In Sickness and in More Sickness

For the past week, and for only the second time in our marriage, my wife and I have been sick at the same time. It was just a nasty winter cold, but this season’s edition seems to stick around for 3-4 weeks. Between my wife’s asthma and complications from my medication, this kind of thing tends to knock us back a bit.

When there’s no healthy person to pick up the slack,we have to try to muster one functional human being between the two of us. I’d say, right about now, we’re mustering about 2/3rds of a partly functional, semi-human being in this one-flesh union thingy of ours.

And it’s at these moments that the point and meaning of marriage come into stark relief. We are here to serve each other. Humanity’s grotesque pride and individualism has turned the idea of serving into something negative, when in fact it’s the whole point of all our life and all our relationships. In the end, the only things that truly matter are those things we do for others.

Service is implicit in our marriage vows. Our first thought should always be about the other. In marriage, we serve our spouse and our children. In their old age, we serve our parents when they can no longer serve each other. In our vitality, we serve our fellow man. Satan fell because, in the words of Milton, he thought it better to reign in hell than serve in heaven. Satan should have known better: one day in the court of the Lord is better than a thousand elsewhere.

“Non serviam” is the rallying cry of the modern man. We are indeed a Satanic generation. As the Lord says in Jeremiah 2:20: “For long ago you broke your yoke and burst your bonds; and you said, ‘I will not serve.’”

But the yoke, in fact, is easy, and the burden light. That is what people forget when they’re always trying to burst the bonds that united them in marriage. It’s why they chase after an illusion of “personal happiness” or “fulfillment” rather than honoring their vows.

People don’t take on a burden of happiness in marriage. That’s not a burden. That’s the easy part! You don’t need vows to stick around when things are awesome and everyone’s happy. You make a promise to stick around when things go bad. That’s what marriage is about. There’s a perfect line in the Kevin Spacey remake of House of Cards: “The nature of promises is that they remain immune to changing circumstances.” Exactly.

The shared happiness isn’t bought with cheap coin: it’s the reward for the shared suffering. In the end, that happiness–and life is the quest of the human soul toward beatitude, which is happiness–will result in shared glory when you both are stripped of suffering, stripped of concern, stripped of all flesh, and stand naked before the face of God.

Sacrifice is implicit in the marriage vow. That’s what the “sickness” part is all about. If you’re not prepared to die for your spouse, then how can you live for him? The prayer of the lover should always be close to your lips: take me not her. I’ve said it a thousand times over sick beds and in hospital rooms, and I’m very blessed to be able to say that prayer for my children as well.

Yes, blessed: it’s not that you want either those you love or yourself to be in a situation where such a prayer is necessary. But in being given the opportunity to choose self-sacrifice, we are being given the opportunity to becomes Christs. And the goal of the faithful is not to be a Christian, but to be a Christ.

Joy is part of it, of course. My marriage has seen far more happy moments than sad. We are all broken, fallen people, but I’m a bit more broken than most. My wife found me, picked me up, healed me, and gave me the other half of her soul. How can a gift that beautiful and sacred not produce joy? There are times I just stare at her in love and amazement and wonder how this living example of grace–this wholly undeserved gift–was ever given to someone like me.

But it will end in sickness and death, because unless the kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it will remain only a single seed. Those words don’t merely apply to our physical end. They apply to marriage as well. Unless we die to self in our marriages we, too, will only remain a single seed. But in that death to self in marriage, we can produce many seeds. We become a new creation, and that new creation becomes new life.

Sacraments are both life and death. Baptism is a death. We die to the world, and are reborn in Christ. Reconciliation is a death. We die to sin, and are renewed in life. Eucharist is a death. We can only taste the bread of life because the flesh of Christ was nailed to the cross.

And that place where a couple will stand before the altar to exchange their vows in the sacrament of marriage? It’s the same place where their coffins will rest when the mass of the dead is said over their remains.

Marriage is a sacrament. Sacraments are sacrifices. Something is exchanged–given up–and something else taken on. The thing that is taken on is better, bigger, more glorious than what was there before.

Happiness and joy is a natural fruit of love. My wife and I have had more good days than bad, more happiness than sadness. But love is light, and light casts shadows, and those shadows are sickness, sadness, and death. All things will fade: health, beauty, strength.

When we are stripped of it all before the face of God, only the love will remain. And that love will be light, and that light will be eternal.