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The Love of Marriage as a Divine Depth Charge in a Mystery School
Why everyone needs to practice poverty, chastity, and obedience - not just religious folk
No one is ever prepared for how deeply the sacrament of marriage changes our lives. Sacraments are like invisible engines that break us apart and build us up - and that's never a tame process. It's about more than learning 'unconditional love' to wife and children. It's about entering the mystical way of love, with all its beauty, brutality, and blessedness. When you commit your life to a person, through every problem possible, this sacrament molds you into the presence of Christ, brings you into focus, and helps you discover your unique gift to creation.
These were my notes to prepare for a talk I shared at the Catholic Courtship Summit. They’re a series of reflections, and probably tell you more about me and my failings than I know. But if I don’t write down, I’ll lose it. So enjoy.
Catholic courtship doesn't end with marriage. It's more than chocolates, and rosary dates, and family dinners. All that is the opening efforts we make to win someone's attention. To spend time with them. To find out if they're a good match for one of the most incredible journeys - marriage.
But once you're married, courtship doesn't end. It goes to the next level. Because now the whole game has changed. You're learning how to be a new kind of human being, a being who has bound themselves to another human for life. Both of you become like two lungs for a single being, two wings on the same bird, anchored together.
Courtship moves from courting and dating into building boundaries together, defining a courtyard, or a court, where you will now live together. In a specific way, you're shutting out the rest of the world to completely focus on a single person. You're swearing on your spirit and strength that this person deserves all your love, attention, and energy for life. Along with any new life that blooms from it.
All that can sound wonderful. But it goes far beyond all that. It goes beyond handfasting and rings and sharing apartments together.
That's why I think of it as a depth charge.
DEPTH CHARGES & SACRAMENTS
A depth charge is technically an anti-submarine bomb. You drop it into the water, it falls to a certain depth into the dark, and then explodes. But I want to think of it differently. Imagine being Peter walking on the Sea of Galilee in a storm, toward Christ. Imagine a depth charge exploding deep below his feet.
It would be like that moment in the 'Prince of Egypt', when the Israelites are walking through the Red Sea, and a flash of lightning illumines the outline of a great whale, slowly swimming above them. Now imagine Peter standing on the water, and a flash of lightning suddenly lighting up the depths below his feet, and he sees hills and valleys of another, undiscovered country, filled with things he never knew were down there.
We're so used to living within a 30 foot membrane of warm air on this world surface. It's all rote rituals, maybe even humdrub. And then suddenly we get this flash - something shows up that changes everything. This depth charge in our being. It could be another human person who ravishes our heart. Or an insight that changes everything. Or an experience.
One of my first moments like that was Christmas Mass. My little girl was about 2 years old, just finished her sippy cup, and wanted to run around. So I take her to the basement, and she's having the time of her life. All I want to do is get back upstairs, kneel devoutly in the pew, and be present to the Mass. All she wants is hide and seek and climbing stairs.
I'm starting to get frustrated, thinking I'm not being a ‘good Catholic.’ I need to be up there. I need to be welcoming the Christ child. And then it hit me. I was chasing the Christ child already. My little girl is my gift. She is meant to be Christ to me. That changed everything. My irritation melted away. That's continued to be a deep truth, something I might have heard others say, but needed to experience myself to understand.
That's how a relationship works. That's how love works. That's why we can't talk about our love for our wives or husbands, we do it. And the experience of practicing it deepens it. So when we say marriage is a sacrament, I'm realizing it's a sacramental path. It works gently, slowly, powerfully.
It’s definitely not limited to some sexual ‘eucharistic’ moment when the couple comes together. That is one of many indications that the relationship is thriving and healthy. The whole living is the sacrament.
Sacraments are like that sometimes. Most times, they're like tiny, drops that keep nudging you. Most times we're oblivious. And our sacred pilgrimage, as Pope Francis calls life, feels like it takes forever. Nothing's happening right now. We feel like we're not getting anything out of it.
But sacraments don't work at the level of feelings. Gravity doesn't ask your permission to work. It just does. A fact of life. Trillions of neutrinos fly through our bodies every second, from one end of the galaxy to the other, exchanging energy beyond our ability to sense it. Hierarchies of angels work constantly, influencing and inspiring time and matter. None of them respect my opinion. They will keep pulling you to change your opinion, to change your life. And they can either break us open, or we can break ourselves against them.
In my case, my marriage is a distinct kind. My wife's been pretty much bedridden for a decade, wrestling with Lyme Disease and complications since the day we married. Our home has felt like a quarantine, or a monastery.
So I can't speak for her, but I'll share what's been growing on my mind.
Monastic Life & Mysteries
Religious life holds up these three values of poverty, chastity, and obedience as starting points; not to obsess over, but meant to 'get' them to get past them.
I love the example of two Buddhist (or two Egyptian desert fathers) monks monks walking along. They come to a river, and meet a woman who needs to cross. One monk averts his eyes to avoid her, rushes through the river, and shakes himself dry. The other picks her up, carries her over, and then continues on his way.
An hour later, the first monk breaks out, ‘How could you break your vow of chastity and touch a woman?’
The second monk says, ‘When I put her down on the riverbank, I left her there. But you’ve been carrying her ever since.’
When we obsess over the rules, we miss why they exist. We’re meant to integrate them, and build on them. When we do that, there’s an incredible freedom. We’re not addicted or attached or driven by our compulsions. We’re able to make choices for things we actually want.
In the early days of the Church, the desert mothers and fathers were copying the ancient mystery schools of the past. They ran away from everyone into the deserts, desperate to brick everyone else out, and continue chasing Christ on this incredible inner journey. They were definitely not being shut up in a cloister. They were trying to block everything else out.
Monks and nuns aren’t holy introverts. They’re ordinary people like you and me who want to let everything go except the whole-hearted attention to the presence of God, how he communicates to them through silence, and through the lives of fellow pilgrims.
That’s why the three core values of religious life are poverty, chastity, and obedience. As married couples, we also must follow them. But we have to try and get at why they matter, what they mean:
Poverty - freedom from self, freedom from attachments, habits, and the need to get ‘things’ to be safe
Chastity - freedom from turning people and things into objects, objects that only exist for us, instead of realities we open ourselves to in reverence.
Obedience - the unflinching commitment to the promises made to this life, to anchor ourselves in more than ourselves as a source of action.
These vows are the new groundwork to discover who we really are. and a lot of that it's to get us to think about ourselves less, not think less about ourselves.
THE POWER OF SACRAMENTS
Marriage is something we humans do, which is why it's the oldest sacrament. Every culture and religion is acting out this primordial sacrament of Adam and Eve, and whether they know it or not, they are igniting or inviting grace - the life of God.
We are stunned with some of these love stories, from ancient India, Islam, Vikings, Greeks, Mohawks. Just like us in the Christian West, every culture and religion has terrible blindspots mixed in with unique points of clear vision. We are awed by the Song of Songs that sings out from each culture like wedding bells throughout time. Wedding bells from a sunken cathedral. Each peal is like a depth charge.
We can't help it. We're called to it, because it is part of the gravity of creation.
A school is not a place we go to learn something. It is a place we go to change who we are. If we are children, we go to become adults. If we're untrained, we go to be trained, so that we can provide service and skills to others. We understand there's a cost, a price. Sometimes it's kinda easy, like working a fast food line or learning calligraphy. For the Green Berets and PHP coders, it's hard.
But if we stick with it, absorb the learning, and adapt ourselves regularly over time, we become a different person. We pull a part of ourselves into focus. And we can build more of our lives on that muscle, that part, that aspect.
In the past, mystery schools were the only way that truth was shared. Our modern culture still has them, such as boot camp or universities, but we don’t think of them the same way. Perhaps that’s why they’re not as effective. Or why graduates have degrees, and live the same kind of broken lives. Think of Dr Strange heading into Kamar Taj, standing before a simple door to a school, begging to be let in. They ignored him for days, testing his resolve. Finally, when he’s allowed in, he begins to completely change as a person as he integrates the truths. It’s not a head trip.
Learning a truth is not the same as being formed by a truth. In the past, sages and priests had an incredible veneration for truth, because they understood that truth does not exist apart from the holy mystery of God. It is God, it's his life, his nature. He's not a tame lion (Aslan).
This is why Christ formed something like a mystery school, his Church. He opened it up to all of creation, not just a select and dedicated few. He declared that he was the Way. The way is not a series of steps we follow. The way is a pattern we learn to love and see. Then we find our own way to live out that pattern.
Like today, you don’t get to learn deep truths until you put in the effort. You pay the price; you give up everything to show your commitment - because the truth is not extra. It's everything. And when we find it, we betray it by bookmarking it and saving it for later. Truth eats away at us, because we're created that way.
An animal must eat food when it finds it. Humans must know truth when we find it.
Poverty in Marriage
When you join a school, certain things happen; you lose your freedom. Boot Camp and universities and convents and marriage are mystery schools. You lose the freedom you were from before.
Marriage is more than a longing for another person. Marriage is the 'price' we pay to discover the singular, bridal presence and openness that exists in every moment between God and Creation. Between Mary and the Holy Spirit. Between Christ and his Church.
When you enter this mystery school, you lose your ability to say and do what you want. You learn. You enter the rituals that you express with your body; putting on a uniform, wearing a ring, being present to your spouse.
In the old times, strenuous physical labor was mandatory - partly because the upkeep of the school depended on the students. But more importantly, to teach obedience to direction. A story is told of a monk who had a hard time obeying. His abbot tasked him to do something ridiculous; to water a stone, or a dead plant forever. That monk knew it was a nonsensical task. But he also knew that he’d sworn obedience to the abbot. So he spent the rest of his life watering that silly thing. I think that when he died, the usual outcome was that the plant bloomed.
Whether true or not, the point was complete obedience. The monk was the one doing the blooming.
All that labor from this new lifestyle teaches you patience, and it literally changes out the cells in your body, to teach you new habits. Especially if we’re lazy.
The teacher, when they see you're ready, then trains you in the next phases. They often share koans and confusing statements that we have to hold, and find a way through. We have to rest in periods of deprivation and endurance. Periods of silence and prayer in the presence of God.
All of that is to thaw us out. That’s what marriage does too. Everything I’ve described is marriage too.
I think there’s a difference with married life. Because for you, your spouse becomes Christ. You’re no longer seeking him out there. He’s right next to you.
Chastity in Marriage
I remember one day where my wife was having a really hard time. And I was mad. We’d probably argued. We had a lot of fears about each other, a lot of anger and apprehension. And I was raging inside. And then while I was about to start cooking dinner, this sense came to me that Christ wanted to cook dinner for her. And he was using my hands to do it. In fact, this whole world, this whole situation, was so that he could be close to her, and I was invited to be his heart and his hands. That was a depth charge that changed me. When I get frustrated now, I think about that. It grounds me.
When we're dating, we're all about ourselves - ‘I want you to love me.’
Then comes a turning point, and we have to realize
I need to love you, because you are Christ to me.
I need to allow you the complete freedom and dignity of yourself.
I must learn to sit and listen, and understand more deeply who you are.
Only then I can understand better who I am.
Jordan Peterson sums it up perfectly why we need marriage as a ring, without a ripcord.
A sacrament is the outward sign of an inward grace. It's like a windmill turning in a wind. It's a spot of sunlight appearing in a room because a pane of glass opens a wall. It's the coming back to earth because gravity pulls us in. These things pre-exist the matter that expresses them.
Obedience in Marriage
Raising children is the same as obeying a mother superior who rings the bell at midnight for prayers. That’s the same thing as a child interrupting you with their tears over a loose tooth, or waking you up at 2am because they wet the bed. Or your wife having a nightmare and needing to talk it through at 2am.
In recognizing their freedom to make demands on us, we begin to grow.
Like John of the Cross says, at first you’ll think everything is in order: the job is ok, the dates are going ok, the planning is happening. Then you'll notice things change on the inside.
you'll get angrier faster. You'll shut down more. You'll avoid things. You'll start to spin things. That's good. That's like a defense mechanism. You are starting to change, and part of you is resisting it.
Its so important to sit with it. To accept it. To understand that marriage will push in every direction. Push you two closer together. Push you two apart. Push you two deeper into yourselves. Push you two into God.
You will enter a space of darkness, where you have nothing to hold onto. Or so you’ll think. You’ll have no handholds you recognize from your past. You are being taught to reach for new ones.
That's the secret of love, which is the deep secret of all creation. Love absolutely desires the other, desires union. But losing your sense of self, your individuality, is where things break down. God loves all creation and all things, and each of us, because of who we are. The more he loves, the more he desires us to be ourselves.
When he allows us to participate in his life, we don't blend into him like a drop in the ocean. We somehow keep our edges, our definition, our identity, even though we're completely humming with his light and music.
Sacrifice and love
Sacrifice and love are flip sides to the same reality. This is an insight into the Trinity I’ve been chewing on. Moments come in our lives where we must choose between what what is right and what is easy. When we choose what’s right, some part of us dies, and we bind up the new life into a new identity. But it’s painful.
What we call pain isn't absolutely that. Sacrifice doesn’t stay at the level of pain. I prefer to call sacrifice self-gift. Once I learn to see that all the tense and terrible moments in my marriage are calls to self-gift, it all changes.
Complete love wants everything good for you, even if it means my own ego dying, or deciding which of my needs can be changed or tackled later. Especially the ego dying.
We experience pain because we are desperate to stay alive in our body - death has a sting. But at the soul level, pain is felt as dying and resurrection, as sacrifice and rebirth. The spirit doesn’t die, because it can’t. It decomposes and rebuilds, like a bone setting.
CHRIST AS THE WAY
Religious life, or mystery schools, are not the easy way out. The same principles of poverty, chastity, and obedience apply to everyone alive.
Loving someone else completely will completely claim your life. Once you start on this path, there's no looking back. There's no left or right. I begin to see that loving my wife, and my child, is the only way I'll begin to participate Heaven, or bring the Kingdom of God to life for me.
Marriage is the path of love together. I am dedicating my life to proving to another person that God loves them completely, no matter what they say or do, or how they feel.
Maybe, just maybe, I can model that long enough to them to where I can believe it for myself.
Now in some cases, remarriage happens, or separation, or situations of abuse create boundaries and so on. But the truth remains. The abuse affirms the reality of the truth.
We don't marry someone because they make us feel special, and we want them to love us. That's where most of us start. Those are all the childish reasons, because we haven’t grown up.
We marry someone because we believe something. We believe (act out) so deeply that we need to show our bodily living that that “God loves you completely. He loves you so completely that I'm swearing off every other human being. You're not perfect, but that doesn't matter. I'm not either. That doesn't matter. We walk so that we can learn to run. We love so that we can learn to be loved. We pretend and practice basic moves in art or martial training to internalize them, so that we can level up. We show up and focus on a single human being no matter what happens, so that by that living out, we can see how God does it for us.”
So few of us actually believe we are lovable. These are deep wounds we often don’t realize cause us to flinch and flake away from things. We paper it over, we dress it up, hide it under layers of habits and thinking.
But entering marriage is like entering an internal monastery. Suddenly 5 years in, what you're actually doing can break into you, and you then start to see the wonderful, awful immensity of what love means.
That's when you really choose. To shut down, or to open up. And it will happen many times. Like a depth charge, boom. It’s meant to wake you up. To get you to wake up to make at least one fully free choice that you really, truly, consciously make, without compulsions or habits.
It's not a one and done. I need to show up every day for 10 years to get to the ground level of being in love. Now we can trust each other, and take each other seriously.
Now we begin to work with love, not just be led by it like children.
You are in your life, but it’s not all about you.