Like many survivors of breast cancer, I have some serious battle scars. My un-bandaged body after breast cancer certainly made for some interesting pillow talk between my husband and myself.
Going into the crisis long ago, we barely considered what it would mean for our love. But when I was done with all the treatment, the question lingered unspoken in the air—what would our marriage look like? Stranger still, what would it feel like?
I knew he loved me before all the surgeries. Fourteen happy years and three children assured me of that. But we had never really, really been tested by the experience of heartache, loss, and fear that a cancer diagnosis brings.
In the aftermath, I could not begin to fathom what our intimate moments might be like, now that I had been surgically taken apart and permanently altered.
My husband just smiled and kissed the boo-boos. And he never stopped.
The miraculous healing power of lips to scars transformed the broken hearts and the marriage that cancer had tried to lay to waste, better than life-saving surgery ever could.
He later told me that it was graces of inviting Christ into our marriage on our wedding day at work. The power of the vows permeating every aspect of our lives, and even the blessing of chastity had come back, to aid us in those first post-cancer episodes. We had stood at that altar and vowed to love one another—sight unseen in terms of what was yet to be consummated—and pledging to accept the all of the other.
And it has been that way ever since. We will take it all, the good and the not so good, as long as we could stay by each other’s side. With God’s help, we will not alter the vow we made at the altar.
After nearly thirty years together, we’ve lived all the exquisite highs of love and marriage and family life. Sure, there have been setbacks and disappointments. We know there are more to come. Yet we’ve walked together through the excruciating moments that have befallen us, thanks to the graces available in the Sacrament of Matrimony.
Two keys keep us walking in sync. First, as a married couple we exist for one another’s mutual sanctification in and through Christ. Second, we try to remember not to scorn the struggle of suffering when it comes.
We keep the big picture ever before us: we each have a responsibility to help bring the other to heaven. The unchanging truth and graces of a sacramental marriage always trump the feelings that come and go, for the goods of marriage are objectively just, charitable, and beautiful.
Our marriage is a vowed life until death. We know one of us will get there first. We just don’t know how or when.
So when headlines shout to us about making physician-assisted suicide legal, or whether or not it is ethical for a “healthy” spouse to divorce a “sick” spouse because the illness has robbed the marriage of its protracted happiness, we know that we have to redouble our efforts to affirm life and love.
The chief complaint against remaining faithful to one person for your whole life is that it is hard. That it really isn’t humanly possible to keep loving and caring for a spouse who, due to illness, insensitivity, or ignorance may show little appreciation for your efforts.
But every worthwhile endeavor involves some sort of hardship or sacrifice or noble dedication. Marriage is no different.
We cannot escape the fact that human suffering exists, or that many marriages are torn apart by addiction, abuse, and adultery every day. No one is immune from heartbreaks. And some breaches may never mend this side of heaven. To suffer alongside an ailing spouse, or because of their wayward actions, is one of the most difficult things we will ever do.
But the Good News in all of this is grace.
Grace is supernatural aid—a participation in God’s divine life in our human one. It is heaven reaching down to earth, lending support in our innate weaknesses. And I have found, in our marriage, it is the divine glue that keeps us sticking together, “in sickness and in health.”
The power of the vow has blessed us again and again.
When couples exchange marriage vows in a Catholic Church grace abounds. The dignity of the human person is verified when we pledge ourselves to the love and welfare of the beloved whom we believe has inalienable, inestimable, and unrepeatable value. Of course, they were made that way long before we ever loved them, their dignity conferred from being made in the image and likeness of God. We just grew to see and fall in love with that amazing attribute, and so much more.
Essentially our love is meant to validate what God first declared about our spouse: that he or she is cherished forever and their worth will never be diminished; the spouse must never become disposable or an inconvenience, or reducible to the status of, say, a pet or an object.
“Two becoming one flesh” symbolizes a larger reality besides the sealing of a couple’s mutual consent and oath before God (Cf. Gen. 2:24; Mt. 19:5; Mk. 10:8). That oneness is something God always sees in the couple, even when we do not. Two people marry the totality of the other, complete in both body and soul. That means the marriage continues even when the body ceases to function in a healthy manner, or when the soul of the other suffers pain. The oneness of the two is especially made manifest when one shares in the cross of one another’s suffering, perhaps even more profoundly than when they share the delights of the marriage bed.
This does not mean that certain situations are not intensely painful for either party, but as we have explored in this column recently, suffering, properly aligned with grace, can be borne for a greater good. We cannot ignore the reality that suffering can be a path to holiness when we look at the human life of Jesus, and his suffering and death on the cross.
A suffering, sickly spouse has an opportunity to choose a redemptive path through their sufferings—even unto the decline and letting go of one’s mental and physical faculties—by aligning one’s suffering to Christ.
The “healthy” spouse can also employ redemptive suffering, by similarly aligning their emotional and spiritual sufferings to Christ, and also to Mary, the Mother of Christ, who stood close by to her dying, beloved Son on the Cross. It becomes a privilege for the healthy spouse to somehow bear some of the burden, by the gift of their comforting presence.
By the grace of God, a Catholic’s sacramental marriage pledges loving fidelity until one says goodbye to their spouse at the door of a natural death that will usher them to a new life.
To live in such a way is to grow in grace, even to begin to shine with the glow of heaven. To live in such a way is to ultimately win one’s soul, and possibly many others, to Christ.
This is the truth of laying one’s life down for the sake of the friend, the spouse. It is how we, mere mortals, live Eucharistic lives: “This is my body, given up for you” (Lk. 22:19).
Loving someone until death is as hard as it is beautiful. It will mean sacrifice. It will also be a well of deep, refreshing joy.
You will have battle scars over time from the hardships that life throws at your marriage. But when we invite Christ into our marriage, he sends graces to heal every scar that our fingers can trace, as his love magnifies and lingers in every embrace.
This article appeared previously at the Catholic Portal on Patheos, and is used with the author’s permission.