Ideal marriage

There are a lot of things young adults should hear. The most important one on my list, though, would be something like this: Please don't believe it when people tell you that things were always this bad, and that it's just that no one talked about it. The truth is that growing up 40 or 50 years ago wasn't at all like it is now. The world was a much kinder and gentler place. Society had rules and most people followed them. Sure, there were improvements to be made, even serious ones. But those were mostly in areas where we fell short of our values. It wasn't because we didn't have any.

I want people under 30 to know that when my parents separated in 1969, I was only the second child in my whole baby-boomer-filled-to-the-brim suburban public elementary school whose family had fallen apart. When I told the two girls who lived next door to us that my parents were going to get a divorce, they asked me what "divorce" was. Even though they were a few years older than I was, they had never heard of it. My, how things have changed.

As what used to be wedding season arrives, it makes me sad to realize that today's kids may not actually know what marriage is. Indeed, an increasing number of them may not even have heard of it. More children are growing up in single parent (read, "single mother") homes than ever before. Greater numbers of children are also living with men who are not their biological fathers, nor their mothers' husbands. "Mom's boyfriend" and "Dad's girlfriend" are common terms for many kids. In such circumstances, is there any wonder that the desirability and beauty of marriage -- let alone Christian marriage -- has been obscured?

Like so many other "babies" thrown out with the bathwater, the value of marriage has been largely lost to our society. This happened as people who fell short of the ideal were encouraged to trash the ideal they fell short of. In other words, somewhere along the line we decided that if you can't live up to a standard, then don't bother with standards at all. The radical philosopher Nietzsche called this the "smashing of the tablets" and "the devaluation of values." He saw it as a necessary step for man to overcome himself. What he did not see, at least not at first, was that the abandonment of virtue would lead to nihilism. Life without values is meaningless.

While I have watched a few episodes of "Bridezilla," "My Fair Wedding," and "Say Yes to the Dress," it isn't hard to see that what our culture is saying about marriage is awfully empty. Presented as it is, I wouldn't imagine anyone in his right mind would want to get married. Who would bother with all that drama, expense, and power struggle? Who would want to jump through what seems like an endless set of hoops and expectations to get what he could have anyway? Why would anyone want to bind herself to another person for the rest of her life? Why be dragged down by someone else's baggage, or put up with worse when you can just look around for something better? If the purpose of marriage, or any sexual relationship for that matter, is mere personal fulfillment, there is no rational reason to sign up for any of those distasteful inconveniences.

But the strongest case for marriage isn't made by those who think only of what they will gain or don't hesitate to scrap the ideal. That is because marriage isn't defined by those who marry. It is the aspiration of those who see marriage as a possibility for the perfect communion of persons. Marriage is undertaken by those who desire to live with, rather than beside, another. It is chosen by someone who can freely acknowledge that "I" am incomplete. Ultimately, marriage puts form to our longing to be like the One who made us for communion with him.

As Church, we should reach out to Christians who are separated or divorced, and those who perhaps because of separation and divorce have chosen to live in relationships without the benefit of marriage. But when we do, we should not shrink from the ideal that marriage is and can be. Talking with our children and grandchildren about marriage is a good place to begin, but how we live it ourselves will make the more lasting impression.

Most of us fall short of what marriage is meant to be, just as we fall short of God's ideal for everything else. But rather than letting go of the ideal, we should do what we can to hold onto it more tightly. We who are married should keep filling the stone jars of our daily lives with the water of our imperfections, but in the certain hope that Jesus has changed such water into wine.

Jaymie Stuart Wolfe is a wife and mother of eight children, and a disciple of the spirituality of St. Francis de Sales. She is an inspirational author, speaker, musician and serves as an Associate Children's Editor at Pauline Books and Media.