Marriage: two people 'in this thing together'

This story appears in the Synod on the Family feature series. View the full series.
Wilber and Esther Gomez, parishioners at St. Mary's Cathedral in Grand Island, Neb., renew their wedding vows at a 2011 anniversary Mass. (CNS/West Nebraska Register/Mary Parlin)
Wilber and Esther Gomez, parishioners at St. Mary's Cathedral in Grand Island, Neb., renew their wedding vows at a 2011 anniversary Mass. (CNS/West Nebraska Register/Mary Parlin)

by Michael Leach

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Editor's note: The 50-page instrumentum laboris, or working document, that was released June 26 and will guide the discussion during the October Synod of Bishops on the family was dry and impersonal, lifeless almost, and that confounded us at NCR.

From personal experience and from listening to colleagues, readers and friends, we have experienced marriage and family life as life-giving and joyous. Marriage and family life is not without its challenges and struggles; it offers ample lessons in humility and forgiveness, but that, too, at the best of times can be nurturing. If the writers of the instrumentum laboris, which is now supposed to be being studied in dioceses throughout the world, had begun with the fundamental experience of people who have lived in marriages and raised families, we wondered, how different would it have been?

So we asked two NCR contributors to answer this: If the Synod of Bishops asked me about marriage, what would I say?

Someone asked the comedian George Burns the secret of a successful marriage. He answered, "That's easy. Marry Gracie."

Marriage is a cosmic crapshoot. You have to be lucky enough to marry the right person but then you must also be the right person. Marriage is about two people endeavoring to be the right person day in and day out.

The right person values joy, an attribute of God that comes from being awake and aware of the sacred in the mundane. "It is wonderful to get a bouquet of flowers from my husband," writes novelist Elizabeth Berg, "but it means even more when he gets me aspirin for my cramps. I can take my husband out for a fancy dinner, but it will not give him as much pleasure as my telling him that he looks sexy in his ratty pajamas. In a world that feels cold and hostile, the value of marriage is that together you can create islands of 'June' that comfort and sustain you the whole year through. The trick is in remembering to do it."

Marriage begins when two people vow to go through life as one -- to have and to hold in good times and bad -- even in death. Actors Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis, married 56 years, made their final arrangements early: "Cremation after a public ceremony, and then, into an urn. A special urn, large enough and comfortable enough to hold both of us. Whoever goes first will wait inside for the other. When we are reunited at last, we want the family to say goodbye and seal the urn forever. Then on the side, in letters not too bold -- but not too modest either -- we want the following inscription: 'Ruby and Ossie -- In This Thing Together.' "

Like marriage itself, that urn with those comingled ashes is an outward sign of inward grace, something sacramental. It represents a promise two people made with all their hearts to participate as one in the life of God for all eternity. Marriage is two souls growing together in love and wisdom and joy, qualities of God that God breathed into their souls at creation.

So married people don't get joy out of marriage, they bring joy to their marriage. If they were killjoys before they got married, they will kill joy in their marriage. Marriage is two people "in this thing together" who work and play and kid around a lot, not just because it's enjoyable but because they have seen enough sorrow in the human condition.

Marriage is coming to know someone so well that you both say the same thing at the same time. It's being so close to someone that you think their thoughts and feel their feelings at the same time they think and feel them.

Marriage is being alone together, and being together even when you are alone. It is welcoming others into your circle because it increases your joy.

Marriage is reaching out to the poor, the lonely and the sick because that is the nature of love just as it is the nature of sunbeams to emanate from the sun. It is teaching your children the same values not by your words but by your life.

Marriage is choosing to have three children or two children or one child or no children at all. It is seeing birth control -- the pill, the sponge, the IUD -- not as a sin but a blessing.

Young marrieds who want children but can't have them after years of trying will live in full love without children or will adopt them or use artificial insemination. Those who choose the latter, like all parents, will watch their children grow like flowers and appreciate them with joy, even though sometimes, when life seems untenable, like all people will wish they had chosen another life.

Marrieds with children suffer every time their toddler scrapes a knee or their child gets bullied or their teenager depressed. They look at their babies and fall in love but worry if they will ever have enough money to put them through college, and they fight about only two things: money and children.

And when they are old, they will delight in grandchildren without wanting them to be anything other than what they are, and will not worry when their adult children pull their hair out. Like the grandmother in the movie "Parenthood," they have come to understand that the roller coaster is more gratifying than the merry-go-round: "Up down, up down, oh what a ride! ... You know, it was just so interesting to me that a ride that could make me so frightened, so scared, so excited, and so thrilled all together! ... [Other people] went on the merry-go-round. That just goes around. Nothing. I like the roller coaster. You get more out of it."

Marriage is not only about joy, it is also about mercy. On our 25th anniversary almost 25 years ago, Vickie and I sipped champagne at midnight in an empty restaurant on the top floor of the Stamford Hyatt overlooking a full moon that spread its one light on rich and poor neighborhoods and shimmered over the waters of Long Island Sound. We confessed to each other that when we met, each of us had tried to manipulate the other into marrying them because we knew that the other was someone we could still have fun with 50 years later, be a good parent, a loyal companion, and most of all, our best friend. That was a lovely moment in our marriage. Marriage is two people telling the truth about themselves without fear of being held accountable. They value mercy without strain, an attribute of God that expresses itself as forgiveness without blame.

Marriage is a graduate school for mercy that begins and never seems to end with ourselves. The miracle is this: When we are the right person but do the wrong thing, everything still turns out all right.

Marriage is a loving, long-term companionship that at its heart has little to do with sex or even gender. It is a mutual participation in the love of God. It is a familiarity that breeds content. It is the stuff of life that two people who once were separate and now are one go through. They sometimes hurt each other but want always to help each other. They experience suffering, sorrow, dissatisfaction and disappointment, but remember the laughter, intimacy, comfort and joy. They made a promise. They kept it.

First, they fell in love. That was the exciting part. Then they learned to love. That was the hard part. Finally, if they were lucky and married the right person and have become the right person, they simply love being loving, and that is the best part.

Marriage is a vocation that reveals attributes of God in the lives of two people who are "in this thing together." Unless you've been there, done that or are learning that, you may not be the best person to tell anyone else what it is.

[Michael Leach has been married to Vickie for 45 years. He is the author of several books, including the anthology I Like Being Married with Therese Borchard.]

A version of this story appeared in the Aug 1-14, 2014 print issue under the headline: The joy and mercy of marriage.

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