“Draw near to God and he will draw near to you.” (James 4:8)
There is perhaps no better image of union between God and Man than through the symbol of marriage. It is a symbol of intimate union used throughout the Bible, such as in the covenants God makes with Man and in turn, it is no accident that Christ’s public ministry begins at the wedding at Cana. (John 2:1-11) St. Paul, and many others, have pushed this symbolism even further, identifying the Church as bride of Christ who is Himself the bridegroom. (Ephesians 5:22-33) Even today, the very celebration of the Mass culminates in “the marriage supper of the lamb.” (Revelation 19:6-9) It is not surprising then that marriage is one of the seven sacraments in the Catholic Church which, juxtaposed with holy orders, is one of two paths in the sacramental life to move toward (re)union with God in the aftermath of the Fall. (Genesis 3)
This symbol of intimate relationship is so central to a life of faith that Christ’s distillation of the commandments down to two, to love both God and neighbour, both take encounter as a given. (cf. Matthew 22:37-40) Yet, while simple in message, the reality of living these out proves to be a challenge — for what does it look like to fully embody them in the actions of daily life? This article seeks to explore how both love of God and neighbour might be lived out in practice through the sacrament of married life and through better understanding the Trinity, the ultimate symbol of love.
Love of God and Neighbour
“‘Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?’ He said to him, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (Matthew 22:36-40)
Christ’s first commandment to “love God with heart, soul and mind” (cf. Matthew 22:37-38) is arguably the harder of the two commandments to live out in practice because love necessitates relationship, which in turn requires an intimate knowing of the other. But God is fundamentally unknowable. St. Augustine describes God as “a circle whose centre is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.”1 This is both comforting and disorienting. God exists in and through His creation, and He is boundless, but saying He is everywhere is akin for all practical purposes to saying He is nowhere. It doesn’t make spending time in His presence any easier. He is the great To Be, the very act of Being itself, and we are not Being but becoming, so not only are we spatially placed in a long distance relationship, even if only in appearance, but we’re hardly on the same playing field.2
However, while a contract is a binding agreement between parties, “a covenant establishes a family bond.”3 So from the very outset, the relationship we have with God, or that He establishes with us, is not that of a watchmaker but one of active intimate involvement. Bishop Barron notes this distinctive aspect of our faith:
In so many spiritual traditions, the emphasis is placed on the human quest for God, but this is reversed in Christianity. Christians do not believe that God is dumbly “out there,” like a mountain waiting to be climbed by various religious searchers. On the contrary, God, like the hound of heaven in Francis Thompson’s poem, comes relentlessly searching after us. Because of this questing and self-emptying divine love, we become friends of God, sharers in the communion of the Trinity.4
While not exactly easy to do, entering into relationship with God as an act of faith depends primarily on an open disposition of the heart. Martin Buber observes that “all actual life is encounter”, so we must avail ourselves to encounter God, even if we don’t always clearly know how.5 This openness acts as a model for all relationships because can we ever fully and completely know someone who is necessarily “other”? We hardly even know ourselves! But at this stumbling block, Christ provides an answer.
In the culmination of God’s salvific pursuit of us in the biblical narrative, Christ expands the incarnational project to us, telling His disciples that hospitality offered to other humans is an offering of hospitality to Himself.6 This is possible, Father Stephen De Young continues, because “humans being made in the image of God makes them icons of God … they are conduits to God through Christ.”7 This makes sense in that Christ’s second great commandment is love of neighbour. So we seek relationship in our immediate sphere, engaging in the various ways in which we might enter into participation in the “Body of Christ.”8 So, we read the Bible, we see how God acts within the context of Scripture, and we not only read the lives of the saints and Church Fathers, but join a community in faith and prayer to see how God acts in the lives of our neighbours. In short, we go to Church because, as Paul VanderKlay observes, you cannot form a meaningful and lasting body without immediate relationship.9 While it may seem like a trite answer to a non-believer, this practice of living faith in relationship will lay bare our frequent denial or unwillingness to see the face of Christ in the other, as anything beyond a tool to use to achieve our own selfish ends.10 It will reveal a vision of love too often experienced as “something you do for me,” rather than an expression of my “willing your good” independently of its personal costs or my desires.11
A short effort to live out these commandments reveals our inability to do so on our own, but here we have the sacramental path before us. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “The purpose of the sacraments is to sanctify men, to build up the body of Christ, and finally, to give worship to God.”12 The Catechism continues, “Because they are signs they also instruct.”13 But do we work to apply the lessons learned? For just as much as they “act by the very fact of the action’s being performed … the fruits of the sacraments also depend on the disposition of the one who receives them.”14 So God pursues us, but do we pursue Him? The sacramental life requires our active participation in order for their graces to bloom. In turn, we have to remember that the symbol of the sacrament of marriage, for instance, is the service, but that as Father Stephen De Young points out, “what gives the service meaning is the life lived after it.”15 The same could be said of a covenant or a symbol, for John Vervaeke notes that symbolism itself is the merging of a pattern to the reality of lived experience.16 On its own, left as some abstract principle, a symbol is a dead thing.
Love of Neighbour Through the Sacrament of Marriage
“Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.” (1 John 4:20)
The admonition to “die to yourself so that Christ can live in you” (Galatians 2:20) is about as applicable to daily life as the descriptions of temple sacrifice appear to us from the Book of Leviticus. Yet if we desire to know God, to make progress toward becoming, we would do well to follow the path laid out by His Son, despite the difficulties the challenge presents.17 When we are asked to imitate Christ, it isn’t in appearance, in belief or even just to follow Him, but to act as He did through His desire to do the perfect will of the Father.18 Yet despite this, if or when we do try to live out St. Paul’s idea, we often do so at a time, place and in a way of our own choosing.19 Consequently, our fiat and openness to consecrate our lives to God come with conditions, restricted store hours and a best-by date. But dying to yourself is reciprocity through service. It is to give God body, recognizing that “there is a service to render to Divinity through this condition of being alive in this world.”20 But what sort of relationship is exposed through these curated sacrifices?
In her wisdom, the Church provides us the sacraments of marriage and holy orders to allow us to enter more intimately into love of God through love of neighbour. To follow this call of St. Paul, then, is to live life in service by stepping outside ourselves, by not being the dictator of our own lives. Since encounter is unpredictable, this isn’t by any means easy, but that doesn’t alter the demand. Edward Sri notes, “the reality of marriage and family life forces all of us to realize that we are not in control, and we have to be flexible to meet God …” in life’s interruptions rather than our own plans or predetermined paths to holiness.21
Despite their obvious differences, both vocations of holy orders and marriage continue the sacramental path to bring us toward union with God.22 For those who pursue holy orders, they are called to be committed to vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. These vows may be more clearly understood or visible in explicitly religious life, where priests, monks, or nuns will own little, will lead a celibate life and are to be obedient before the heads of their orders. But, as married laypeople we are called to live out those same tenets, even if they play out in somewhat different ways.23 Let us explore these vows exclusively in relation to marriage and family life for the remainder of this section.
Understanding the vow of poverty, or almsgiving by its positive connotation, allows us to devalue the material things of this world in favour of the love shared between husband and wife. As such, this vow is really about detachment and the breaking of the grip of addiction that would distract us from the “one thing necessary.”24 In sacramentalized married life, we give up direct ownership of our money and possessions, and even our time is no longer our own. St. Paul goes even further, stating that the husband’s body is the wife’s property. (1 Corinthians 7:4) The same, of course, is true in the reverse. To die to yourself in the wilful submission to another is to recognize that the sacramental life is meant to conform us ever closer to Christ. It is a freely adopted constraint akin to Countdown to Putsch’s “The Freedom of Refusal” wherein petty or superficial freedoms are given up for something greater.25 Nested within its sacramental frame, marriage properly focuses our attention on God through the richness of relationship that digs beyond its materiality and into the depth of its essence, its soul, should we be patient and attentive enough to notice and allow for it to bloom.
While chastity is often seen in a negative light, as a list of all that you can’t do, in setting ourselves apart we label ourselves apophatically, in the same way that we often approach knowing God, in stripping away all that He is not. By having something tangible in our lives that is set apart as important, we bring our own contours into greater focus and simplify our lives, which is the whole point of poverty and fasting in the first place.26 And just as the apophatic is best used along with the cataphatic, it is important to remember that every “no” of the Church is oppositely a “yes.”27 Yes, chastity is a cutting away, but it is also a permission to pursue love in faith and trust more fully. It isn’t love in a general sense, but rather embodied within an encounter between I and You, and the constant battle against the reduction of You to an It.28
Marriage and holy orders are permissions in the “constant negotiation as to what constitutes a body. … It isn’t top-down, it’s call and response.”29 The sacrament of marriage is a true denial of self for the sake of the other and the real mystery, the real joy of it, is that through this self-gift, this submission, through the outward appearance of the negation of self, we come to learn who we truly are, not only in and through the eyes of another, but in the very heart of God here on earth. It’s fasting to build a relationship based on a shared narrative of trust. This is the whole point of Adam and Eve being “naked and unashamed” (Genesis 2:25) in God’s presence, where:
They don’t just unveil their bodies to each other; they can bare their very souls to each other. They have such a profound confidence, trust, and security in the relationship, they can allow themselves to be seen by the other person as they really are.30
Marriage is an exercise in faithfulness in the value of living according to our word. However, it is worth acknowledging the uncomfortable truth that the project of dying to ourselves will, at times, turn marriage into practice in the terrible command to love our enemies, as the very person we profess to love will appear as a barrier against who we are and want to become. (Matthew 5:44) While perhaps not the best date night dinner conversation, it is to understand marriage as a type of battlefield where we engage in the spiritual struggle against selfishness as an exercise in “freedom’s noblest act, the oblation of liberty for love.”31 It is to recognize that marriage is participation in the cross.32
The Liberating Constraints of Trinitarian Love
“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-35)
Love occupies such a central place in art and storytelling because it is so multifaceted in its unfolding. Love binds like a sacrifice or a hug that holds us in place but it also liberates, allowing one to feel completely free to act. This is the Trinity in action, where the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit stand singularly in their unique identities, but equally and more fully when unified as the One True God. We are the same in that we are our own persons, but find our unity and our ultimate value externally as children of God, through relations with others and in finding our place in the world. As Buber puts it so succinctly, “Man becomes an I through You.”33 What we stand to gain is immeasurable, for the person who comes to know me in all my idiosyncrasies (i.e. annoying habits) and at my lowest points, yet still remains with me, is as close an act of God’s unconditional love that we can expect to find here on earth. In turn, of course, is the opportunity to do likewise.
This is the perfection and saving grace of sacramentalized married life. It addresses the human need to individuate while adhering to group participation as it expresses the necessary balance between unity and multiplicity — which, for Jonathan Pageau, is the very definition of love.34 The Trinity models a space where we can love another, rather than just ourselves, without contradiction and where selfishness masquerading as self-love dies. Further, it is to recognize, as Bernardo Kastrup observes, that “life is a matter of service, and therein lies our freedom.”35
It seems impossible, but it’s there in the love we feel and express: a binding and loosing, a losing and finding. The freedom gained in knowing yourself through another, to know who you are and that you’re needed, is a gift more valuable than any other. It may appear paradoxical because we often think we need to find and love the “self” before we can love another. This inward turn manifests itself currently, perhaps most insidiously and parasitically, through the use of social media, where we try to be I and You at the same time. But the truth is that with no reflection in another there is no I. The expression of love necessitates another because it, by default, takes us out of ourselves.36 Self-love as an aim is cannibalism, whereas the space where I and You meet without reducing either to an It is where the Trinitarian miracle shines forth.
It is in this light that St. Paul’s imagery of the head and the body, despite seemingly antiquated, is so useful. (1 Corinthians 12:12-31) Our material world has put an inordinate emphasis on Being as found exclusively in the mind, so when we see this analogy of the husband as the head and the wife the body, we tend to think that this is just patriarchal language, unworthy of further study. But the body does not exist without the head, nor the head without the body. Jonathan Pageau notes that your mind can ignore your sore arm for a time, but in so doing “you eventually end up with gangrene.”37 The death of both is the sure outcome if each does not interact properly with the other through love. Between the two persons of the Father and the Son, this love is expressed through the binding power of the Holy Spirit.38
It is here that we can see reality working as an infinite fractal series of hierarchies residing within each other like Russian nesting dolls. For both the body and the head, in St. Paul’s framework, find their identities in each other but in turn submit in equal portion to Christ, so these tensions find their balance in operation toward this higher aim. This is the whole point of the body/mind analogy: to understand how the two become one flesh. (Genesis 2:24) Aristotle talks about the transcendent third as the ideal model of friendship, and the Venerable Fulton Sheen applied this notion through his exploration of the sacrament of marriage.39 As a point of contact to something higher, this “third” holds a relationship together over the inevitable changes in life. As contingent beings, our interests, appearances and abilities change over time, so if we seek lasting union it must be done through what is transcendent. It is this transcendent spirit found “not in the I but between I and You” that binds us together in a unifying and transcendent identity in which each self, each I, can freely join into one body without being fully consumed.40 The Trinity elevates this model to a cosmic level, recognizing the need for reciprocity in relationship.41
“We must save ourselves together. We must arrive together before the good Lord. What would he say if we arrived before him alone, if we came home to him without the others?”42
The challenge of married and family life is to nest the daily practice of loving our neighbour into its greater aim, which is in coming to know and love God. It is the embodied practice of rendering something holy, which is to push beyond what a thing is and to identify and align yourself to what it’s for. As such, the sacrament of marriage is the trench wherein we seek to die to ourselves in order that the face of Christ may shine more brightly upon our own and to facilitate this same thing in others. Marriage is practice in the challenge to notice the presence of God in, Walter Ciszek notes, “the seeming smallness of our daily lives”.43 However, living this vocation in the same space where we eat, watch TV, pay bills, argue, laugh, love, mind children, do chores and play the role of house and groundskeeper is not evident. In the real attempt to love our neighbour through the immediate needs of married and family life, it is easy to lose sight of what this sacramental call signifies. In so doing, we reduce the ascending layers of meaning in the symbol of marriage toward a transcendent third to a mere sign of contractual union. But the covenental relationship established between God and His people remind us that sacramentalized married life means so much more.
The admonition to love God, if it is embodied, leads to (or is manifested through) love of neighbour, which in turn, if properly oriented, and if nested freely within Trinitarian love, brings about love of God. An outpouring of love brings an inpouring of love through grace, for love binds, but it also grows and expands, or it dies.44 There is no better path in the project of seeking union and in avoiding the reduction of others to mere instruments in our own salvation, than to rest in the warm embrace of Trinitarian love. Boundless and endless, it can only be described as eternity in Heaven. In seeing the pattern of relationship through God’s covenants with Man, the commands to love God and neighbour as exemplified through the sacramental path of marriage and family life, and love at its highest cosmic expression in the Trinity, we become able to apply a through-line across our daily categories of experience, drawing us out beyond who and where we are.45
This relationship also also reminds us that a distinctive aspect of Christianity is God’s unrelenting seeking of us, His children, to come back to Him. So even amidst our messy and failed attempts to love God and neighbour, Jesus still “wants to encounter us in our marriage” and be the binding agent that might render holy our own little “domestic churches.”46 And just as the offertory gifts of bread, water and wine brought to the altar during the Mass are meagre offerings compared to what we stand to receive (the Body and Blood of Christ), so can our attempts to love be rendered holy through His grace when similarly offered up to Him in humility. With this in mind, may we work to make of our bodies a living sacrifice in the hope and trust that our “I” may encounter people in their fullness, modelled on Trinitarian love and the sacramental commitment that follows the “you” with whom you joyfully said, or may come to say, “I do.” (Romans 12:1)
- Peterson, Jordan B. “How to Combat Hedonism ❘ Dr. Peter Kreeft ❘ #291,” at 1:47:56. YouTube, September, 26, 2022.
- Barron, Bishop Robert. Centered: The Spirituality of Word on Fire, at 3. Word on Fire, 2020. The Lord of Spirits. “Fall of Man Part 1: Garments of Skin,” at 2:06:05. Ancient Faith, July 14, 2022.
- Cavins, Jeff. The Great Adventure Catholic Bible, at 8. Ascension Press, September 2018.
- Barron, Bishop Robert. Lenten Gospel Reflection. Facebook, March 14, 2021.
- Buber, Martin, and Kaufmann, Walter (trans.). I and Thou, at 62. Touchstone, 1996.
- The Lord of Spirits. “The Gods of the Nations,” at 2:22:41. Ancient Faith, February 10, 2022. See also, cf. Matthew 25:40-45.
- Ibid., at 2:22:27.
- Catholic Church. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd ed., at No. 790. Double Day, 1995.
- VanderKlay, Paul, on Pageau, Jonathan. “Community and Self-Improvement – with Paul VanderKlay,” at 47:38. YouTube, August 16, 2022.
- Kereszty, Roch A. Jesus Christ: Fundamentals of Christology, at 333. Alba House, 2002.
- Sri, Edward and Beth. The Good, the Messy, and the Beautiful: The Joys and Struggles of Real Married Life, at 23, 25. Ascension Press, 2022. See also, Catholic Church, “Catechism,” at No. 1766.
- Ibid., at No. 1123.
- Ibid., at No. 1128.
- The Lord of Spirits. “Pantheon and Pandemonium IV: Asynchronous June 2022 Q&A,” at 1:55:22. Ancient Faith, June 23, 2022.
- Vervaeke, John. “Rebel Wisdom: Curiosity & Wonder, John Vervaeke & Jonathan Pageau,” at 48:50. YouTube, June 16, 2022.
- Consider Christ’s own struggle to proceed with His Father’s will during the agony in the garden (Luke 22:44).
- Schmitz, Father Mike. “The Bible in a Year, Day 260: Carrying the Cross,” at 21:04. Ascension Press, no date. Burgis, Luke. “Bishop Barron Presents: Luke Burgis – Wanting: The Power of Mimetic Desire in Everyday Life,” at 28:25. YouTube, June 30, 2022.
- In personal conversation with TJ Vandermeer, April 30, 2022.
- Kastrup, Bernardo. “More Christ: Jonathan Pageau & Bernardo Kastrup: Orthodoxy and the Resurrection of the Western Mind, Body & Soul,” at 19:32. YouTube, June 4, 2022.
- Sri, Edward. “All Things Catholic: The Most Important Conversation in Marriage,” at 16:53. Ascension Press, September 27, 2022.
- Catholic Church, “Catechism,” at No. 1123.
- Day, Dorothy, as quoted by Barron, Bishop Robert. “The Purpose of Evangelization: Bishop Barron at the Good News Conference 2021,” at 30:20. Word on Fire, May 11, 2022.
- Barron, Bishop Robert. “Act Against Your Attachments – Word on Fire Sermon,” at 11:40. Word on Fire, August 28, 2022. See also, Barron, Bishop Robert. “Focus on the One Thing Necessary – Word on Fire Sermon.” Word on Fire, July 17, 2022.
- Countdown to Putsch. “The Freedom of Refusal,” Interventions in Hegemony. CrimethInc., September 3, 2003.
- Sri, Edward. “All Things Catholic: How to Respond to Spiritual Drought,” at 4:32. Ascension Press, September 20, 2022.
- Barron, Bishop Robert. “Sacrifice, Covenant, Banquet – Word on Fire Sermon,” at 10:14. Word on Fire, June 2022.
- Buber, “I and Thou,” at 90, 95-96.
- Pageau, Jonathan. “Community and Self-Improvement – with Paul VanderKlay,” at 44:45. YouTube, August 16, 2022.
- Sri, “The Good,” at 34.
- Neal, Dr. Tom. “Trying to do What I Promised.” Word on Fire, October 19, 2015. We would do well to note here how the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience are really just the other side of a shared coin upon which the spiritual weapons of almsgiving, fasting, and prayer can be engaged with in daily life. (Cavins, Jeff on Schmitz, Father Mike. “The Bible in a Year Podcast, Messianic Checkpoint: The Gospel of Matthew (with Jeff Cavins),” at 20:42. YouTube, September 14, 2021).
- Sri, Edward. The Art of Living: The Cardinal Virtues and the Freedom to Love, at 196. Augustine Institute – Ignatius Press, June 21, 2021.
- Buber, “I and Thou,” at 80.
- Pageau, Jonathan. “God, Unity and Diversity: Jonathan Pageau On the Way Reality Lays Itself Out.” YouTube, June 24, 2021.
- Kastrup, “More Christ,” at 18:50.
- Kereszty, “Jesus Christ,” at 372.
- Pageau, Jonathan and Marceau, Jean-Philippe. “Introduction to Symbolism.” The Symbolic World, November 21, 2021.
- Barron, Robert. Light from Light: A Theological Reflection on the Nicene Creed, at 59. Word on Fire Academic, August 2021.
- Wikipedia. “Nicomachean Ethics, Book VIII and IX: Friendship and Partnership.” no date. See Three to Get Married.
- Buber, “I and Thou,” at 89.
- Ibid., “I and Thou,” at 58.
- Péguy, Charles, as quoted in Healy Jr., Dr. Nicholas J. “The Eucharist and the Beatific Vision,” at 80. Evangelization and Culture: The Journal of the Word on Fire Institute, No. 11: The Last Four Things. Word on Fire, Spring 2022.
- Ciszek, Walter, S.J. and Flaherty, Daniel L., S.J. He Leadeth Me: An Extraordinary Testament of Faith, at 182. Image, May 6, 2014.
- Chapman Walsh, Diana, “Potbound.” No place, no date.
- Vervaeke, “Rebel Wisdom,” at 1:12:30.
- Sri, Edward. “All Things Catholic: Real Marriage with Dr. Edward and Beth Sri (Part 1), at 13:35. Ascension Press, June 7, 2022. Catholic Church, “Catechism,” at No. 2685.