A few weeks ago, the Atlanta seminarians gathered for a retreat. My favorite activity was sitting with friends on the porch engrossed in deep conversation. One topic that came up was the nature of the vocation to the married life. A group of five or six of us reflected on our own family lives growing up. Several of us (me included) had divorced parents, and all of us know people who never met their father. We were trying to understand the necessary grace involved in the married life and its difficulty in our modern culture. It was a powerful conversation.
About two weeks later at the parish, I was invited to a party at the Knights of Columbus hall for a couple who were celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary. I did not know the couple, but as I walked into the tastefully decorated hall, I saw familiar faces, all happily enjoying the abundantly provided fare. I was introduced to many new people and greeted others I had already met. At some point I noticed a slide show that was continuously cycling on the back wall. A quick glance revealed to me that it consisted of photographs of the anniversary couple from their entire life. I glanced at it but paid it no mind.
The Knights of Columbus had arranged to present the couple with a Papal Blessing, and they asked the pastor to do the honors. Fr. Greg is a notoriously shy man, so I could tell he was a little uncomfortable, but despite his discomfort he said the most amazing thing. I hope I never forget it. He said: “Your fifty years together don’t prove that marriage is easy, but they show that marriage is possible.”
Possible. The folks in the room chuckled. I saw a number of aged hands join in a sign of enduring love. I saw wrinkled faces radiating glowing smiles far too profoundly to be mere superficiality. I saw the reaction of couples for whom the term “vow” carries profound meaning—couples living a true commitment to love one another their entire lives—through wars and hardships and various ups and downs. It was an incredible moment.
Then the anniversary couple made an announcement. In the room were three other couples which in the last month had celebrated 50th anniversaries. Fifty years together, through the vicissitudes of lives spent squelching concupiscent vanity and selfishness, growing in love and faith, enduring the rocky bottoms of a relationship and reveling in the soaring heights of happiness. I suspect that if I had grown up with those people, I would never have doubted that marriage is possible. Instead, I grew up in a culture of no-fault divorce with divorced parents and friends with divorced parents. Divorce is sort-of hard-wired into me as an option. Something inside of me, some dark voice, repeats to me again and again that nothing can last that long, and sometimes I believe it.
I turned my attention to the slide show and found myself surprisingly moved by the pictures. I was invited into this couple’s life. The husband had served in the navy, and when they married (he looked so handsome in his white dinner jacket, and she was angelic in her dress), he was beginning his career as an engineer. They spent what seemed to be a number of their first years together in a trailer, probably saving money for a house and a little boat for fishing. When their first house appeared in the photos, the pride and joy in their faces were evident, visually surpassed only when their first child was born. It was a life spent working hard and living responsibly and honoring the commitments they had made, despite hardships.
The funny thing about pictures is that they only recall the good times. In a certain sense, pictures are hopelessly biased, reducing difficult and complicated lives to a series of happy vacation poses. But in many ways, cameras work very much like our memories. As I move further and further away from events in my life, the trial and tribulation of it all passes away, and all I remember is the happiness and the grace. Sadly, I know not everyone is like this, and some experiences are of the sort that they never pass into happiness—at least in this life.
I studied economics in grad school at Georgia Tech. I remember that I used to always get irritated at the phrase the long term: in the long term, doing x is a good decision, even though it may be difficult in the short term. I used to say that the best long term plan isn’t worth squat if you can’t make it through the short term, and the best short term plan is a disaster if it sacrifices the long term. I suppose the same thing applies to marriage: those folks who celebrated their golden jubilees had made it through the short term into the long term of their marriage. They figured out what it takes to love someone through arguments and awful situations and difficulties and sickness and financial disaster. Their inter-personal experience was deeper than emotion and feeling, which are nothing more than short-term ambiguous indicators of who-knows-what. Their lives together bore and bear witness to a commitment that when lived fully is an icon of Trinitarian love, which never passes away and surpasses the poverty and disorder of our emotional experience.
I suppose the trouble that we seminarians had while pondering marriage is that we have grown up in a society afraid of commitment and sacrifice. In a world where enduring marriage has become more anecdote than expectation, the celibate priesthood seems nearly impossible. But holy priests like John Cardinal Newman, St. John Vianney, and Pope John Paul II show us that what is impossible for man is possible for God. Those of you who are struggling in your marriages: know that seminarians pray for you and truly desire that your marriages endure and flourish. Your lives bring about the Kingdom of God in the world, one relationship at a time, and your witness of commitment brings hope to all those around you. Marriage is beautiful, life-giving, enduring, and perhaps most importantly, possible.