Arts and Culture

The Mystery of Marriage

First in a series

Recently I began to re-read for the second time “Beginning Your Marriage” (ACTA Publishers, Chicago, Illinois, 1994, Revised Version) by John J. Thomas, S.J., revised by David M. Thomas.

My reason for re-reading the book was to help a young couple prepare for their marriage. I hoped that the book would be a special gift in their lives. It has turned out to be a gift in my life.

The authors’ insights into marriage are both provocative and inspiring. I cannot think of one aspect of married life that this book does not deal with intelligently. What I find especially attractive about the book is that the authors often back up their claims by appeals to experience. I guess I also like the book because the authors’ view of the mystery of love is in some ways similar to how I present the mystery of love in philosophy classes at St. John’s University.

The following comments about the mystery of love appear early in the book:

“…there is another meaning of mystery, which is that the reality is so deep, profound and spiritual that it cannot be reduced to simple definitions. There always seems to be more there than can be comprehended. That is exactly what genuine love is. It is a mystery to those who experience it and it is a mystery to those who observe it. It is no wonder that so many conclude that such a force in the universe must be divine.

“Nevertheless, we can describe some of the characteristics of love between a man and a woman. It is a strong, affective, emotional attachment having aspects of sexual attraction, desire and tenderness. It is an attitude which desires what is best for the beloved. It is the force that initiates marriages and keeps them growing for decades and decades.” (p. 18)

While quoting from this book I am thinking of a strange but perhaps at least partially true statement that was made by a male student in one of my philosophy classes at St. John’s University. I was confessing that, whenever I officiate at a wedding, I am in awe when the man and woman state their vows. To me it is awesome that two persons can be so in love with one another that they can make unconditional vows for life.

Why would a finite, imperfect, fragile human being say to another finite, fragile and imperfect human being: “I take you for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health until death do us part. I promise to love you and care for you for the rest of our lives”? The only reason I can offer that someone might make such vows is that love does this kind of thing.

Perhaps this is why some poets have claimed that love is a kind of madness. When I mentioned to the class that I found marriage vows amazing, a young man raised his hand and said, “No one means those words. They are just a custom! No one means them.”

The class was being held on the fifth floor of a building at St. John’s. I was afraid that the young ladies in the class were going to throw the young man out the window!

I hope the young man was wrong but it may be that some couples entering marriage do not have a deep grasp of what they are promising. Think of the large number of marriages that fail.

I have been blessed in my life by having friends whose marriages have been a wonderful, great inspiration to me. The love and unselfishness that seem to animate their lives challenges me.

A dramatic example stands out in my memory. I was invited to a dinner party and one of the guests, a lady, had a serious illness, something like Lou Gehrig’s disease. When I was introduced to her I could not understand what she said. During the meal, I observed that her husband fed her and that some of the food was dripping down her chin. I was told that every morning her husband bathed her, dressed her and whenever he was invited anywhere, he brought his wife with him.

As I looked over at her, I thought that visibly there is probably little resemblance between the woman being fed and the same woman as a young bride on her wedding day. I recall thinking to myself that her husband really meant the vows he made on their wedding day.

I believe that in the contemporary world, every sign of unselfish love that we can observe can be a blessing and a grace. The love that a man and a woman give to one another in their marital relationship can reach out and touch others.

Father Lauder is a philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica. He presents two 15-minute talks from his lecture series on the Catholic Novel, every Tuesday at 9 p.m. on NET-TV.


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