This Is What Makes Marriage Work

Cling to Jesus Christ, whose presence will bolster your marriage and sanctify you as husbands and wives, fathers and mothers.

Giusto de’ Menabuoi, “The Wedding at Cana,” ca. 1376-1378
Giusto de’ Menabuoi, “The Wedding at Cana,” ca. 1376-1378 (photo: Public Domain)

A colleague reminded me the other day of something I’d once said to him when asked what advice I’d give should he ever decide to marry and have kids. “Prayer and earplugs,” I replied, not realizing at the time how fatuous it would sound now that he’s already done both.

I did get it half-right, however, since reliance on prayer will prove indispensable when surrounded by children. Certainly not earplugs because you’ll need to pay close attention, and prayer will most wonderfully concentrate the mind. Oh yes, and because you’re listening to God, paying an intensity of attention to his Word, you’re far more likely to hear her words, too, which are always worth listening to even if your wife is not God. 

But that’s not nearly good enough, is it? Not unless you compare marriage to a game of baseball. If that were the case, I’d be batting better than the legendary Ty Cobb, whose average never came close to .500. But marriage isn’t at all like baseball. To say that it is, is like stealing a base, which is what Ty Cobb excelled at doing. There is no other game in town even remotely like marriage. Chesterton, for whom the conjugal connection was an adventure of the highest order, thought it was more like going to war. Just be sure you’re on the winning side.

For half the married population, that means Do whatever she tells you. Unconditional surrender, in other words, which has certainly been the recipe for success in our house for going on 40 tumultuous and wonderful years. If it weren’t for my being married I’d probably have spent my entire life thinking there wasn’t anything wrong with me at all. How freeing it is to be told, sometimes a dozen or more times a day, that it simply isn’t so. Knowing the worst about yourself, news of which most wives are not at all shy about sharing with their husbands, is a truly salutary way to begin a life of holiness.

The first time I found that out was on our honeymoon when, driving up the New England Coast, I had this sudden mad impulse to pull off the road and go look for “The Dry Salvages.” If you know your Four Quartets, we’re talking about a few miserable rocks, including a beacon, just beyond the shoreline of Cape Ann, Massachusetts, where T.S. Eliot set the third movement of his famous poem. What a mistake that turned out to be. Not my first, mind you, but it certainly set the stage. And not because the sighting fell short of the buildup I’d breathlessly been giving it as I abruptly parked the car. But because there was nothing to see, the thick November fog having made sure of that, leaving the two of us staring haplessly out to sea. My poor wife, meanwhile, wondering just what sort of wild man she’d foolishly signed on with. 

What finally saved us, of course — indeed, it continues to do so — was the realization that what we’d need more than anything else — indeed, we’d just been reminded of it by the holy priest who married us — was the practice of mutual and undying subjection to Christ. “Without me you can do nothing,” he tells us. And he really means it. Only our sins may we take complete ownership of. Concerning which I’ve been a real expert most of my life. 

That will account, by the way, for the answer my wife gave me when, flush with enthusiasm about a writing project I had in mind, I announced that it would be about love. “You’re not wise enough to write a book about love,” she told me. She was right. So, I wrote a book about death instead, a subject for which I’ve always had a lively curiosity. 

Do not let me hear
Of the wisdom of old men, but rather of their folly,
Their fear of fear and frenzy, their fear of possession,
Of belonging to another, or to others, or to God.
The only wisdom we can hope to acquire
Is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless.
—T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets

So, if you want a good marriage, one that will outlast the follies committed by guys like me, be sure and find a mate seriously wedded to Christ. 

And be sure to invite him to the wedding. Allow him to be the third member of your marriage, especially these days when perils threaten on all sides. Has there ever been an age less hospitable to the Church’s teaching on sex, love and life? Cling to Christ, therefore, whose presence in your marriage will be the assurance you’ll need to prevent it from imploding. See him as the North Star of all that is true and good and beautiful; mindful as well that it is to his Bride and Mother that he has given us everything on which we depend, not only for the survival of our marriages, but our very sanctification as husbands and wives, fathers and mothers. She exists, after all, in order to share Christ with all who have drawn near to her. “Whenever we look towards Mary,” Pope Benedict reminds us, “she shows us Jesus.” Through her mediation we learn the truth about marriage and family life and, yes, even priesthood and religious life, both splendid vocations, which interlace at every level with conjugal life and love. 

You will not regret knowing these truths. In fact, you will be endlessly enriched by them.