Marriage: A Divine Adventure
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Marriage: A Divine Adventure

Marriage: A Divine Adventure

Cormac Burke FAITH MAGAZINE July-August 2014

With much debate surrounding the family dwelling upon issues such as divorce, remarriage and artificial contraception, Cormac Burke believes the main focus of discussion should be marriage itself, which he describes as a “conjoint family project” that is at the same time “a very attractive and divine mission”.

Our title puts together three concepts: heritage, humanity, home. A brief initial word on each.


Heritage implies something that is handed down, that is worth not only having but also passing on to a further generation. So it implies something of value. By what standards can one distinguish what is of value?

Values may be spiritual or material, positive or negative, real or simply apparent. If the values we have are real (and the best of these are spiritual values, such as ideals of honesty or friendship) and we assimilate them, they help us grow in humanity. If they are only apparent (and this can happen especially with material values), their probable effect is to hinder or lessen our development as human beings.

Our first values are not invented by ourselves, but received or absorbed from others: usually, to begin with, from the home; but as time goes on also from the outside world, from our environment, from the prevailing culture.


In the context of our title, humanity refers not to a particular human being or to a group of individuals, but to mankind as a whole, linked, despite passing differences, throughout the centuries (so we speak of “the history of humanity”). Today of course there is a widespread tendency to deny the very concept that we all share something in common, that all participate in the same human nature. Here we will do no more than note that tendency – which so threatens the foundations of any truly human society. Without presupposing a common human nature, the theme before us today would make no sense.


The home is the focal point of our study. What do we mean by a home? Just a physical place, such as a boarding house? No. An old people’s “home”? No, such an institution may have a good atmosphere, but those who live there have little in common except the simple fact of old age. What we mean by a home is a family – composed of parents (husband and wife) and of children. Each home in this sense is something unique, a sacred place of special relationships marked by particular sharing and intimacy, and originating in marriage.

Sharing means “comm-union”, union that originates in love and is perpetuated in love. That is where marriage comes in. Marriage is not a more or less temporary alliance between a man and a woman who feel attracted to one another. It is a true and lifelong commitment of love that unites them – also in the common purpose of incarnating their love in the permanence of a family. In the words of Benedict XVI, “the first form of communion between persons is that born of the love of a man and a woman who decide to enter a stable union in order to build together a new family” (Message for World Day of Peace, 2008).

Life is not just living in the present. It is working for the future – for a future that can last. One needs hope; and hope is buttressed by good memories from the past.

A united home is the greatest human safeguard against loneliness – that malady of the Western world, that devastating impoverishment of personal life which the West keeps spreading everywhere. How many people today try to bury themselves in the present, afraid to look ahead, because they fear their future may offer no more than a panorama of growing loneliness!

What Values Predominate Today in the World?

Let us return now to values. Let us consider the values that constitute the inheritance the modern world has developed and is passing on. What values tend more and more to predominate in today’s “global village” world culture? It is no exaggeration to say that, rather than values, they are “anti-values”; concretely, the three spirits of a godless world listed in the Bible: the concupiscence of the eyes, the concupiscence of the flesh, and the pride of life (cf 1 Jn 2:16).

In more contemporary terms, we could list them this way:

Consumerism, an obsession with having material goods – having, having, having – which breeds disquiet of spirit, envy, jealousy, cheating, theft, violence…

A generalised yielding to sensual appetite, an obsessive concern for food and drink; and above all for sexual satisfaction – in any form it may take, where any idea or norm of restraint or respect is lost, where “everything goes” and nothing is sacred, where others are treated simply as objects, of interest insofar as they satisfy my vanity, my lust, my sense of power, my exploitative spirit…; the main propagator of this exploitation of persons being the media in all of its omnipresent forms.

Pride, in its ultimate expression: “I am who I am, and that’s it!”; “Only I can decide what is right or wrong, good or evil, for me.” In these matters, I will be who I am, “like God”. It is this prevalent relativism or subjectivism which isolates each one in the myth, in the cold and lonely freedom, of “the autonomous self”.

These anti-values characterise our global culture. They are forcing themselves into the lives and outlook of each person; and – this is our main point – into our homes.

What Values Predominate Today in the Family?

Are couples who marry today, who want to form a real family and home, aware of the pervasive presence of these anti-values? Are they aware of how easily they can shape their own personal outlook and especially that of the home they are seeking to build? We are speaking of couples, of parents, who are good or want to be good. But even parents who want to be good and form a good family atmosphere, can be thoughtless. And thoughtless people are easy prey to manipulators or exploiters.

The attack on Christian living, as St John puts it, is three‑pronged. Let us take a deeper look at just one of these major enemies: “covetousness of the eyes”, or the modern anti-value of consumerism. Few parents seem to be aware of how present it is in their own lives, and in that of their children; and how destructive are the effects of handing it down.

How many of us, how many parents, are not affected by the spirit of consumerism? “I must have this, we must buy that… Oh, if only we could have that wider flat-screen TV, that better car, that nicer house, like the one the So-and-Sos have. … And you, our son or daughter still at school, you just must get those good marks to qualify for university and for a career where you make a lot of money. Otherwise you will lack self-esteem, you will feel inferior to those around you, a ‘failure’ in their sight…”

And then (their subconscious might add) you’ll spend your life like us, criticising and envying and hungering for still more of what cannot fill even the shrunken heart we are bequeathing to you…

Is this an exaggeration? I don’t know. But in practice these are the “values” which so many children absorb from their parents. With this as the inheritance handed down to them, are they in turn likely to pass on better “values”, true values, to the one or two children they may possibly have? Are they likely to have any other than a calculating approach to marriage itself, to the number of children they “can afford” to have?

Consider it; for that is the social future the West seems bent on building. The West, with all its concern about life in the 2030s or 2050s, about what will happen “unless we remedy global warming or atmospheric pollution…”, seems oblivious to the dehumanised, value-less and ever-more-lonely society which it has created for itself and will pass on to its posterity – if it really wants any posterity at all.

There is no real future for a society of self-absorbed individuals. Without any true and shared values held in common, there is less collective glue to hold it together. It ends in disintegration. Families who are rich economically can pass on a rich inheritance in cash or in land; sadly, what they leave behind is so often disputed among their children. Rich families that are poor in love are not really rich. Poor families, richer in love, have a richer inheritance to pass on.

The Challenge of Rebuilding the Home

Is the panorama I have been depicting realistic? Perhaps, you may say, over-realistic and even excessively pessimistic. Well, let us return to a more optimistic view, a view of how things can change, in and through the family.

“Rich families that are poor in love are not really rich. Poor families, richer in love, have a richer inheritance to pass on”

The change has to begin among young people in their approach to marriage. The thrust of modern life is to put self first, and others second. Yet, the more you live for yourself, the more alone you will find yourself. It is not good for man or woman to be alone, or to seek company in shared selfishness. Man needs to build for others, for others whom he can love. He needs to build a home. The married couple who don’t come out of themselves and live both for each other and for their children, will sink back into themselves, back into their more and more separate selves; and the few children they may have will be even more self-centred, and even more alone. That is why few ambitions are more noble – for the present and the future – than that of creating authentic families, authentic homes, that can be the model and seed of a more generous and happier future.

The Basis for a Home that can Create and Transmit Positive Values

A true home can only be based on love. And love itself is true only if it has ideals and is generous. A young couple about to marry are truly in love if they share ideals: to make each other happy and to pass on their shared love to their children – the family that should be born of their generous love.

Husband and wife are the first who need to learn generous love: the love that refuses to dwell on the defects of the other, that learns rather to understand, to forgive, to ask forgiveness. That is the only way spousal love can last and grow. The spouses’ own learning experience will help them become good and patient teachers of the same love to their children.

The first need of very young children is to be given love gratuitously. If they are given that, later on they will begin to realise that this gratuitous love took an effort; and that they too need to make similar effort, to overcome their natural self-centredness, so as to learn to love their parents in return, and not only their parents, but also their siblings, each one of them in a special way.

Marriage and the family are a first natural school. And the first subject taught there is love. The parents have to learn it first, and then be the main teachers of their children. Learning to love, to grow gradually in mutual understanding, to forgive and forget, to discover that one cannot always have one’s own way.

If the home is a demanding school of love, the children will learn many other things too. An especially important point today is to learn the uses of freedom. Our age is one where few things are more highly prized than freedom; yet few people are taught the first truth about freedom: that it can be exercised well or badly, that it can grow or be lost, that one does not truly love freedom if one loves only one’s own freedom and has no regard for the freedom of others.

“The real inheritance handed on by a good family is the memories it creates: memories of Mum’s and Dad’s goodness, of a place where one could take refuge”

Again, the family offers the first natural introduction to the mystery of sexuality. There brothers and sisters, in an atmosphere undisturbed by physical attraction, gradually begin to sense some of the deeper and truly human differences and complementarities between the sexes – and so to appreciate and respect the different way of being a man or a woman.

Still again, only in the family is it possible to learn that authority can come from love, and that obedience to authority can be an act of love.

The Treasure of Family Memories

Life is not just living in the present. It is working for the future – for a future that can last. One needs hope; and hope is buttressed by good memories from the past.

Dostoyevsky’s famous novel The Brothers Karamazov closes with the remarks of one of the three brothers. He addresses them to a group of young friends, after the death of one of their companions: “There is nothing more powerful, nor more healthy nor more useful later on in life than some good memory, and particularly one that has been borne from childhood, from one’s parents’ home. Much is said to you about your education, but a beautiful, sacred memory like that, one preserved from childhood, is possibly the very best education of all. If he gather many such memories in his life, a man is saved for all of it. And even if only one good memory remains within our heart, then even it may serve some day for our salvation” (Epilogue).

“Once there was a way to get back home;” so goes a line from the Beatles’ song “Golden Slumbers”. But today even if one knows the way, there is less and less urge to go back home, because it is not there: a place may be left but there never was a home. Few, if any, cherished memories remain of one’s childhood and upbringing; fewer supports for one’s hope and salvation. The real inheritance handed on by a good family is the memories it creates: memories of Mum’s and Dad’s goodness, of a place where one could take refuge, where one felt understood and learnt to understand others, of quarreling with one’s siblings and making up, of forgiving and being forgiven. That is a school for life.

Those already married, as well as those meaning to marry, could ask themselves no more important question than this: are our children – will our children be – really grateful for what they receive from us, their parents? Do I, do we, give them of our best? And the best is not comfort nor money nor job prospects, but love. Love in the constant little things that build true family life and, later on, make up the family memories that keep us going.

There is a large family that I have known for a long time. A family rich in children and very rich in love. A few years ago the mother died; all were present at the funeral. After her burial the father and children gathered at the family home, and reminisced together about the memories each one had of her. The father told me later that no stranger coming in could have imagined what a loss they had just suffered. On the contrary, the whole atmosphere was one of joy – though mixed with tears. Joy and tears of gratitude. That is richness; that is an inheritance!

The sorrow and the tears pass; the joy remains. And if, with the passage of the years, the memories still bring some tears, they will be tears of not-forgotten joy.

There lies the root and promise of happiness. Perhaps we still have to learn from one of Our Lord’s most fundamental teachings: “It is happier to give than to receive.” Further, in giving, one receives: that is how true happiness begins here, and reaches its fullness afterwards.

Fr Cormac Burke teaches at Strathmore University, Nairobi, Kenya. A renowned canon lawyer he is a recipient of the National Federation of Catholic Physicians of the United States Linacre Award for his writings in the field of marriage and sexual ethics.

Faith Magazine