The Catechism of the Church tells us much of the sacrament of marriage: “Marriage is based on the consent of the contracting parties, that is, on their will to give themselves, each to the other, mutually and definitively, in order to live a covenant of faithful and fruitful love.” (CCC 1662). I think given that the Feast of Saint Joseph comes to us at this point of our Lenten journey, we can use him as a model of giving the self.
As a child of the 80’s, I experienced some interesting music that introduced me to the cultural and contemporary understanding of romantic love. In particular, I remember a song by Janet Jackson, “What have you done for me lately?”
If one looks at the lyrics, our sympathy goes out to her. She obviously feels neglected and unloved in the relationship because her significant other does not spend time with her.
But while we can agree the overall message is valid, feeling unloved, her reasons for feeling unloved seem to us as Catholics as superficial. She does not mention any attempt to speak to her significant other about how she feels in a stern, yet loving way.
What does it mean “to give themselves, each to the other, mutually and definitively, in order to live a covenant of faithful and fruitful love”?
Is it as Janet Jackson seems to infer? Does her boyfriend or spouse need to “pamper” her, take her to dinner with a night of dancing?
As Catholics, we believe giving of oneself is much deeper than this. These things (dinner, dancing, etc.) are outward signs of an inward movement of the soul. In the beginning of a romantic relationship, dinners, nights at the movies, dancing, these all happen frequently. Both people in a relationship need to get through the feelings of infatuation to build on the lifetime commitment love calls both to make. But love does not eliminate the challenges of life. People must contribute to society, God blesses us with children, our family grows, friendships develop and deepen, people change in their needs. People grow and change, and sometimes it feels like two people grow “out of love.”
As Catholics, we cannot think these circumstances serve as a rationalization for divorce. On the contrary, we believe they serve as a method of deepening love. If one’s spouse is sitting on the couch and while the other is doing all the housework feeling neglected, now is the time to talk in a loving, but stern way. It is not the time to treat each other as authoritarian parents, but to speak to one another as vulnerable human beings that need love and are looking for mutual understanding.
Life’s pressures affect us in ways we do not sometimes consciously appreciate. A bad day at work can pressure us to cancel events with our friends that would likely lift our spirits. In the same fashion, different stages in our lives can push us inward rather than outward to seek love. Unless we offer and give ourselves to our spouse when this occurs, anger, hurt, tension, resentment, guilt, shame, and frustration characterize our relationships, not love. This is not to suggest that if someone is incapable of psychologically or spiritually performing a spousal duty that one needs to remain feeling neglected and unloved.
The example of Saint Joseph in Scripture is probably the most beautiful example of gift. As Catholics, we believe that the Blessed Mother remained a virgin throughout her life. Thus, as the spouse of Mary, he had a duty to remain chaste as well. Further, he worked as a carpenter, which means his standard of living for the times was by no means wealthy. In fact, we see many examples in the Gospel that indicate the means of the family as poor. Saint Joseph does not even appear much in the Gospel. Yet we see that despite not receiving many things he could have during Biblical times, he supported his family, Jesus and Mary. He taught Jesus many skills and acted as a good foster father would act. Jesus grew up as a Jewish man should grow up. All of the Gospels and traditions indicate the Holy Family as a healthy, loving, yet modest family for the times. I think much of that has to do with the loving gift Saint Joseph gives to his family. He simply does his duty out of love and finds love in return, not in ways he expects, but in ways given to him by God the Father.
I pray that we all can ask for the grace to model Saint Joseph in our lives.