This editor’s note appeared in the January 2009 issue of Religion Teacher’s Journal.
I recently met a couple who have been married 51 years. As I was expressing my admiration at the duration of their marriage, the husband smiled and said, “We’re still hoping it’s going to work out.”
He was joking, but, if you’re married or you know people who are, you know there’s truth in what he said. Marriage is an everyday commitment. It’s a lifetime of “I dos.”
When I was in grade school, my teachers told me it is the “grace of the sacrament” that gives couples the strength to make that everyday commitment. While that is certainly true, it’s not as automatic as my young mind imagined it. What causes some marriages to work out and others to fail? Did those in broken marriages get less grace? And what about non-sacramental marriages that succeed? What is it that holds them together? In other words, do sacraments really make a difference?
Of course they do, but how? My teachers tried to explain it. One of them recited the Baltimore Catechism answer to us. Another drew a picture of a milk bottle on the board and “filled” it with white chalk. The bottle was our soul, and the white was grace that God poured into us through the sacraments. The original word for “sacraments—the one the apostles used—is “mysteries.” Sacraments are mysteries, like the mystery of being in love. Try to explain the mystery of being in love to a child, and you see how limited our explanation can be. We can only tell them our story. The “experts” at love, like the couple above, can only share their understanding. The secret to how sacraments work is different for everyone. We have to listen to the church and to the stories of others and to the promptings of the Holy Spirit and then, finally, figure it out for ourselves. Every sacrament, not just marriage, has that mystery to it that we have to discover for ourselves.
In his play The Skin of Our Teeth, Thornton Wilder gives us a clue about what makes marriages work. It might also be a clue to what makes all the other sacraments work as well.
I didn’t marry you because you were perfect. I didn’t even marry you because I loved you. I married you because you gave me a promise. That promise made up for your faults. And the promise I gave you made up for mine. Two imperfect people got married and it was the promise that made the marriage. And when our children were growing up, it wasn’t a house that protected them; and it wasn’t our love that protected them—it was that promise.