Marriage as it was meant to be

The Universal Christian Vocation

When we hear the word vocation in a Christian context it immediately brings to mind phrases like a vocation to religious life, or a vocation to the priesthood, and only rarely and secondarily, a vocation to be married. But in a very real way there is only one Christian vocation, for there is only one goal and calling for all Christians, and what we usually mean by vocation is nothing more than the different ways, or different roads, by which we travel to that goal.

The fundamental Christian vocation is union with God, and that is not a goal somehow reserved for priests and religious as if married people are meant to pursue some other goal. We all share that universal vocation in virtue of our baptism and the life of Christ that is in us.

But if what we call vocations are simply different ways to travel to the same goal, then we have to readjust our way of thinking about the vocation of being married. All too often a certain atmosphere arose in the Church and poisoned our understanding of the nature of marriage as a vocation. This atmosphere seemed to say that religious life, or the priesthood, was the vocation par excellence, and those who married somehow fell into the category of the also-rans, people left to muddle around in the world and occasionally devote some small part of their energy to the practices of the spiritual life. Marriage was where people ended up who simply couldn't make it in religious and priestly life. Oh, yes, they did have a vocation, it was conceded, but somehow it was a lesser and lower one that had to do with living in the world, and indulging in sexual intimacy, which was redeemed by bearing children, and by an occasional burst of spiritual aspirations.

But this is all wrong. There is only one fundamental Christian vocation, and no Christian, no matter what path they take, can escape it. We are all called to go on the road that leads to union with God, and for most of the people in the Church the road they take to that union is that of Christian marriage. Whatever reasons we might want to ascribe for the low esteem in which marriage was viewed, it is time to rid ourselves of that old atmosphere and try to see Christian marriage afresh.

The Purloined Letter

But it is extremely difficult to see marriage as if for the first time fresh from God's creative hand and sparkling with dew. Marriage is so close to us that we don't know how to step back from it and find a new vantage point to view it from. Our nearsightedness when it comes to marriage reminds us of Edgar Allen Poe's short story, "The Purloined Letter." A man knew that the police detectives were going to come to his room within minutes to search for a letter. They would bring all their probing tools and vast experience to make sure that no possible hiding place would be overlooked.

Where could he hide it? Finally, the inspiration came to him. The police arrived and methodically searched very nook and cranny of the room, but went away disappointed. Where had the letter been hidden? It hadn't been hidden at all. It had been placed on the mail rack in open view, which was literally the only place that the police would not find it. It was too obvious and too much out in the open to be seen.

Marriage in the Beginning

We are so involved in the nuts and bolts of marriage in our actual living it out, we don't take enough time to reflect on what Christian marriage is meant to be. But how can we, find a way to step outside of marriage as we know it? On our retreats for married couples we tried the following experiment: we asked them to imagine what marriage would have been like for Adam and Eve before the Fall, and we read them these passages from Genesis:

"God said, "Let us make man in our own image, in the likeness of ourselves, and let them be masters of the fish of the sea, the birds of heaven, the cattle, all the wild beasts and all the reptiles that crawl upon the earth." God created man in the image of himself, in the image of God he created him, male and female he created them." (Gen. 1:26-27)

"The man gave names to all the cattle, all the birds of heaven and all the wild beasts. But no helpmate suitable for man was found for him. So Yahweh God made the man fall into a deep sleep. And while he slept, he took one of his ribs and enclosed it in flesh. Yahweh God built the rib he had taken from the man into a woman, and brought her to the man. The man exclaimed:

"This at last is bone from my bones,and flesh from my flesh! This is to be called woman, for this was taken from man."

This is why a: man leaves his father and mother and joins himself to his wife, and they become one body.

Now both of them were naked, the man and his wife, but they felt no shame in front of each other." (Gen. 2: 20-25).

Once we read these accounts in Scripture we asked the couples to break down in small groups and. try to answer the following, admittedly very strange, questions:

1. In that hypothetical state of marriage before the Fall, would the seven sacraments have existed?

2. How would grace have been transmitted to the children of our first parents?

3. Would consecrated virginity and priestly life as we know them have existed?

4. Would there have been sex before the Fall?

As you can see, these are, indeed, rather strange questions, and they probably haven't been asked in any serious way since the time of St. Thomas Aquinas and the medieval theologians, and perhaps some of their later successors. They certainly haven't been asked of married couples with no particular theological background. But our purpose in asking them was to get our couples out of their normal mind-set about marriage so that they could begin to think about it in a new way.


Take 15 minutes or so and try to answer these questions, with the help of your spouse if possible.

When we first did this exercise we really didn't know what to expect, and so when the groups came back to report their conclusions, we eagerly awaited what they had to say. Amazingly each group, on their own, had answered each question correctly. Let's look at the answers and use them as a springboard to try to understand the original state of marriage.

First, let's reflect on the two Scriptural passages. God says, "Let us make man in our own image, in the likeness of ourselves..." He doesn't say this in relationship to any other creatures He has made, but only in relationship to us. We are his image and likeness in a special way because of our spiritual natures. But the image of God is in us in a very distinctive way. It is in us precisely as male and female. It takes both sexes to truly reflect how we are the image of God, and this hints at a very important truth. When men and women look at each other, they should see a reflection of God.

The second passage helps us understand this theme better. It is the union of man and woman that is the full image of God. It is both of them together that allows them to express the full meaning of what it means to be in the likeness of God. So important is this union that it takes precedence over the sacred bond between parents and children, and this union has a deep sexual dimension, which is an intrinsic and natural part of it.

Let's turn to our questions:

1. Would the seven sacraments have existed as we know them? Each group answered no, and they were correct according to the medieval theologians. Baptism, for example, incorporates us into the life of grace that had been lost by the disobedience of our first parents. Penance is a remedy for our personal sins. The Eucharist celebrates the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus, and all of these events are intimately connected to sin. All the sacraments as we know them now are connected with redemption from sin, and if there were no sin, there would be no need of them in the way they currently exist. If there is a possible exception we could say it is the sacrament of marriage, understanding this as the original sacramentality of the married state, as those accounts in Genesis describe it.

2. How would grace have been transmitted to our children? The most reasonable supposition is that it would have been part and parcel of the very act of procreation by which they came into existence. As soon as God gave the child its spiritual soul He would have at the same time given it the life of grace. Or looking at it from the human side, just as the parents gave birth to the child in the natural order, they would have given birth to it in the supernatural order of grace, as well.

3. Would consecrated virginity and the priesthood have existed in the way we know it? There would have been no need for them. There would have been no reason not to marry and have children. And parents would have exercised the function of the priesthood in relationship to their own children, and in relationship to each other, for that matter.

4. What about sex in paradise? St. Thomas insists that not only would it have existed, but it would have actually been more enjoyable.

The picture that is beginning to emerge about marriage before the Fall can help us see what marriage was meant to be. To put it in the simplest and boldest terms, marriage was God's best and brightest idea. Marriage was the primordial sacrament. It was in our spouse and in our children that God intended to become visible to us. The family was the Church and the sacraments, as it were, and the living out of this married life was meant to be a delightful way in which to grow closer to God. Marriage was to be the place where the physical, psychological, intellectual and spiritual dimensions of our personalities could reach full development. From our first parents would have grown a mighty family that expressed ever more richly the beauty of God.

Naturally we can't recover the details of what that original state of marriage would have been like, but we can see the outline of its central features. God intended us to draw close to Him by seeing Him reflected in our husband or wife, and in our children, and by loving them, we would be loving God. Marriage was God's best and brightest idea in creating human beings, and we should not imagine that He gave up on it.

Marriage, the fall, and the coming of Christ
Marriage and the Interior Life
Inner Marriage