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I’m half-way through a lovely book by Leo Maasburg called Mother Teresa of Calcutta: A Personal Portrait.

maas

It’s an easy read, being simply a collection of anecdotes and stories. Here is the blurb:

Mother Teresa’s life sounds like a legend. The Albanian girl who entered an Irish order to go to India as a missionary and became an “Angel of the Poor” for countless people. She was greatly revered by Christians as well as Muslims, Hindus and unbelievers, as she brought the message of Christian love for one’s neighbor from the slums of Calcutta to the whole world.

Fr. Leo Maasburg was there as her close companion for many years, traveling with her throughout the world and was witness to countless miracles and incredible little-known occurrences. In this personal portrait of the beloved nun, he presents fifty amazing stories about her that most people have never heard, wonderful and delightful stories about miracles, small and great, that he was privileged to experience at Mother Teresa’s side. Stories of how, without a penny to her name, she started an orphanage in Spain, and at the same time saved a declining railroad company from ruin, and so many more.

They all tell of her limitless trust in God’s love, of the way the power of faith can move mountains, and of hope that can never die. These stories reveal a humorous, gifted, wise and arresting woman who has a message of real hope for our time. It’s the life story of one of the most important women of the 20th century as it s never been told before. Illustrated with photos.

This story really struck me, about the generosity of a newly married couple, told by Mother Teresa herself:

I never forget, some time ago, two young people came to our house and gave me lots of money. And I asked them, “Where did you get so much money?” And they said, “Two days ago we got married. Before marriage, we decided we will not buy wedding clothes. We will not have a wedding feast. We will give you that money.”

And I know in our country, in a Hindu family, what that means, not to have wedding clothes, not to have a wedding feast. So again I asked, “But why? Why did you do like that?” And they said, “We loved each other so much that we wanted to share the joy of loving with the people you serve.”

How do we experience the joy of loving? How do we experience that? By giving until it hurts. [p.68]

I’ve blogged before about the Wedding-Industrial Complex and the pressures on engaged couples to create the perfect wedding. This is such an impressive story because it is not about trying to fight the system for its own sake, but about being motivated by love to see things in a different perspective, and discover possibilities others would never have dreamed of. What a great way to start your marriage! (I hope/trust that the parents approved of the decision!)

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priests227 by Austin Diocese

Celibacy is in the air again. Or rather, Cardinal O’Brien’s recent comments have stirred up a debate about the obligation of celibacy for Catholic priests in the Western Church.

I thought I’d copy here a personal reflection on celibacy, and then some historical notes. The personal reflection is from something I wrote for the BBC News website three years ago; and the historical sections are copied from a recent post by Fr Tim Finigan.

This is the short piece I wrote for the BBC:

On 13 July 1997 I made a lifelong commitment to celibacy. In a chapel overlooking Lake Albano on the outskirts of Rome I promised to remain unmarried ‘for the sake of the kingdom and in lifelong service to God and mankind’.

I had a real sense of peace that day, but a few months earlier I had been in turmoil. I knew all the theory: Catholic priests were following the example of Christ; celibacy gave you a freedom to serve others, etc. But it hadn’t become real for me.

I was wrestling with all this one afternoon that spring. I realised that I had been seeing celibacy in negative terms: ‘No’ to marriage, ‘No’ to sex, ‘No’ to children – when in reality it was a profound ‘Yes’. It was a way of putting Christ at the centre of your life, of giving your whole heart to those you would serve as a priest. It was a way of loving others with a generosity that wouldn’t be possible if you were a husband and father. Celibacy wasn’t a negation or a denial – it was a gift of love, a giving of oneself, just as much as marriage could be.

My experience over the years has confirmed this. Yes, there are practical aspects to celibacy. You’ve got more time for other people, and more time for prayer. You can get up at three in the morning to visit someone in hospital without worrying about how this will affect your marriage. You can move to a bleak estate in a rough part of town without thinking about how this will impact on your children’s schooling.

But celibacy is something much deeper as well. There is a place in your heart, in your very being, that you have given to Christ and to the people you meet as a priest. You are not just serving them, you are loving them as if they were the very centre of your life – which they are. I think Catholics sense this. They know that you are there for them with an undivided heart, and it gives your relationship with them a particular quality.

It’s true that you can’t speak from experience about every aspect of human life. But you gain an awful lot of understanding from sharing in people’s lives over the years. Husbands and wives will confide in a sympathetic priest. You end up drawing on this experience as you preach and counsel people. Besides, people want a priest because he will show them the love of Christ, and not because he has lived through all ups and downs that they live through.

There are struggles. Times of loneliness; sexual desires; dreams about what marriage and fatherhood would be like. I don’t think most of this is about celibacy – it’s about being human. The husbands I know struggle with the same things, only they dream about what it would be like to have married someone else! What matters is trying to be faithful, instead of pretending that another way of life would be easy.

You need balance in your life, you can’t be giving all the time – this was emphasised in our training. You need affection and human intimacy. I’ve got some wonderful friends. I get home to see my family every couple of weeks. I escape to the cinema now and then. And I pray. Not to fill the gaps, because some of them can never be filled, but because the love of Christ is something very real and very consoling.

I’ve been incredibly happy as a priest over these twelve years. I don’t think about celibacy a lot now – it’s just part of my life. But I’m aware that it gives me a freedom of heart that is a unique gift. It helps me stay close to Christ, and draws me closer to the people I meet each day.

And these historical comments are taken from Fr Tim Finigan’s post, “Some notes on clerical celibacy“:

In the synoptic gospels we hear of how Our Lord cured Simon Peter’s mother-in-law from fever. In the discussion of clerical celibacy, this text is routinely brought out as a knock-down argument. The apostles were married so why can’t priests marry? Oddly, though, we never hear anything of St Peter’s wife, or indeed of any of the wives of the other apostles.

“Then Peter said: Behold, we have left all things, and have followed thee. Who said to them: Amen, I say to you, there is no man that hath left house, or parents, or brethren, or wife, or children, for the kingdom of God’s sake, who shall not receive much more in this present time, and in the world to come life everlasting. (Lk 18.28-30)”

This suggests the possibility that St Peter had in fact left his family to follow the Lord. Such a course of action would be unacceptable in our time, but in the culture of Palestine in the time of Our Lord, the extended family would mean that it was possible.

Then we come to St Paul’s injunction in 1 Timothy 3.2 that the Bishop should be the husband of only one wife. It would be improbable to suggest that St Paul was dealing with a problem of polygamy. Much more likely he was saying that the Bishop should not be someone who had married a second wife after his first wife had died.

These indications from scripture are tantalising but need further illumination. Fortunately, there have been a number of studies that have cast light on the historical practice of the Church, arguing that the discipline of clerical celibacy is of apostolic origin.

Christian Cochini presented the historic debate between Bickell and Funk over certain key texts from the Council of Nicea, the Council of Elvira and others. He also exhaustively examined all of the cases from the first seven centuries of the Church’s history which were relevant to the issue of clerical marriage. His work supported the thesis that there was an apostolic rule of continence for those clerics who were married and that the legislation of the Church against the clerical use of marriage is witness to this ancient tradition.

Roman Cholij examined in particular the Council in Trullo of 691, concluding that the Council’s permission for the clerical use of marriage was an innovation, giving rise to the legislative anomaly in the East (and occasionally in the West) whereby married men may be ordained but ordained men may not marry. This law, which is still a part of modern codes of canon law, makes little sense apart from the historic rule of continence…

Cardinal Stickler’s brief account is a most useful summary of the case for clerical celibacy. He notes that there have been a number of important recent studies devoted to the history of celibacy in both the East and the West, and that these studies have either not yet penetrated the general consciousness or they have been hushed up if they were capable of influencing that consciousness in undesirable ways.

This unfortunately remains the case as articles continue to appear without finding it necessary even to address the research of these scholars.

The later imposition of a rule that clerics should be unmarried was a recognition of the growing impracticality, with the development of marriage, and the problems of inheritance, of ordaining men who had been previously married, even if there were a rule of continence. It obviously makes sense today when people would find it hard to understand a system in which men who are married would be expected to change and live a life of continence…

Throughout the history of the Church, the discipline of clerical continence or celibacy has been transgressed by some clerics. The Church has consistently fought to reform the life of clerics in the face of immorality which has been greater at some times than others. Today we live in a time when reform is needed again. We should remember that when St Charles Borrommeo went to Milan, the vast majority of his priests were living in concubinage – and he reformed his diocese. The Council of Trent was largely successful in reforming the clergy.

At the present time, we should give thanks for the faithfulness and purity of most students and young priests. They have been formed at a time when appallingly bad example has been given by some of their senior brethren. They have reckoned the cost and turned into the storm with courage and resolution. Let us pray that they become the vanguard of the new reform of the clergy, following in the footsteps of their forbears in the counter-reformation and at many other times in the history of the holy Roman Church.

References

Cholij, R. Clerical Celibacy in East and West Gracewing. Herefordshire. 1989
Cochini, C. The apostolic origins of priestly celibacy Ignatius. San Francisco. 1990
Heid, S. Celibacy in the Early Church. Ignatius. San Francisco. 2000
Stickler, A. The case for clerical celibacy Ignatius. San Francisco. 1995

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Highclere Castle - Downton Abbey by griffinstar7

I’ve seen half an hour of Downton Abbey and absolutely nothing of Girls, so don’t think I am recommending either of them. But Anand Giridharadas has a very thoughtful piece about how they represent the shift from the socially-determined self of early 20th century Britain to the chaos of total self-determination experienced by the single women of contemporary New York.

On the surface, all they have in common is their Sunday airtime, at least in the United States. One television show is about English aristocrats, crisp, proper, well-dressed even in bed. The other is about four young women, often lost and very often unclothed, in a setting quite different from Yorkshire: Brooklyn, New York.

But “Downton Abbey” and”Girls”, both hugely popular, sometimes seem to be talking to each other. And it is a conversation of richer importance to our politics and culture than the nudity on one show and the costumes on the other might initially suggest.

On issue after issue, Americans continue to debate the limits of individual freedom — whether to abort a fetus or own a gun or sell stocks or buy drugs. And in different ways, the two television shows address the promise and limitations of the modern, Western emphasis on — even sacralization of — the individual.

“Downton” and “Girls” serve as bookends in an era defined by a growing cult of the self. “Downton” is about the flourishing of selfhood in a rigid, early-20th-century society of roles. “Girls” is about the chaos and exhaustion of selfhood in a fluid, early-21st-century society that says you can be anything but does not show you how.

This is Downton, where people still, just about, know who they are:

Set on a manor in which the hierarchy and fixedness of the country — indeed, of the Empire — are especially concentrated, “Downton” is a world where there is a way to do everything, from cleaning spoons to dressing for dinner. Status has been and still seems immovable, and servants must act at least as convinced of their inferiority as the masters are. Novelty and that great leveler, money, are reflexively suspected.

The drama is this world’s cracking under the pressure of new ideas like individualism. Thus the family driver, believing in equality and marrying for love, runs away with the family daughter; thus the men wear black tie instead of white to dinner one night; thus a new generation of servants is less servile, more willing to question.

Mary McNamara, a television critic at The Los Angeles Times, has described “Downton” as “the tale of an oppressive social and economic system that is finally being called into question.” The drama comes from watching our world slowly, inevitably defeat theirs: “the bondage of social bylaws and expectation, the fear of new technology, the desire to cling to old ways.”

This is Girls:

The daughters of the sexual revolution are depicted without much agency: Far from being conquerors, initiators, even equals, the girls of “Girls” are reactors, giving in to an ex who changes his mind, or a gay man wanting to try something, or a financier seeking a threesome that he manages to upgrade to traditionally twosome marriage.

What begins on “Downton” as a welcome questioning of age and status roles has snowballed by the “Girls” era into grave role confusion: parents who cannot teach their children how to live because they feel guilty about parenting, or want to be friends more than guides, or still dress like teenagers and call their offspring “prude.”

Nowhere is this overshooting truer than with the roles of the sexes. If “Downton” shows a world in which women are starting to claim their own sexuality, “Girls” portrays a sexual dystopia in which those women seem to have negotiated poorly: Men now reliably get what they want, while women must often content themselves with scraps, as when the character Hannah celebrates “almost” satiation in bed as the best she is likely to get…

“Girls” is about atoms that desire in vain to form molecules; about sex lives that breed more confusion than excitement; about people with the liberty to choose every day, on various dimensions, whom to be — and who grow very tired of the choosing.

And this is one of the Girls – Marnie:

I don’t know what the next year of my life is going to be like at all. I don’t know what the next week of my life is going to be like. I don’t even know what I want. Sometimes I just wish someone would tell me, like, ‘This is how you should spend your days, and this is how the rest of your life should look.’

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wedding rings

Here is the gay marriage question no-one seems to be asking: If it’s all the same, then what’s the difference? With so much talk about equality, love, commitment and stability, is there simply no difference between gay marriage and marriage between a man and a woman? Is there absolutely nothing distinctive about marriage as it has traditionally been understood?

The answer is obvious but too easily forgotten: A life-long commitment between a man and a woman is a relationship involving sexual difference, involving male-female complementarity. For this reason, it allows children to be conceived and born within the life-long union of their own natural parents, and it is a form of commitment and family life that allows children to grow up with their own natural parents over a lifetime. This simply isn’t possible for a same-sex couple.

This doesn’t mean that a man and a woman are obliged to have children, or that they are always capable of having children. It’s simply a recognition that one distinctive aspect of this kind of male-female relationship is that, in ordinary circumstances, it can involve conceiving and bringing up their own children. (It’s not uncommon to talk about the ‘distinctive characteristics’ of something, even if there are exceptions. For example, it’s a distinctive characteristic of human beings that we use language; and the fact that some human beings cannot talk or choose not to talk does not undermine this).

This is not a religious argument (appealing to the Bible, the Anglican marriage service, or the Pope); it’s not a historical or sociological argument (highlighting national traditions or cultural norms); it’s not even a moral argument (although it does have moral implications). Nor is it a crude ‘biologist’ argument, reducing people to their genitalia and their reproductive capacities, because sexuality involves the whole person and not just procreation.

It is actually a humanist argument, appealing to an irrefutable truth about human nature that any rational person can acknowledge: that children can only be conceived by a man and a woman, and that marriage between their own parents is a form of family life that will allow children to grow up within the life-long embrace of their natural mother and father.

We have a word for this kind of life-long and public commitment between a man and a woman: it’s called marriage. It doesn’t exclude the fact that there are many other kinds of relationships, some of them involving love, stability and life-long commitments; nor does it rule out other forms of family life that come about for all sorts of different reasons. We have an assortment of words to help us understand some of the distinctions (‘marriage’ being one of them), and we need these words for the sake of clarity and honesty about some of the differences there are between different kinds of relationships.

This is why it’s misleading and even deceptive to claim that allowing gay marriage would make no difference to traditional marriage and to all those men and women who are already married. It’s often asked, rhetorically: What harm would it do? What difference would it make? Is it not just about allowing more people to share in the benefits of marriage? Is it not just about adding something rather than taking something away? Are we not simply increasing rights and widening the franchise?

This is simply untrue. If marriage is redefined to include gay marriage, it means that the core understanding of marriage will no longer include that aspect of sexual difference and complementarity, and that aspect of creating a family where one’s own children may be conceived and raised (even if this doesn’t happen for every couple). The definition of marriage will be narrowed (or perhaps we should say widened) to a relationship of love, friendship and mutual support. This is not just an addition or a minor change; it is a radical undoing of marriage as it is commonly understood. It makes it impossible for a man and woman to have their marriage recognised as a union that involves sexual-difference, because they are being told – in the new definition – that their sexual difference has nothing to do with the nature of their marriage. A right has been taken away and not just added.

There is a strange and perhaps unintended effect of the proposed legislation. It will not actually allow gay people to marry (where marriage keeps its traditional meaning); it will change marriage into a form of civil partnership. It will mean that marriage as it has traditionally been understood will cease to exist; and for a man and a woman wanting to commit themselves to each other in a life-long partnership, their only option will be a form of commitment that replicates the present civil partnership commitments for gay couples.

The fact is, of course, that many men and women will continue to marry, and the majority of them will conceive and raise their own children. Marriage as it has traditionally been understood will seem to go on, but we won’t have a specific word or public institution for it any more; and the irony is that if we are not allowed to use the word ‘marriage’ we will have to invent one which describes exactly what the word marriage used to describe.

But this is not just about words and definitions. Our whole society, not just ‘the state’, has until now recognised that marriage (as a life-long commitment between a man and woman) has been a relationship that deserves special recognition and special privileges. This is not because it is the only kind of life-long or loving relationship (it’s obvious that there are many others); nor is it because society scorns these other relationships (it’s got nothing to do with homophobia or gay rights); it is simply because – to state the obvious once again – marriage between a man and a woman, unlike a same-sex relationship, allows children to grow up with their own natural parents.

This non-religious and non-moral humanistic fact does lead to a moral question: Is it good and desirable, all things being equal, for parents to conceive and bring up their own natural children, and for children to be brought up within the loving union of their own natural mother and father? Most people would say yes. This isn’t to discriminate against other forms of relationship and other forms of parenting and family life, it is simply to acknowledge the unique meaning of marriage between a man and a woman, and to recognise that this distinctive relationship brings particular benefits to individuals and to society. That’s why we have a special word for this relationship, ‘marriage’; and that’s why this relationship is ‘institutionalised’ and given a special place in our society.

To deny the distinctive nature of marriage between a man and a woman, and to promote gay marriage, is actually to deny the commonly held assumption that (all things being equal) it is good for children to be brought up by their own natural mother and father. This might seem like a big leap of logic, but it’s true: To define marriage only in terms of love, commitment, stability, etc – to make gay marriage ‘equal’ – means that there will no longer be any social or legal recognition of the particular family unit where children are conceived and raised by their own natural mother and father in a public and life-long commitment. At present, we recognise different kinds of family life, and we preserve a special place in our society for the kind of family where parents can try to raise their own natural children in the context of a life-long and public commitment, and where children can grow up with their own natural parents in this same context. If gay marriage legislation is passed, it will no longer be possible to promote the idea that marriage between a man and a woman has a distinctive meaning and a particular benefit for children and for society.

Let me try to summarise all this. The distinctiveness of marriage between a man and a woman is not something that depends on religion or tradition or morality: it is a fact of human nature and of the nature of society, that this kind of relationship (unlike a same-sex relationship) involves sexual difference and complementarity, and that this kind of relationship (unlike a same-sex relationship) is a union in which parents can conceive and raise their own natural children – even though there may be particular reasons why a particular couple are unable to do this.

But the argument against gay marriage is a moral one, because it involves what is understood to be good for children, for family life and for society. This is not because of any prejudice against gay people; it is because society recognises the particular benefits that come when children can be brought up by their own mother and father in a loving and life-long relationship, in a commitment that has been made to each other and before others. This isn’t always possible; but when it is possible, it’s a good thing – to be loved by your own natural mother and father, and to be supported by their own continuing love for each other; to love your own children, and to know the continuing love of the person with whom you conceived these children. Very few people would deny that these are good things, for individuals and for society, even if they are sometimes difficult to achieve. That’s why we should acknowledge the particular relationship that can allow and nurture them. That’s why we should keep marriage as it is.

[Last edited - in response to feedback - on 19 Dec 2012]

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The National Office for Vocation, in association with the Catholic Truth Society, is publishing a new series of leaflets about the different Christian vocations. Take a look at the CTS website here for more information.

They should be very useful, not least because of their size and cost (and of course they are beautifully produced and full of inspiring stories and information!): You get a pack of 25 leaflets for £5.95, so it is easy for a parish or school to splash out, buy a few packs, and distribute the leaflets to various groups without worrying about breaking the bank. Or as an individual you can keep a few in your pocket and hand them out to people on the bus or tube as a form of evangelisation!

The first three were published this month, on marriage, religious life, and diocesan priesthood.

You can also see the new site about religious life from the National Office for Vocation, which also has a micro-site about religious life for 10-16 year olds!

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When I was in Cardiff two weeks ago I had a couple of hours to visit the National Museum. It was the first time I had seen a life-size version of Rodin’s famous sculpture The Kiss. What really threw me was not the sculpture itself, but the textual explanation on the side. I had no idea before what the image actually depicted: two lovers in an adulterous embrace who will later be slain by the woman’s jilted husband.

It was a real hermeneutical challenge to me, showing how one’s lifelong perception of a situation or event can be partial or distorted or misleading.

I’d always taken this beautiful sculpture to be a symbol of intimacy, tenderness, passion and romantic love – which in many ways it still is. But when you know the story, it shows how something so pure, beautiful and even ‘innocent’ as romance can sometimes do such damage, when it causes someone to separate themselves from everything else that has been important to them – from all their other loves and commitments.

Passion and romance seem to justify themselves, in the heat of the moment, and to justify all the decisions that flow from them. Love, in our culture, often seems to have the final, decisive word; as if there is no possibility of having another perspective on it, or putting it in a larger context.

Don’t misunderstand me: love, passion, romance – these are good things; as long as they help us to deepen and make sense of the life we have, rather than destroying it. (And nor does the understandable passion of the betrayed husband justify him murdering the lovers…)

Here is the caption from the Tate website (referring to their marble version):

The Tate’s The Kiss is one of three full-scale versions made in Rodin’s lifetime. Its blend of eroticism and idealism makes it one of the great images of sexual love. However, Rodin considered it overly traditional, calling The Kiss ‘a large sculpted knick-knack following the usual formula.’ The couple are the adulterous lovers Paolo Malatesta and Francesca da Rimini, who were slain by Francesca’s outraged husband. They appear in Dante’s Inferno, which describes how their passion grew as they read the story of Lancelot and Guinevere together. The book can just be seen in Paolo’s hand.

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Go and see Ruby Sparks. I nearly walked out after fifteen minutes, because it seemed like the most saccharine and cliché-ridden romantic comedy. But then she appears – the writer’s dream becomes his reality – and you realise that under the guise of a good-natured rom-com there lies a dark and disturbing psycho-drama and a clever philosophical meditation on love, power, freedom and identity. It’s one of the most thought-provoking films I’ve seen this year.

Minor plot-spoilers follow, but not much more than is in the trailer. He is a writer; he starts writing about a woman who has appeared in his dreams, and he creates the perfect woman who will fill his lonely heart. Then she appears, for real, and after the slapstick scenes of him and his brother coming to terms with that, he has to get on with the business of really knowing and loving her.

And of course the person he has created stops fitting into his model. So he breaks his self-imposed rule, and starts re-writing who she is, even as he is in the middle of the relationship. It goes funny, and pear-shaped, and self-defeating, and then very, very dark, before the inevitable (and I thought quite beautiful) light-filled resolution.

Like any good fairy-tale or parable, it presents in an outlandish form something that is so normal we have stopped seeing it. In this case, that we are attracted to people (not just romantically) because they match what we find attractive, what we hope to find in another; and that – often – we subtly and not-so-subtly pressure and manipulate people to conform to our expectations of what the relationship should be about.

So there is a joy in discovering ‘the other’, but the other is objectified and can become a projection of our own hopes. Then we realise that they are more than the person we want them to be – they are the person they want to be, and a person we may never appreciate or even understand.

Is the first kind of attraction inherently narcissistic and manipulative? Is all love, at least at the beginning, a form of fantasy? How do we keep the delight in finding someone who fits with our dreams at the same time as giving them the space to surprise and unsettle and disturb? We objectify someone, but we can’t live with an object for very long.

And if, to take the questioning much further, the person begins to realise that they have in some sense been created by another, where does that leave them? How do we set them free, without losing everything? How do they set themselves free? This isn’t such a fantasy: think of the myriad ways in which we have all been ‘created’, formed, by others – by parents, teachers, friends, culture, society…

I’m being very heavy, because I came away with my head spinning. It’s not as heavy as I have made it out – in fact it feels like a bit of fluff. That’s what makes it so clever, it’s a breezy romcom that reads, afterwards, like a lecture in philosophy or psychology. It’s intriguing and great fun.

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Helen Croydon’s article about why she isn’t interested in getting married got me thinking again about the meaning of being single for a Christian man or woman.

I think there are two extremes to avoid. One is to say that being single is a meaningless transitional state of frustration and unfulfillment on the way to the endless happiness of marital bliss, priesthood or consecrated life. This is to define singleness negatively, as ‘not-yet-married’ (or ‘not-yet-whatever…’). The other extreme is to suggest that being single, in itself, is a Christian vocation which you are called to embrace wholeheartedly; because many people do not have a sense of being called by God to the single life, it’s just where they happen to be – and perhaps they are longing and praying to move out of it. So to define being single, without qualification, as a vocation, is not quite accurate or fair to people’s experience.

I had to think through some of this when I was writing my pamphlet on How to Discover Your Vocation. I thought it would be worth copying here the ideas I put together about the different meanings of being single.

The single life. People are single for many different reasons. If you are single at this moment, whatever the reason, you can believe that your life right now has immense value. Every person is called to a life of holiness, and in this sense every person who is single is called to live out their Christian vocation, wherever it might be leading them in the future. Your work, your study, your friendships, your care for your family, your service to others – these are all areas of life in which you are meeting Christ and bringing his love to others. Give thanks to God for your life and for the opportunities presented to you.

It would not be quite right to say that every single person has a vocation to be single, in the sense of a lifelong commitment – and we must be careful in the way we talk about the single vocation. It would be best, perhaps, to say that the single life is a concrete vocation only when it has been chosen as a response to a sense of calling; or at least when it has been willingly accepted as a long-term way of life in response to circumstances. This chapter lists some of the situations that single people find themselves in, and gives one or two thoughts about how to approach them.

Just getting on with life. Many people are single and happy about that and just getting on with life. You might be doing some fulfilling and worthwhile work. You might be hard at your studies. You might be involved in some all-consuming project. You might be too young or busy or distracted or happy to be thinking big thoughts about future commitments. That’s fine! Be happy and be holy. Just make sure that now and then you stop to think about your vocation as a Christian, and to ask the Lord in prayer if he has any other plans for you. You have every right to make the most of this situation, without undue anxiety – as long as you are open to other possibilities as well.

Those who are searching. Many single people are hoping to discover a more particular vocation and to make a lifelong commitment to marriage or priesthood or the consecrated life, but they are unsure about which one. Or they are clear about wanting to get married, but still looking for a husband or wife. Or they are dating and wondering if this is the right person. If this is the case, you can follow all the suggestions in this booklet about how to discern your vocation and how, at the right time, to come to a decision. Remember that your happiness does not just lie in the future. God wants you to find peace and to live a life of holiness in this present moment, even if your future is unclear. He wants you to trust him: to do everything you can, but to be patient as well.

Those who are struggling. Some people are single not through choice but through circumstances. They wish they were not single, but they cannot see any way out. Perhaps you are not drawn to marriage, or unable to find a husband or wife. Perhaps you want to be a priest or live a consecrated life, but you have been ‘turned down’ by the diocese or religious order. Perhaps you are caring for a sick relative or a child and you are not able to take on any other commitments. Perhaps you are sick yourself. There may be other difficulties in your life that make you feel you cannot pursue the vocation you would like to. Or perhaps you have a valid marriage, but are now separated from your husband or wife, without any apparent hope of reconciliation or of being granted an annulment; so that your day-to-day life is like that of a single person, only without the possibility of entering into a new marriage.

In all these situations it is so important to trust in God and to believe that he knows what he is doing with your life. There may be very real suffering and disappointment involved, and you can certainly hope and pray that the situation will improve. But you also need to accept that this is God’s will for you in this present moment, tocarry this cross with as much humility and love as is possible. Don’t give in to despair or self-pity. Live your Catholic faith, and trust that this is happening for a reason. Your vocation right now, without a doubt, is to show the love of Christ in these difficult circumstances. And through that love, if it is his will, he will lead you to a new stage, or help you to find new meaning in this present situation.

Committed to the single life. Some people have in effect made a personal commitment to lifelong celibacy, even without taking any formal vows. Some choose celibacy because they wish to give their lives in service to others, or because it allows them to follow a particular path in life. Some recognise that they are unlikely to get married, for all sorts of different reasons, and they willingly accept this and commit their lives to following Christ and living their faith as single people.

Those who accept the single life in this way, for whatever reason, can rightly think of this as their vocation – a call from God to live a life of holiness in this context, which will bear great fruit and will be richly rewarded. But perhaps we should not necessarily think of this form of celibacy as a lifelong vocation, because the circumstances might change. If you are single, and at peace about being single, but then something unexpected comes up, and you feel pulled towards another vocation – then you are perfectly free to look into that!

Consecrated single life. Some people do take lifelong vows of poverty, celibacy and obedience, but continue to live and work in the world. Their vows mean that, in the language of the Church, they are living a consecrated life. Those who are consecrated have the assurance of God and of the Church that this is indeed a lifelong commitment and vocation.

What do you think? Does some of this help you to make sense of your single life – at the moment? Or do you have another take on what it all means?

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I was at a beautiful wedding recently, and I had a small moment of revelation about the meaning of wearing a wedding ring. It’s not an exaggeration to say that my understanding was turned completely upside down.

I’ve always thought that wearing a wedding ring was a sign of the commitment you are making to your spouse and to your marriage. Not to pretend that it all depends on you – because it’s about a relationship and a vocation, and about God’s blessing on that relationship. But to see the wearing of the ring as a constant sign of your own re-dedication and re-commitment to this relationship, and to make this continuing acknowledgement of your marital commitment public by wearing a ring. The ring becomes, as it were, a public profession of your marriage and what it continues to mean to you. This is why in those films (cf. Bruce Willis in the first scene of Unbreakable), when a husband meets a stranger on a train and starts plotting how he might hook up with her, he quietly slips his wedding ring off and puts it in his pocket.

But I heard the words of the wedding rite as if for the first time, and this is absolutely not what the wearing of the ring signifies. Here they are:

Take this ring as a sign of my love and fidelity. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

So the ring that is given is a sign of the love and fidelity of the one who gives it. The ring that you wear, that was placed on your finger by your spouse on your wedding day, does not represent your commitment to your marriage, your love for your spouse, your faithfulness to this relationship and to the vocation God has called you into, etc. It represents the commitment, love and faithfulness of your spouse to you.

The ring is not there, first of all, as a sign of your continuing commitment to this person (although of course it can come to mean that as well). It’s an ongoing reminder of the promise that the other person has made to you. It’s a sign of the covenant that your spouse has made with you, and that God has sealed, and that you have freely embraced and entered into. The same covenant that you have also made with your spouse.

I know this is obvious – I’m ashamed to say that I’d just never thought of it before. It changes things. I’m sure I’ve given lots of wedding sermons about looking down at the ring on your finger and choosing to live your marriage and love your spouse. It’s all true, in one sense. But the symbolism of the ring is not, ultimately, about your own efforts or decisions or commitments, it’s a reminder of the promise that another has made to you, and of the promise that God has made to you both. I know that life, and marriage, are not always tidy or easy, but I think there is a truth worth pondering here.

Do contradict me, and write in the comments what your wedding ring has meant to you over the years!

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It seems so obvious: you love someone, marriage is a possibility, you are not 100% sure or 100% ready, so you move in together to test the water and test each other. It will help you, surely, to get to know each other better, to deepen your mutual love, to see whether you are truly compatible, and to lay the foundations for a happy and lasting marriage. It seems so obvious, but it isn’t true.

Lino Print: Map To My House by Matt callow

I’m not speaking about ‘sexual morality’ here (although you can’t separate the moral aspect from everything else); nor am I speaking about a ‘Christian’ or ‘religious’ view of marriage. It is simply the psychological and statistical data that show how living together before you get married makes it harder for you to choose the right person and harder to prepare for a lifelong marriage together.

Meg Jay, a clinical psychologist at the University of Virginia, presents some recent findings in psychology and sociology:

Cohabitation in the United States has increased by more than 1,500 percent in the past half century. In 1960, about 450,000 unmarried couples lived together. Now the number is more than 7.5 million. The majority of young adults in their 20s will live with a romantic partner at least once, and more than half of all marriages will be preceded by cohabitation. This shift has been attributed to the sexual revolution and the availability of birth control, and in our current economy, sharing the bills makes cohabiting appealing. But when you talk to people in their 20s, you also hear about something else: cohabitation as prophylaxis.

In a nationwide survey conducted in 2001 by the National Marriage Project, then at Rutgers and now at the University of Virginia, nearly half of 20-somethings agreed with the statement, “You would only marry someone if he or she agreed to live together with you first, so that you could find out whether you really get along.” About two-thirds said they believed that moving in together before marriage was a good way to avoid divorce.

But that belief is contradicted by experience. Couples who cohabit before marriage (and especially before an engagement or an otherwise clear commitment) tend to be less satisfied with their marriages — and more likely to divorce — than couples who do not. These negative outcomes are called the cohabitation effect.

Researchers originally attributed the cohabitation effect to selection, or the idea that cohabitors were less conventional about marriage and thus more open to divorce. As cohabitation has become a norm, however, studies have shown that the effect is not entirely explained by individual characteristics like religion, education or politics. Research suggests that at least some of the risks may lie in cohabitation itself.

But why is this? It’s due to a factor called ‘sliding, not deciding’.

Moving from dating to sleeping over to sleeping over a lot to cohabitation can be a gradual slope, one not marked by rings or ceremonies or sometimes even a conversation. Couples bypass talking about why they want to live together and what it will mean.

WHEN researchers ask cohabitors these questions, partners often have different, unspoken — even unconscious — agendas. Women are more likely to view cohabitation as a step toward marriage, while men are more likely to see it as a way to test a relationship or postpone commitment, and this gender asymmetry is associated with negative interactions and lower levels of commitment even after the relationship progresses to marriage. One thing men and women do agree on, however, is that their standards for a live-in partner are lower than they are for a spouse.

Sliding into cohabitation wouldn’t be a problem if sliding out were as easy. But it isn’t. Too often, young adults enter into what they imagine will be low-cost, low-risk living situations only to find themselves unable to get out months, even years, later. It’s like signing up for a credit card with 0 percent interest. At the end of 12 months when the interest goes up to 23 percent you feel stuck because your balance is too high to pay off. In fact, cohabitation can be exactly like that. In behavioral economics, it’s called consumer lock-in.

Lock-in is the decreased likelihood to search for, or change to, another option once an investment in something has been made. The greater the setup costs, the less likely we are to move to another, even better, situation, especially when faced with switching costs, or the time, money and effort it requires to make a change.

Jay writes about her own experience of working as a clinical psychologist.

I’ve had other clients who also wish they hadn’t sunk years of their 20s into relationships that would have lasted only months had they not been living together. Others want to feel committed to their partners, yet they are confused about whether they have consciously chosen their mates. Founding relationships on convenience or ambiguity can interfere with the process of claiming the people we love. A life built on top of “maybe you’ll do” simply may not feel as dedicated as a life built on top of the “we do” of commitment or marriage.

And this is her non-moralising but very practical conclusion:

I am not for or against living together, but I am for young adults knowing that, far from safeguarding against divorce and unhappiness, moving in with someone can increase your chances of making a mistake — or of spending too much time on a mistake. A mentor of mine used to say, “The best time to work on someone’s marriage is before he or she has one,” and in our era, that may mean before cohabitation.

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Jenny McCartney “celebrates” the life of Eugene J Polley, the inventor of the TV remote control, who has recently died. Without him, there would be no such thing as channel-hopping. And who knows, if we hadn’t made the leap from watching to hopping, perhaps we wouldn’t have been psychologically or culturally ready for the next leap from hopping channels to surfing the web.

Polley was an engineer at Zenith, where he worked for 47 years. I put “celebrates” in inverted commas, because McCartney thinks he leaves a dubious legacy.

I am old enough to remember what viewing life was like before the remote control hit the UK, in the days when there were only three channels and you had to make the active decision to haul yourself up from the sofa and press a button to alter them. It was better. If someone wanted to change the channel, etiquette usually demanded that they consult the other people in the room, only moving towards the television once agreement was reached. As a result, you stuck with programmes for longer: since it took a modicum of effort to abandon them, and people are naturally lazy, even slow-burning shows were granted the necessary time to draw you in.

With the arrival of the remote control, the power passed to whoever held the magic gadget in his or her hot little hands. Automatically, the holder of the remote was created king of the living room, and everyone else became either a helpless captive, or an angry dissenter. As the number of channels steadily grew, so did the remote-holder’s temptation to flick between the channels with the compulsively restless air of one seeking an elusive televisual fulfilment that could never be found.

Channel-surfing is a guilty pleasure that should only be practised alone. There is nothing worse than sitting in the same room while someone else relentlessly channel-surfs. It makes you feel as if you are going mad. You hear – in rapid succession – a snatch of song, a scrap of dialogue, a woman trying to sell you a cut-price emerald ring, half a news headline, and an advertising jingle. The moment that something sounds like it might interest you, it disappears. Worse, when you yourself are squeezing the remote, you find that you have now developed the tiny attention span of a hyperactive gnat. Is it any surprise that, now that alternative amusements to the television have emerged, family members are challenging the remote-holder’s solitary rule and decamping to the four corners of the family home with their iPads and laptops?

I know that lamenting the invention of the remote control will – in the eyes of some – put me in the same risibly fuddy-duddy camp as those who once preferred the horse and cart to the motor car, yearned for the days when “we made our own fun”, and said that this email nonsense would never catch on. I don’t care. Listen to me, those of you who cannot imagine life without the zapper: it really was better before.

I think the phrase ‘surfing the web’ is misleading and actually disguises the fragmentary nature of the typical internet experience. If you go surfing (I went once!) you wait patiently and let a lot of inadequate waves pass underneath your board, but as soon as you spot the right wave, ‘your’ wave, you paddle with all your might to meet it properly, leap onto the board, and then ride that wave for as long as you can.

When you find a wave, in other words, you stay with it. You are so with it and trying not to fall off it that it’s inconceivable that you would be looking out of the corner of your eye for a better one. That’s the joy of surfing – the waiting, the finding, and then the 100% commitment to the wave that comes.

That’s why the phrase ‘surfing the web’ doesn’t work for me. The joy of the web, and the danger, is that you can hop off the page at any time, as soon as you see anything else vaguely interesting or distracting. You are half-surfing a particular page, but without any physical or emotional commitment. You can move away to something better or more interesting – that’s the miracle of the web, what it can throw up unexpectedly. But it means that one part of you is always looking over the horizon, into the other field, where to go next; as if non-commitment to the present moment, a kind of existential disengagement, is a psychological precondition of using the internet.

As you know, I am not against the internet. I just wonder what long-term effects it has on us and on our culture. On the internet, everything is provisional. So if we see everything else through the lens of our internet experience, then it all becomes provisional – including, perhaps, even our relationships.

Maybe that’s the word to ponder: ‘provisionality’.

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So this is the week in which Barack Obama came out in favour of ‘gay marriage’, the Queen remained silent (in her address to parliament), David Cameron seemed a little less sure about where this is going politically (despite the renewed commitments of equalities minister Lynne Featherstone), and Mitt Romney reaffirmed his conviction that marriage is between a man and a woman.

In an editorial this morning the Times said this is ‘a cornerstone issue of civil rights’. You can see how this ‘framing’ of the question closes down any serious debate; it turns it into a battle between the good people who are for civil rights and the bad people who are against them; it completely avoids the much more serious and consequential issue of whether this proposed legislation in favour of same-sex ‘marriage’ will actually change the nature of marriage and the family or not, and what the effects of this change will be for individuals and for society. The Times doesn’t acknowledge that you are not just giving an apparent right to gay people, you are also redefining – for every person and for the whole of society - the nature of marriage and the family as it has been almost universally understood.

There is still time to respond to the Government’s consultation – see the link here. And to sign the Coalition for Marriage petition here.

There is no space for lengthy replies on the consultation website – they limit the word count quite strictly. It’s good in some ways, because it means you have to clarify your thoughts and cut out the flannel.

Here is the reply I wrote for the consultation, and sent to my MP:

I am against this proposal for five reasons.

First, it radically transforms the meaning of marriage for all couples (not just same-sex couples) and turns it into simply a committed relationship between any two consenting adults.

Second, it makes different forms of family life equivalent, and disregards the evidence that it is in the best interests of children to be brought up by their own natural/biological parents. Marriage between a man and a woman is the only relationship that allows children to be conceived by their own natural/biological parents and raised in that lifelong family unit, which is why it is given a special status. This is not a prejudice but a natural reality.

Third, this proposal will increase prejudice and intolerance against those who believe and teach that marriage can only be between a man and a woman.

Fourth, it drives a wedge between civil and religious views of marriage, which can only harm society. At present there is a single understanding of marriage, shared by both religious and non-religious people, but celebrated in different contexts (civil or religious).

Fifth, this proposal has been ‘forced’ onto the political agenda; it was not in any party manifestos; it is not a pressing political issue for most people; and 70% of people support the traditional understanding of marriage (according to a recent poll).

[This is slightly over the consultation word count, so I had to cut a couple of phrases - I can't remember which!]

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I can’t say I have read many graphic novels, but this is an extraordinary book. It tells the tale, as you would expect from the title, of Simone Lia’s search for a husband, and her struggle to understand God’s plan for her life. It’s Cosmopolitan meets St John of the Cross via Snoopy and the Far Side. The cartoon-like illustrations are endearing, funny, and often beautiful. Her emotional honesty is sometimes heartbreaking. But you have the sense of listening in on the inner dialogue of a soul – one that is innocent, wounded, brave and slightly quirky – rather than intruding or being the recipient of a clunky disclosure.

There is a moment of grace and enlightenment near the end of the book (I’m not spoiling any plot) that is both profoundly moving and presents a spiritual insight that is worthy of the contemplative masters, and that I don’t think could have been communicated so effectively in any other medium. It takes a lot for me to say that, as a cinema fanatic; but perhaps there is something in this graphic novel thing.

You can buy it here on Amazon.

I’m delighted that Simone has done the illustrations for the parents booklet I have been working on with Ten Ten Theatre. I’ll post about that when it is published in the next couple of weeks.

Just in case you think I am only writing this because I’ve got a vested interest in promoting Simone, or in promoting any artist/author who is bringing Christianity into the mainstream, here are some paragraphs from Rachel Cooke’s review in the Guardian:

Lia is a Catholic – a devout one: the kind who goes to confession and has nuns for friends – and when she asks God to find her a husband, she really means it. Standing in the middle of Leicester Square, having recently been dumped by email, she looks up at the sky and says: “To cut to the chase, God, I’m going to be 34 in two weeks’ time and if you want me to marry someone you’re going to need to get a bit of a move on.” Does he reply? Not exactly. But she experiences, as people sometimes do, a kind of epiphany. She decides to go on an adventure with God.

How Lia pulls off what happens next without ever seeming a) repulsively pious or b) stark staring mad, I do not know. It’s partly her tone, which is inquiring and funny, but never hectoring; and partly it’s her drawings, so heart-stoppingly neat and expressive. Mostly, though, I think it’s down to the disarming feeling that creeps over you as her sincerity (not such a rare thing in comics as in some other realms, but still pretty rare these days) quietly hits home. Lia is a knowing artist – flirting with a riding instructor in the Australian outback, her self-portrait transmutes into a luscious drawing of Penélope Cruz – but she has a vulnerable innocence that puts you firmly on her side.

And what of her “adventure”? Well, she spends a fortnight in a nunnery, where she takes comfort in routine and quiet, and then she takes a trip to Oz in search of a hermit and a hunk (naturally, she tells her nun advisers only of her desire to find the former). Nothing dramatic happens, though she does get to play Operation – yes, I do mean the battery-operated game – with Jesus (and even the son of God, it seems, struggles when it comes to extracting the tricky spare rib). I must not reveal, here, whether her travels result in the bagging of a husband. But I will say that this is a brave and beautiful book, and Lia is lucky to have a publisher who, though he must secretly have longed for another volume of Fluffy (her 2007 hit about a talking bunny and the neurotic man it takes for its father), has allowed her so intimately to follow her heart.

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I was writing about my love of liminality last Thursday, when two worlds meet unexpectedly. This much reported story of Jenny Klochko’s wedding arrangements combines the liminal, and my love of public transport and London buses, together with my campaign against the Wedding-Industrial complex that has put people off getting married because of the massive social pressures and accompanying financial demands being made of them to put on a ‘great day’.

In a nutshell: she got the bus to her wedding!

I can't find a copyright-free photo of Jenny Klochko's journey, so here is a staged photo of a bride/model waiting for a bus caught by Listen Missy!

Mark Watts reports:

Most brides opt for a Rolls Royce or a horse drawn carriage to whisk them to the church on time.

However, one frugal bride decided to stand in line for a bus on her way to get hitched.

Bride Jenny Klochko Mussett, 28, stunned people on the 407 to Sutton when she jumped on in her full bridal gown to go to her ceremony at Sutton Register Office.

With two bridesmaids in tow, she flagged down the single-decker in Carshalton Road just after 1pm on Saturday, March 10, before touching her Oyster and travelling to Sutton town centre.

She then hopped off, and after stopping for a cup of tea in Manor Park, surprised shoppers by walking through Sutton High Street to the wedding in Worcester Road.

The freelance journalist, from Ukraine, said: “I wanted to do something different on my wedding day, so many weddings are the same these days and a little soulless.

“In the Ukraine it’s common for a bride to walk through the town on the way to her wedding so those who aren’t invited to the wedding can still see her.

“We thought this was a way I could do that.”

She said she was keen to have a London theme to her big day, and had looked into getting a white London taxi to the register office.

But she broke the news to new husband Ian Mussett, a manager for an insolvency firm the day before the wedding she would be taking the bus.

The 44-year-old made sure she left a full two hours before the ceremony, as he could not trust public transport.

Mrs Klochko Mussett, who used to work for the BBC World Service in Kiev, said the driver asked her if she was serious when she got on the bus.

But she said she was surprised by so little reaction from other passengers.

She said: “I think they thought it must be a practical joke. No one even offered me their seat.”

There is a great photo here.

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I posted on Saturday about the topic of same-sex ‘marriage’ in general, without discussing the process of consultation that is taking place over these next twelve weeks.

The document from the Government Equalities Office shows a staggering narrowness and an unapologetic lack of interest in consulting about the two main issues that anyone, surely, would be concerned about – whatever their views. Namely, what the social effects of this redefinition would be, and whether it is a good thing for our society to redefine marriage in this way. The fundamental questions of what and whether are simply bypassed in the main opening sections. The only question asked in the main topic box on page 2 is how: ‘how to provide equal access to civil marriage for same sex couples’; just as the only question asked in the Ministerial Foreword on page 1 is ‘how we can remove the ban on same-sex couples having a civil marriage in a way that works for everyone’. Granted, the first of the detailed consultation questions is, ‘Do you agree or disagree with enabling all couples regardless of their gender to have a civil marriage ceremony?’ But this is in the context of a consultation that has already defined itself in its introductory statements as a means to working out how and not whether.

Catholic Voices analyses this much better than I can:

The Government’s consultation paper, published yesterday under the misleading title of Equal civil marriage: a consultation reveals both the shoddiness of its thinking and the extraordinary authoritarianism of a process which Lynne Featherstone, the equalities minister, has repeatedly made clear has only one outcome.

The Government’s proposal fundamentally to alter – and in the process radically redefine in such a way as to render it meaningless — a major social public institution which has traditionally been protected by the state is one of the most audacious uses of unaccountable state power in more than a generation.

The proposal was in no party manifesto prior to the May 2010 general election. There has been no Green Paper or White Paper. Yet the Government makes clear that this is a consultation not on whether to introduce gay marriage but on how to. And they have also made clear that the strength of public opinion – manifest in the Coalition for Marriage’s historically large petition in protest (now exceeding 200,000), as well as in the ComRes poll for Catholic Voices advertised in yesterday’s Daily Telegraph showing 70% of British people in favour of retaining the current definition – will simply be ignored. The Government’s response to the consultation, they say on p. 2, “will be based on a consideration of the points made in consultation responses, not the number of responses received.”

As Greg Daly points out, the Consultation continually confuses weddings and marriages, in such a way as to imply that civil and religious marriages are two separate legal realities. In fact, in law there is only marriage, with two ways into it — via the state (civil ceremonies) or the Church (church weddings), with each (state and Church) recognising the other’s ceremonies as valid. This is because both Church and state recognise the reality of marriage as an institution embedded in civil society which precedes and predates both state and Church — and which lies beyond their control to redefine. The Government utterly fails to grasp this essential point, and appears baffled, therefore, at the Churches’ vigorous opposition to the move.

The description of same-sex marriage as “equal” marriage is a naked attempt at hijacking the term; the Universal Declaration of Human Rights already makes clear that men and women have the an equal right to marriage. The notion that redefining marriage is for the sake of “equality” is nakedly absurd, as the Catholic Voices briefing paper (recently updated) makes clear.

The other massive flaw in the Consultation, one which exposes the poverty of the Government’s thinking about marriage, is the complete absence from it of children. As the Archbishop of Westminster pointed out in last night’s Newsnight (beginning at 11’40):

‘To me it is utterly astonishing that in the whole consultation document … there is not one reference to a child. There is no reference to children at all. And I think that shows that the vision of marriage contained in the consultation document is reduced. It is excluding things that are of the very nature of marriage.’

The Consultation lasts until June. At present, the debate is being cast as a disagreement between the entire political establishment and the Churches, almost alone in their organised opposition. The leaders of all three political parties, cowed by the efficient lobbying of Stonewall – whose £4m annual budget allows it to employ teams of lawyers and lobbyists — are in favour of the proposal. Unless civil society organises, and a proper debate is enjoined, the state will be allowed to reshape society in a way that can only be described as totalitarian. The choice is ours.

Public reactions do influence the thinking of politicians. If you want to sign the petition organised by Coalition for Marriage, you can visit the site here.

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You might be sick to death of media discussions about same-sex marriage, but just in case you need a bit more background and food for thought, here is the latest briefing paper from Catholic Voices. (There is a link to the paper in the 5th paragraph here.) Despite the ‘Catholic Voices’ label, it doesn’t try to argue against redefining marriage from a religious point of view; instead it appeals to a vision of how marriage as presently understood serves the common good of society – for people of no faith as much as for people of faith; and it argues that redefining marriage will harm the whole of society and not just the religious groups that might be promised some kind of ‘exemption’.

Here are a few choice paragraphs. First, on the implications of the redefinition for society as a whole:

It is also inadequate to assert, as does the gay rights lobby Stonewall, that “if Roman Catholics don’t approve of same-sex marriage, they should make sure they don’t get married to someone of the same sex.”  The question of whether marriage should be redefined such that its meaning and nature cease to be conjugal is a one which affects the whole of society; and a matter on which all people – whether gay or straight, married or unmarried, religious or unreligious – are entitled to express a view.  Marriage has an intrinsic cultural and social meaning – a conjugal meaning – which is not specific to religious understandings of marriage, although religion gives it extra meaning. Whether entered by the religious or the civil route, marriage is marriage; its intrinsic conjugal meaning will need to be rejected in order to allow same-sex marriage.

Second, on the impoverished vision of marriage being presented in the re-definition:

When the Prime Minister, David Cameron, last year addressed his party’s conference, his justification for legalising gay marriage differed from that of his Equalities Minister. “Yes, it’s about equality,” he said, “but it’s also about something else: commitment. Conservatives believe in the ties that bind us; that society is stronger when we make vows to each other and support each other.” This frame allowed him to claim that he did not support gay marriage “despite” but “because of” being a Conservative.

Similarly, the liberal-conservative Economist asserted that “the real nature of marriage … is a binding commitment, at once legal, social and personal, between two people to take on special obligations to one another.” The magazine went on to ask: “If homosexuals want to make such marital commitments to one another, and to society, then why should they be prevented from doing so while other adults, equivalent in all other ways, are allowed to do so?”

This same truncated thinking underlies the Government’s consultation paper, which gives as one of its “principles for change” the following statement: “The Government recognises that the commitment made between a man and a man, or a woman and a woman, in a civil partnership is as significant as the commitment between a man and a woman in a civil marriage.”

These definitions of marriage as merely an expression of commitment between two individuals are severely truncated: as Archbishop Vincent Nichols has pointed out, “equality and commitment do not amount to marriage”. The quotes above make no reference to the key element in the conjugal understanding of marriage which has permeated our culture and history and which – as our poll shows – remains widespread. Unlike the Prime Minister, most people see marriage as a union of a man and a woman for the sake of the bearing and nurturing of children (even if children do not always result). This conjugal understanding of marriage is not just marriage’s real meaning; it is also the reason it is respected and promoted by the state.

Then a passage about the importance of marriage for the common good:

Marriage’s importance to society rests on three premises:

  1. The family is the founding unit of civil society
  2. At the heart of the family is the sexual union of a man and a woman given to each other for their sake and for the good of their children;
  3. Marriage provides the ideal, irreplaceable environment for the raising of children, who benefit psychologically, emotionally, and in countless other ways by being brought up by their mother and father.

Marriage has many “goods” – emotional commitment and stability among them. But the reason the state promotes marriage is because of its link to, and benefits for, children. These benefits are inextricably bound up with the conjugal union of man and a woman, who become mother and father to the children they generate. Other arrangements for bringing up children are not promoted and legitimised by the state because, however loving the carers, they are far less beneficial. Children brought up by divorced or single parents, by adopted parents or by relatives, by same-sex couples or in foster homes, are all missing something essential to their well-being; and that is why society (and the state) do not promote and institutionalise such arrangements. For while there are bad marriages and bad families, and sad cases where children are abused by their parents, the overwhelming, unchanging norm is that a child raised by his or her mother and father stands the best chance in life. It is not simply the presence of two parents of opposite genders, but the presence of two biological parents, that best supports children’s development – and this is something recognised, as our survey shows, by 84 per cent of British people.

Although marriage is indissolubly linked to children, it is not simply a means for procreation. Couples who cannot for some reason reproduce can still be married: both Church and state accept that a marriage exists as long as it can be consummated – that is, as long as the behavioural conditions for procreation can be fulfilled.

Marriage is singled out and promoted by state, religion, and civil society, because it serves a far-reaching social good – the welfare of children. No compelling case exists for the state recognising same-sex (or other, non-marital) relationships in the same way as it supports marriage.

And finally, on how a redefinition would impact on everyone, and not just on the gay couples who would choose to ‘marry’ in this way:

One thing is clear: the redefinition which the Government proposes would require the state renouncing the conjugal understanding of marriage. Because society takes its cue from laws and the state, that redefinition will send a clear message that the state no longer holds to that conjugal understanding. The implication will be that the union of husband and wife is not, after all, a privileged context for the upbringing of a child. No kind of arrangement for the rearing of children can any longer be proposed by the state (and therefore society) as an ideal.

To suggest otherwise will in time be considered narrow-minded and intolerant. The very terms “husband and wife”, “mother and father”, would need to disappear from public and educational literature to avoid “exclusive” or “intolerant” language. The redefinition of marriage will require the cultural dethroning of the conjugal ideal. This is not a smaller matter for future generations of children, whose interests risk being sacrificed on the altar of an ideological view that same-sex relationships are as worthy as heterosexual ones of being upheld by the state. “Redefining marriage will have huge implications for what is taught in our schools, and for wider society. It will redefine society since the institution of marriage is one of the fundamental building blocks of society. The repercussions of enacting same-sex marriage into law will be immense” [Cardinal Keith O'Brien].

Losing the idea of gender complementarity as necessary for children will also have consequences. “Having two opposite-sex parents provides the child with the capacity to relate intimately to both males and females, and to adopt an engendered role from both influences … It is not in any child’s best interests to choose, through a redefinition of marriage, deliberately to deny these facts and then to institutionalise this denial” [Archbishop Peter Smith]. As the columnist Matthew Parris, who is gay, writes: “I am glad I had both a mother and a father, and that as after childhood I was to spend my life among both men and women, and as men and women are not the same, I would have missed something if I had not learned first about the world from, and with, both a woman and a man, and in the love of both.”

Do read the whole text, which partly deals with some of the objections that you might be raising as you read these summary paragraphs. There is a link to the paper in this report.

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Sir Paul Coleridge spoke last week about his newly established Marriage Foundation, which seeks to halt the ‘appalling and costly impact of family breakdown’.

A marriage stone lintel, which marks the initials of the newly married couple, and the date of the wedding. A nice connection with the previous post about marking lintels for the Epiphany

He certainly knows how to frame a provocative soundbite:

Almost every dysfunctional child is the product of a broken family

Matthew Holehouse reports:

Sir Paul wishes to encourage people not to have children unless their relationship is stable, and if it is stable, to encourage them to get married.

“Marriage, as the best structure in which to raise children, needs to be affirmed, strengthened and supported. Recycle your rubbish by all means, but be very slow to recycle your partner,” he told The Times.

“We have to rid ourselves of this dream that we are going to find the partner who is perfect in every way: emotionally, physically, intellectually – it’s just a nonsense.

“People want to change horses mid-stream – it’s the disease of the modern age. Soon you find the new partner is as flawed as the last. It is like a hydra: you cut off one head and get rid of a boring partner but inherit 26 new problems, your new partner’s children, family and so on.”

Family breakdown is the “scourge of society”, he added. “It affects everyone, from the Royal Family downwards. In about 1950 you weren’t allowed in the royal enclosure at Ascot [if divorced]. That would now exclude half the Royal Family.”

“It is a myth that children, even older ones, don’t care. They care greatly and a break-up shocks the whole foundation of the family, it never recovers.”

“My message is mend it — don’t end it. Over 40 years of working in the family justice system, I have seen the fall-out of these broken relationships. There are an estimated 3.8 million children currently caught up in the family justice system. I personally think that’s a complete scandal.”

Leaving aside the practical question of exactly which laws and tax-incentives might support the institution of marriage, it’s remarkable that Nick Clegg can characterise marriage as simply a private commitment without any public/social implications.

In a Lib Dem disagreement with the Conservatives about tax breaks for marriage couples he said there was a limit on what the state “should seek to do in organising people’s private relationships” [my italics].

Getting married is probably the best thing that ever happened to me. But just as a liberal I think there are limits to how the state and government should try to micromanage or incentivise people’s own behaviour in their private lives [my italics].

This contrasts with David Cameron at the Conservative Party Conference last October, where at least he recognised the importance of marriage for children, and by implication for society in general – even though there are other equally important questions about how he defines marriage.

Marriage is not just a piece of paper. It pulls couples together through the ebb and flow of life.

It gives children stability. And it says powerful things about what we should value. So yes, we will recognise marriage in the tax system.

Tim Ross reports on some of the differences within the coalition.

[In a speech to the Demos think-tank] Mr Clegg will say: “We should not take a particular version of the family institution, such as the 1950s model of suit-wearing, bread-winning dad and aproned, home-making mother – and try and preserve it in aspic.

“That’s why open society liberals and big society conservatives will take a different view on a tax break for marriage.”

Mr Clegg will argue that liberal values are more important than ever as the world faces deep economic uncertainty and risks turning inwards.

“Conservatives, by definition, tend to defend the status quo, embracing change reluctantly and often after the event,” he will say. Senior Conservatives retaliated Mr Clegg yesterday. The employment minister, Chris Grayling, told Sky News: “We are two parties in the coalition. Of course there are things on which we have different views.

“We as Conservatives believe strongly in supporting marriage and the family. The Liberal Democrats take a different view. We accept that family is not always the same thing as it has been in the past. “But we have always argued that we should support the family, that we should support marriage in the tax system.

We think we need to strengthen the institution of marriage in our society.” He insisted that the “differences of emphasis” did not mean the Liberal Democrats were not “valued partners” in government.

Mr Grayling’s stance was supported by Gavin Poole, executive director of the Centre for Social Justice, a think-tank founded by the work and pensions secretary, Iain Duncan Smith.

Mr Poole said Mr Clegg’s argument “flies in the face of all the evidence” demonstrating how important marriage is to well-being of children.

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For anyone interested in questions about marriage and the family, Maryvale Institute in Birmingham is taking new students for the MA course which beings again this January. [This is last year's poster.]

To save time I’m just copying this helpful summary from the Witness to Love website from earlier this year:

A new course has just begun at the Maryvale Institute in Birmingham, an international Catholic distance-learning College. It is an MA programme in Marriage and Family based on the teaching and vision of John Paul II (especially his Theology of the Body) drawn up in close collaboration with the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family in Rome. The new MA programme runs via distance learning on somewhat similar lines to Open University courses and promises to be a really exciting and innovative way to bring the wisdom and beauty of John Paul II’s teaching to others.

The Maryvale Institute was also the home of Blessed John Newman in 1846 after his conversion when he lived there with a small community. Maryvale is also a former seminary (1794-1838) and orphanage (1851-1980) run by the Sisters of Mercy. It houses the historic and beautiful Chapel of the Sacred Heart from its seminary period and has also today houses a convent for Bridgettine sisters since 1999.
The new MA pathway “seeks to develop an ‘adequate anthropology’ through the study of God’s plan for marriage and family” (see pathway No. 6 here). It is therefore interdisciplinary and could be of interest to students from a wide variety of backgrounds such as teachers, priests, youth workers, those involved in marriage care, medicine or family law.

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"A faithful friend is a sturdy shelter" (a nice photo - but I'm not sure how sturdy this shelter is...)

Two friends got married yesterday. For the first reading, they chose this passage about friendship from Ecclesiasticus (6:14-17):

Faithful friends are a sturdy shelter:
   whoever finds one has found a treasure.
Faithful friends are beyond price;
   no amount can balance their worth.
Faithful friends are life-saving medicine;
   and those who fear the Lord will find them.
Those who fear the Lord direct their friendship aright,
   for as they are, so are their neighbours also.

Here are a couple of thoughts – not the whole sermon, just the reflection on friendship:

It’s a lovely thing that they were friends for a good period before they started dating, because it helps them to see that friendship is the foundation even of the great romance that has brought them to marriage.

An enduring friendship, through all the inevitable ups and downs of life, is a key part of what sustains a marriage. It’s why the word ‘honour’ is so important in the marriage rite. You honour a person for who they are, for what their innate dignity deserves, and not just because you happen to love them.

The last verse of the reading is particularly thought-provoking: “Whoever fears the Lord directs his friendship aright, for as he is, so is his neighbour also”. As you are, so will your friend be, so will your spouse be.

A simple interpretation of this is to say that ‘like attracts like’, we are drawn to people who are similar to us – and there is some truth to that.

But a deeper meaning is this: that the person you choose to be at any moment will have a formative effect on your spouse. If you are loving, patient, cheerful, forgiving; this will have an effect, for the good, on your spouse. If you are ratty, resentful, complaining, mistrustful; the chances are, before too long, so will your spouse be too.

Everyone wishes that their husband or wife were more loving, more perfect. The secret is to be more loving yourself. The effects, as anyone knows, are not always immediate (if only they were!). But if you want your spouse to be good, and you want your friendship to last, there is no clearer path than trying to be a good person yourself; and persevering on that path.

And, since I’m cutting and pasting, a final section about the openness of a couple within marriage:

There is a special beauty about a marriage that is open to God and open to the gift of children. It’s hard to describe, but it’s true.

If you live your Catholic faith, and pray together, and make your home and family a place of faith and holiness – in one sense it makes you less intensely focussed on each other.

You can’t say to each other, like in the romantic novels, ‘You are everything to me’ or ‘You are my all’, because it’s simply not true. There’s God also, there’s life after death, there’s the family, there’s all the other stuff too. (Now I’m not a hardliner; and we’ll allow you a bit of romance and exaggerated lovers’ language.)

But in a strange way, the fact that two people are less focussed on each other (because of their faith) allows them to love each other more freely, with more passion and more purity. And you really see this.

It’s not a bargain, as if to say, ‘If you love God, he will bless your marriage’. It’s a spiritual truth, that your openness to God in faith, and your openness to the gift of children that he may send you, will have a direct effect on your openness to each other in love and friendship.

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Every few weeks there is another expose about the average cost of a wedding in Britain or the States, but reading Kirsten Hansen’s article was the first time I had come across this wonderful phrase: ‘The Wedding-Industrial Complex’.

We spend far more on a wedding than we would on any regular party. But that’s the point. Weddings aren’t a regular party; they are a booming business.

According to TheKnot.com, a popular wedding site, the average American wedding costs about $24,000. A wedding in larger urban centres could easily cost closer to $50,000. Who says you can’t put a price on love, dreams and happiness? According to the website CostofWedding.com, the price per guest alone for a wedding in New York could easily be about $200 – if a couple is inviting 150 guests, they’re already looking at $30,000.

Just what exactly happened? How did weddings go from celebrations of a new marriage to incredibly expensive extravaganzas that put couples or their families in debt? The wedding industrial complex is to blame. The term refers both to the way the wedding industry has worked to sell the “perfect” wedding (check out a bridal magazine, it’s all there in gorgeously retouched advertisements), and to the social expectations about what makes a wedding (tuxedo, diamond and white dress splendour). It is a big machine, all working to ensure that anyone getting married should expect to pay a whole lot of money for the privilege. Unless, of course, they’re willing to sacrifice their dreams and crush their love under the heel of practicality.

The wedding industry is out to make money, and someone’s special day is how they do it. It has been a brilliant marketing campaign, not least because most of us have bought into it. They’ve already sold us on their merchandise which is wrapped up as “romance”, “hopes” and that “one perfect day”. The price tag shouldn’t matter if a couple is really in love.

Of course, there are many couples out there who reject the idea that their wedding has to cost them as much as a downpayment on a house. DIY weddings are becoming more popular and couples are finding ways to put their own stamp on the big day for a lower price. They are finding free venues, having potlucks, hiring amateur photographers or choosing weekday weddings. A couple can forego many things like wedding favours and huge guest lists; there are definitely ways to cut costs.

There is, however, only so much a couple can do about their budget unless they’re willing to ditch the “perfect wedding” ideal entirely. A larger guest list, a rented venue, a caterer – every little bit adds up, and if they are unlucky, the place they live might be expensive by nature.

I take a middle line here. I think it’s important to celebrate, and especially to celebrate something as significant as a wedding; and celebrations, usually, cost money. But it’s also important to distinguish between what is really helping a couple to celebrate, and what is instead being imposed by some unacknowledged social pressure or some insidious marketing campaign.

Of course every couple has some social obligations that must be fulfilled at a wedding; one of the reasons for getting married is that it brings your ‘private’ relationship into the public gaze so that it can be acknowledged and supported publicly. But I still think there should be an inner freedom about the choices a couple makes, so that they can decide what they truly think is best for themselves and for their families and friends. Is it possible, however, to escape the clutches of the Wedding-Industrial Complex?

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I don’t post about every sermon I preach, but here are a few lines from a nuptial Mass I celebrated at the weekend about the difficulty and the importance of making promises today:

Lasso Lumineux

There is something very beautiful and very simple about the wedding vows that you will make in just a few moments time. A man and a woman promise to love each other without reservation for the rest of their lives, and to embrace all the implications of that love: To love for better and for worse, for richer and for poorer, in sickness and in health, till death do them part. To love the whole person, with their strengths and weaknesses, their successes and failures. And to be open to the new life that love always brings; whether that is through the gift of children, or through the life-giving love that flows from your friendships and openness to others.

It’s hard for people to make promises today, partly because we are unsure about so many things. Unsure about the future; unsure about who the other person will become; unsure about what we want now; and even more unsure about what we might want in the distant future.

But there is a paradox here. Making a promise is what actually makes something sure. When you promise to be faithful to each other, come what may, you give a security and strength to this love. We talk about ‘the bond of marriage’, not because it is a chain to take away your freedom, but because it creates a space in which you can keep loving each other, freely – which is what you both want most of all.

I was the priest at a friend’s wedding a few years ago. She’s Mexican, and they have this tradition of the lasso – you may have heard of it. As soon as the wedding vows are made, the families of the couple bring a lasso to the front of the church – one of these huge ropes that you catch cattle with – and literally tie the couple together as they sit beside each other. The bride, my Mexican friend, is grinning like a Cheshire cat; while the groom, who hasn’t got a drop of Mexican blood in him, is sitting there very self-consciously, with a face that says ‘what on earth is going on?!’

Now I’m not recommending this today; I’m just giving it to you as a symbol. When you make these vows, something big happens. You bind yourselves to each other; and God takes you at your word and puts his own seal on your marriage. It’s a bond of love. It’s the security given by your own promises, and by the promise of God.

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A young couple fall in love and panic about the consequences of commitment. A woman hides away in the bathroom at her own fortieth birthday party because she can’t face being reminded of so many years lost in an unhappy marriage. A young man confronts his widowed mother because she doesn’t seem to trust the woman he wants to marry.

There were constant glimpses of the beauty and the fragility of human love, and the way it inevitably uncovers a longing for something even deeper, something more mysterious. An indescribable longing, as one of the characters says.

You might expect a Polish bishop to preach about some of these themes, but not to dramatise them and bring them to the underground theatre of his day.

It was a marvellous play. I wish I could urge you all to go and see it, but there were only two performances. Martin O’Brien is the artistic director of Ten Ten Theatre. He’s adapted a play called The Jeweller’s Shop by Karol Wojtyla, the future Pope John Paul II.

It’s hard to present profound spiritual themes in the context of our contemporary culture without trivialising them, or sounding preachy. The most fruitful way is often through the medium of human experience. We live in the age of Big Brother and YouTube. Lives are exposed. We are constantly confronted with an unmediated human experience. So when grace is working through that ordinary human experience, it gives an opportunity to touch the fringe of God’s cloak and be lifted up for a moment into the transcendent, without stepping into church or lighting a candle.

Formal religion and popular devotions have lost none of their significance, but the fact is they are outside the bounds of most people’s reality. That’s why a bishop in the late 1950s, and a cutting-edge playwright in our own time, have tried to put the focus on everyday human relationships. Through those relationships, with the ambiguous longings of the human heart exposed so clearly, we catch a glimpse of the divine; just a whisper – quiet enough to be missed, clear enough to unsettle and enchant.

The Jeweller’s Shop by Karol Wojtyla is published by Ignatius Press. The Jeweller, by Martin O’Brien, was performed at Leicester Square Theatre on 22 June, directed by Paul Jepson, as part of the Spirit in the City festival. If you can help Ten Ten Theatre put on a longer run of this wonderful play, see their fundraising page here.

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We often think that the big lies are the important/damaging ones – and they usually are. But the small lies, and even the ‘innocent’ white lies, can be equally destructive. It’s not just because they can set a pattern of deception that might have greater consequences; it’s also because the core moral decision to deceive or to conceal something apparently trivial often reflects a much bigger background compromise that we are wanting to make.

We justify small lies by saying they are of no real consequence. But if that’s really the case, why do we think that simply telling the truth in this minor matter would be such a difficult option?

Last Night is 6/10 film about a young married couple in New York tempted by infidelity. The husband goes away for a business meeting with a gorgeous and seductive colleague; and that same night his wife bumps into her former French boyfriend who was never really reconciled to their separation. What will they do? What choices will they make?

The ‘will they/won’t they?’ tease is what keeps the slightly dull plot moving forward. But the moral interest, for me, lies in those moments when they have to decide how much truth to tell, or when we realise that something not insignificant from the past has been concealed. Infidelity (don’t worry – I’m not giving the plot away) very often depends on whether or not someone is willing to tell the truth about the ordinary, boring things.

When you are about to tell a small or habitual lie, it’s worth stopping to ask: Why?

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I’m not trying to argue someone into accepting the importance of celibacy for Catholic priests (I’ve already given my own personal perspective in a previous post); but if you want you want to have a summary of the meaning of celibacy in the life of the Catholic priest and deacon, as the Church understands it, there is no better place to look than the ordination rite for a ‘transitional’ deacon who is on the road to priesthood.

This image is from last year's ordinations, but Lorenzo (holding the book) was one of the three ordained this year!

Three of the seminarians from Allen Hall were ordained deacons at Westminster Cathedral on Saturday. The beautifully phrased words of their commitment to celibacy really struck me, and reminded me of what my own commitment (made fourteen years ago) is meant to mean in all its richness.

Here are the words the bishop uses:

By your own free choice you seek to enter the order of deacons. You shall exercise this ministry in the celibate state for celibacy is both a sign and a motive of pastoral charity, and a special source of spiritual fruitfulness in the world.

By living in this state with total dedication, moved by a sincere love for Christ the Lord, you are consecrated to him in a new and special way.

By this consecration you will adhere more easily to Christ with an undivided heart; you will be more freely at the service of God and mankind, and you will be more untrammeled in the ministry of Christian conversion and rebirth.

By your life and character you will give witness to your brothers and sisters in faith that God must be loved above all else, and that it is he whom you serve in others.

Therefore, I ask you:

In the presence of God and the Church, are you resolved, as a sign of your interior dedication to Christ, to remain celibate for the sake of the kingdom and in lifelong service to God and mankind?

The candidate replies: ‘I am.’ There is quite a lot contained in those two short words.

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What an amazing day. I was at St Mary’s University College yesterday for the Third International Symposium on Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body and I saw the fastest man in the world! The fastest man in the world ever! 100m in 9.58 seconds. (I didn’t see him do the 9.58 seconds.)

Let’s deal with Usain Bolt first. He was at St Mary’s for an afternoon of interviews and publicity. I heard this on the grapevine and snuck down to the gym where he was doing a photo-shoot. I don’t have tickets to the 100m final at the Olympics, so I presume this is as close as I will ever get to the legend. It was a sweet moment just to see him in the flesh, and to imagine watching the Olympics on the TV next summer.

Here is the world record run:

And the conference. It’s just getting started, but there were two interesting talks from Michael Waldstein and William Newton. Newton asked a fascinating question: Why does Pope John Paul talk about the spousal meaning of the body instead of the fraternal meaning of the body? There are many different ways of loving and relating and bonding, many different kinds of friendship, so why put the emphasis on the love shared by a husband and wife?

He gave what I thought was a good answer. He didn’t say that spousal love is the deepest kind of love, as if all other loves and relationships were a hidden longing for this – which wouldn’t make sense of the Christian understanding of heaven, and which would seem like a slight or an impossible burden to those of us (over 50% in the UK!) who are not married. Instead he said that spousal love provides an icon of the deepest meaning of all love; it shows with a particular clarity how every relationship – at its best – is about giving oneself in order to deepen the bonds of communion and friendship, a friendship that leads to new life for those in the relationship and for others.

In other words (I’m going a bit further than Newton did in his talk), all relationships, despite their radical differences – think of friends, siblings, parents and children, colleagues, fellow citizens, etc – have at heart an element of giving oneself, and receiving the gift of who the other person is, for the sake of communion and the giving of new life; they are unitive and procreative. It’s not that everyone has a vocation to be a husband or wife; it’s that everyone longs to give themselves to others in a way that has a particular iconic clarity in the love between husband and wife. This is why, according to Pope John Paul, the spousal meaning of the body has significance for all of us – married and unmarried.

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Some people would prefer to replace the traditional wedding vows with words they have composed themselves, thinking that this would make their promises more personal and more authentic. I’m not so sure about this.

Amish wedding ring quilt

I did an email interview last week with David Gibson for the website ‘For Your Marriage‘. He was asking me about some of the ideas I sketched in my recent Royal Wedding post. You can read the interview here, and this is the full response I gave to his questions:

In my experience most young people hope to get married one day, despite the prevalence of marriage breakdown and a general suspicion of institutions.

It’s not just the romance of a wedding day. I think they recognise that love finds its deepest fulfilment in a lifelong commitment, in giving oneself to another person without conditions, without reservation. And they know that marriage is a way of making that commitment. It frightens them, because commitment is frightening, at the same time as it attracts them.

The words of the wedding vows are so simple and so profound: ‘To love and honour each other for the rest of your lives… For better for worse, for richer for poorer… Till death do us part’. Young people are not, on the whole, cynical, selfish or hedonistic. They want to fall in love; and when they do, they want that love to last. They know, deep down, that love requires commitment and sacrifice; and they are longing to give themselves to something of lasting value.

They also sense, perhaps without understanding why, that love demands a promise, a definitive Yes; and that this promise needs to be made in public. In other words, the institution of marriage still speaks to young people with great force.

Of course a couple can express their love for each other in many different ways; and they can commit themselves to each other in their own words. They should do this often! But I don’t think this can ever substitute for the traditional words of the wedding vows. This is partly because the words themselves are already so meaningful – it’s simply hard to better them. ‘I promise to love and honour you for the rest of my life… For better for worse, for richer for poorer…’ So to substitute your own words would somehow be a diminishment.

But I also think there is something important about entering into a tradition that is larger than yourself, and freely choosing to use a set of words that you haven’t yourself chosen, because then you allow yourself to be freed from the limitations of your own vision. This ‘humility’ allows your love to be purified, stretched, and transformed into something far deeper than you could have imagined.

To use the solemn words of the wedding ritual, rather than your own composition, is to say ‘there is more to love than we have yet understood, and we choose to let this larger love possess us’. It’s not impersonal to use the formal words of the wedding ritual; it’s a way of lifting what is deeply personal into something larger and even more beautiful.

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One of the highlights of the royal wedding was the marriage. I’m not just being clever with words here: we all know how easy it is for the paraphernalia of a wedding day extravaganza to dwarf the marriage ceremony itself.

The simple and solemn words of the wedding vows had such a weight about them; they seemed to ‘hold their own’ – to carry a significance richer than the beauty of the service, more enduring than the dazzle of celebrity and media, deeper even than the monarchy itself. Two people standing before God, promising to love each other and remain faithful to each other for the rest of their lives, whatever happens, and praying for the gift of children.

Much of this is because of the way the Anglican Book of Common Prayer (Revised 1928 version, I think) holds together, in its beautiful language, the heart of the Christian understanding of marriage.

Thank goodness William and Kate chose not to invent their own wedding service. There is so much suspicion today of ‘institutions’, but on Friday you saw what it meant for a couple to enter ‘the institution of marriage’. It means they are taking on something far bigger and more beautiful than they could ever have invented for themselves – no matter how many books of poetry they might have plundered, or how many hours they could have put into phrasing their own heartfelt sentiments for each other and hopes for their future.

The words of marriage, and the meaning they embody, add a seriousness that young people are actually looking for, and remind them that they are not just creating a landscape from their own imagination, but going on a journey into a vast, beautiful, awe-inspiring but unknown, uncharted and slightly risky territory.

The marriage service was still deeply personal – you can’t get more personal than to say, in the first person, before two billion people, ‘I will’. But by celebrating the sacrament of marriage and not just their own transitory affection for each other, by entering into a tradition larger than themselves, they allowed their love to be transformed. The words of ‘the institution of marriage’ challenged them to love in a way that wouldn’t have been possible through their own resources. That’s the point of institutions – or at least it’s meant to be.

And hats off to William for resisting the pressure from his lawyers to insist on a pre-nuptial agreement.

In case you missed it, this is the ‘Introduction’ to the marriage service that took place right at the beginning:

DEARLY beloved, we are gathered here in the sight of God and in the face of this congregation, to join together this man and this woman in Holy Matrimony; which is an honourable estate instituted of God himself, signifying unto us the mystical union that is betwixt Christ and his Church; which holy estate Christ adorned and beautified with his presence, and first miracle that he wrought, in Cana of Galilee, and is commended in Holy Writ to be honourable among all men; and therefore is not by any to be enterprised, nor taken in hand, unadvisedly lightly or wantonly; but reverently, discreetly, soberly, and in the fear of God, duly considering the causes for which matrimony was ordained.

First, It was ordained for the increase of mankind according to the will of God, and that children might be brought up in the fear and nurture of the Lord, and to the praise of his holy name.

Secondly, It was ordained in order that the natural instincts and affections, implanted by God, should be hallowed and directed aright; that those who are called of God to this holy estate, should continue therein in pureness of living.

Thirdly, It was ordained for the mutual society, help, and comfort, that the one ought to have of the other, both in prosperity and adversity.

Into which holy estate these two persons present come now to be joined.

Therefore if any man can shew any just cause, why they may not lawfully be joined together, let him now speak, or else hereafter for ever hold his peace.

You can see the whole Official Programme here.

[Interesting that the word paraphernalia is originally connected with marriage; and - as it were - with the original form of a pre-nuptial agreement. I didn't know this before going to the dictionary this morning. Chambers dictionary says: 'Formerly, property other than dower than remained under a married woman's own control, esp. articles of jewellery, dress, personal belongings. From para, beside, beyond, pherne, a dowry]

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What do men really want? Not (apparently) beautiful women, fast cars, and an endless supply of free beer; but a life of duty, service, and self-sacrifice.

Robert Crampton wonders why the contemporary Western male is not happier than his father or grandfather, when he is ‘richer, safer, healthier, more long-lived, with a huge choice of leisure pursuits, lifestyles and material goods’. The answer, at the risk of oversimplifying, is that he is looking for happiness by seeking pleasure, rather than by cultivating virtue. He is following the path of Epicurus rather than Aristotle. And it isn’t working. ["What really makes men happy?" by Robert Crampton, The Times Magazine, 27/11/10, p54-59]

Live for today, the mantra that dominates our culture, simply does not work for most men. Men want to live for tomorrow. Men need goals, plans, causes, beliefs, structures, direction. Men are not natural Epicureans. Men crave the virtue Aristotle espoused.

That virtue can be found in small, everyday ways. The morning that I came into work to start this article, one of my colleagues, Jo, waylaid me by my desk. “Robert,” she said, “you strike me as a man who might have a screwdriver in his desk.” “I haven’t, I’m afraid,” I had to say. “What do you need a screwdriver for?” “My glasses have gone floppy,” said Jo, holding out her specs, the arms of which had indeed gone floppy. “Give them here,” I said. “I’ll see what I can do.”

I spent the next ten minutes experimenting with various tools attempting to tighten the screw at the side of Jo’s glasses, trying out in succession a penknife, teaspoon and paperclip in lieu of what was actually required, a tiny Phillips screwdriver. Eventually a bent staple fitted the screw head and gained traction. Thirty seconds later, Jo’s glasses were no longer floppy. She was duly grateful, I went back to work in a glow of satisfaction, of wellbeing and, yes, of happiness.

Why did this small action make me happy? Partly, but only partly, because Jo’s a woman and I’m a man. Partly my happiness came from sticking at a slightly awkward task, seeing it through, finding a solution. Partly it came from working with my hands, which I rarely do. And partly – mostly, I think – I derived a degree of pleasure from the fact that they were someone else’s glasses. I’d done a no-strings favour. Jo had asked for my help, I’d been able to oblige. Nothing in it for me. Except, happy as it made me, it turned out there was.

It’s not just about doing little favours and getting a glow of satisfaction from them. It’s about the whole direction of one’s life.

Men have an immense capacity for self-sacrifice. Not just a capacity, I would argue, but a need. Not all men, perhaps. But most. Male self-sacrifice is there in many of the key stories and myths of our culture, from the 300 Spartans at Thermopylae to the Battle of Britain.

For most of human history, what it has meant to be a man has involved self-sacrifice. Not only the patriotic self-sacrifice of war, also the peacetime sacrifice of doing a demanding, possibly dangerous job to provide for others. Or devoting yourself to a political, social or religious cause. Or simply having children and taking full responsibility for their welfare.

But these days, most men don’t dedicate themselves to creating Utopias, and aren’t involved in wars, or mining coal, or deep-sea fishing, or striving to lift their families out of poverty. All of which is a good thing.

A lot of men reach middle age unmarried and without children, which isn’t such a good thing, in my opinion – not for society, not for them. The reason married men are happier than bachelors is not, as in the caricature, because marriage allows husbands to grow lazy while a wife runs around for us. It’s the opposite: we’re happier because we’re almost certainly, to some degree or other, acting for someone’s benefit other than our own. I became a father at 33, which seems young from where I am now. Even so, I wish I’d done it sooner.

And it’s not just that we have lost the plot as individuals. The reason we have lost the individual plot is that we do not have the social networks there to remind us what really matters.

Our fathers and grandfathers had institutions to cultivate their virtue for them: the Church, the Army, early marriage, a lifelong, cumulative career building towards expertise and respect, a trade union, a political cause, an extended family network. Such bonds have either been loosened, or are gone.

In losing their access to these institutions and beliefs, men lost something else, too: the company of other like-minded men. A couple of generations back, men would work and play exclusively with other men. We did that too much. Now we probably don’t do it enough. Many of my contemporaries socialise with their partners or not at all. They have friends, but they are in some way estranged from them.

I like these ideas. But I’m not convinced by Crampton’s solutions. He wants us to live sacrificial lives as if we were living for a higher cause (with all the generosity and virtue that our grandfathers brought to their own causes), even if we are not sure about what the foundations of our own convictions and goals are. In the absence of God he appeals to conscience. It’s certainly better to follow your conscience than not to follow it. But I don’t think you can serve your conscience. It’s your conscience that helps you to serve and give your life to something that is more important than yourself: your family, your friends, your country, your God, those in need, etc. Conscience is a means to an end. But what if you have no identifiable end?

See what you think of Cramptons concluding remarks:

So what is to be done? Join the Army? Downshift to the country and become a lumberjack? Some things you can’t control: you can’t rustle up a morally bombproof cause like the defeat of fascism to fight for. You can’t start believing in a God whom you don’t think exists. You can’t go back to the days when your grandfather dedicated himself to lifting his family out of poverty. But what you can do is take the elements worth preserving from the institutions and activities and beliefs that we have lost and put them to work again.

You don’t have to be a labourer to spend time working with your hands. You don’t have to be a soldier or a sportsman to be fit rather than fat and lazy. You don’t need to be an intellectual to read a decent book. You don’t need to pretend to be thick and crude when you’re not. You don’t need to be a hero to take some responsibility for the world around you. You don’t have to be a revolutionary – it’s better if you’re not – to make that world a better place in small ways. You don’t have to be a monk to spend time alone to work out what you think about something, and what you need to do.

And you don’t, of course, need to be a believer to live according to a moral code. Most surveys conclude that the devout are happier than the faithless. It’s not clear why that is, but it might be because the belief that you are being judged by a higher authority is a superbly moderating influence on male behaviour. You don’t have to call that higher authority God. You can call it conscience. Pretty much everybody has one. When we live in rough accordance with our consciences, we’re happy. When we don’t, we’re not.

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When I was working in a parish in north London we had a standing agreement with couples that if they needed help we would provide an all-inclusive wedding for them at no cost. This would include: church building, music, minister (me), flowers (a modest display), limo (my Nissan Micra), confetti, and reception in the parish hall. We couldn’t do the free bar, or the honeymoon in Thailand, but I would gladly have thrown in two tickets to the local Cineworld at Staples Corner, and a large bag of sweet or salted popcorn.

It was a serious offer. Why? Because so many couples said to us priests that they wanted to get married but couldn’t afford to. It wasn’t, as the Rev Dr Giles Fraser said recently, because of the narcissism of brides. It was because of the social pressures on couples to turn their wedding day into a carefully choreographed production of mammoth proportions. And, it has to be said, because many cohabiting couples didn’t feel any urgency about bringing the wedding forward, and were content to save for a big wedding in the future instead of embracing a smaller one much sooner.

Rebecca Mead, who has experience of reporting about US weddings, is sympathetic to Giles Fraser’s criticisms of contemporary weddings:

“I’d even say they were becoming a threat to marriage itself,” he said, speaking on Radio 4′s Thought for the Day – his words were, to me, not at all unfamiliar. I spent three years researching the American wedding industry for a book I wrote a few years ago, and during that time I discovered that clergymen and clergywomen could often be vocal critics of the brides and grooms whose unions they were sanctifying. Jody Vickery, a minister in Georgia, summed up the prevailing mood in an article in Christianity Today. “I hate weddings,” Vickery wrote. “Funerals? I love them. At funerals people are shellshocked by the ultimate realities of life, death, grief, and God.”

According to both ministers, self-centred brides are to blame for the state of modern weddings – events that Vickery calls “narcissistic cleavage conventions”. And bridal mania – the belief on the part of an engaged woman that the world revolves around her, her dress, and her floral-design choices – is unarguably a genuine phenomenon.

When a wedding seizes the public, or at least the media, imagination – as Chelsea Clinton’s did last week, with American television reporters breathlessly noting the rumbling arrival of food-service delivery trucks outside Astor Courts, the venue in Rhinebeck, New York, where she wed Marc Mezvinsky – it only amplifies the bridal imperative to ensure that the day is perfectly orchestrated, beautifully conducted and exquisitely memorable.

Yet are narcissistic brides solely to blame for the way in which contemporary weddings are, as Fraser put it, “specifically designed to be all about ‘me’”? Or might some of the blame lie with an ever-proliferating wedding industry – one that seeks to ensure that for every vow exchanged there is a sweeping gown of satin and tulle to be sold, or that every kiss bestowed at the altar is, potentially, an occasion for the use of a leatherbound guest book, a frilly lace garter threaded with blue ribbon, and a chocolate fountain?

The cost of the average wedding in the UK is estimated to be about £20,000 – even higher than the cost in the US, where, according to wedding-industry figures, the estimated amount that brides and grooms are spending in 2010 is averaging about $23,000, or £15,000. American brides – or their parents – are spending, on average, just over a thousand dollars on a dress, more than $2,000 on flowers, nearly $1,000 on beauty services (including an average of $183 on teeth-whitening) – and almost $3,500 on a photographer and videographer to make sure the expense of all the above is captured for posterity.

Jemima Lewis is less critical of the brides, and more astute about the real social and psychological pressures involved:

Granted, there may be some brides who get carried away for the wrong reasons. They see Katie Price marrying a luminous orange, cross-dressing cage-fighter while the paparazzi attempt to batter down the church door, and they want a piece of the dream. But most big weddings get that way for reasons of tact, rather than egotism.

The only alternative to a big wedding is a tiny one – you, him and a couple of witnesses snatched off the street. Any more than that, and people start getting offended that they haven’t been invited. Once you’ve invited Uncle Bob, you have to invite his alcoholic wife – and next thing you know, the guest list is littered with dipsomaniacs, sex-pests, embittered divorcees, drug-addicts and bores. At that stage, the only solution is to throw a party large enough to absorb and dilute the difficult guests.

What this means is that you need a serious frock: you cannot have hundreds of people staring at you while you make the most intimate public declaration of your life without some kind of body armour. Getting togged out like Barbie on acid is a symptom of stage fright, rather than vanity. It is what happens when a generous impulse (wanting to invite Uncle Bob) spirals out of control.

Likewise, the obsession with table settings and floral arrangements – though “expensive and distracting”, as the Rev complains – is born of anxiety rather than pride. No one wants to be found wanting as a hostess, though every bride knows she will be.

A big white wedding is a huge fandangle for not much return. The guests carp about their placement; the vicar, it turns out, would rather be at a funeral; and the happy couple are either rigid with stress or flaccid with drink. But, like democracy, it remains the least worst option: formulaic enough to contain the chaos of the modern extended family; romantic enough to entice the faithless masses up the aisle. If I were Dr Fraser, I would be grateful for that alone.

A common option amongst north London Catholics was to fly to Rome with a handful of relations and close friends and have the wedding there. If it meant the difference between getting married or not, I always encouraged this option. There was no pretence: “We want to get married; we can’t afford a big British wedding; we are just going to do it; and we’ll have a great party for all our friends when we get back.” The strange thing is, I think people understood. Couples are doing the £20k wedding because they think everyone else expects it. But if they had the no-cost wedding in the parish hall I think most of their guests would actually be delighted.

I’m not against big weddings; I’m not puritanical. I think we should celebrate sacraments lavishly. But if the wedding gets in the way of the marriage, then something has gone wrong.

[Addition to the post: A friend who is a priest just put this comment on my Facebook:

I had a couple came and asked if they could have a blessing after a registry wedding. Seeing an ounce of hope I asked why they wanted a blessing, why a registry? Church too expensive, they said. I said to them: If I wave the church fee, little service in the chapel, walk to church, wear what you like, go home for tea and biscuits they would be married. They opted for smart clothes and a buffet in the parish hall afterwards. Good wedding!

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The magazine section of BBC Online did a piece on celibacy recently. On the day it was posted it was the ‘most read’ story on the whole BBC site for a few hours, perhaps because the editors were clever enough to give it the title “What is a life without sex like?”

I helped with the article, and they posted my own reflections in full on a separate page, which I have copied here:

On 13 July 1997 I made a lifelong commitment to celibacy. In a chapel overlooking Lake Albano on the outskirts of Rome I promised to remain unmarried ‘for the sake of the kingdom and in lifelong service to God and mankind’.

I had a real sense of peace that day, but a few months earlier I had been in turmoil. I knew all the theory: Catholic priests were following the example of Christ; celibacy gave you a freedom to serve others, etc. But it hadn’t become real for me.

I was wrestling with all this one afternoon that spring. I realised that I had been seeing celibacy in negative terms: ‘No’ to marriage, ‘No’ to sex, ‘No’ to children – when in reality it was a profound ‘Yes’. It was a way of putting Christ at the centre of your life, of giving your whole heart to those you would serve as a priest. It was a way of loving others with a generosity that wouldn’t be possible if you were a husband and father. Celibacy wasn’t a negation or a denial – it was a gift of love, a giving of oneself, just as much as marriage could be.

My experience over the years has confirmed this. Yes, there are practical aspects to celibacy. You’ve got more time for other people, and more time for prayer. You can get up at three in the morning to visit someone in hospital without worrying about how this will affect your marriage. You can move to a bleak estate in a rough part of town without thinking about how this will impact on your children’s schooling.

But celibacy is something much deeper as well. There is a place in your heart, in your very being, that you have given to Christ and to the people you meet as a priest. You are not just serving them, you are loving them as if they were the very centre of your life – which they are. I think Catholics sense this. They know that you are there for them with an undivided heart, and it gives your relationship with them a particular quality.

It’s true that you can’t speak from experience about every aspect of human life. But you gain an awful lot of understanding from sharing in people’s lives over the years. Husbands and wives will confide in a sympathetic priest. You end up drawing on this experience as you preach and counsel people. Besides, people want a priest because he will show them the love of Christ, and not because he has lived through all ups and downs that they live through.

There are struggles. Times of loneliness; sexual desires; dreams about what marriage and fatherhood would be like. I don’t think most of this is about celibacy – it’s about being human. The husbands I know struggle with the same things, only they dream about what it would be like to have married someone else! What matters is trying to be faithful, instead of pretending that another way of life would be easy.

You need balance in your life, you can’t be giving all the time – this was emphasised in our training. You need affection and human intimacy. I’ve got some wonderful friends. I get home to see my family every couple of weeks. I escape to the cinema now and then. And I pray. Not to fill the gaps, because some of them can never be filled, but because the love of Christ is something very real and very consoling.

I’ve been incredibly happy as a priest over these twelve years. I don’t think about celibacy a lot now – it’s just part of my life. But I’m aware that it gives me a freedom of heart that is a unique gift. It helps me stay close to Christ, and draws me closer to the people I meet each day.

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