Soul Food: Living the Reality of Marriage

Last Thursday evening I was privileged to be asked to speak at 'Soul Food', a gathering of vibrant young Catholics for prayer and reflection. I was asked to speak about the reality of living a Catholic Marriage. It was the first time I'd delivered this particular talk so it was interesting to see how it "worked" in practice. I think if I do it again, I will know where to tweak it.

I started off quite heavy on the theology, grounding the talk in Trinity as the exemplar for the interpersonal project (communion-in-love-without-rivalry) and how, if we are created in the image and likeness of God, this is what we need to set as our goal (we are, after all, called to be Saints).

Trinity strikes me as a good starting point for any talk on relationship and Trinity is the centre and focus of theology; a rich mystery by which we can begin to understand so much about our humanity and how we relate to each other, but also what God is like and how our life will be in heaven.

I explained the way that Pope Saint John Paul II in his Theology of the Body speaks of a three fold path to being free to truly love someone. The purgative stage, which requires a firm resolve to follow God's commandments. It's like recognising that God's plan for us is real and good and surrendering to it. It is a choice we make interiorly to purge ourselves of disordered desires and to try and follow God's plan for our lives. It's not easy and we fall many times, but with the assistance of grace, through regular Confession and proper reception of the Sacraments our resolve is strengthened so that we can reach the second stage:

The second stage is the Illuminative stage. This stage reflects the point at which we begin to feel our lives coming in line with God's plan for our lives. It is the first fruits of choosing Him and where we can begin to understand how this is a freedom for excellence. At this stage, our lives are moving beyond simple continence toward actual virtue and we can start to work towards God rather than longing for the things which we now now know damage us and our relationships. At this stage we can start to feel less burdened by the struggle against sin and enjoy the things of the light more and more.

The final stage is the Unitive stage, living in relationship with God, dwelling in the light. If the first two stages represent a betrothal, this is the consummation.

Pope Saint John Paul II teaches that there are three infallible and indispensable means for living as the men and women we were created to be:
  • We must implore God for the power to live it in prayer.
  • We must draw grace and love from the ever-living fountain of the Eucharist
  • With humble perseverance, we must overcome our sins and faults in the Sacrament of Penance.
Within the Sacrament of Marriage, it seems to me that it is vital that both partners are in agreement about this teleology and in agreement. This is even more important once children come along of course.

The Challenges We Face

For the next part of the talk, I wanted to take the theology and show how it works in reality. I handed out some sheets on which I had written down some real-life scenarios, which I had anonymised. Situations where relationships had gone seriously wrong, and led a discussion about what went wrong and why. Working with the audience, I tried to pull out ways in which each situation could have been handled better. What were the issues that should have been highlighted or dealt with? What could a particular person have done, or what should they have done. The responses were insightful and interestingly, everyone instinctively could see where the problems lie in each case and could come up with strategies to cope. It's fascinating that this is often the case objectively, but rarely so when we are embroiled in that situation ourselves.

I talked about dealing with problems in marriage; the kind of problems that arise and strategies we can use to deal with them. I tried to call the men listening to greatness, to cast off the mediocrity society attempts to shackle them with and instead to lead lives of heroic virtue. I encouraged the women to hold out for the man you are worth and not to capitulate to a physical relationship, mistaking signs of lust for true affection or love. I told the group not to compromise on their Catholicity, to be bold, to claim the relationship for Christ from the beginning. I encouraged everyone not to settle for second best, but to live a love affair of the spirit; to fall head over heels in love, and not to simply 'end up' with the person they Marry.

Fruits of Love

Then I talked about the fruit of marriage; openess to children, contraception and all that good stuff. I tried to pass on what I have learned; that our whole mindset towards children is wrong in many ways. We are practically brain washed by a society that tells us consistently and in many different ways, that children remove your freedom, cost you your dreams and limit your horizons. The lived reality is the complete opposite. Children are the biological goal of our physical existence and the greatest joy. everyone knows this at some level.

The moral norm in modern society seems to be some form of idolatry which pushes the cult of self and chases false idols of money, sexual promiscuity, and power and misrepresents them as freedoms. The reality is such selfish desires simply chain us to a base existence grounded in physicality and a unfillable fleshy pit of carnal desires. This hole just grows and grows as we feed it more and more, until we understand that what we need to fill it cannot be found in the physical, we need to look elsewhere.

In many ways, Feminism has created an illusion where women are divorced from the family and asked what they can achieve for themselves, when freedom and happiness are fundamentally linked to our need for a mutually caring relationship; think about it, at a deep level, what we are all craving is to really care for someone, and for that someone to really care for us. We are told that contraception presents us with choices and freedoms which have never before been available to society, yet the amount of sexual violence and depravity in our society continues to grow, now everything seems licit, and the only thing that supersedes this continuous expansion is the abortion rate as our society slaughters the innocent victims of our promiscuity on the altar of our own unfettered selfishness.

Meanwhile, men are enslaved by pornography and devoid of everything that makes them men: integrity, honour, loyalty. After all, what are we except highly evolved, social animals? I called the men  not to fall prey to a society that says these virtues are worthless and instead calls you to be increasingly selfish and isolated. You are called to greatness!!

Love is abundance, it gives selflessly of itself and it is not characterised by the lustful animalistic flush we are all prone to. We have reduced sex to the physical in our society, divorcing it from its spiritual dimension and reality. We have made it something animalistic and genital, but the reality is that it is part of all human interactions. And because it is a spiritual and a physical reality, just as we are spiritual and physical beings, we must be especially careful in understanding its role in our lives.

I finished off with a personal anecdote about being put under pressure to have a vasectomy after John (my fourth child) was born, by a member of my own family, but refusing. I then revealed that the last 'Real Life' scenario I'd given out was mine & Lou's story of losing Ruth. This was where things got really intense. I spoke a bit about that experience and how, if I had listened to the world, I would not have even been in a position for God to bless us with Mary. I spoke about this as my experience of love; love from God who held me and supported me in such a tangible way through the whole aftermath, both in prayer, through the Sacraments, in my prayer-life and also through the community, who just wrapped Lou and I in love, and my family (by which I mean Lou and the boys) who provided the framework for recovery. The fact that Lou never judged me for driving the car, she never questioned her love for me or that we would stay married, and that offered me salvation and it was a profound demonstration of love.

I used this image to explain how I felt after the accident:

It conveys the real sense of the strength of Christ I felt. I was unable to cope, even to function. I was destroyed by my loss, utterly devasted and life was something I did not want to even contemplate without Ruth. But He came to me, and in a way that was and is so tangible—I can't really communicate it adequately—held me up and kept me going. The man in the image holds the tools by which he has crucified the one who now holds him. This represents for me the reality that I drove the car in which Ruth died. The way the man is collapsed expresses for me the way I felt utterly impotent even to the point where I felt I could no draw breath, could not walk, could not open my eyes unassisted. The man's closed eyes are representative of my desire to shut out the reality and enormity of what I faced. If only I could turn the clock back, if only…if only. I kept my eyes shut for a long while, blind to any way forward, determined not to look at what was in front of me. Jesus never forced me, He accompanied me through my pain. He held me, He met me every day at Mass and, inch by inch, he helped me to stand up on my own. He helped me to open my eyes. This is my experience of lived love: Christ holding me and inching me back to a life lived in love; in the bosom of my family. He showed me my sons, watching me for how to feel, unsure and in pain themselves, looking for reassurance and the safety of their father's hug. He showed me my loyal and loving wife who patiently stood by my side, who held me and wiped away my tears when I cried, who always loved me, even in my utter self-loathing, even in my brokenness and vulnerability. He pointed to the fact that these people loved me in my pain and suffering, not because of my strength, and I saw my Crucified and buried God for who and what He really is.

then I read out this letter I received from my course director:
Dear Mark 
I have wanted to write you another note since my last, simply to let you know how much you and your wife dominate my thoughts and prayers. Not an hour passes throughout the day when I don't think of you and pray earnestly for your consolation. As a parent of young children, I feel that I can enter somewhat into your grief, at least theoretically. Such a tragedy that has engulfed you and your wife always lurks as a possibility at the back of the mind of every parent. One feels so keenly how these little ones are not ours at all, but God's: His to give, His to return to Himself, in whatever manner His incomprehensible mystery wills it to be. I am entirely with you, in thought and prayer, as you endure this unfathomable mystery. There are, of course no merely human words that can touch your grief. But I want you to know that, throughout all this, you are being asked to participate in the dereliction and bewilderment of our Lord in His Passion in a most radical way. "With Christ I hang upon the Cross" (Gal 2:20). You have been brought so very deeply into the mystery of love, and the sacrifice of love, in the most drastic and direct way. The graces and treasures that are to be gained from this deepest participation are unfathomable and infinite. In a way beyond all our knowing, the loss of your daughter, and all that it involves, has great meaning and purpose, in ways we can not understand "What I am doing know you do not understand, but afterwards you will understand" (John 13:17)
The Lord is with you now, embracing you in your grief, carrying you, united to you, in a manner quite unlike any other stage in your life. Every day I ask Him to establish Himself in a new way in the heart of your family, to be the light that shines in your darkness. And when there is no light, know that He is most assuredly and especially with you in that deepest night; it is hard but remarkable to think, of course, that He has tasted to the dregs the darkness of every conceivable human tragedy. By this He wants you to know that you are never alone in this.
May He unite, as well, all of you together ever more intensely, especially you and your dear wife, suffering together as one heart and soul. This I pray, until that day when "He shall wipe away every tear from your eyes" (Revelation 21:4).
Yours ever truly in Christ 
Tim Kelly
They were literally in tears at this point and I was choking them back!

Then I read out a bit from the World Meeting of Families that Robert Barron said about the mission of families (I blogged about it here and posted the full video). I felt this part of the talk built to a bit of crescendo and that was it! Standing ovation, and lots of questions afterwards! They've videod it and are going to put it ion a dvd to market for any churches who want to have their own "Soul Food" group meetings


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