By: Christopher West
A few years back, the title of an article in the National Catholic Register caught my attention — “Divorce: In the Image and Likeness of Hell” (Sep 30 – Oct 6, 2007). The first few sentences confirmed what I intuited from the title — this writer, Melinda Selmys, was going to speak plainly. It seems she’d had enough of the sweet, pious lingo with which many Catholic writers often speak about marriage. Heck, for all I know, she may have had me in mind.
She observes, “The theologians remind us that our married life is an image of the union between … Christ [and the Church]. We hear of … the bliss of the two becoming one.” When things get tough, we are told “to improve our communication, fall in love with each other all over again, observe the tender moments, etc., etc.” Then she allows such advice to butt up against the all-too real experiences of actual marriages. “But how are you to fall in love again,” she asks, “with an insensitive beast who has broken your heart and slept with another woman? How can you see your sex life as an image of the intimate life of the blessed Trinity when your wife consents only on a full moon when Mars is in Virgo, and makes love with the enthusiasm of a dead frog?”
The Brutal Truth
When I first read that last line, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. But I did breathe a sigh of relief. Man, it’s refreshing to hear people say it like it is. For whatever reason, such brutally honest writing seems rare in much of the Catholic press. It’s as if those who promote Catholic teaching are afraid it won’t go over so well if we talk about the real sufferings of following Jesus. So we conveniently promote the glories of the Christian life without a realistic assessment of the sorrows. I, myself, have been guilty of that on occasion, I think. Christian marriage is a messy, painful business. How could it be otherwise? “Husbands love your wives as Christ loved the Church” (Eph 5:25). If marital union is an image of Christ’s union with the Church, this means, as Selmy observes, that marriage will involve “the same agony, the mingling of tears and blood, the same thorns digging into our skulls, the same nails plowed through our palms.”
In light of how many people believe the Church is “down on sex,” the glories and ecstasies to which authentic Catholic teaching calls spouses in their union should be emphasized. But these glories and ecstasies are the fruit of embracing much purifying suffering. If the joy is not set before us, we will have no motivation to endure the suffering. “For the joy set before him Christ endured the cross” (Heb 12:2). But if the path to those joys is not also realistically assessed, we will naively wonder why marriage is so agonizing.
A Realistic Look at the Pains of Marriage
As Selmys writes, “In every marriage there are moments when it seems impossible. I am sure that when Christ fell on the road to Calvary, the thought of lifting his cross again … seemed like madness. Perhaps its different through divine eyes, but for men, there are always moments when we turn to heaven and say, ‘Are you insane?’ When we are hardly able to see to the top of Golgotha through our dust-bitten tears, we derive no comfort from reassurances that crucifixion isn’t all that bad, and that, seen in perspective, its’ really a beautiful expression of love and self-giving.”
It is a beautiful expression of love, to be sure. But it’s beautiful precisely because Jesus selflessly embraced the wine-press of suffering. It’s when we’re face to face with that wine-press that we’re most tempted by sexual sin — be it an affair, internet pornography, masturbation, contraception. Why? Because sexual sin promises the pleasure without the pain, the “wine” without the wine-press. True love is always linked with suffering. As Fr. Paul Quay said in his book The Christian Meaning of Human Sexuality, “It is precisely this link between true love and suffering that is rejected by sexual sin.” Christ suffered greatly in loving his spouse. We are to follow him.