A Personal Reflection: The first step to discerning marriage is trusting God
By Brittany Holan, MA, LPC Intern
Discerning marriage is at times a daunting and often misunderstood task. There are countless books, blogs, articles and suggestions for discernment, and many of them are valuable tools. However, it can be overwhelming when trying to decide what resource we may need to begin the discernment process. And that is just what it is, a process that eludes most of the secular world and quite a few of us Catholics.
According to John Neafsey’s 2006 book "A Sacred Voice is Calling," the discernment process entails "listening for the voice of vocation," and learning to "interpret the complex crosscurrents of our inner experience," so that we can choose the path that God has chosen for us. There are many ways to go about discernment. What follows are a few basic guidelines to get one started down the path to discerning marriage.
Popular culture supports the ideas of "love at first sight" and "happily ever afters," which serve to perpetuate the assumption that marriage should provide unlimited, uncomplicated romantic love. As a result, this may cause some to go into marriage with lofty, and sometimes unrealistic, expectations. This can harm marriages in many ways, and set up a couple for failure if they think their partner can’t live up to the preconceived expectations made prior to their vows.
Thus, the first part of discerning marriage is giving up the rose-colored glasses and looking at what marriage really is. Marriage is a sacrament, a covenant designed by God that is "ordered to the good of the couple, as well as to the generation and education of children," (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1660). St. Paul also tells us in Ephesians 5:25-33 that marriage mirrors Christ and the church. And what did Christ do for the church? He gave up his life. He loved in a selfless way for the good of the other. Perhaps none of us can emulate the perfect love of Christ, but we are called to strive for that self-sacrificing type of love, the love that sees less "me" and more "us." There may be periods of difficulty and suffering in marriage, but if we go into it knowing its sacramentality, and trusting in God, we can embrace the cross with Christ and grow even more deeply in love with our beloved. Now that is a very different kind of happily-ever-after, but a message of pure love that Disney couldn’t begin to replicate.
The second part of discernment in marriage is falling in love, but before we fall in love with another person, we must first fall in love with God, our Eternal Bridegroom. "Nothing is more practical than finding God, than falling in Love in a quite absolute, final way ... Fall in Love, stay in love, and it will decide everything," wrote Jesuit Father Pedro Arrupe in "Finding God in All Things: A Marquette Prayer Book." For how can we discern God’s will if we aren’t close enough to him to recognize his voice or the ways in which he moves in our life? Spending one-on-one time with God not only strengthens our faith and resilience, it allows us to be more sensitive to the emotions, memories, interactions and other movements that he may use to guide us toward his will.
Falling in love with God is something we must choose and pursue every day. Getting to know him takes quality time and interest. Love whether felt first as a feeling, or pursued first as a decision, is a choice that we rededicate to again and again. Choosing to love God and grow in relationship with him, betters us, and prepares us for choosing our spouse every day after we profess our vows.
The third part of discerning marriage is approaching dating with openness, honesty and chaste intentions. For many of us, these can be difficult, but they are vital for healthy dating relationships that will allow for good communication, trust building and awareness. If there are things from our past that inhibit our ability to bring these things to a dating relationship, we must not fret. If we recognize that we need to work certain issues, then we need to seek a counselor, clergy member, trusted friend or spiritual director to help us.
Discernment isn’t always as simple and straightforward as a math formula. Discernment is a process that takes time, patience and flexibility. As we open ourselves to this process, we will learn what marriage is as a sacrament, we will grow in our personal relationship with God, and we will approach dating in a healthy way. The first step in the process is to trust in God and the rest will follow.
Brittany Holan is the Counseling Supervisor for the diocesan Office of Family Counseling and Family Life. She is a member of St. Louis Parish in Austin.