Marriage as God's Intensive School of Love

Monsignor Cormac Burke Gives Tips for a Happy Union

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NAIROBI, Kenya, MARCH 27, 2004 (Zenit.org).- Marriage is one of God's most intensive schools of love, where he wishes to train most of his pupils.



So says Monsignor Cormac Burke, an Opus Dei priest and former judge of the Roman Rota who teaches anthropology at Strathmore University here.

Monsignor Burke explores the dynamics of love, marriage and children in his book "Covenanted Happiness" (Scepter Press). He shared with ZENIT how only the person who is prepared to face the challenges of love will grow in love, and how children challenge each spouse's capacity to love even more.

Q: What are the "laws of happiness" as they are found and lived in Christian marriage?

Monsignor Burke: The first thing to bear in mind is that marriage cannot give perfect happiness, nor can anything else here on earth. The purpose of marriage is not to give the spouses such happiness, but to mature them for it.

In everything here on earth, God is trying to teach us to love, which we will enjoy fully in heaven. Marriage is one of his most intensive schools of love, where he wishes to train most of his pupils.

Happiness demands an effort. When a married person in difficulties allows the thought, "I'll get a divorce and marry this other man or woman, because I'll be happier with him or her," they are really saying, "My happiness depends on not having too much demanded of me. I'll be happy only if I don't have to make much of an effort to love."

The person who chooses to think this way can never be happy, for happiness is above all a consequence of giving, as it says in Acts 20:35: "It is happier to give than to receive."

Happiness is not possible inside or outside marriage for the person who is determined to get more than he or she is prepared to give.

In marriage, then, one has to learn to love. If people don't learn, they remain stuck in selfishness, like the devil or the soul in hell. Yet marriage remains a divine institution to gradually draw them out of that selfishness.

One also has to bind oneself to this task, that is, to enroll oneself in a definitive way in this school of love. If one is prepared just to give love a try and to abandon it if it doesn't seem to work, it will not work nor will one ever become a person truly able to love.

Q: How does marriage achieve, deepen, mature and make permanent one's personal happiness?

Monsignor Burke: Above all by drawing out of ourselves. We will never get started on the way to happiness until we realize that the main obstacle is our own self -- our self-centered concerns, worries and calculations. Paradoxically all these are absolute obstacles to personal happiness.

The paradox should not be difficult for the Christian to understand, for it goes to the heart of Christ's teaching on those who selfishly, calculatingly seek their lives: "Whoever seeks his life will lose it; whoever loses it for my sake, will find it." The phrase "for my sake" points to all that is good, generous, pure and worthwhile.

One of the most common modern errors is to think that happiness comes by calculation. We think that our happiness depends on thinking things out cleverly and accurately: "Will this plus that, minus the other, make me happy?" It is not so. Personal happiness and the happiness of marriage depend mainly on generosity and sacrifice.

Q: How do children bring happiness to a marriage and to the individual spouses?

Monsignor Burke: This century has come to separate and oppose married fulfillment and having children. Many look on marriage just as a tandem affair -- happiness à deux -- in which children are regarded as a possible advantage or a possible hindrance to personal fulfillment. This is fundamentally not to trust God's design for marriage.

Those who marry need to ponder that each child is a totally unique and unmatchable gift to the spouses' union and love. They also need to realize that children challenge each spouse's capacity to love even more than conjugal life does. Only the person who is prepared to face up to the challenges of love will grow in love.

Forty years of emphasis on self-fulfillment or on material comfort have been accompanied by an equal emphasis on family limitation.

Children -- one or two, at the most -- have come to be regarded as "optional extras" for a couple, not as the natural fulfillment of their married aspirations. Job, status, social life, gadgets, vacations, ease and comfort are seen as offering more happiness than children would.

Yet, if one is to judge from the growing number of broken homes, fewer children does not seem to have led to greater married stability, fulfillment or happiness.

Catholic couples, too, have been deeply affected by the family planning mentality, to the extent that a "planned" family is often presented as a norm in pre-marriage instruction. Most of our young people marrying today probably regard natural family planning as a normal part of marriage; many, for whom it was never designed, are experiencing its effects on their married life.

Q: What can hinder marital happiness?

Monsignor Burke: The sacrament of marriage brings special graces to a couple to persevere in the mission of caring for each other and for the children God gives them.

Neglect of the sacrament can indeed hinder that happiness, because the sacrament carries with it sacramental grace -- a specific aid from God that helps couples to live up to the commitment involved in married love.

Marriage is not a sacrament that you "go to" often, as one goes to holy Communion; it is, rather, a sacrament that is received once. But to be faithful one needs to invoke the sacrament's grace constantly, as a priest needs to invoke the sacrament of his ordination.

Q: How does Pope John Paul II's "theology of the body" contribute to marital happiness?

Monsignor Burke: Pope John Paul presents the body as an instrument of interpersonal communion, teaching that this is true only where the full human meaning of the body and interbody relationship is respected, which is not so in contraception. To deliberately nullify the life-orientation of the conjugal act is to destroy its essential power to signify union.

Contraception denies the "language of the body." It turns the marital act into self-deception, or into a mutual lie between the spouses themselves; for one is not really giving oneself, nor is one really accepting the other.

Q: How does freedom play out in marriage?

Monsignor Burke: Many today consider that to bind oneself in an irrevocable choice amounts to losing one's freedom. Not so. To marry is to commit oneself to a constant loving exercise of freedom.

What sort of love is it that prefers to leave the "way out" always open? The person truly in love is not afraid of losing his or her freedom, but of losing his or her love. It is not the freedom to pledge oneself that one should fear, but the freedom to go back on one's pledge.

The freedom we should be afraid of is the freedom to be unfaithful -- which accompanies us to the end. That is why the humble lover feels the need to pray, "Lord, make me faithful."

It's also why those who do back out are sad, for they have not only let down those who should be dear to them, they have let themselves down, too.

There is no easy way to happiness. Those who seek divorce because of the difficulties that marriage involves are simply balking at the difficulties that happiness involves. They are settling themselves on the road that leads away from happiness.

Q: How can following the Church's teachings on marriage, children and contraception bring married couples to true happiness?

Monsignor Burke: If a couple that does not observe Church teachings seems to be happy today, probably theirs is a very superficial happiness with a large element of unconquered selfishness. And there is little promise that they will be happy tomorrow.

As against this, today too there are many couples that try to be unconditionally in God's hands, accepting both that their marriage is "for keeps" and that God is the best natural family planner. God is the one with most knowledge and longest experience, who best knows the answer to the question: "How many children can crown our family project?"

As long as one looks at the question of happiness from a purely individual and ultimately self-concerned viewpoint, it will be hard to grasp how positive the Church's teaching is. The happiness of a Christian lies also in being sharers in God's plans. The sense of this great privilege has to be at the root of our happiness.

Married couples today need to be more aware of the marvelous witness they are called to give to a world that doesn't trust God. Pope John Paul II writes in "Familiaris Consortio" that "To bear witness to the inestimable value of the indissolubility and fidelity of marriage is one of the most precious and most urgent tasks of Christian couples in our time."

Indissolubility and procreativity are the two great values of marriage that are looked on today as negative burdens, whereas they are keys to true fulfillment and happiness. A united and happy couple is a testimony to the possibility and worth of unbreakable love, just as a united and happy family is a testimony to the blessedness of children.