An Open Letter to Engaged Couples

June will soon be upon us. That means wedding planners are working overtime, brides are getting overwhelmed as they count the days and grooms are looking forward to the honeymoonhoneymoon. Or at least that’s how it was 21 years ago when I got married. Could be that these days grooms are getting overwhelmed and brides are looking forward to the honeymoon (I did hear the term “groomzilla” for the first time this year).  Most likely it’s a little of both.

Whatever the case, this letter is for you – the bride and groom. You’ve been dreaming of this day for so long, and now it’s only a heartbeat away. No doubt at least one of you has spent countless hours working out every microscopic detail to ensure that your amazing day is everything you’ve imagined it to be. Perhaps you have Say Yes to the Dress and Four Weddings DVR’d and your reception hall on speed dial. And if the days leading up to your wedding are anything like ours, you must be up to your veils and bowties in flowers, programs, music and invitations.

But while all the particulars have their place, your special day will be gone in the blink of an eye. After that, you will stand hand in hand, looking down the winding road that is your future, ready to travel every step of the way together.

Your final destination? Heaven.

Whoever said life is about the journey is wrong. Life is about the end game. Your mission in marriage is to lead each other to heaven. And along the way, that winding road may lead you in directions yet foreseen.

Twenty-one years ago when I married my husband, we were excited, joyful and madly in love. Could we have imagined what our lives would bring over the next two decades? Surely I could never have guessed the joys and wonders that would more fully unite us as we were blessed with six amazing children to raise. But intermixed with the joy came job loss, financial strain, the grief of five miscarriages, the death of friends and family members, our crazy spur-of-the-moment decision to homeschool in a world of two incomes (to date we’ve persevered for 14 years), living in four different states, and hanging our hats in seven homes thus far.

But much to my surprise, every challenge has produced increased joy and a stronger commitment to one another. I was surprised because, you see, unlike my husband, I did not grow up with two parents who were married for the entirety of this earthly life. While I had the best of intentions,  I had no idea what marriage was supposed to look like. Chances are, at least half of you are in the same spot. It is for you that, in all humility and openness, I’d like to share an experience I had with my husband many years ago, before we were married.

Shortly after our engagement, I was concerned because my then fiancé was not overly affectionate with me. We rarely held hands and we behaved more like close friends than the adoring lovers I’d seen in the movies. I raised the issue with him. Almost pouting, I asked (in all sincerity), “If this is how affectionate we are now, imagine what things are going to be like in twenty years?  I mean, this is supposed to be the most romantic and wonderful time of our relationship – when it’s new and exciting!  Love only goes downhill from here.”

I can still see the expression he gave me.  One of puzzled amusement.  His eyes sparkled and his mouth turned up slightly as he took my hand.  “Vicki,” he said.  “My parents have been married for nearly forty years.  They are probably more affectionate now than they have ever been.  Now that the kids are grown and they are each other’s sole companion through life.  I absolutely guarantee you that they love each other now a thousand times more than they did when they were first engaged.”

He must have seen the doubt in my eyes, because he took my other hand too, before he continued.  “Think about it.  My parents have raised children together.  They’ve watched neighbors experience the tragedy of losing everything they had through the eighties when farming was at its low. They have been through good times and terrible times.  They have gotten to know each other’s families in an intimate way so that it’s not just the two of them, but a web of relationships that solidifies their own.  They have seen each other at their worst. They have seen each other at their best. They have forty years of memories together, both good and bad.  They buried a baby together.  They can honestly say that they know each other better than anyone else in the world.  That in itself ties them together.  I can assure you that my parents are absolutely one hundred percent in love, and they would take their relationship today over their little flirtations forty years ago any day of the week.

I knew, listening to my future husband in that moment, that I was learning something new.  Something I’d never heard before, but that was absolutely true.  I had been raised to believe that love was about emotion, not experience.  That love was about affection and not comfort.  But I knew that he was right.  I knew that when he married me, his love would only increase over the next forty years.  That, in itself, was a lesson I have carried with me through more than twenty years of good times and bad. Through moments where we were so annoyed with each other that I looked forward to his going to work, and I’m sure he looked forward to going. But despite the space we needed to work out our frustrations, we both knew that the tension was only temporary. (Very Important Note: That realization in itself is enough to dissolve most issues before they have a chance to dig in.)

You will love your spouse more over time, not in spite of your problems, but because of them.  Because you, too will each know going into this mystery that is Christ’s love, that your commitment is for life. And it is by sharing this life’s struggles that you will help each other to the next.

The greatest means of accomplishing your goal? Without a doubt, remember always that this relationship must find it’s security in the Love of God, Himself. For without God’s grace, the selfishness bubbling within our hearts from the sin of our first parents leaves us helpless to offer ourselves as a perfect sacrifice.

And sacrifice is the key to a happy and long-lasting marriage.

Recently I heard a speaker mention the following exhortation, so I looked it up. Before Vatican II,  this exhortation was read at every Catholic wedding. In those days, the priest did not take time in the Mass to offer a homily about the time he’d spent with the bride and groom, or make jokes about marriage preparation. Instead, he read the following. It is straightforward. It is a little scary (note how many times the word sacrifice is used). And it is A LOT beautiful.

Most importantly, it is true.

Exhortation Before Marriage
(All italics mine)

My dear friends: You are about to enter upon a union which is most sacred and most serious. It is most sacred, because established by God himself. By it, he gave to man a share in the greatest work of creation, the work of the continuation of the human race. And in this way he sanctified human love and enabled man and woman to help each other live as children of God, by sharing a common life under his fatherly care. Because God himself is thus its author, marriage is of its very nature a holy institution, requiring of those who enter into it a complete and unreserved giving of self. [But Christ our Lord added to the holiness of marriage an even deeper meaning and a higher beauty. He referred to the love of marriage to describe his own love for his Church, that is, for the people of God whom he redeemed by his own blood. And so he gave to Christians a new vision of what married life ought to be, a life of self- sacrificing love like his own. It is for this reason that his apostle, St. Paul, clearly states that marriage is now and for all time to be considered a great mystery, intimately bound up with the supernatural union of Christ and the Church, which union is also to be its pattern.]

This union, then, is most serious, because it will bind you together for life in a relationship so close and so intimate, that it will profoundly influence your whole future, That future, with its hopes and disappointments, its successes and its failures, its pleasures and its pains, its joys and its sorrows, is hidden from your eyes. You know that these elements are mingled in every life, and are to be expected in your own. And so not knowing what is before you, you take each other for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death.

Truly, then, these words are most serious. It is a beautiful tribute to your undoubted faith in each other, that recognizing their full import, you are, nevertheless, so willing and ready to pronounce them. And because these words involve such solemn obligations, it is most fitting that you rest the security of your wedded life upon the great principle of self-sacrifice. And so you begin your married life by the voluntary and complete surrender of your individual lives in the interest of that deeper and wider life which you are to have in common. Henceforth you will belong entirely to each other; you will be one in mind, one in heart, and one in affections. And whatever sacrifices you may hereafter be required to make to preserve this mutual life, always make them generously. Sacrifice is usually difficult and irksome. Only love can make it easy, and perfect love can make it a joy. We are willing to give in proportion as we love. And when love is perfect, the sacrifice is complete. God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son, and the Son so loved us that he gave himself for our salvation. ” Greater love than this no man hath, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”

No greater blessing can come to your married life than pure conjugal love, loyal and true to the end. May, then, this love with which you join your hands and hearts today never fail, but grow deeper and stronger as the years go on. And if true love and the unselfish spirit of perfect sacrifice guide your every action, you can expect the greatest measure of earthly happiness that may be allotted to man in this vale of tears.

The rest is in the hands of God. Nor will God be wanting to your needs, he will pledge you the life-long support of his graces [in the Holy Sacrament which you are now going to receive].

God’s blessings upon you as you embark on this exciting journey together. Decades from now, may you look back on this time in your life and smile at the love you shared today, knowing that it has grown exponentially every day since. I can promise you that life will not always be easy. But in the profound words we just read, if true love and the unselfish spirit of perfect sacrifice guide your every action, you can expect the greatest measure of earthly happiness that may be allotted to man in this vale of tears.

In Christ,
A Fellow Traveler