Self-Mastery and the Vocation of Marriage
Recently, I was asked to give a talk to a group of Catholic university students on the vocation of marriage. Now, the request did seem kind of odd to me, since I’m not married yet, I’m engaged. So, I decided to stick to what I know, and not try to give any advice about marriage itself, but instead about discernment and preparation. I talked about my own experience and the lessons I learned in dating, maturing in my faith and finally finding my future spouse.
This post is based on the same notes as that talk, so I hope it will be helpful for any young people discerning their vocations.
This may seem like an odd starting point, but bear with me.
Marriage, like any vocation, is based on love. Real love, not a chick-flick caricature. I mean generous, self-giving, self-sacrificing love, the kind of love that gives everything. This kind of love is the meaning of life and the key to every vocation. And it requires one thing above all – freedom.
Self-mastery is absolutely essential to human freedom. The best explanation I’ve seen of this is in the Catechism, paragraph 2339. Though it speaks about chastity, much the same can be said of any virtue, and I believe especially of the virtue of charity (love).
Chastity includes an apprenticeship in self-mastery which is a training in human freedom. The alternative is clear: either man governs his passions and finds peace, or he lets himself be dominated by them and becomes unhappy. “Man’s dignity therefore requires him to act out of conscious and free choice, as moved and drawn in a personal way from within, and not by blind impulses in himself or by mere external constraint. Man gains such dignity when, ridding himself of all slavery to the passions, he presses forward to his goal by freely choosing what is good and, by his diligence and skill, effectively secures for himself the means suited to this end.”
Marriage is designed by God to be free, total, faithful and fruitful. But it cannot be any of those things if it is not free. And that freedom is under attack.
Of course, we are often tempted to offend against each of those principles, and every good principle. But I believe much of the evil that our western society propagates is rooted in the basic lack of that fundamental freedom to choose what is good, despite worldly passions and desires.
Our Society’s Philosophy: Lies and Excuses
One of my greatest struggles in maturing as a Christian was the constant temptation to mediocrity which I got from my peers and from the media. Being a man, I’m especially familiar with the lies directed toward us. That we’re weak-willed animals, unable to control ourselves under the slightest sexual temptation. That we are incapable of rational thinking when a woman (real, digital, or even imagined) is anywhere nearby. That we can’t commit to a real relationship. We aren’t ‘wired’ for it. That it’s inevitable that we will cheat.
They go on and on, and it’s so insulting it makes me want to punch something (but note that my completely intact keyboard proves that I can indeed control myself).
It’s not just the unintelligent who purvey such ideas. It’s more a deficiency of heart than of mind. Cowardice, rather than stupidity, is why people believe this, and why it was so attractive to me.
I recently saw a fascinating post by Matt Walsh that illustrates this so well. A college professor wrote to him, explaining how stupid it was to extol monogamy and chastity, because it is “unrealistic”, and (of course) that men aren’t biologically suited for it. Matt’s response to this whole letter was so crushing that I felt like I was watching this scene from Lord of the Rings.
Here’s my favourite part of Matt’s response:
It’s hard for men to be monogamous? What a cowardly, pitiful statement. Also, how incredibly obtuse. It ought to be easy for us. Especially for us.
If you won 600 million dollars in the lottery, would you go out the next day and break into cars to steal the change from the cup holders? That’s what sleeping around is like when you’ve already found a woman who will pledge her life and her entire being to you for the remainder of her existence.
I couldn’t agree more. In fact, I think my own life puts the lie to this myth. How is it possible that an incredibly undisciplined person like myself, who never studied hard in school, who wastes so much time on TV and video games, who finishes everything at the last minute (including this post, and the talk it was based on), who can’t even get out of bed on time, can somehow do what our powerful and advanced society believes is impossible?
One friend of mine, when he found out I wasn’t having sex with my girlfriend, just looked confused and flabbergasted, shook his head and said, “I don’t think I could do it…”
Another close friend of mine spoke up and said something about me being a great person.
He was wrong.
I’m not a great person. I’m no better or more able than the average man. The truth is simply that the modernist idea of man is a blatant lie.
As Christians, we need to rise above these temptations to be enslaved by our passions. We have the capacity to be strong, by the grace of God, and it will bring us true freedom.
3 Practical Tips for Dating
So far I’ve been pretty theoretical, but to end off this post I wanted to give a few practical tips for dating and discerning marriage in an authentically Catholic way.
1. Trust God completely, even if you don’t see anything happening.
For me, this was the hardest, and most important part of finding the right woman to marry. I came from a past of looking at dating in a very secular way, and when I started to change my views later on, it was a real struggle to wait. It felt in a sense like wasting time, doing nothing, but I can see now it was essential to me maturing as a man before trying to become a husband. I’ve seen a lot of young people, even faithful Catholics, act like they’re desperate to date someone, anyone, probably the first person who shows some interest. I really think this attitude is detrimental to the possibility of finding the right spouse, and harmful to the person’s relationship with God.
2. Have a clear purpose when dating
This is one thing I’m really glad I did when I started dating my fiancee. I talked to her about why I wanted to date her, and I laid it all out. I wanted to discern marriage. Not that I wanted to rush anything (we’ve been dating for 4 years now), but I also wasn’t in it for no reason.
Even if you don’t have that talk right away like I did, you still need to keep that purpose clear, and communicate it. If you think about it, a dating relationship can only really be aimed at one of two ends: marriage or fornication. If it’s not aimed at one of those two, the relationship is probably an awesome thing that I like to call friendship. When you look at it like this is becomes pretty clear. We need to know where we’re heading. And a dating relationship that doesn’t have discernment as its primary goal has no place in the life of a Christian.
3. Commit to loving that person
Not just as long as you’re dating. Forever.
Blessed John Paul II said, “the person who does not decide to love forever will find it very difficult to really love for even one day.”
This simple sentence really revolutionized my view of dating. We are called to love, always and unconditionally. This is another place where the secular world loves to jump in and say it’s impossible to be friends with someone after a breakup. All I say to that is that with God all things are possible. When a relationship is about discernment, you have to accept going in that you may not be called to marry that person, but you can be certain you are called to love them! That will never change. Don’t be afraid of making that radical commitment.