For many Christians, the central thrust of their life on earth will take place either in, or in direct contact with, married life. This does not negate the realities of celibate religious vocations (relatively small numbers), lifelong singlehood (perhaps more, depending on how you define relationships), or divorced and widowed life (staggeringly enormous numbers). But even those in the other states of life normally come into regular contact with married people. And yet, some Catholic approaches to a spirituality of marriage basically move from Pre-Cana through the ceremony and then adopt a “See you at the funeral!” attitude in terms of spiritual formation.
To avoid such perspectives, Richard Gaillardetz’s classic text “A Daring Promise” would be a welcome addition to any married Christians’ libraries.
First, to be clear, the author’s approach is not what he decries as the all-too-common “unrealistic vision of married life,” rooted in a simplified idea of God as the third party in matrimonial co-existence, an individual super-Being who must compete for our attention with the busyness of our daily struggles and anxieties. Gaillardetz claims these well-meaning platitudes are tainted by a faulty notion of prayer, where Christians attempt to invoke an absent Entity to somehow appear from thin air in their lives when they consciously get around to wishing it were so. This is not to belittle prayer — whether it be individual, shared or liturgical. But it realizes that such a vision is far from the abiding, sustaining, ground of and condition for Being and Love that is described in a life of communion with God by great Christian thinkers and humble mystics alike.
Christian marriage, exhibited in developing qualities like mutuality, authentic intimacy, companionship, forgiveness and ongoing conversion, is a lifelong commitment. And even more importantly, Gaillardetz reminds us that “love is work.”
Marriage is in essence the building of the domestic church. For those involved, it is “the most basic way in which we experience ourselves drawn into the life of God through our way of being with and for one another.” In that sense, marriage is a, or perhaps the, preeminent “school of discipleship” for many followers of Christ.
The closing paragraph of the book is powerful to me, especially as I stand on the precipice of this leap in the coming months. “The community of married life is founded on the most radical of human actions; two people promise themselves, one to another, each casting their lot with this person for the rest of their lives. These promises are most dangerous; they indeed engage us in a daring undertaking. To remain faithful to these promises is to risk everything. … To marry is to submit to a crucible of grace. Here the hammer strikes hot iron often as we are being forged into something new, something noble, something of God.”
This pledge to bind oneself to another is radical and life-altering in every instance. However, my fiancé is leaving her family, culture and home in Europe to make such a leap with me. The added vulnerability to accept the intensity and reach and profundity of someone loving me to that extent and my coequal return of that gift has broader theological cognates for me. To cite Gaillardetz once again, “The experience of being stretched by the otherness of one’s spouse is, I am convinced, an experience of nothing less than God’s saving work in us.”
An honest assessment will admit that the drift in and out of attentiveness and care is a real phenomenon for any couple. But Gaillardetz’s text reminds us that fidelity is not merely a spotless record of never betraying the other, but ultimately an aspiration to approximate the relentless presence and power and acceptance of a Transcendence who cannot be other than God-for-us.
Originally from Collingswood, Michael M. Canaris, Ph.D., teaches at Loyola University, Chicago.