Now that you’ve loved
it’s the end of your love and the
start of your loving career.
You’ll not love another;
you’ve gone from your mother for real!
Stand to me now and make
sense of the things that you feel.
I was asked to preside at a wedding this past weekend. I always think that it’s kind of funny in the Catholic tradition that a celibate man stands up in front of a young couple about to be married and gives them advice. As if! But as I was thinking about what to say, I occurred to me that there were a few lessons that I had learned from the monastic life that could apply to the married life, so short of advice I thought I could share some things I’ve learned from experience.
The first one is the main vow we monks take. It’s called conversatio morum. Literally it translates something like “conversion of ways.” Thomas Merton called it the “vow of conversation,” and I think it applies well to the married state, too. What it means is that we are always in conversation with our vocation, we are always asking our state in life, what should a monk do? what should a husband do? what should a mother do? But for a married couple I guess it always means that there is a vow of conversation between them as well; from now on out they are not making decisions just for themselves, but for their partner and eventually for their children, their family.
When I made solemn vows I picked the gospel reading from Matthew chapter 13 about the man who found the treasure buried in the field. But he didn’t just grab the treasure and run––he bought the whole field! For me that whole field is not just walking around in white robes or chanting the psalms or sitting in meditation. It means whatever is going on with my monastic community and congregation, as well as lots of personal ramifications of the choice of lifestyle that I have made. And for the married couple the “whole field” I guess means all that they each bring to the relationship, each of their families, each of their background, each of their career choices, and whatever the future holds. It’s like two ecosystems meeting; sometimes it could lead to an environmental disaster! It’s like two weather systems meeting; sometimes it feels like a perfect storm! Their love for each other is the treasure buried in the field, but they find out that they have to buy the whole field. It can come as a shock along the way when each of them starts to realize what that whole field entails, but that treasure buried in the middle of it somehow makes the whole field holy.
Another one of my favorite images of monasticism is what our former prior general Emanuele said to me once. I was speaking to him about monasticism as a container (this is part of a longer story, but I’ll spare you…) and he said to me, “But, Cyprian, monasticism isn’t a container; it’s an energy.” I disagree a little bit with that––I think it’s both a container and an energy––but still his point is important, and the same applies to marriage. Marriage can feel like a container, “settling down,” and to some extent that is true. But, first of all, the couples’ love for each other is the energy inside that container. Maybe the word “container” isn’t the best even; marriage holds the energy and focuses the energy, but it’s not supposed to suppress the energy. It’s important that that energy be always cared for and nourished. We use the word “procreative” for married love; that word means even more than having children. Love is creative, love gives birth to other things. That’s just what love does. It gives birth to community, to art and beauty, to justice and peace.
The last lesson is something I heard just the other day from an 86 year-old monk. We were talking about how it is so hard for young people to commit to monastic life, and I thought that this could apply again to any vocation, including especially the married life. He said that the problem with young and old is that they think of a vocation as an end. But really what we commit to is a journey. Our vows are the beginning of a journey, and we have no idea where the journey is going to take us! It’s a marvelous unfolding frightening mystery. And that somehow ties in to the other three already mentioned. It is the energy of our vocation that takes and sustains us on that journey. And on that journey we vow to stay in conversation and constantly convert ourselves. In that journey we discover the rest of the field that we have bought along with the treasure that we found buried in it.
There’s a reason that a couple gets married in front of a bunch of people, partly because all those people gathered there are a part of that whole field! And also because those people are there to remind the couple, when and if things get tough, that they have committed to the whole field, to remind them that this is a journey they are on and to which they have committed themselves.
I have found that the energy of my monastic life has led me to live my life in a way I never would have imagined 20 years ago. It’s been an amazing journey, especially these past ten years up in Santa Cruz and on the road. And the same with the young families that I have been lucky enough to be surrounded with these years; they have taught me so much as I watched them wade through the surprises, disappointments and even great tragedies in their lives; as well as I have watched older couples walk beside them, sometimes just being gently present and supportive, at other times really holding their feet to the fire, reminding them of the commitment that they made to the whole field, to the journey, just as my elder brothers and sisters in religious life have both encouraged me and challenged me to stay with it.
I especially wish Danny and Katy happiness, courage and prosperity in the years ahead, as well as Claire and Nick, married just two weeks ago. And I am feeling enormous gratitude for all the young couples and their beautiful babies who have surrounded me these years with their joy and life and courage and hope for the world.