MARRIAGE AS A PATH TO SANCTIFICATION
by Fr. William Most
"Marriage and the Christian family call for a moral commitment. They
are not an easy way of Christian life. . . . Rather, marriage is a long
path toward sanctification."
These words of Pope Paul VI, addressed to the Italian Feminine Center
on Feb. 12, 1966, will come as a surprise, to many. For many people think;
If someone wants to become holy, he/she will enter religious life or the
priesthood; as for the others, they just get married. Yet, as we saw, Paul
VI said marriage was a long road to holiness. And he is very right. If only
people know how to use it in that way it will be a great means of real
holiness, and also of a better kind of happiness in this world. It is not
unusual to meet persons who find their marriage very difficult. During
courtship, it seemed to them that they would live happily ever after - they
needed only each other. But then after a year or two, what a change. But it
need not be that way. Yes, the intoxication many find at the start does not
last, and cannot last. But something much more satisfying can come. Let us
see how it is.
We begin by noticing that every human life presents a large problem.
For we are, of course, born as babies. God - we are glad of that - has made
us so that we just automatically like babies. Otherwise we would find it
hard to put up with their selfishness. For a baby starts life completely
enclosed in a shell of self. It could not be otherwise, of course. If baby
could think and speak clearly he/she would say: "Those big giants around me
- they are here to give me what I want, when I want it, as I want it, or I
will fix them: Waa!
But how are we to get from that poor start to the point of real
maturity, without which we cannot enjoy life the way we should, and are
even in danger of losing eternal life? Our Father in Heaven has designed a
wonderful plan. If we follow our Father's plan, we will find that marriage
is a wonderful means of holiness, and at the same time, of a great
happiness even in this life, a happiness far better than what most people
So how are we going to get from that start in a shell of self to the
point of being really and deeply interested in, desirous of the well-being
and happiness of another for the other's sake. (That actually is the real
definition of love). It is obvious, to traverse that distance needs a
marvelous design. Our Father has provided that, if only we know of it and
consciously intend to follow it.
The process begins when baby begins to play with other little ones. It
is not long before he makes a discovery he does not at all like: "Why that
other fellow thinks he has some rights!. Not! I am the only one who has
rights!" We mean that they are quarreling over a toy, and each thinks he
has a right to it.
Of course there will be many such occasions. In them, baby slowly
begins to grasp that there are others who have rights too.
Some years pass. Then, around age 9, there comes the time when
naturally, little boys really dislike little girls: "They are just silly,
giggling, gangly sissies." But little girls feel the same. They have no
liking at all for uncouth little boys, who get filthy in the dirt and play
A few years ago I was teaching swimming for Red Cross. Next to my
class was a class made up of all girls, except for one 9 year old boy. He
stuck it out for a few weeks, but then told his mother he could not stand
being with all those girls.
However, time passed, and then his mother met me again, and said: "Now
he is combing his hair." Yes, chemistry changed, hormones developed.
Now two processes started to work automatically. First, this chemical,
hormonal change began to put a rosy light, a magical light, around some
particular girl. We cannot predict which one it will be, but it will
happen. And a similar thing happens to the girls.
From the psychological point of view, there are three stages in love.
First, one sees something fine in another. That leads, in second place, to
the reaction: So fine a person! I hope he/she is well-off and happy. Then,
thirdly, if this reaction is strong, one will not be satisfied with merely
willing or wishing, but will act to make the other happy.
Now if this can happen when the other party just seems to be fine -
what will it be when the other party seems to be "wonderful, marvelous"?
The magic rosy light from chemistry does make the other seem wonderful. If
a boy says a girl plays tennis well, is good in class work, etc. , nothing
has yet struck him. But when he says "marvelous, wonderful," then he has
been hit with an arrow in the heart.
Obviously, this process powerfully tends to produce love in the will.
But it only tends - damage can come, as we will explain in a moment.
There is a second parallel process at work at this point. For even
though as we said, love is basically in the spiritual will, which wants the
other to be well-off and happy, yet in the human scene, feelings,
chemistry, tend to go along with it. Psychologists who really understand,
say such feelings are the somatic resonance to the deeper attitude in the
will, to real love. For since we are made up of two parts, body and soul,
matter and spirit, and since the two are so closely put together as to add
up to one person, the result is this: if there is a condition on either of
the two sides, then, for normal running, there should be a parallel
condition on the other side. That parallel condition is called a resonance.
When it comes on the bodily side, it is called somatic resonance (Greek
soma means body). This is a second process that powerfully tends to develop
the attitude of love in the spiritual will. But please notice, we said it
tends - something could be damaged as we will see presently.
There are two ways to frustrate this brilliant plan of our Father.
First, if a person uses sex for private fun, for masturbation, that turns
him/her back into the babylike shell of self. It means a poor forecast for
a successful marriage.
The second way into trouble takes two. If they use each other for
sensual gratification, for premarital sex, then it will feel like love.
There will be a feelings of warmth, tenderness, desire for closeness and
the like. But it will be only chemistry. Real love is unlikely to develop
in such a setting. For they are putting each other into such a state that
if death came, that one would be wretched for ever. That is not desiring
the happiness of another. It is closer to the opposite. As we said, it is
Besides the offense to our Father, there is another tragic side to
such a picture. For even though it will feel like love, so that each will
say: "Oh, but I love him/her!" there is probably no love at all, just
chemistry. They can be easily be fooled by these feelings into marrying
without love. That is one of life's great tragedies!
But if he couple play the game the way our Father designed it, real love
will develop. Each will be most deeply concerned for the well-being and
happiness of the other.
How far they are then from the shell of self in which they started!
Such is the power of the Father's plan, if only they use it the way He
designed it, and intend to do so. It is only by playing it that way that
they can be sure of having real love -otherwise, it is only a chemical
Now to go out of one's self and to be so concerned for the other, this
is real spiritual growth. Our Father has sugar-coated it to induce people
to follow the plan. If only they do it, and do it with the conscious
intention of playing the game the way He designed it!
During the first period of marriage - commonly from six months to two
years - is the period in which emotions run very high and things are apt to
be smooth and very enjoyable. But after the emotion simmers down to a
normal level, then the differences of male and female psychology begin to
be clear. One Doctor told me that male and female are as different as can
be and still belong to the same species. (I hope no feminists are
listening!). But it is very true, and the couple discover that in time.
Then each one, even in an ideal combination, can say honestly: "I must
give in much more than half the time to make this work." They will be right
about that. But what a means of spiritual development: to give up one's own
will for the other, in accord with our Father's plan. This is really
spiritual growth, again, if only they consciously play it that way.
Then if children arrive, this generosity spills over onto them. Babies
are very cute and enjoyable part of the time. But at other times, they can
be trying. To accept all this not just as a natural nuisance, but as part
of the Father's plan - again, this is very sanctifying. In a monastery a
monk may get up at 2 AM to make a holy hour. He knows that when the clock
has moved 60 minutes he can go back to bed. But if baby fusses or is ill at
some small hour, then the parent makes a different kind of holy hour - it
is a holy hour, if taken as part of our Father's plan.
And when the child begins to grow a bit, then there is more generosity
to be seen even in rather ordinarily good parents. One insurance commercial
said: "When you have children, their goals become your goals." Splendid
generosity! There will be real sacrifice to provide for their needs, and
"Marriage is a long path toward sanctification" said Pope Paul VI.
Clearly, he was very right. He knew our Father's designs.
The selfish person is always intent on satisfying his own whims. But the
one who lives out this plan will find instead that God so richly rewards
it, not just in the life to come, but even in this life. There is a higher
and greater kind of happiness that He generously grants to those who follow
Now we can see one reason why Jesus, the incarnate Son of God, saw fit
to spend about 30 out of His 33 years on this earth in family life. He
wanted to teach us how highly God Himself values such a life.
He most intensely wants to reward us with a happiness that is really
divine, in the next world. So, why did He not just create us in Heaven, and
not put us into this world, where there are trials? Because it is one thing
for Him to want to give, another thing for us to be open and able to
For that, we need development of soul. He willed a world in which we could
develop by doing His will, and help others to grow. Living this life, with
its difficulties, as He planned it, is the way to gain that development.
And marriage, according to the Father's plan which we outlined, is clearly
a major part of the way to develop.
Even in the Holy Family there were difficulties. We do not mean that
anyone of the three was abrasive in character. Of course not. But Jesus
worked and sweated in the carpenter's shop. Our Lady and St. Joseph toiled
over their family tasks. St. Joseph got sick and died, in a human way, a
great grief to both Jesus and Mary. The least of the ordinary routine
tasks, sweeping, cutting boards, that they did, was something of immense
merit, because of the love with which it was done, the desire to fulfill
the Father's plan.
And there could be other kinds of trials. At age 12, He knowingly put
them through the anguish of searching for Him until the third day, when
they would find Him in the Temple. And even then, His reply was such that
they did not understand, as the Gospel tells us. This does not mean they
did not know who He was. Of course they did, as we explained in a previous
essay. But His pattern of acting - normally so considerate and compliant -
it was now broken, and He did not even clearly explain. He left them
puzzled, so they could grow spiritually.
There was even a strain on our Lady's faith. She had had the message
of the angel, had seen the events of Christmas. So her faith would tell her
this Child is divine. But yet her senses, as she handled His baby body,
took care of his very babylike needs, these would give a different, an
opposite message. So there was a clash inside. To hold on in spite of that
clash called for exertion in her faith.
The Church tells us - for example in the Mystical Body
Encyclical of Pius XII - that His human soul from the first instant of
conception, saw the vision of God. Therefore from the very start He knew
all that was to come upon Him. This would really eat on Him, as He chose to
reveal later on when He said (Lk 12:50): "I have a baptism to be baptized
with, and how am I straitened until it be accomplished." That means: I know
what suffering lies ahead. I cannot be comfortable until I get it over
She too knew, knew too much for comfort. For when the angel said He
would rule over the house of Jacob forever, any ordinary Jew - not just the
one full of grace - would see that meant the Messiah, for only He would
reign forever. But that would open up for her all the prophecies about the
Messiah, including Isaiah 53, which told of His terrible death.
So they both had to live with it.
So their difficulties were in part different from ours in family life.
Yet the difficulties were not absent, and a different kind of difficulty,
one much harder to bear, was there.
Finally, we could call this the upside down family. The greatest, God
Himself, obeyed human parents. Even though they were and are wonderful, it
was still such a comedown for a Divine Person to obey. Mary, the greatest
merely human person who ever lived (for her Son was not a human person. He
was a divine Person) obeyed Joseph. Joseph was a marvel of nature and
grace, yet far below her in sanctity and merit. )
So if we follow the way of the Holy Family, it will bring a happiness
of which others do not even dream in this life, and be the key to divine,
unending happiness in the next.