By Brian Niemiec
Last Wednesday marked four months until my wedding with Ellen on July 25th. So many things are starting to happen now, and I am really excited to embark on this amazing adventure! Lent has given me the space to more intentionally pray and sit with this big life change that is approaching, and while I cannot wait to marry Ellen in July, there is a piece of me that continues to be nervous. For a while I had trouble putting my finger on it. I started thinking about how final this was, and what would happen if life didn’t work out the way I planned. What if marriage didn’t live up to my hopes, dreams, and expectations? I started sounding very… well… selfish.
Most of us who read and write for this blog are all too aware of the pervasive individualism that is at the very heart of our society. Consuming goods for our pleasure, and spending time in ways that satisfy our wants is a very well taught lesson in American life, and this lesson is indeed at odds with what is required in a marriage. Yet, I think the hardest thing to overcome is not the standard social norms (at least we can name those), but rather the experience of living the glamorized single life.
Our ancestors must have learned this lesson several millennia ago because so many cultures with different religious traditions taught that until a man and woman were ready for marriage, they would remain with their parents and siblings in the family home. The Bible takes this arrangement as a given, and the practice is present throughout scripture. Today however, at age 18 many of us say goodbye to our parents and experience the wild independence of college life. Afterwards, many venture out to find an apartment alone or with friends in order to start “their real lives.”
The problem, of course, is in viewing those years as our “real life.” During that time we have to care and provide for only ourselves. We can go where we want, when we want, and for as long as we want. If someone annoys us, we can just go home and close the door. If we stop liking someone, we can just stop texting them until they give up and move on. There is no one in our lives except us. Even family is at a comfortable arm’s length. Sure, we are happy to go and visit, but we leave before things get too real. Four years of college and five years of grad school and work means that I have really only thought about myself for almost a decade. Now, however, it is no longer going to be just me. Now it is going to be Ellen and me, and that is a scary change.
This line of thought got me thinking about two popular Gospel passages: (1) the story of the rich young man (Mt. 19:16-30) and (2) the famous saying by Jesus, “For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it (Mt. 16:25). It is no historical or institutional accident that marriage became one of the seven Sacraments. Marriage and family require the daily practice of these challenging passages. Many of us, I think, can make the claims of the rich young man, but how many of us are willing to throw away our comforts, our pleasures, and our wealth that is the result of just having to care for ourselves? Marriage is all about putting our spouse, our children, and our family before our own needs in a radical way. We are asked to let go of a life that is all about me.
The funny thing is, while I may be scared of what marriage is going to require of me for the next ten, twenty, sixty-plus years, I am so excited to get started. I know that there are going to be bumps, but Ellen and I will not be doing this by ourselves. God will be there with us through this Sacrament, and the more we give of ourselves the more God will be in our midst. We will also have our families, our friends, and a community of faith to rely on for help and guidance. Hopefully, in our marriage we will become ever more the two people God desperately wants us to be. I’ve often thought about what happened to the rich young man after he left Jesus. At this point in my life, I’d like to think that he found someone he loved so much that he finally started living not for himself, but gave his life away for the other.