Self-Mastery and the Vocation of Marriage

SpaceballsRecently, 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.


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Posted on January 27, 2014, in Catholic. Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. To be honest I find the waiting to find the right person to be hell and it is extremely hard for me to trust God. I read things like this and know they are right, but when I see secular people living happy lives with no regard for sexual morality I want to join them and wonder if all my sacrifice is for naught. Please pray for me.

    • Trust me, I know that temptation very well. There have been many times in my life I felt the same.

      It’s important to remember that the supposed happiness that comes from that lifestyle is at best skin-deep. The pursuit of physical pleasure as the ultimate good is always going to result in the briefest of joys followed by despair.

      Peter Kreeft often quotes this amazing poem from W. H Auden:

      “Faces along the bar
      Cling to their average day:
      The lights must never go out,
      The music must always play,
      All the conventions conspire
      To make this fort assume
      The furniture of home;
      Lest we should see where we are,
      Lost in a haunted wood,
      Children afraid of the night
      Who have never been happy or good.”

      This is what that “happy” life is like. Compared to the joy of loving God, it is less than nothing.

      I’m praying for you.

      • Thanks. My problem is that I never realy feel joy. I often feel lonely and extremely isolated because being Catholic means that I have to do what is right and many people I encounter are hostile to the teachings of the Church. I have the cross of loniless, but I can’t bear it with a smile if that makes sense. Thanks once agaon.

    • I very rarely comment on the internet, but I would like to share with you my situation, which is quite similar as yours, but with one aggravating factor.
      Since some time ago I lived a life like almost every young modern man you see out there – going out with girls, drinking, “having fun” and so on. Sadly, I went to bed with four girls in 8 years. After every sexual act I had I felt extremely guilty, a striking sense of “I’m doing something wrong here”, and quite often, because of that, my performance was poor. Still I kept dating girls because I enjoyed their company, and because I became addicted to “dating emotions”, even the ones that brought me down.
      Nowadays I firmly subscribe to the notion that if you do not act deliberately against your own emotions, that is, if you do not have self-mastery, you soon will become a slave to yourself. And that is what happened to me for such a long time – I was enslaved by my feelings; so much so that my last relationship ended up after I cheated on my ex-gf with another girl just to feel the emotions I wasn’t feeling anymore.
      Thankfully I friend of mine introduced me to the Catholic teachings some years ago and slowly I have been realising that the reason why I was suffering after every sexual act out of marriage was simply because it was inherently wrong. God made us in a way that if we don’t live as He meant we will fall every time we contradict Him. People say that following Religion is giving away your free will, but in reality it is the contrary – it is an act of free will to follow His teachings and live a truly happier, straight and peaceful life.
      That is why I am sharing my story with you – since the end of my last relationship I decided to throw away my life full of lust and go back to square one again, but this time following God’s will, which means that I shall not fornicate, not look or think of women with lust, not let me slip into the same sins again and again.
      I know how hard it is, especially because I did this so many times. I know I feel the same as you do right now – nobody to talk, nobody with the same interests… I know someday I will try to persuade myself to loosen myself a little bit, but I will always remember what I did in the past, and how destructive it was for me psychologically. I must be strong and trust that the right women will turn up at the right time, if that is what He wants for me. I will only be prepared, though, when I overcome my inner shame of having done what I did and not being pure for someone in the future. I hope God will forgive my sins and I hope he gives me strength to forgive myself.
      In the past someone could see me, from outside, living a “good” life, dating nice girls, going out a bunch of times during the week, laughing, etc., but in reality things were vary bad from within and the cause is exactly what is sold as correct by the current Western culture. So, my friend, keep focused on your waiting. It is not easy but it will definitely pay off in the future. If you are feeling lonely and willing to talk to someone that is at the same page as yours, please have my email theproductor at gmail dot com.

    • I completely understand how you feel! Your sacrifice is not for naught! The people who look happy being sexually immoral are actually feeling not only sad, but in pain, and they don’t even realise it. I know because I went through all that and felt sick and broken then, but still kept on going, like ABDM. I still feel horrible thinking back – wishing I could erase it. I repented by the grace of God and Our Lady’s intercession. I fell a few more times, but kept going to confession, till I finally came clean for good. After that, I was able to enjoy my dates much more. I can tell looking at any dating couple whether they have already had sexual intimacy. Their eyes are sad or empty, even if they laugh and smile. I had a lovely (clean) courtship with my husband. My wedding day and night were beautiful and moving; you could almost touch God. I have been to weddings where they were already living together, and you can see that it is not the same at all. It was as if they were just going through the motions and seemed joyless, impatient with each other. I am now very happily married with beautiful kids. I spend my life doing what I can to make my husband happy. It is worthwhile waiting!
      By your daily patience and waiting, you are already loving the person whom God has in mind for you. By your daily self-denial, you are already giving your whole heart to the one with whom you will love forever. All this ‘hellish waiting’ is preparation to make you the type of spouse that is fit for the one you are to marry. Your self-mastery will pay-off; you are also being prepared for the many temptations that will come your way throughout married life. How happy you will be on your wedding day! I will pray for you.

  2. If you feel very lonely, maybe you haven’t found the right company. There are Catholics around who are fun, wholesome, interesting. Take a look at this video clip:

    Why don’t you start a Christian social club for based on your interests, stipulating that it is for singles of your desired age range – music, books or whatever your are keen on. It might even be as simple as having a group that meets to have dinner regularly, sometimes with a movie.

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