Tuesday, June 19, 2012
On "The Theology of Marriage and Celibacy"
It sometimes happens that, in seeking to speak of The Other Vocation with respect, in seeking to honor that which was not our choice and our call, we speak of it with a touch of envy. Thus, the married person will think of the peace of the cloister, or of the purposefulness of a life spent in ministering to the world at large; of the high spiritual delights presumed to go along with being the bride exclusively of Christ, or of the impossibly great duty of standing alter Christus with the holy Flesh and Blood between one's hands. The married person will think on these things, and think on them with a sort of unhappiness, as having missed a chance at something truly fine.
The consecrated person, on the other hand, has other regrets: for them, no pleasures of the marital act, no children, no tangible one-on-one companionship—friendship, really, of the best kind—since all those things belong to another way of life. So the religious may, in seeking to enoble marriage, point out these benefits of it; and the married describe the good points of the religious life; and this is all very well, except when there is that touch of envy that mentioned above. It seems unlikely that the there is a real, hearty sin or vice present in such cases; yet at the same time, there is perhaps something dangerous in such descriptions. something that shares envy's complexion. Those descriptions focus on the personal benefits of each state in life: they focus, in other words, on what a person in each state has. And as always, as soon as something becomes a matter of possession, it becomes also matter ripe for envy. In seeking to make much of another's part—in trying not to be squint-eyed Marthas—we end by belittling all parts.
We are viewing the things that come from heaven as though they came from the earth. To be sure there is a very real sense in which a man's vocation belongs to this earth: a man is "a priest forever," but a man is married or consecrated only for the temporality. But even the vocations to marriage and the consecrated life, though they confer no permanent character—and in that sense "belong" here below—come from God. God was the Father first, and intended for human fathers to resemble him in their fatherhood. God was the Creator first, and intended men to resemble him in their creativity, whether that be in the procreation of parents, the philosophical creation of Plato's Symposium, or the "maker's mind" of Dorothy Sayers and the "subcreation" of J.R.R. Tolkien. And God was the Lover first, and intended all earthly love, that which is of marriage and that which is not of marriage, to reflect the love he gives.
It is should not be a matter then, when we consider the distinct or comparative virtues of each vocation, of singing one way's praises in terms of the good things it brings to the person who lives that way, as if a vocation were about what Shakespeare's better men would scornfully call "advantage." When we fall in love with a human person we do not speak of "advantage". It is no different when we fall in love with God—and we all should do that, at some time in our lives, whatever our vocation may be. In fact, that—to love God—is the real vocation, the one that forms the basis and the goal of the temporal vocations, the only one that will remain forever. And if the married life and the religious life can be said to be "good" or "noble," if they can be spoken of with respect and honor, it is not because of what comforts and advantages they bring, but because in their ways of loving they mirror the love of God.