We recently attended two weddings of close family friends. This time, a different part of the ceremony really stood out for us.
It was the preamble the celebrant said immediately before the couple exchanges vows.
N and N, the promise you make to each other today is serious, because it will bind you together for life in a relationship so close and so intimate that it will profoundly influence your whole future. That future, with its hopes and disappointments, its successes and its failures, its pleasures and its pains, its joys and its sorrows, is hidden from your eyes. You know that these elements are mingled in every life and are to be expected in your own. And so, not knowing what is before you, but trusting in God’s companionship, you take each other through the best and worst of what lies ahead, until death. Join your hands and commit yourselves to each other forever.
To be honest, we had never heard this part of the wedding ceremony before and then it turned up a third time as we reviewed a book on the stories of couples with infertility. A quick google search found other couples had also used this prayer in their weddings, but we couldn’t locate it in the ‘official’ Catholic wedding rite. Nevertheless, it resonated with our personal experience.
When we stood at the altar on our wedding day, our hearts were full of anticipation for the wonderful times ahead of us. Though we knew there would be difficult times, we were so full of love and optimism, we assumed that any difficulties would be easy to transcend.
We all know how that worked out!
Difficult times did come in various forms and at different times. Often these originated from outside sources, like when Byron began working in a ‘fly in – fly out’ situation for a client based in another city immediately after our honeymoon. Or when Francine was diagnosed with thyroid cancer.
These were difficult situations not just for us individually, but for our relationship too. Stress took its toll and it became taxing to be our usual generous selves with each other. Now there was the added complication of our bad behaviour added to the stress of the situation.
As we each slipped forward and backward in our personal journey of holiness, there were times when we simply didn’t feel any fondness for the other – only frustration and hurt.
In all these challenging periods, while the demands of the actual problem were testing, it was the loneliness and fear that came with feeling distant from each other that was the most painful.
Our wedding vows, in which we freely committed ourselves to each other for life, at some of these times felt like a burden – they bound us to a person we didn’t like very much at that time. But those vows also provided the foundation that kept us tied to each until we re-emerged from those stormy periods.
Trusting in God
And so, not knowing what is before you, but trusting in God’s companionship, you take each other through the best and worst of what lies ahead, until death.
Looking back over our thirty-two years as husband and wife, that prayer offered by the celebrant at our friends’ wedding was an accurate description of our marriage. No doubt, it also reflects yours.
It’s a prayer that speaks into a profound reality. Every marriage is subject to both joys and sorrows, and indeed we do expect sorrows, we just can’t know what form they may take or when they may come. In our case, it was immediately after the honeymoon. We’ve also walked with couples whose first major challenge was the honeymoon itself.
In these difficulties, it can be tempting to wish them away. Indeed, it is human nature to hope that we might be spared them. But that would actually be a loss.
Because here’s the thing; even though the ‘sorrows’ never feel great – in fact they usually feel terrible! – without them, our lives would actually be impoverished.
Sorrows and failures, pain and disappointment – this is how we grow in holiness. These difficulties create the environment where our character and virtue are developed, so long as we trust in God’s companionship, as well as each other’s.
It’s instinctual for us to turn to God in these difficult times, and just as easy for us to forget our dependency on God when things are going well. We readily attribute our good fortune and success to our own efforts and character. Absorbed in our own happiness, we overlook our shortcomings and our need for God… until troubles arrive.
Then, humbled and needy, we remember the God who rules the universe and from whom every good thing comes. Then we begin to pray with fervour, seeking to drink deeply of God’s grace. And the grace always comes when we are sincere and persistent in seeking it.
Over the coming year, we all will face challenges associated with the Corona virus. Whether it is sickness in our families, financial stress due to the economic impact, or the heartache of loved ones lost, all of us will be impacted. How will we each respond?
It is only when we are tested, when we are at the end of our virtue capacity, that growth is possible.
When we were in the midst of a financial crisis over a decade ago, there were no new clothes, take away dinners or holidays for well over a year while we stabilised our situation. Gratefully, we managed to keep our home as we worked harder than we ever had to recover.
The situation, though scary and traumatising, enabled us to develop a personal self-discipline and resilience. It also gave us sensitivity to those who live their entire life under financial impoverishment.
Growth always happens at the end of our capacity. If we don’t push the limits of our ability, we stagnate.
Moreover, in order for our marriage to grow in strength, it also has to be tested. A marriage that has never endured difficulties is a marriage that is at risk. For it lacks the resilience that comes when we have faced difficulties together, learnt the necessary skills and developed the essential virtues to overcome them.
This dynamic is what makes marriage such an epic and grand adventure. Romantic notions of ‘happily ever after’ where the couple never argues nor has any misfortune are disempowering notions. They empty marriage of its power to transform us and grow us into better, holier people.
Marriage is indeed grand, but not because it is blissful or easy. It is grand because it is demanding, because it calls us to greatness!
Francine & Byron Pirola are the co-authors of the SmartLoving series of courses and articles. www.smartloving.org