One hundred percent.
Someone called me an angel the other day at the supermarket because I had picked up a package that she had dropped as she was unloading her items at the cash register.
“I’m having a party for my husband,” she said, by way of explaining, I guess, the cups. “It’s his birthday. He’s not happy that he’s turning 60, but who cares? I love him to death.”
She didn’t have to tell me that because I could see it in her eyes. It was a great moment: for one, I was an angel; but I was also so touched by her honest-from-the-heart assurance that her groom would be loved until his last breath.
I was a little jealous of her husband. As I walked down 2nd Avenue with my night’s roasted chicken, I thought how nice it would be to have someone who would love you until death. I also thought angels. After all, I had just been named as one.
There is a wonderful German movie called Wings of Desire. The film is about invisible, immortal angels who roam about the subways and the streets of Berlin to comfort people who are isolated or estranged from their families and friends. One of the angels falls in love with a beautiful, lonely trapeze artist, and he chooses to become mortal so that he can experience the pain, and joy--and most especially--the love, that courses through our human hearts.
Angels don’t get married or have children, and it is usually fine and dandy for an angel to be alone. Humans like us, on the other hand, need one another, are physically built to match and bond and depend on one another. But our hearts are also extremely vulnerable, and the union between us is often very fragile.
I walked into the rectory with my chicken and was immediately greeted by Murphy, Fr Austin’s dog. He was particularly interested in my chicken, not so much in me.
It is amazing to watch him with Father Austin. Murphy worships the guy for some odd reason, and to be honest, I’m not sure what Austin would do without that hairy beast. They definitely have a bromance going, and I have to admit, I get a little jealous at the sight.
But every once in a while Fr Austin is away, and it’s just us, we two guys, and don’t tell his owner, but Murphy seems to love the one he’s with. I had all this time with him, so to entertain I tried reading a few dog poems to him—poems about dogs, that is. But I got the feeling that he is not as much into the written word as I, so I tried movies and that seemed to be more his speed. We watched Marley and Me, and Marmaduke, but he seemed particularly interested in Beverly Hills Chihuahua, possibly because the star speaks English. There’s also a bit of dog romance in that movie, and I wondered whether it raised any issues for Murphy about his single status.
We blessed a lot of dogs and cats and birds and gerbils and fish and even a turtle animals in honor of St Francis of Assisi yesterday, and that reminded me of his beautiful love story.
You may know that St Francis was quite the ladies’ man until his conversion. And one day after that conversion as he was repairing a church as Jesus had instructed him to do--surrounded by a choir of animals who loved him---another creature arrived at the door. Her name was Clare, and she was more beautiful and pure than any woman he had ever seen, and she was drawn to him just like all the animals. Clare and Francis fell in love with one another almost instantly. But then it got complicated, because when he was finished fixing up the church, God spoke to him again in a dream, and it was clear that he had bigger plans for Francis. God wanted him to repair the wider, universal and deeply corrupt Church (does that sound familiar?), and it meant that his love for Clare and her love for him would have to take a back seat. And so they committed themselves, not to one another, but to God, to repairing God’s Church, and to loving all God’s creation and all of the creatures within it, even though their love for one another was so strong it hurt.
I relate to that story because I had a similar choice in my life, except her name was Elaine, and I was a lot more confused about what God wanted me to do with my life than Francis was. I wonder sometimes what kind of a life I would have had with Elaine, and our 11 children. I'd like to think that we'd still be in love, only deeper, more committed, partners bound together in such complexity that it would be impossible to ever separate us one from the other. Like it says in Genesis today, "the two of them become one body", or Jesus in the Gospel, "They are no longer two but one flesh."
I recognize that I am a bit of an idealist when I think of my own unborn marriage. But I’m certainly not blind to the fact that the odds are only 50-50 that I would be loving Elaine literally to death.
A few years ago I witnessed a wedding of a former student, and before the wedding rehearsal there was a big fight at the bride's home. It wasn't the bride-to-be and groom-to-be that were fighting, it was the bride's parents, and it was quite nasty and quite awful, and apparently not uncommon for them. The young couple arrived ahead of everyone else at the church for the rehearsal and told me about it, and they were really upset. I tried to reassure them that it was just a lot of pre-wedding tension, but the bride didn't seem to be buying it.
"You don't know what my parents' marriage is like," she said, "it's been a horror." And then she said, "I will kill myself if we become like that."
And she looked over to her soon-to-be husband, and they squeezed their hands together. They looked like such kids. And they came to mind today when I read the Gospel where Jesus blesses the children. These two had a child-like innocence and hope in the marriage that was about to happen.
Just before the wedding ceremony, when I was waiting with the groom in the sacristy, I looked over at him and saw he was sweating bullets. He was so nervous. There was panic on the pale face of this big hulk of a guy who looked as comfortable in a tuxedo as I would in a speedo. I tried to reassure him, ease his nervousness. But you know what? I was nervous too—but not about the ceremony. I was nervous about the marriage. It was like watching a bird being shoved out of a nest, like watching your child take his first wobbly bicycle ride down the sidewalk. I was nervous for this fledgling marriage because whether it flew or crashed, it mattered a lot to me. Last I checked, they are still flying, and it still matters.
And I’m telling you now that even though you don’t know the couple, their marriage matters to you too. It matters to all of us as does every new marriage matters to us.
Think about how you feel when a friend or a family member announces that they are getting a divorce. It’s not just about them, is it? Your world is rocked, and so too are the worlds of all their friends and family. When two people marry, it’s not just about their duel love. They are making a new cloth with their love, and they are weaving into it all the love they share with their family and friends and co-workers and neighbors and strangers, and their dogs and cats and gerbils and turtles and all the life that surrounds them in God’s good creation. When divorce comes, it rips that fabric apart, and everyone is left to patch as patch can.
Marriage survival matters because in a world that is so full of self-interest and betrayal, a world that urges every man and woman to fend for themselves, a world of personal rights and position and entitlements, in such a world we need people who have the courage to give to one another one hundred percent. We desperately need to see it happening, to see people trying to empty themselves of their own wants and desires---just as Jesus did---to become one body, one spirit. We need marriages to work, and let’s face it---it is hard work. No marriage is really made in heaven. Good marriages are made by people who work at being there for each other, in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health. Loving him or her to death.
We need to see people trying, because frankly, it's the best imitation and confirmation of God's love that we know. In many ways to me, marriage is a mystery, but for all of us, Christian marriage is a great mystery because it is a lesson for us about the way in which God loves his people, and how we love and need God.
A good marriage tells us something about what God is like: present to us night and day, caring so deeply for us every minute, passionate in commitment to us forever and ever.
I don't know much about what it's like to be married, but I do know this: I need to do all I can to support those who have the courage to love that much. We all do, for their sakes and ours.
So to all of you who are married, I say thank you for your love and the effects it has on all of us. And I say, hang in there, one hundred percent, keep trying, and try to remember, try to recapture the love you knew when it was easy, in the beginning. We'll try to be there for you, if you try too. And believe, always believe, that God blesses you with love, one hundred percent.