Marriage is a great Sacrament both in Jesus Christ and His Church, and one to be honoured to all, by all and in all. To all, for even those who do not enter upon it should honour it in all humility. By all, for it is holy alike to poor as to rich. In all, for its origin, its end, its form and matter are holy. It is the nursery of Christianity, whence the
earth is peopled with faithful, till the number of the elect in Heaven be perfected; so that respect for the marriage tie is exceedingly important to the commonwealth, of which it is the source and supply.
Would to God that His Dear Son were bidden to all weddings as to that of Cana! Truly then the wine of consolation and blessing would never be lacking; for if these are often so wanting, it is because too frequently now men summon Adonis instead of our Lord, and Venus rather than Our Lady. He who desires that the young of his flock should be like Jacob’s, fair and ring-straked, must set fair objects before their eyes; and he who would find a blessing in his marriage, must ponder the holiness and dignity of this Sacrament, instead of which too often weddings become a season of mere feasting and disorder.
Above all, I would exhort all married people to seek that mutual love so commended to them by the Holy Spirit in the Bible. It is little to bid you love one another with a mutual love,—turtle-doves do that; or with human love,–the heathen cherished such love as that. But I say to you in the Apostle’s words: “Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the Church. Wives, submit yourselves to your husbands as unto the Lord.” (1) It was God Who brought Eve to our first father Adam, and gave her to him to wife; and even so, my friends, it is God’s Invisible Hand Which binds you in the sacred bonds of marriage; it is He Who gives you one to the other, therefore cherish one another with a holy, sacred, heavenly love.
The first effect of this love is the indissoluble union of your hearts. If you glue together two pieces of deal, provided that the glue be strong, their union will be so close that the stick will break more easily in any other part than where it is joined. Now God unites husband and wife so closely in Himself, that it should be easier to sunder soul from body than husband from wife; nor is this union to be considered as mainly of the body, but yet more a union of the heart, its affections and love.
The second effect of this love should be an inviolable fidelity to one another. In olden times finger-rings were wont to be graven as seals. We read of it in Holy Scripture, and this explains the meaning of the marriage ceremony, when the Church, by the hand of her priest, blesses a ring, and gives it first to the man in token that she sets a seal on his heart by this Sacrament, so that no thought of any other woman may ever enter therein so long as she, who now is given to him, shall live. Then the bridegroom places the ring on the bride’s hand, so that she in her turn may know that she must never conceive any affection in her heart for any other man so long as he shall live, who is now given to her by our Lord Himself.
The third end of marriage is the birth and bringing up of children. And herein, O ye married people! are you greatly honoured, in that God, willing to multiply souls to bless and praise Him to all Eternity, He associates you with Himself in this His work, by the production of bodies into which, like dew from Heaven, He infuses the souls He creates as well as the bodies into which they enter.
Therefore, husbands, do you preserve a tender, constant, hearty love for your wives. It was that the wife might be loved heartily and tenderly that woman was taken from the side nearest Adam’s heart. No failings or infirmities, bodily or mental, in your wife should ever excite any kind of dislike in you, but rather a loving, tender compassion; and that because God has made her dependent on you, and bound to defer to and obey you; and that while she is meant to be your helpmeet, you are her superior and her head.
And on your part, wives, do you love the husbands God has given you tenderly, heartily, but with a reverential, confiding love, for God has made the man to have the predominance, and to be the stronger; and He wills the woman to depend upon him,–bone of his bone, flesh of his flesh,–taking her from out the ribs of the man, to show that she must be subject to his guidance. All Holy Scripture enjoins this subjection, which nevertheless is not grievous; and the same Holy Scripture, while it bids you accept it lovingly, bids your husband to use his superiority with great tenderness, lovingkindness, and gentleness. “Husbands, dwell with your wives according to knowledge, giving honour unto the wife as unto the weaker vessel.” (2)
But while you seek diligently to foster this mutual love, give good heed that it do not turn to any manner of jealousy. Just as the worm is often hatched in the sweetest and ripest apple, so too often jealousy springs up in the most warm and loving hearts, defiling and ruining them, and if it is allowed to take root, it will produce dissension, quarrels, and separation. Of a truth, jealousy never arises where love is built up on true virtue, and therefore it is a sure sign of an earthly, sensual love, in which mistrust and inconstancy is soon infused. It is a sorry kind of friendship which seeks to strengthen itself by jealousy; for though jealousy may be a sign of strong, hot friendship, it is certainly no sign of a good, pure, perfect attachment; and that because perfect love implies absolute trust in the person loved, whereas jealousy implies uncertainty.
If you, husbands, would have your wives faithful, be it yours to set them the example. “How have you the face to exact purity from your wives,” asks S. Gregory Nazianzen, “if you yourself live an impure life? or how can you require that which you do not give in return? If you would have them chaste, let your own conduct to them be chaste. S. Paul bids you possess your vessel in sanctification; but if, on the contrary, you teach them evil, no wonder that they dishonour you. And ye, O women! whose honour is inseparable from modesty and purity, preserve it jealously, and never allow the smallest speck to soil the whiteness of your reputation.”
Shrink sensitively from the veriest trifles which can touch it; never permit any gallantries whatsoever. Suspect any who presume to flatter your beauty or grace, for when men praise wares they cannot purchase they are often tempted to steal; and if any one should dare to speak in disparagement of your husband, show that you are irrecoverably offended, for it is plain that he not only seeks your fall, but he counts you as half fallen, since the bargain with the new-comer is half made when one is disgusted with the first merchant.
Ladies both in ancient and modern times have worn pearls in their ears, for the sake (so says Pliny) of hearing them tinkle against each other. But remembering how that friend of God, Isaac, sent earrings as first pledges of his love to the chaste Rebecca, I look upon this mystic ornament as signifying that the first claim a husband has over his wife, and one which she ought most faithfully to keep for him, is her ear; so that no evil word or rumour enter therein, and nought be heard save the pleasant sound of true and pure words, which are represented by the choice pearls of the Gospel. Never forget that souls are poisoned through the ear as much as bodies through the mouth.
Love and faithfulness lead to familiarity and confidence, and Saints have abounded in tender caresses. Isaac and Rebecca, the type of chaste married life, indulged in such caresses, as to convince Abimelech that they must be husband and wife. The great S. Louis, strict as he was to himself, was so tender towards his wife, that some were ready to blame him for it; although in truth he rather deserved praise for subjecting his lofty, martial mind to the little details of conjugal love. Such minor matters will not suffice to knit hearts, but they tend to draw them closer, and promote mutual happiness.
Before giving birth to S. Augustine, S. Monica offered him repeatedly to God’s Glory, as he himself tells us; and it is a good lesson for Christian women how to offer the fruit of their womb to God, Who accepts the free oblations of loving hearts, and promotes the desires of such faithful mothers: witness Samuel, S. Thomas Aquinas, S. Andrea di Fiesole, and others. (3) S. Bernard’s mother, worthy of such a son, was wont to take her new-born babes in her arms to offer them to Jesus Christ, thenceforward loving them with a reverential love, as a sacred deposit from God; and so entirely was her offering accepted, that all her seven children became Saints. (4)
And when children begin to use their reason, fathers and mothers should take great pains to fill their hearts with the fear of God. This the good Queen Blanche did most earnestly by S. Louis, her son: witness her oft-repeated words, “My son, I would sooner see you die than guilty of a mortal sin;” words which sank so deeply into the saintly monarch’s heart, that he himself said there was no day on which they did not recur to his mind, and strengthen him in treading God’s ways.
We call races and generations Houses; and the Hebrews were wont to speak of the birth of children as “the building up of the house;” as it is written of the Jewish midwives in Egypt, that the Lord “made them houses;” (5) whereby we learn that a good house is not reared so much by the accumulation of worldly goods, as by the bringing up of children in the ways of holiness and of God; and to this end no labour or trouble must be spared, for children are the crown of their parents. (6) Thus it was that S. Monica stedfastly withstood S. Augustine’s evil propensities, and, following him across sea and land, he became more truly the child of her tears in the conversion of his soul, than the son of her body in his natural birth.
S. Paul assigns the charge of the household to the woman; and consequently some hold that the devotion of the family depends more upon the wife than the husband, who is more frequently absent, and has less influence in the house. Certainly King Solomon, in the Book of Proverbs, refers all household prosperity to the care and industry of that virtuous woman whom he describes. (7)
We read in Genesis that Isaac “entreated the Lord for his wife, because she was barren;” (8) or as the Hebrews read it, he prayed “over against” her,–on opposite sides of the place of prayer,–and his prayer was granted.
That is the most fruitful union between husband and wife which is founded in devotion, to which they should mutually stimulate one another. There are certain fruits, like the quince, of so bitter a quality, that they are scarcely eatable, save when preserved; while others again, like cherries and apricots, are so delicate and soft, that they can only be kept by the same treatment.
So the wife must seek that her husband be sweetened with the sugar of devotion, for man without religion is a rude, rough animal; and the husband will desire to see his wife devout, as without it her frailty and weakness are liable to tarnish and injury. S. Paul says that “the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified by the husband;” (9) because in so close a tie one may easily draw the other to what is good. And how great is the blessing on those faithful husbands and wives who confirm one another continually in the Fear of the Lord!
Moreover, each should have such forbearance towards the other, that they never grow angry, or fall into discussion and argument. The bee will not dwell in a spot where there is much loud noise or shouting, or echo; neither will God’s Holy Spirit dwell in a household where altercation and tumult, arguing and quarrelling, disturb the peace.
S. Gregory Nazianzen says that in his time married people were wont to celebrate the anniversary of their wedding, and it is a custom I should greatly approve, provided it were not a merely secular celebration; but if husbands and wives would go on that day to Confession and Communion, and commend their married life specially to God, renewing their resolution to promote mutual good by increased love and faithfulness, and thus take breath, so to say, and gather new vigour from the Lord to go on stedfastly in their vocation