A Reflection on Marriage as a Work of Beauty

Douglas McManaman
April 1, 2024
Reproduced with Permission

I'd like to begin this reflection with an analogy. I'm an amateur artist. I love colors, and I've always appreciated talented artists and their work. I'm not, however, a talented artist, nor have I been formally trained. The reason I paint is that my spiritual director, in the year of my ordination, told me I should paint. I did not want to at the time, but I decided to follow his instructions - after all, he has a rather extraordinary "word of knowledge" charism. I went out to the dollar store and purchased some cheap pastels and a pad of paper and began to draw and color a picture of some houses in the neighborhood. It was not that good, of course, but I felt as though I had a two - week holiday, just after coloring for an hour. So, I kept at it. I then moved on to chalk pastels, then eventually to pastels on sandpaper, then to acrylics on canvas, and eventually iconography.

During my pastel phase, I took a workshop with Dave Becket, renowned Canadian pastel artist from Orillia, Ontario. What he would do is paint a picture in front of all of us, so we'd see the work develop and unfold before our eyes. I was rather amazed that throughout the process, at any given stage, the painting looked rough and was not all that pretty, nothing for which any special talent was required. But he kept at it, and at it, and eventually, in the end, we saw the work suddenly come together in all its beauty.

A marriage can very much be compared to the production of a work of art. A marriage is a process, not a finished product. The product can only be judged at the end, as Aristotle would say of a good life: "for as it is not one swallow or one fine day that makes a spring, so it is not one day or a short time that makes a man blessed and happy" (NE, 1098a18). If one were asked to judge the quality of a marriage at any given time, like the work of art in progress, one might very well say that it is nothing extraordinary, that it is rough and unrefined, certainly not very pretty. We have a tendency to regard marriage within a static frame of mind, as though a marriage is a thing the quality of which one can measure, as in the rather jejune expression "joy - filled" marriage. Anyone reading this who has ever worked on a painting or a sculpture is certainly aware that it is not always a joy, but often tedious; it is work. Similarly, in a marriage, there are moments of great joy, of course, and challenging moments, darkness and struggles; but the joy is really at the end, when we contemplate the work of beauty, as God does at the end of the six days of creation, looking at everything he had made "and indeed, it was very good" (Gn 1, 31). And one only makes it to the end by staying the course, paying attention to details, persisting, refining, and doing the little things the importance of which experience reveals.

This brings me to another point to draw out from this analogy. I have two unfinished paintings in my art room. They are of two beautiful scenes of Uxbridge, Ontario during the fall season, one of a farm and large field below a beautiful sky, the other of a railway crossing in the country. Now, I also studied iconography, but interestingly enough, I do not have any unfinished icons. When writing an icon, one begins with certain prayers, and when finished, it remains unsigned and is blessed with holy oil. The icon is considered a sacramental, not merely a painting. It is a window into the saint who is depicted, a point of contact, and so it is a holy object. I had to ask myself: why don't I have any unfinished icons, but two large unfinished paintings? I think the reason is that the purpose was different in both cases. My purpose in painting the two that remain unfinished was my own enjoyment. I wanted to capture the enjoyment of those scenes, for myself. The purpose in writing each icon I'd ever done, however, was devotion to the saint depicted, i.e., an angel, Theotokos, or Christ Pantocrator, etc. I certainly finished paintings that were not icons, both acrylics and pastels, but I don't have them; they were painted for others, for friends and colleagues. I was able to successfully finish them, to persist through the midpoint tedium, because they were not done for me primarily, but for them.

Again, this lends itself well to highlighting an important aspect of married life. When a couple gets married and the purpose is first and foremost their own enjoyment or convenience, the marriage will almost always end in a separation and eventual divorce - like an unfinished work of art. The two simply cannot sustain it. It's very much like doing a painting so that I may enjoy it: after a time, the labor is often just not worth it, so I stop and move on to more interesting projects. But when it is for another, when it is an icon that I am doing for the sake of satisfying a person's desire for religious inspiration and devotion, or simply a beautiful scene outside that I want another to enjoy as I did when I saw it originally, I am able to endure and persist.

The problem is that the vast majority of people, since the early 1960s, sees marriage as primarily an arrangement, one ordered to the pleasure, convenience, and enjoyment of the individuals involved. But marriage is first and foremost about the decision to love another for the other's sake, completely and totally in all its implications, one of which is that divorce is never an option on the table. One should know that such a decision is not going to be easy, not always a joy, but it is a work in development, a work of beauty. It is not merely a sacramental, but a sacrament, an institution brought into being by God on the basis of the intention of the two involved. It is a sacred sign in motion.

I believe a significant factor in our lack of awareness of the deeply paschal significance of marriage has been a misreading of Paul's first letter to the Corinthians, chapter 7:

"Brothers and sisters: I should like you to be free of anxieties. An unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how he may please the Lord. But a married man is anxious about the things of the world, how he may please his wife, and he is divided. An unmarried woman or a virgin is anxious about the things of the Lord, so that she may be holy in both body and spirit. A married woman, on the other hand, is anxious about the things of the world, how she may please her husband. I am telling you this for your own benefit, not to impose a restraint upon you, but for the sake of propriety and adherence to the Lord without distraction" (32 - 35).

Because it is a small portion of the entire chapter, taken out of its larger context, it is very easy to misinterpret and come away with the impression that the celibate or consecrated life is genuinely religious, while the married state is not. Such an interpretation, however, would run contrary to Paul's overall teaching on marriage. In the larger context of this chapter, we see that Paul believes we are in the last period of salvation history. He refers to his own time as a time of distress, which in apocalyptic literature, is said to precede the time of the Second Coming of Christ. Paul writes: "So this is what I think best because of the present distress: that it is a good thing for a person to remain as he is. Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek a separation. Are you free of a wife? Then do not look for a wife.... I tell you, brothers, the time is running out" (26 - 27; 29).

Today we would not advise single young people not to look for a spouse "because time is running out", so what Paul says about those who are married and those who are not must be read in this context, otherwise we come away with the impression that marriage has nothing to do with serving the Lord. And of course, that would contradict what Paul teaches in Ephesians, where he speaks of the mystery of marriage as a sign of the love that Christ has for his Bride, the Church.

Christ's love for his Bride is a conjugal love, and the love of a baptized husband for his baptized wife is that very same love, and vice versa. Marriage is just as religious a vocation as is the priesthood and consecrated life. Unfortunately, it has not always been understood that way by the faithful, but marriage is a sacred sign that contains what it signifies, and it signifies the paschal mystery. For just as God called Abraham to leave the land of Ur and "go to the land that I will show you" (Gn 12, 1), and just as God called Israel to leave Egypt behind with its pantheon of false gods, and just as Jesus leaves this world behind in order to go to the Father (Jn 17, 19), so too in matrimony, two people are called to leave behind a world closed in upon itself; they are consecrated, that is, set apart, for they are called to leave behind their comfortable world of independence and self - sufficiency, to be given over to another, to belong completely to one another, in order to become part of something larger than their own individual selves, namely, the one flesh institution that is their marriage. The couple relinquish their individual lives; they are no longer two individuals with their own independent existence; rather, they have become one body, a symbol of the Church, who is one body with Christ the Bridegroom.

The lives of genuinely married couples are a witness of the Church's response to Christ's love for his Bride; they witness that love in their sacrificial love for one another and for the children who are the fruit of that marriage - and raising children well demands a tremendously sacrificial love. In giving themselves irrevocably and exclusively to one another, without knowing what lies ahead, a young couple die to their own individual plans, they die to a life directed by their own individual wills. In doing so, they find life; for they have become a larger reality.

But when a couple enters a marriage as though this is primarily about their own enjoyment, they inevitably become disillusioned. "Christ, what have I done? What have I done?" said Lynn Johnson, of the Up series, a year after her wedding. She readily acknowledged that her husband probably said much the same thing. She was disillusioned and had to make a decision, thankfully the right one.

When a generation has lost the sense of life as having a transcendent end and has settled for a purely intramundane existence of an epicurean nature, marriage simply makes no sense. It makes far more sense to simply cohabitate and maintain a level of freedom in which one can move on rather easily when things get difficult. It is no coincidence that marriage began to decline in the late 1960s, the age of individualism, which devolved into the hedonism of the 70s and 80s, and the nihilism of the 90s. In a postmodern culture, it continues to decline. But if young people were given a proper vision of the overall work that a married couple are called to create and the heroic virtue required to achieve this end, we might eventually begin to see a reversal.