The Tragic Way of Matrimony

Adam and Eve Cling to Christ |Triumph of Religion, Dogma of the Redemption | John Singer Sargent, Boston Public Library, 1903

Adam and Eve Cling to Christ |Triumph of Religion, Dogma of the Redemption | John Singer Sargent, Boston Public Library, 1903


The distinction seems a subtle, perhaps irrelevant one. But it is critical to understanding marital love — if this love is understood as the fusion of two wills, and the union of two hearts, shared in two bodies: real women and real men bound together sacramentally, for life. It is not that marriage is itself a tragedy, but it is perhaps fair to say that, in one sense, marriage is inherently tragic.

Digesting the current commentary on marriage is difficult work. There is, in fact, a lot of it. Almost too much of it. Language of choice and freedom, planning and family, self-gift and theologies of the body, loves and responsibilities, union and frailty, partnerships and unions, divorce and remarriage. We can easily be nauseated by the various interpretations, the insistent reflections, the current polemics, the moral fracturing, and the insipid content we find everywhere. It does not help us that the lived experience we observe in others and in ourselves is itself deficient, or that the Church no longer has the teaching capacity that its wealth and strength of doctrinal insight should inspire. And surely the culture we live in seems to offer options for every conceivable attempt at breaking down the ideal of fidelity.

In the dual struggle between body and soul, between happiness and the harsh demands of passion, between nature and grace, there seem to be polarizing options contending for loyalty. The panorama on marriage looks like a Veronese masterpiece: so drenched in detail that effort must be made to discern a logical origin for the story, a central focus.

So where is one to begin to look for clarity? For truth?

Or is one left somewhere to look at all?

At the heart of the matter of marriage is that two persons, coming together with the very real differences that distinguish women and men, desiring union and unity, professing love before God, vowing it faithfully to one another for life, open to the gift of children and to the task of educating them, commit themselves to the unknown on this foundation: that whatever happens, only death will part them. So help them God.

How this is not tragic, I scarcely know.

Allow me to explain.

Firstly, by tragic we mean entailing dramatic cost or struggle — a kind of life altering experience that involves catharsis and intelligible change. The Greeks wrote tragedies to tell of the universality of human suffering, and to evoke some response of amazement in the audience. These were stories of epic human drama. It would be naive to say marriage is unlike this in most ways.

No reasoning person chooses to love another without understanding the cost. This presumes that one sees love as a choice, to be made in freedom, and maintained in the same. If this is the vision, then the cost is real because it entails a self abnegation — and this is a form of significant suffering in light of the culture of modern egoism. It is precisely because this is the cost of faithful matrimony, that many now no longer choose this way of living.

Matrimonial love comes at the cost of independence. At the cost of privacy. At the cost of self-sufficiency.

It is the cost of the body, offered as a the physical locus of a spiritual love. It is the cost of the heart, made vulnerable, and docile, and receptive to the other. It is the cost of the mind, now thinking as two would, and not just as one. The cost of persons losing something of themselves, it seems — surrendering their ‘selves’, into the new union they vow to live.

It is the cost of friendships which then take second place, however primary they might have always been; the cost of families that now have to be shared and united; the cost of material goods, now divided by two, offered away.

It is the cost of children that need to be birthed, and raised, and educated, and loved before oneself. The cost of sleepless nights and worried years.

It is the cost of hopes rerouted, and plans remade, and aspirations rewritten.

It is the cost of illnesses that need to be tended, and heartbreak that needs to be grieved, and betrayals that needs to be forgiven, and anger that must be set aside — because love is greater still.

Not that any of this vanishes when one is unmarried. Life is full of the same whether lived independently or with someone else. But the commitment to another that we call holy matrimony makes all of this doubly intense, and doubly serious. The list of costs is indeed endless, and there is a lot at stake — happiness itself, and salvation, finally. We are no longer masters of our experiences, or of our own lives — we choose to depend on another in our living.

All of this and more comes across as loss. And the truth is, that it is a loss — a tragic loss.

The Christian understanding of this loss is veiled in the Christian understanding of sacrifice, and it differs radically from waste. We have the option of seeing the loss as waste, as a squandering of freedoms, as forced privation of goods legitimately desired. Or we can see it as an offering, an oblation made because the greater good of fruitful love is worth all of ourselves, and everything we have. And because in making it we discover something of our nature, made in the image and expansive generosity of God. Like love, sacrifice is a choice.

This does not remove or cover up the rather harsh reality that marriage entails the demise of the self for the sake if its rebirth as a union of two — distinct self-hood remaining, only now radically fused to another. It takes work to make one out of two — painful work. Union only follows unity. And unity comes at a great cost to the pervasive claims of the self-made lives we have been taught to live.

In holy matrimony, we trust another enough to depend on them, and we must also choose to depend on God. It precisely because of this that we can speak about the sacramental reality which Christ bequeathed us — spouses becoming, and actually being one flesh. Anything less than this sacrificial vision of fusion would make of this one flesh union a pathetic lie — some kind of servile, commoditized, objectified, reduced abuse of freedom and of persons, in pursuit of a vile self-serving pleasure. It would render it slavery. The upside is that living this sacrifice should bring the joy of fruitfulness, the doubled happiness of union, the fulfillment of the human longing for companionship, the help for growth in virtue, and the final happiness of salvation.

But what is not one in spirit cannot be one in flesh. Each person by his or her nature is a union of body and soul. Taken into marriage, two bodies and two souls must become one, if love is to thrive, and joy so multiply.

To fuse metal requires fire. Fire burns. It destroys, it purifies, it annihilates. And what lasts through all this destruction is tested, proven, merged anew and emerges new. Like gold, tested in fire, marital love is born of a tragedy and re-made — purified in the flesh, made perfect in a twofold onenness; it is blessed with grace in a sacrament — it set free and yet bound in a vow. It is remade for happiness.

It takes a whole lot to get to happiness in a marriage. It takes a lifetime of trial and error, of sorrow and joy, of failure and growth. Which makes that vow of fidelity until death so very tragic. And so very full of hope. It is the tragic realization that no other option exists except the option for union — within the bounds of reason, at whatever the cost. It is the hope that at some point, we will get there.

Hope shows us that it sometimes takes the failure of love to understand its resilience and strength, its capacity for survival, its radical and all claiming force, its need for forgiveness, its alienation from egoism, its often elusive fruitfulness, its desperate search for more than itself.

What does God do with failure and demise? What does he do with loss and cynicism? With sacrifice? With death?

He resurrects it.

To truly live marital love takes the intact belief that the tragic qualities of marriage exist so that its glories might be revealed. It is to live the way of the cross. No serious commitment is without its fragility and fears. It is in fact its fragility that perhaps tests strength of will and commitment, and fuses what otherwise might precariously fray apart.

More and more, it seems clear that marriage without faith cannot become what it is intended to become in the order of grace, and marriage without hope will surely fall apart. This twofold union of faith and hope must precede the natural union of minds and bodies. It is a precedent of conversion. Its absence is at the heart of the modern cynicism within married life, and of its pervasive modern failure. There is a difference between natural marriage and the sacramental reality of holy matrimony that begins to reveal itself here. One requires more, because it offers more.


Are we willing to believe true love is possible? The kind of full, sacrificial, sacramental love that may well lead us to the cross?

And when joy is distant and early bliss fades, can we hope against hope? Suffer the divisions, the selfishness, the infidelities, the disappointments, the loneliness, the privations of joy, the illnesses of the flesh, the sadness of the heart, the confusion of the mind, and still say ‘Yes, I take you…’ over, and over, and over again?

Will we forgive seventy times seven times, and cry the oceans to preserve a love that means something, rejecting the lust within in us to arrive at the purity made for us? Will love survive the tempests, and arrive at the other shore, faithful to the vow? Intact?

And where the culture says no way, it is not worth it, it is all a waste, and sacrifice is loss; where it chooses less than love and more egoistic passion; where it proposes an easier way paved in less than fire tested hope; where it offers liberation from promises and then leaves us betrayed in our loneliness; where it squanders goods in the guise of freedom, and tempts the frail to fray — what, then, will save us? If not the grace of God?

‘I give you a new commandment: love one another. As I have loved you, so you also should love one another’
Gospel of St. John 13.34

… As I have loved you.

Yes, even to the fruitful tragedy of the Cross. That vow of love that redeemed the ages, when earth and heaven wed at the altar of Calvary. That font of grace that makes the impossible, possible. There, where the fullness of love made the burden light.

Would that He teach us to love this way. Fully. Making matrimony holy.

For trying ourselves is in vain.

Yes, tragic.


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