Merciful love is supremely indispensable between those who are closest to one another: between husbands and wives, between parents and children, between friends; and it is indispensable in education and in pastoral work.
— Pope St. John Paul II, Dives in Misericordia
The book of Tobit eloquently reminds us that the sacrament of marriage is a love story with God in the middle.
“When the door was shut and the two were alone, Tobias got up from the bed and said, ‘Sister, get up, and let us pray and implore our Lord that he grant us mercy and safety.’
And they began to say, ‘Blessed are you, O God of our fathers, and blessed be your holy and glorious name for ever. Let the heavens and all your creatures bless you.
You made Adam and gave him Eve his wife as a helper and support.
From them the race of mankind has sprung. You said, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone; let us make a helper for him like himself.”’ And now, O Lord, I am not taking this sister of mine because of lust, but with sincerity. Grant that I may find mercy and may grow old together with her.’ And they both said, ‘Amen, amen.’” (Tob. 8:4–8)
Indeed we cry out to God, “Call down your mercy on marriage!” We are called to exercise our prophetic voice to protect the sublime authenticity of sacramental marriage. The inspired book of Tobit is a striking reflection on God’s mercy and an important reminder that when God is in the middle of marriage, spouses are blessed, healed, and delivered. Marriage, elevated to a sacramental state, is a priceless gift to couples, children, society, and Church. The “merciful love” that St. John Paul II speaks of in his encyclical Dives in Misericordia is indispensable to the vitality of marriage as God envisioned it. Pope St. John Paul II recognized that sacramental marriage and matters relating to sex, the body, and the family are the battleground of the war between good and evil, and he gave us the gift of the Theology of the Body given between 1979 and 1984.
Healing the Wounds of Marriage
On June 24, 2015, in his general audience in Rome, Pope Francis preached on the wounds of the family:
We know well that every family on occasion suffers moments when one family member offends another. The resulting wounds come from words, actions and omissions, which, instead of expressing love, hurt those nearest and dearest, causing deep divisions among family members, above all between husband and wife. If these wounds are not healed in time, they worsen and turn into resentment and hostility, which then fall to the children. When the wounds are particularly deep they can even lead a spouse to search for understanding elsewhere, to the detriment of the family.
We have a responsibility to God and to one another to apply medicinal mercy wherever there is a wound. Probably we have experienced the deep fissures of the heart wounded by marital and family divisions that beg for healing.
I was struck by additional comments of the Supreme Pontiff during the same Wednesday audience: “We speak a lot about behavioral problems, mental health, the well-being of the child, the anxiety of the parents and the children—but do we even know what a wound of the soul is? Do we feel the weight of the mountain that crushes the soul of a child in those families where members mistreat and hurt one another to the point of breaking the bonds of marital fidelity? What effect do our choices — often poor choices—have on the souls of children?” he asked. The pope concluded with a prayer for “a deep love to approach all families with His merciful heart.”
Do we believe that God is eager to open the floodgates of mercy to heal marriages? Believers have a serious responsibility to engage in the spiritual war to reclaim marriage according to God’s original plan in the ordered harmony of Eden, when He created us male and female.
Sacramental marriage, unsupported by the present anti- Christian culture, requires graced due diligence. There was a time when my marriage nearly unraveled. The emotional wounds came from within and without. Forgiveness saved us. I thank God for calling my husband and me to the vocation of sacramental marriage and for blessing us with the undeserved gift of children. We made mistakes and yet amazing sacramental grace holds us together, growing and learning to love as God wills. Marriage is too precious a gift of God to discard because the sacrifice of love hurts occasionally. The sacrifice is beautiful when understood in the light of the dignity of marriage that reflects the spousal love of God for His Church. Marriage, worth every effort, is one of the greatest goods of divine mercy.
Absent God in the middle, marriage according to His plan is nearly impossible in our secular culture, where anything goes. Marriage challenges our selfishness, egoism, independence, and indulgence. Ideally marriage is where the male and female hearts intertwine with the merciful heart of the Redeemer to produce more charity.
Family built on the solid foundation of a happy marriage is happening less today for a number of reasons. William B. May, President of Catholics for the Common Good and author of Getting the Marriage Conversation Right, says that although a high percentage of high school seniors still aspire to marriage, “The numbers achieving their dreams of marriage has dropped precipitously. Marriage is in crisis.” For children the stakes are extremely high. Anyone who, as a child, has suffered his parents’ divorce can attest to this. In my family, when a cousin divorced, his son committed suicide. Such wounds beg God’s mercy. The Church is on the forefront of defending marriage and family in the public square; this is a mission for all the faithful.
I propose the Beatitudes as a way of strengthening marriages. Here I paraphrase Dr. Gregory Popcak’s eight marriage-friendly habits that many happy married couples exhibit as presented in When Divorce Is Not an Option. Please do not become demoralized if your marriage is missing these habits. Pray and discern whether these might be helpful and patiently begin.
- “Rituals of Connection”: work, play, talk, prayer
- “Emotional Rapport and Benevolence” (Gal. 6:2:“bear one another’s burdens”)
- “Self-regulation”: capacity to stay calm and to regain composure even under pressure.
- “A Positive Intention Frame”: the ability to assume the best about your spouse even at his or her worst.
- “Caretaking in Conflict”: solving the problem is not as important as taking care of each other as you work toward the solution.
- “Mutual Respect, Accountability, and Boundaries”: Ephesians 5:21 challenges husbands and wives to defer to one another out of reverence for Christ.
- “Reviewing and Learning from Mistakes”: work hard to learn from mistakes and do not dredge up past hurts or attack each other. But do not ignore the past so that mistakes are not repeated.
- “Getting Good Support”: choose wisely your network of support: friends, family, pastors, and counselors.
Marriage in God’s Plan
It may be helpful to consider the following in light of the virtues: chastity, temperance, charity, diligence, patience, kindness, and humility.
The matrimonial covenant, by which a man and a woman establish between themselves a partnership of the whole of life, is by its nature ordered toward the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of offspring; this covenant between baptized persons has been raised by Christ the Lord to the dignity of a sacrament.
Sacred Scripture begins with the creation of man and woman in the image and likeness of God and concludes with a vision of “the wedding-feast of the Lamb.” Scripture speaks throughout of marriage and its “mystery,” its institution and the meaning God has given it, its origin and its end, its various realizations throughout the his- tory of salvation, the difficulties arising from sin and its renewal “in the Lord” in the New Covenant of Christ and the Church. (CCC 1601–1602)
Marriage Under the Regime of Sin
It may be helpful to consider the following in light of the capital sins: pride, lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, anger, and envy.
Every man experiences evil around him and within himself. This experience makes itself felt in the relationships between man and woman. Their union has always been threatened by discord, a spirit of domination, infidelity, jealousy, and conflicts that can escalate into hatred and separation. This disorder can manifest itself more or less acutely, and can be more or less over- come according to the circumstances of cultures, eras, and individuals, but it does seem to have a universal character. (CCC 1606)
According to faith the disorder we notice so painfully does not stem from the nature of man and woman, nor from the nature of their relations, but from sin. As a break with God, the first sin had for its first consequence the rupture of the original communion between man and woman. Their relations were distorted by mutual recriminations; their mutual attraction, the Creator’s own gift, changed into a relationship of domination and lust; and the beautiful vocation of man and woman to be fruitful, multiply, and subdue the earth was burdened by the pain of childbirth and the toil of work (CCC 1607).
Prayer for Marriage: Ever More a Woman, Ever More a Man
Most Holy Trinity, we come before you as husband and wife bound in the sacrament of matrimony by chords of divine love. You called us to this sacrament of communion assuring us of your presence, grace, and protection. We are sorry for our mutual imperfection of love, weakness in virtue, taking each other for granted, hurtful actions and words, insecurities and indiscretions. We ask you to restore us, to renew what we have lost, to heal what has been wounded and worn out. Graciously restore our joy of journeying together through the adventure of life with you in the middle of our hearts. As spouses we entrust ourselves to your merciful love that heals all wounds. Grant a drop of your Precious Blood to fall upon us now. We echo the words of Christ’s Vicar Pope Francis (9-14-14), “I love you, and for this love I help you to become ever more a woman”; “I love you, and for this love I help you to become ever more a man.” Jesus, we trust in You.
Editor’s note: : This article is an excerpt from God’s Healing Mercy: Finding Your Path to Forgiveness, Peace, and Joy, which is available from Sophia Institute Press.