Marriage and religious life are often put on pedestals by folks on the outside looking in. Word on Fire contributor Fr. Damian Ference discusses the tendency to romanticize what we don't have, and highlights the need to accept the cross in both vocations.
Although it’s not nearly as bad as it used to be, I still have this bad habit—I romanticize the vocation of marriage. And this is an easy thing to do for a celibate, or for one who is seriously discerning a celibate vocation.
I entered the seminary right out of high school, and I spent the next nine years studying for the priesthood until I was ordained back in 2003. The more time I spent in formation, the more I was convinced that I was being called to the priesthood, and of course, to the celibate life. But, when hard times came—when seminary living felt cold, when the school work piled up, when my dad lost his vision from macular degeneration, when my mom was dying of cancer, when planes flew into buildings in New York City and Washington D.C., when I just felt lonely—I often thought about being married. And my thoughts of marriage tended to be a bit idealized.
My airbrushed version of marriage looked something like this: I thought of how nice it would be to be wrapped up in my imaginary wife’s arms, being protected from the rough and cold world outside. I thought about how great it would be to live with a best friend, and the possibility of creating new life together. I thought about growing old with a woman who promised to love me unconditionally all the days of her life. And then I would sigh and feel sorry for myself.
I remember sitting in my pastor’s office the summer before ordination and telling him about some
of my fears and concerns. Of course, one of those concerns was celibacy and this nagging thought that I would be missing one of life’s greatest joys. (I should mention that I had all the head-knowledge of the beautiful gift of celibacy, but it had not made its way down to my heart at this point.) I told Fr. Carlin about all those glorious daydreams I had about marriage and about how much I would be giving up. Basically I was looking for some pity, some commiseration. I wasn’t going to get it. Instead, Fr. Carlin looked at me and said, “Kid, the grass is brown on both sides.”
I’ve been unpacking that line for the last ten years of my life. The grass is brown on both sides. In other words, whatever vocation you are called to, the cross is there. A vocation by its very nature is an invitation to the Paschal Mystery—the dying and rising of Christ.
My terrible habit was to compare the Good Friday of celibate priesthood to the Easter Sunday of marriage. I would think of all the hard things priests had to do and all the sufferings that came with the vocation of holy orders, and then compare that to the most beautiful and wonderful blessings of sacramental marriage. And from my warped perspective, marriage seemed a lot easier.
It’s always easier when things are black and white, one or the other. But the truth of the priesthood and of married life is that both vocations have terrible sufferings and unimaginable blessings. Both vocations allow those who answer them to enter into the dying and rising of Jesus Christ. My real problem was that I really didn’t want to die. I was afraid. And I’m not the only one.
Over the years I have had married men tell me that they envy my life as a priest and think that I’ve got it made. I’ve had married women tell me that they often wish that they had the simple life of a cloistered nun, spending their day in quiet contemplation rather than living as a busy wife and mother in the world. It’s an easy trap to fall into. When you are suffering, you want to get out. You want the pain to cease and you want your heart to stop hurting. And there is a very serious temptation to run. The truth of the matter is that in this fallen world suffering cannot be avoided—but it can be redemptive.
Through his Paschal Mystery, Jesus opened the door to salvation. But it’s really important to keep in mind that the door to salvation is the cross. When a man is ordained a priest, he is called to die to himself. When a man and a woman enter the sacrament of marriage they are called to die to themselves and lay their lives down for each other. It is only in this dying—this complete gift of self—that one is able to rise. Of course, this is at the very heart of our faith. Jesus willingly suffered and died in order to save us from death.
And his resurrection means that suffering and death do not have the final say—his resurrection is our resurrection, too. If we see our suffering not just as some random occurrence, but truly as a participation in the suffering and death of Jesus Christ, then so too will his resurrection be our resurrection, and not just something that happened 2,000 years ago. In other words, as a Church we don’t proclaim that He has Risen—we say He Is Risen!
The vocation of priesthood, like the vocation of marriage, is a call to dying and rising, and it’s not a one-time thing. It’s a lifetime thing. And as much as it is true that that grass is brown on both sides, it’s also true that the grass is green on both sides, too.
Rev. Damian J. Ference is a priest of the Diocese of Cleveland. He is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy and a member of the formation faculty at Borromeo Seminary in Wickliffe, Ohio.