A friend gave us a copy of a classic book the other day they had found in a street market: The Catholic Marriage Manual, by Rev George A. Kelly, published 1958. It’s in excellent condition and has that old-book smell acquired from collecting dust on a bookshelf for sixty years. In keeping with our perception of social attitudes in the 1950s, we expected it to be rather quaint and perhaps patronising towards we poor souls afflicted by the miseries of married life.
Surprisingly, it is neither quaint nor patronising. It’s also not boring! There are plenty of juicy insights that we will share with you over the coming months from this gem of a manuscript. For now, though, we’re still digesting the first page.
The opening Chapter: “Marriage is a Sacred Vocation” begins thus: “As a married man or woman, you have one of the greatest gifts – and one of the greatest opportunities to do good – that it is possible for human beings to possess on earth.”
We couldn’t agree more with the good reverend. However, we’ve often run up against resistance in our work with couples, not so much from clerics (though we have had a few of those), but from couples themselves who seem to believe that their holiness is more equated with practices associated with celibate piety than it is with their own Sacrament of Matrimony.
For example, we once had a couple criticise the marriage seminar because it didn’t have ‘sufficient focus on the Sacraments’. Never mind that the entire weekend had been about the Sacrament of Matrimony. Apparently, Matrimony didn’t count; it was a “second-class Sacrament”.
We take all feedback seriously, so we sought out some advice from relevant experts who confirmed there are no second class Sacraments in the Catholic Church. And that as a vocational Sacrament, Matrimony was as critical to the mission of the Church as Holy Orders (also known as Priesthood).
While this couple had a deep love and reverence for ‘The Sacraments’ (by which they meant the Eucharist and Penance) which is wonderful, our problem was not with their reverence for these Sacraments. It was with their lack of reverence for the Sacramental vocation by which they had been called by God to live: Matrimony.
They had adopted the common cultural misconception of Matrimony as an inferior state of life to religious life. This led them to denigrate Matrimony and so miss the spiritual elements unique to marital life, especially their sexual union; seeing their relationship with its sexual nature and earthy realities somehow in opposition to their quest for holiness.
We had a similar discussion with yet another couple who expressed disapproval at our suggestion that married couples might make love on Fridays, the traditional day of penance for Christians.
If only these couples had had a copy of The Catholic Marriage Manual! If you have ever doubted the importance of your vocation to marriage, this book wants to set the record straight: “Your marriage is not to be belittled as some second-rate way of life. This is where God wants you to be. Matrimony is the state God from all eternity summoned you to.”
In other words, God calls married couples to holiness, not despite their married state, but rather through it. Our marriage is our way to God and our holiness needs to find expression in and through the reality of family life with all its messiness, unpredictability and yes, sexual passions.
For those who are students of Saint John Paul’s Theology of the Body, none of this is news. What is a bit of a surprise to us, is that this book was published twenty years before the Theology of Body, on a different continent, before even the sexual revolution had taken root. Clearly, this way of thinking is not a digression from the theological tradition, but an authentic development of it.
It’s Passion Sunday this week, and we are reminded that Christ’s passion was profoundly holy. It was the total outpouring of himself, in love for each of us.
Likewise, our passion as a couple is also called to be holy in imitation of Christ. It is not a passion that seeks gratification for the self. Rather, it is a passion that yearns for union and communion with the other. It is an urgent longing that inspires us to overcome our selfish inclinations as we seek to serve each other in love.