Blake Shelton and Miranda Lambert earned big headlines recently announcing their divorce, after only four years of marriage. This followed hotly on the heels of Jennifer Garner and Ben Affleck who came out with their own divorce news a few weeks earlier. I’ll just go ahead and admit it: I was rooting for both couples, and the news saddened me. Along with the rest of the celebrity watching world, I wondered what went so wrong in these lives. Both seemed–to all appearances–to take their marriages seriously. To find consolation and certainly worthy counsel, I turned to two exemplary marriages, Louis and Zelie Martin and Karl and Zita of Austria. Holy lives rarely draw attention to themselves, yet when examined often prove themselves both fascinating and dramatic, and can serve to illuminate the mistakes made by those marriages which do happen to fall under the spotlight of fame. Moving beyond the basic ingredients to a great marriage, namely, that it be at the very least valid, and ideally sacramental as well, these examples of happy holy marriages provide crucial advice for those of us still in the trenches, and remind us of some very basic common sense ingredients forgotten by most celebrity marriages.
Blesseds (soon to be Saints) Louis and Zelie Martin, the parents of Saint Therese knew the correct order of their loves. Put God first, and then love spouse with the love of God Himself. As Fran Renda puts it, in an introduction to A Call to a Deeper Love, “Louis and Zélie’s love was a Eucharistic love centred on the Paschal Mystery. They understood the importance of sacrifice for their love to grow and the need to die to oneself in order to live, as Jesus said in John 12:24: “Unless a grain of wheat falls on the ground and dies, it remains only a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.’” One remarkable detail shows the selflessness of their devotion. Always filled with concern for his wife’s well being, and aware of her long struggles with anxiety, Louis eventually sacrificed his own career as a metal artisan- a career which took years of expense and toil to build- and instead took upon himself the part of business representative for Zelie’s lace making trade. In order to give her more availability with their children, to spare her both travel and time, as well as to ease her concern for her business, he gave up his own. The fruit of such selflessness can only be love. Louis and Zelie’s letters bear witness to their deep and romantic love for one another. She writes to him in one: “I kiss you with all my heart. I’m so happy today at the thought of seeing you that I can’t work. Your wife who loves you more than her life.” They desired to love God above all creatures, and knew the Eucharist to be both the Object and Source of their love. Adoring Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament not only tended the blaze of divine love, but nurtured their love for one another.
Putting God first, even before spouse, may not be obvious to everyone as a key ingredient to a happy marriage. However, doing so allows one to easily sidestep some very obvious moral pot holes than can easily destroy the undercarriage to any union. Return to our celebrities for a moment. Jennifer Garner and Ben Affleck were very open with the fact that their marriage took a conscious effort. In fact, Ben made headlines following his 2013 Oscar acceptance speech, in which he addressed Jennifer with gratitude thus: “I want to thank you for working on our marriage for 10 Christmases. It’s good. It is work, but the best kind of work and there’s no one I’d rather work with.” Tabloids went wild, suggesting divorce was around the corner. It was; but not because working on marriage is a sign of failure. The Affleck-Garner marriage was on the rocks because without any compass their work was misguided. Ben went on to star in Gone Girl, and made headlines again due to a full frontal nudity shot, in addition to steamy scenes with costar Rosamund Pike, all with the full public support of his wife, Jennifer Garner. Filming in the nude while romping with a non-spouse should be a pretty obvious situation to avoid, especially when one is admittedly “working” on a marriage. But stranger things happen when God is not our first Love.
Which brings us to the following point, made perfectly by G.K. Chesterton: “It’s the first effect of not believing in God that you lose your common sense.” It’s common sense that marriage needs to be lived in union with one’s spouse. When one’s primary focus remains on God, this concept of marriage as a shared life never comes into question. We have the example of Blessed Karl von Habsburg and his wife, Zita of Bourbon-Parma, to illustrate what a common life should look like, even when one’s status makes such a life difficult. As Holy Roman Emperor at the outset of WWI, Karl faced a wretched time; but Zita faced it with him. In the storms of war, political unrest, exile and disgrace Zita and Karl remained in harmony. Though sometimes parted through necessity, by Karl’s military obligations for example, Zita and Karl strove to be present to one another. A true consort to the Emperor, Zita participated intellectually and physically as much as possible in his political activity. In exile their poverty was so extreme that they had to use a laundry basket instead of a crib for their new baby. On another significant occasion, she flew, while pregnant, in an open airplane with him from exile back into Hungary, seeking the good of their Empire together. Despite their dedication to their Empire and to peace, Karl died in poverty, in exile, succumbing to pneumonia at the age of 34, whispering to Zita “I’ll love you forever”. Zita mourned Karl till the end of her days, wearing black for the 67 years remaining to her, raised their 8 children alone, and now bears the title “Servant of God.”
In contrast to this life, shared so thoroughly, in good times and bad, in sickness and in health, think of Blake Shelton and Miranda Lambert. These country stars have wealth, fame, success and shared interests to some degree at least, and yet their marriage ends in divorce after only four years. Yahoo News contributed this tidbit to the coverage: “It was both of the stars’ busy schedules that actually put the strain on the marriage. ‘They both worked a lot and had to spend a lot of time apart,’ a source says. ‘The less time they spent together, the more they grew apart.’ That’s a pretty common sense, basic element when it comes to making a marriage work. They may have been married for four years, but much of that time was spent developing two individual careers, going on two separate tours and living essentially two separate lives bound only by the seal of a county clerk.
I honestly don’t expect celebrities to have valid, let alone sacramental marriages these days. Most if not all enter into the arrangement only after signing prenuptial agreements, and make sure to do something or other in the way of contraception. It’s not surprising in these times. What does shock me is the total lack of common sense in the way of marriage preservation. The evidence cannot be avoided, when Hollywood churns out a steady stream of divorcees every year. But do not, oh do not be discouraged. Do not think that married bliss exists only in movies, for characters portrayed by twice married starlets. Married joy is possible, does exist. Use common sense, put your focus on God, and live one holy life. It’s been done before and is being done even now.