great promise of happiness, in drawing near to the other, it is less and less concerned with itself, increasingly seeks the happiness of the other, is concerned more and more with the beloved, bestows itself and wants to “be there for” the other. The element of agape thus enters into this love, for otherwise eros is impoverished and even loses its own nature. On the other hand, man cannot live by oblative, descending love alone. He cannot always give, he must also receive. Anyone who wishes to give love must also receive love as a gift. Certainly, as the Lord tells us, one can become a source from which rivers of living water flow (cf. Jn 7:37-38). Yet to become such a source, one must constantly drink anew from the original source, which is Jesus Christ, from whose pierced heart flows the love of God (cf. Jn 19:34).
“Fundamentally, “love” is a single reality, but with different dimensions; at different times, one or other dimension may emerge more clearly. Yet when the two dimensions are totally cut off from one another, the result is a caricature or at least an impoverished form of love. And we have also seen, synthetically, that biblical faith does not set up a parallel universe, or one opposed to that primordial human phenomenon which is love, but rather accepts the whole man; it intervenes in his search for love in order to purify it and to reveal new dimensions of it. This newness of biblical faith is shown chiefly in two elements which deserve to be highlighted: the image of God and the image of man.
“The one God in whom Israel believes … loves with a personal love. His love, moreover, is an elective love: among all the nations he chooses Israel and loves her—but he does so precisely with a view to healing the whole human race. God loves, and his love may certainly be called eros, yet it is also totally agape.Deus Caritas Est, Benedict XVI
Benedict very clearly wants us to make a connection between the different forms of love expression in our lives, but at the same time he asks us to see that eros by itself, remaining by itself and for its own sake, is always imperfect, and will always tend to the selfish. And yet, we all share in it, it’s a part of our human expression of self, and it does reach out, when properly directed, to another. It’s an arresting moment to pause and consider that, just as we ourselves are so complex in our personalities, our needs and our ways of expressing needs and fulfillment, so love also is a complex reality living deep within us and yet always making its way to the surface of our lives.
The complexity of that gift in love of self to the other is often best captured in the vocation to marriage. In itself, marriage embraces the three loves – erotic love (eros); friendship love (philia); and selfless love (agape). And it aims to do so by being rooted in the total gift of one person to another, physical and emotional, in all dimensions. We say “total gift” and that, in itself, begs a question. How “totally” can I give myself to another? To do so would mean that I know myself completely, possess myself completely, and even have the capacity to give myself completely. Given the dynamic nature of the human person, that our growth in all our characteristics and aspects is something of a never-ending story, that our becoming ourselves is precisely what it says – a matter of gradual maturation over the span of a life – I can only give myself in so far as I know myself. This self-oblation is a great matter of trust – I entrust all that I am now, and all that I am yet to be and yet am becoming, to another in marriage. This gift of self is astounding – and the one who receives does so in an equally great act of trust! They receive another person’s present reality and the hidden yet-to-become reality which is known to God alone. And yet, none of that is conditional – it is an absolute acceptance of the other, as they are, and with all that they will become, after that moment, in communion with the other who becomes one with them.
And it precisely that reality of commitment which makes all vocations binding and stable within the Church – a vocation does not come to an end when the first embers of love die away and there appears to be just a tolerant being with the other; nor does the vocation die when I decide that I’ve had enough of this particular situation or challenge and need some other spur to keep me up to the particular frisson of an exciting life style; it doesn’t come to an end when I get an itch after a certain number of years for another partner in my work or life. A vocation is made real by the binding commitment of life that I declare in the presence of another and others and explicitly for another or others.
This is absolutely true for marriage in the Church – while love can never be absent from that journey of seeking together and bringing together which a man and woman discover, still their exclusive commitment to one another is what brings the marriage into existence. And it’s that freely given, totally generous, concretely selfless and loving consent which is irrevocable.
This always has in its sights the establishment of a community of persons. In the spouses themselves a community exists and comes into being. And from their love and the dynamism of their community is born another community, that, with God’s help, of their family in their children. The Church has always recognised the importance of this fruitful openness. It means that, quite clearly, while she sees in many relationships committed and supportive love, which genuinely expresses the feeling of one person for another, only in the marriage of man and woman can marriage be recognised as established and consecrated. And here it’s good to note again – the Church didn’t invent marriage -but she does recognise that Christ the Lord has raised the marriage covenant between a man and woman to the dignity of a sacrament. The profound human dimension is therefore consecrated by the profound divine.
The vocation to marriage, then, is to live out and witness to a love which transcends, because it seeks to mirror God’s love in the ups and downs of a human relationship. That’s important – we cannot relate to one another other than as we are as individuals and persons. Marriage, while presented to us as a hoped-for ideal, has to be translated into the incarnate – the sacrament has to take flesh, in the husband and wife, and in their children. Even in this way, the love of marriage is called to be lived in imitation of the God who is love. God’s love is itself creative – it’s almost as if it can’t help itself but be creative! The call in marriage to be open to and participate in that creative love lies at the heart of the vocation – to be open to the gift of children is to be open to continually becoming the image and likeness of God for the married partners. And it holds hands with the other goal to which marriage must be directed – that two people enter into this state and live out this vocation for the other’s good and constantly becoming themselves. Undoubtedly, to deny either end is to deny a fundamental participation in the divine call which characterises Christian marriage.
Many people frequently say that a priest – never mind a monk – has no great authority of experience to speak about the call to marriage, or the married state, or marriage as a vocation. In the last few days I’ve had the happiness of commemorating my own parents’ fifty-fifth wedding anniversary, from afar, of course. So, I count myself blessed to have been a witness – from the inside, if you like – to their married life over the course of most of those years. There can be few other privileged places to live – as a witness as the reality of a relationship unfolds, and I am, necessarily, caught up in the tapestry of that relationship. Undoubtedly, I can say that I am woven in there and part of it – a witness to their support for one another, their growth in faith together, their sharing of faith with me and my siblings, their struggles at difficult different times in their relationship, their journey into the maturity of their relationship with their own advancing years…. Yes, being part of that home has given me scene after scene, experience after experience, moment after countless moment, when the reality of the dynamic of the sacrament of marriage has been lived fully before my face. And because of my nearness to that incarnate reality, I can reflect upon it as part of the book of experience which is my own life.
On a more painful level, as a canon lawyer, I have had to become involved in the complex and difficult ministry to those men and women who have reached a point, it would seem, of no return. When a couple arrives at that point where they ask the Church to declare that a marriage never took place for them and that it should grant a decree of nullity, those involved in the process are given the extraordinary privilege of becoming part of the intimacy of a human relationship which has not matured. The reasons that the Church recognises as the cause and basis for such a declaration are many – frequently they have to do with the personal maturity of the partners at the time of their marriage and before it; how they were not suited at that time to take up the demanding responsibilities of married life, for themselves, for each other, for children; and the commitment to many aspects of the married state has undoubtedly been undermined by a concomitant trend in society in general to shy away from long term, never mind life, commitment. Questions around exclusivity, the indissolubility of the marriage pact and relationship, and the openness to children have been ground down by movements and outlooks outside the Church. And the greater occasion of cohabitation as a ‘trial’ alternative to a committed married relationship is a symptom of the present age. Perhaps, from the Church’s point of view, there need to be those moments when we stop and ask the question – Do you think, on reflection, that you are really ready for this?
But above all, perhaps, we have to say that a pervasive loss of a sense of the sacred has done a great amount of damage to the idea and reality of marriage as sacrament and salvific relationship. Once we as persons, as communities and as a society feel that we can live perfectly well and happily without a need for the presence of God and his work in our lives – individual and shared – then we no longer feel the weight of the sacramental character of the marriage bond and relationship, and the blessing given in a Church context risks becoming just one of a number of other elements which will go to make up the ‘big day’. Of course, if God is effectively side-lined when something does go seriously awry we discover that we have only ourselves to rely upon, and in that dreadful moment we realise that we are weak and have a tendency to crumble.
All those difficulties and painful moments bring us back to the fundamental idea of the vocation to marriage in the Church and in society. It’s very nature, as a sacrament, is to reflect in an incarnate way, the abiding, never-ending, always generous, always creative love that God has for his people. As such, it is a relationship – human and sacramental – whose very aim is to proclaim the kingdom of God and witness to the life-giving love which God pours out on us all. Pope Francis, in his Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love, 2016), in a beautiful overview of the richness and evangelical character of marriage and family for the Church and society, has this to say:
“With inner joy and deep comfort, the Church looks to the families who remain faithful to the teachings of the Gospel, encouraging them and thanking them for the testimony they offer. For they bear witness, in a credible way, to the beauty of marriage as indissoluble and perpetually faithful. Within the family ‘which could be called a domestic church’ (Lumen Gentium, 11), individuals enter upon an ecclesial experience of communion among persons, which reflects, through grace, the mystery of the Holy Trinity. ‘Here one learns endurance and the joy of work, fraternal love, generous – even repeated – forgiveness, and above all divine worship in prayer and the offering of one’s life’ (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1657)”.
“The Church is a family of families, constantly enriched by the lives of all those domestic churches. “In virtue of the sacrament of matrimony, every family becomes, in effect, a good for the Church. From this standpoint, reflecting on the interplay between the family and the Church will prove a precious gift for the Church in our time. The Church is good for the family, and the family is good for the Church. The safeguarding of the Lord’s gift in the sacrament of matrimony is a concern not only of individual families but of the entire Christian community”.
“The experience of love in families is a perennial source of strength for the life of the Church. “The unitive end of marriage is a constant summons to make this love grow and deepen. Through their union in love, the couple experiences the beauty of fatherhood and motherhood, and shares plans, trials, expectations and concerns; they learn care for one another and mutual forgiveness. In this love, they celebrate their happy moments and support each other in the difficult passages of their life together… The beauty of this mutual, gratuitous gift, the joy which comes from a life that is born and the loving care of all family members – from toddlers to seniors – are just a few of the fruits which make the response to the vocation of the family unique and irreplaceable”, both for the Church and for society as a whole.Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love), Pope Francis
And, in case we should forget, the sacraments exist for salvation – and all vocations, rightly discerned, freely chosen, and joyfully embraced and lived, are pathways towards salvation for those who choose them. In marriage, it’s the very same – the sacrament exists so that the spouses can lead one another, and their children, and others who know them, toward the salvation which has been prepared for them.
This is an astounding truth! Christian marriage sanctifies, because it is a sacrament and makes Christ present! It sanctifies the spouses; it sanctifies their children. It is a place in which their family and friends share in that sanctification. And It is a tool, a means, by which God continually, in good days and bad, sanctifies the whole of humanity!
That’s quite a vocation!
Let’s finish by praying the prayer which Pope Francis composed to close and dedicate his Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia, praying for all families and married couples, those whom we know, those who are experiencing pain and struggle, those who are planning on marriage, and for ourselves in our own ongoing discernment of way of life lived in service of the Church:
Prayer to the Holy Family
Jesus, Mary and Joseph,
in you we contemplate
the splendour of true love;
to you we turn with trust.
Holy Family of Nazareth,
grant that our families too
may be places of communion and prayer,
authentic schools of the Gospel
and small domestic churches.
Holy Family of Nazareth,
may families never again experience violence,
rejection and division;
may all who have been hurt or scandalized
find ready comfort and healing.
Holy Family of Nazareth,
make us once more mindful
of the sacredness and inviolability of the family,
and its beauty in God’s plan.
Jesus, Mary and Joseph,
Graciously hear our prayer.
-Part of our ‘Vocation’ series-