(This was written in preparation for a series of conferences on vocations and states in life that I gave at Saint Benedict Center in the Spring of 2005. Please see the end of this piece for a small table of contents with links to the other conferences.)
There is an Arabian proverb that goes like this: “Choose your horse from a hundred, your friend from a thousand, your wife from ten thousand.” If it isn’t the absolute height of supernatural wisdom, it is the testimony of common sense regarding a decision that ranks in the top three of life’s most important decisions. To see why, we need only quickly recall to our mind some of what we talked about last week.
Quick Review. Last week we spoke of marriage as it was instituted from the beginning by God Himself and how Jesus restored it to its original indissoluble integrity then elevated it to a sacrament in the New Testament. We talked about the two purposes or ends of matrimony, and of the three blessings of matrimony. The primary purpose is the procreation and education of children. The secondary purpose is generally divided into two: mutual assistance and the quieting of concupiscence. The three blessings, as St. Augustine gave them in the fifth century, and as the Church has spoken of ever since, are “offspring, fidelity, and sacrament.” Towards the end, I spoke of some of the errors and attacks against matrimony today and how it is that those of you who marry will have to meet the challenge of living the “great sacrament” St. Paul Spoke of in a world which is hostile to the true teaching of the Church.
Serious and Happy. I hope that, by now at least, we all have an idea that this is serious stuff: very serious stuff. I don’t want to make it morbid, though, by focusing on the hard parts. After all, a marriage is not a funeral. It’s a happy affair. All these warnings and admonitions have as their purpose that matrimony be a truly happy affair, that is, the living of your married vocation in such a way that both you and your spouse — and all your children — know, love, and serve God in this life and are eternally happy with Him in heaven.
What Goes into Choosing? Tonight’s subject matter is all on the choice of a spouse. We will touch on the following points:
1. The qualities of true friendship.
2. The qualities of a good spouse.
3. The importance of good advice and prayer.
The Qualities of True Friendship. Why should we discuss the qualities of true friendship when speaking of the choice of a spouse? The answer should be obvious. Your spouse is going to be your companion not just for a few moments, not just for a few hours a day as a workmate or schoolmate, but as long as both of you will live. It is the closest friendship that exists, or it should be.
There are three qualities to a good friendship. Learning about these qualities will not only help those of you who use it to discern a potential spouse’s fitness; it will also help all of you here and now in the whole business of choosing your friends, since these qualities touch upon all friendship. Here are the qualities of true friendship:
1. It is morally helpful to both parties.
2. There is a genuine basis of agreement between both parties.
3. Their love is characterized by a spirit of self-sacrifice.
Morally Helpful. First of all, to be true friendship, the relationship must be morally helpful to both parties. Negatively speaking, this means that any friendship that leads to sin, near occasions of sin, a lowering of standards, a neglect of ones duties — especially religious duties — is to be avoided. If hanging around with Mike generally means that you “have to go to confession” the next day, then Mike is no friend. Of course, that brings it to the lowest point on the scale. On the positive side, a friend should make you better, by his good example, his wholesome conversation, the interest he has in you, his ability to help you avoid vice and achieve virtue.
Not Snobbish. It’s not at all snobbish to think this way. I can just hear some young pharisee arguing this point and telling me that “Our Lord was criticized by his enemies for eating and drinking with sinners.” Yes, he was. But he was there to convert them. He wasn’t there as their friend, but as their savior. It was only when they responded well to him that they became his friends. In fact, this is a strict theological truth: The State of Sin makes us enemies of God, while the State of Grace makes of God’s friends. Our Lord called the Apostles his friends just after he gave them Holy Communion for the very first time. At that time, he said, “I will not now call you servants: for the servant knoweth not what his lord doth. But I have called you friends: because all things whatsoever I have heard of my Father, I have made known to you” (Jn. 15:15). This is as if to say that the interior infusion of faith and grace makes you worthy of my friendship. Yes, Our Lord called Judas “friend” when he came to betray Him, but the commentators generally agree that these words were one last invitation to Judas to repent, an invitation he rejected.
It is not an obligation that you only choose friends whose presence makes you holier, but it is a good idea. What is obligatory is that you do not include among your friends those who will make you worse.
Father Gerald Kelly encourages the young person picking a spouse to answer the following questions, which touch upon this first quality of friendship:
“Does he make you want to be better, bring out your loyalty, devotion, inspire you? Are you, as a matter of fact, morally better or worse for having been with him, and what can you expect in the future; in other words, would marriage with him help you to observe God’s commandments and practice your religious duties faithfully? Imagine a crisis in your life (poverty, sickness) that might make a high quality of virtue necessary in order to remain faithful to God, would he be a help to the practice of such virtue? Does he drink too much? Want to indulge in petting, even at the expense of chastity? Practice his religion? Control his temper? What are his views on divorce, on having children, on Catholic education, on the frequentation of the Sacraments? Can you actually point out any definite virtuous qualities in him that evoke your respect and admiration and inspiration? Are they lasting qualities, or are they put on for your benefit now?”1
Agreement. The next quality is agreement. This is straight forward and is the basis for most of what we recognize as friendship. You and your friend have common tastes, common interests, common likes and dislikes. Whether it be the same spiritual, artistic, intellectual, technical, or athletic pursuits, the two of you have some common areas of agreement that make your time together pleasurable. This does not mean that you must agree on everything, but it means that you will agree on certain essentials, while the relatively few areas of disagreement provide stimulants to good conversation, not a bitter parting of the ways. In fact if there is too much agreement, then there will be little basis for self-sacrifice and mutual charity. There should be some areas of charitable disagreement.
“Fascination.” This does not mean that one friend should be the disciple of the other, ever loyal to his each and every opinion. When a teacher or a superior condescends to be his pupil or subject’s “friend,” it is just that, a condescension, a coming down to that person’s level. The normal friendship that exists between peers should not have one partner imposing all his views on the other. There is no real sharing there, no mutual giving. It sometimes happens that one partner becomes fascinated by the other. Molly is fascinated by Mary because she speaks several languages, has a magnetic personality, and has the most extraordinary ability to convince anyone of anything. They really have very few interests in common; it’s just a fascination. This is no basis for a lasting and true friendship. This would especially be a problem in a marriage. The “fascination” problem in ordinary friendship can be infatuation when it is friendship of a boy and girl attracted to each other. Generally speaking, husband and wife should come from the same station in life: the same class, the same level general degree of intelligence, although it does not hurt if the wife is somewhat less intellectually endowed than the husband, thought the reverse order is not recommended. The question of age will be addressed later.
Father Kelly recommends that these and other questions be answered:
“Is it a wife you want: Can she cook? and make the house a home? Has she that womanly quality that instinctively puts things in order? And would this girl be a real mother; would that be a vocation for her? Could she bear children and sacrifice for them? Could she give the child that early introduction to God that would so fill his soul that he would never forget? Is she convinced that motherhood is an all-day and an all-night job; that it is the normal perfection of womanhood, and that those who take it right are enriched by it, no matter what sacrifices are involved? How does she speak of children? How does she treat them? What do her younger brothers and sisters think of her?
“Is it a husband you want: How does he like children? Does he like to work? Can he hold a job? Has he a sense of responsibility? Is he “grown up,” or does he have to be pampered? Too jealous? A braggart? An alibi-artist? Is he courteous?”
Self-Sacrifice. I think we all know what a “fair weather friend” is. This is someone who is wonderful to be with when the going is good, but as soon as problems arise, he is nowhere to be found. Friendship is a kind of love, and we all know that love is proved by deeds. “If you love me keep my commandments” (John 15:10). Our Lord said. And also: “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me” (Matt. 16:24). If the friend is not willing to sacrifice things for his friendship, he is selfish. Selfishness is a barrier to true friendship and it is a cause of disaster in marriage.
Here is another list of questions from Father Kelly, this one regarding self-sacrifice:
“At his home (each should know the other’s family) does he show thoughtfulness of parents and brothers and sisters and do you get the general impression that this is the regular thing? What little kindnesses, not only to you but to others, have you noticed in him? When he is wrong does he admit it, and try to make up for it? Does he easily and graciously pass over others’ mistakes? Does he look for sympathy too much? Can he give sympathy willingly, or does someone else’s trouble always bring out a greater trouble of big? Is he emotionally grown up; at least does he show that he knows his temper and jealousy and such things ought to be controlled?”
Mixed Marriages. It should be obvious given what we said about the agreement that should exist between partners, that mixed marriages are simply out of the question. They are also strictly forbidden by church law. And while dispensations are granted, the Church only permits this to prevent the greater evil of the Catholic partner doing it anyway and leaving the Church in the process. The hope that someone can be converted by the good example of the Catholic party is not sufficient to risk the damage that can happen to the the Catholic partner and certainly will befall the children.
Imagine the danger to the children if a Catholic man marries a non-Catholic. Mom raises the children. She spends the time with them in their tenderest years. And although she technically agreed that the children would be raised Catholic, do you expect a Protestant wife to teach your children to love Our Lady, the Rosary, the Sacraments, and the Pope?
Imagine the heartache of a Catholic wife when little Johnny asks why Dad doesn’t go to confession and Mass with the rest of the family. Teaching a seven-year-old that he has to confess all his mortal sins, including missing Sunday Mass, is rendered very difficult when Dad neither goes to Mass, nor goes to confession.
Besides all this, the failure rate of mixed marriages is higher than non-mixed marriages. There are statistics to back this up, and there are terrible stories of Catholic men and women having all the hopes in the world of the conversion of a spouse, and then having those hopes dashed. Many tragic instances of perversion from the faith have resulted from mixed marriages. Don’t do it.
Drunkenness. While we’re on the subject of converting the potential spouse, I bring up another issue, this a moral one. Do not marry an alcoholic. The chances of your reforming him or her is almost zero. But the chances of your living a life of misery and sharing that misery with your children is almost 100%. This is not a guess on my part. Father Kelly, whom I’ve quoted several times, and Father Charles Hugo Doyle (in his excellent book Cana Is Forever) warn against this strongly. Father Doyle cites some very sad cases to prove his point.
I should point out that this is very much related to the first quality of friendship (that it be morally helpful to both partners). Someone with this kind of addiction cannot possibly contribute to the moral uplifting of his spouse.
Maturity. One quality that is necessary in a spouse is maturity. Father Doyle goes on for several pages describing three types of maturity: Physical Maturity, Intellectual Maturity, and Emotional Maturity. I will cite what he has to say on the subject of emotional maturity, as I imagine this is the most neglected of the three. He gives two lists that I think are very valuable. The first is a list of signs of emotional immaturity. Before I read this list, let me mention that, if these are qualities to be avoided in picking a spouse, they are also qualities to be rooted out in yourself. The same goes for all the qualities we’ve mentioned for a good spouse. If you don’t have them, get them!
Signs of emotional immaturity:
1. Gloominess over little failures.
2. Pessimism over slight difficulties.
3. Complete panic when frightened or in an emergency.
4. Throwing or breaking things when angry or crossed.
5. Tears when thwarted, disappointed or upset.
6. Selfishness, aggressiveness, rebelliousness, stubbornness.
7. Needless and prolonged worry over trifles.
8. Morbid fears, strong hates, and unreasonable prejudices.
Now, if you have these signs of emotional immaturity, how do you change? Here are Father Doyle’s recommendations:
1. Know yourself as you really are.
2. Be individual. Try to pick your own hats and clothes.
3. Fight your own battles.
4. Don’t seek sympathy from others.
5. Don’t feel sorry for yourself.
6. Never be indecisive.
7. Avoid too much sentimentality over persons or causes.
8. Resist parental over-possessiveness.
9. Check first signs of jealousy.
10. Resist feelings of depression. Laugh at yourself.
11. Train your emotions as you would your will.
12. Learn to check your tongue when you are angry.
Father Doyle’s chapters on preparation for marriage are very valuable. I recommend them and the whole rest of the book for those looking for a spouse.
Age. As for the age to get married, let me quote Canon Law and some other authorities on the question. Here is what the 1983 Code of Canon Law says: “A man cannot validly enter marriage before the completion of his sixteenth year of age, nor a woman before the completion of her fourteenth year. The Episcopal Conference may establish a higher age for the lawful celebration of marriage.” From the various Catholic books I have surveyed on marriage, the actual ages recommended varied from 18 and 16 to 25 and 21. The first listed number is the boys age, the second the girls. (Yes, gentlemen, girls mature earlier. It’s a fact.) Also, the numbers tended to get higher based on the publication dates of the books, which suggests what is already obvious to some, namely, that the more we “progress,” the longer we drag out adolescence. Behold the wonders of modernity!
There are many factors to keep in mind. One of them is that a boy is not fit to marry until he has plied a trade or held down a job for about two years, and has enough savings to marry. At that point, he can court a girl. If he goes to college, such a boy will be about 24 years old. If he does not go to college, and begins working a trade right out of high school, he will be about 20. But this does not guarantee that he has the money, which, by the way, is very important. Let us not be pietistic and say that material concerns are beneath us. A young man should know how to make money and how to handle it; otherwise, he cannot provide for the family and this is his duty. Also, that’s the age he may begin to court, not necessarily the age he marries. He may graduate high-school earlier, say 17, and work a two-year job and begin to court at 19. But the likelihood that a young man will really be ready for marriage, really able to provide for a family at that age today is very minimal. Father Doyle recommends that courting not begin until 21.
Father Lord. “Why so late?” you may ask. To help answer this, let me quote from Father Daniel Lord’s book Questions I’m Asked about Marriage. Writing in the late 30’s, he’s answering someone who objected that the grandparents and sometimes the parents of adults of that era often married at age 18 or even younger, so why should he consider that too early in his day:
“They did marry at an early age. But times have changed.
“For one thing few people in your grandparents’ day — and perhaps your parents’ — continued their studies beyond high school. Many did not even attend high school. People in those days went to work at an earlier age and consequently became financially independent at an earlier age. And earning their own living so early in life, they developed earlier than do boys and girls today.
“So as a rule our parents and our grandparents when they were young were more mature that are modern boys and girls. Maturity depends to a great extent on environment. Today boys and girls study in school for a long time. They are not encouraged to become self-supporting. They play games and participate in sports at an age when their not too distantly remote ancestors were pioneering or doing men’s or women’s jobs. And there are boys and girls today who because of environment or necessity are well-matured and self-supporting at the age of eighteen. But certainly their number is trifling compared with the number of matured eighteen-year-olds two generations ago.
“Members of our generation live longer, but they mature more slowly too; and hence it is rather logical that they should marry at a later age than that at which their grandparents married.”
Good books. We could go minutely into the qualities of a good partner, but I will, once again, recommend the excellent works of Father Kelly (Chastity: A Guide for Teens and Young Adults) and Father Doyle (Cana is Forever). The first is being reprinted by Roman Catholic Books and is a small book giving a very Catholic view of our powers of reproduction. It is recommended reading for those about age 16 and up. All parents should read the book so that they can explain these matters to their teen-aged children. The second book is a rather thorough treatment of matrimony and is unfortunately out of print.
Prayer. It goes without saying that prayer is important in the process of picking a partner, just as it is terribly important in the whole process of your vocation in general. Father Doyle cites a Russian proverb to this effect:
Before embarking on a journey, pray once;
Before leaving for war, pray twice;
Before you marry, pray three times.
In a minute, I’ll give Pope Pius XI the final word on prayer.
Good advice. You should never make any important decisions in life without getting advice. In the matter of vocations, this is certainly true, and it comes down to the particulars of choosing a partner. Yes, you may all like to think that you know better than your parents, but you really don’t. They are not infallible, but they know you and they know marriage, and they will be able to tell if you are fooling yourself by choosing that one. They also have the grace of state as parents. Remember we spoke of the sacramental aspect of marriage last week. The sacrament gives them graces to fulfill their parental duties, including giving you advice.
You should also ask your confessor about your choice. Again, he has the grace of state. Chances are he knows you and he knows your potential spouse, perhaps better than you may think.
Final Admonition. I will leave the final word to a great modern pope. In Casti Conubii, Pope Pius XI has this to say of the importance of choosing the right partner: “To the proximate preparation of a good married life belongs very specially the care in choosing a partner; on that depends a great deal whether the forthcoming marriage will be happy or not, since one may be to the other either a great help in leading a Christian life, or, a great danger and hindrance. And so that they may not deplore for the rest of their lives the sorrows arising from an indiscreet marriage, those about to enter into wedlock should carefully deliberate in choosing the person with whom henceforward they must live continually: they should, in so deliberating, keep before their minds the thought first of God and of the true religion of Christ, then of themselves, of their partner, of the children to come, as also of human and civil society, for which wedlock is a fountainhead. Let them diligently pray for divine help, so that they make their choice in accordance with Christian prudence, not indeed led by the blind and unrestrained impulse of lust, nor by any desire of riches or other base influence, but by a true and noble love and by a sincere affection for the future partner; and then let them strive in their married life for those ends for which the State was constituted by God. Lastly, let them not omit to ask the prudent advice of their parents with regard to the partner, and let them regard this advice in no light manner, in order that by their mature knowledge and experience of human affairs, they may guard against a disastrous choice, and, on the threshold of matrimony, may receive more abundantly the divine blessing of the fourth commandment: ‘Honor thy father and thy mother (which is the first commandment with a promise) that it may be well with thee and thou mayest be long-lived upon the earth.'”
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1. The Big Decision: Your Options, God’s Plan.
2. The Better Part: The Religious or Priestly Vocation.
3. Flying Solo: The Chaste Single State.
4. The Great Sacrament: Holy Matrimony.
5. Who will it be? Choosing a Partner.
6. The Chaste Preparation: Courtship.
7. Till Death Do Us Part.
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