In my first post on this topic, I focused on the suffering-selfishness dichotomy and its effects on marriage and beauty. In this second part, I shift to a discussion of the purgative effects of suffering and why there cannot exist for long a “both…and” relationship between suffering and selfishness.
For the one caring for the suffering loved one and for the one suffering, there exists a dynamic of necessary self-forgetfulness and self-giving. If I had continued to focus only on the way Beth’s condition was affecting me, I never would have been able to enter into service to her, nor would I have been able to appreciate the beauty that she was radiating to everyone in her conformity to the image of Christ. I never would have seen it had I continued to stare at myself. Every minute spent feeding her and wiping her mouth as she spit it back out was one minute not focused on me or my own hunger. Every minute spent bathing her and dressing her became minutes not focused on my own selfish desires. This is what it means to be truly human, because if God as Trinity is a unity of persons totally, freely, and fruitfully opening up to each other, then we as images of this must do the same in order to actualize our full potential. For most people, the experience of suffering is probably the most effective means of reaching this actualization because suffering and caring for the suffering demands such a dynamic as mentioned above.
An advantage of the deepening of married love through suffering over sex is that suffering practically casts out any possibility of the using of one another for personal gain or pleasure. There is no pleasure in suffering, nor is there any apparent, personal gain. What’s left is the choice to give up or to take advantage of such an opportunity by allowing it to purify the relationship of any selfish motives. In fact, depending upon the type of suffering being endured, the very possibility of sex may be completely nil. This forces a couple to examine their marriage and their love for one another through the lens of sacrifice. Because of what Beth was going through, sex was simply not an option for about nine months, and during that time our love for one another grew exponentially. My complete concern for her and forgetfulness of myself could only be brought about through the suffering that we were enduring. Sex, I believe, had become a stumbling block for me due to selfishness until my motives were purified through the fire of suffering. It wasn’t until I learned to love her through the school of suffering that I realized how selfish I had become in the marriage act, and we weren’t even contracepting! The contraceptive mentality can take over even when one is not contracepting, because the mentality is ultimately a mentality of selfishness. “How much pleasure can I derive without having to recognize the value of the other?” It’s not about a pill or a condom. It’s about the refusal to give of oneself without reserve and without the expectation of pleasure. Suffering is very efficient at excluding any possibility of such a refusal. Eventually, my only concern was Beth, but even that took a while to happen. I had to be reminded by a very close friend of mine that this was not about me, and this is something of which I have to remind myself on a daily basis. When I think about the purifying effects that this suffering had on our marriage, I’m simply amazed. Our love for each other eventually began to transcend the fear of death that had become a dark specter always hovering over us.
Even our understanding of suffering was being purified during this time. While there wasn’t a moment and still isn’t a moment where we hope for a complete healing by God, we moved slowly from a deep fear of suffering and the unknown to the more solid foothold of trust in God’s Fatherhood and His faithfulness to His promises. But it still doesn’t come easily. The only possible way to attain this and hold on to it is through constant prayer -- prayers of submission and prayers of trust. Then and only then can one enter more fully into that dynamic of self-giving and self-forgetfulness with another.
There cannot be a dynamic of self-giving and self-forgetfulness within the context of suffering without there existing a corresponding deepening of the relationship in love. Even St. Paul sees the connection between conjugal unity of husband and wife and suffering. In fact, it seems that he suggests that the love between husband and wife is brought about through an experience of suffering in his letter to the Ephesians: “For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the Church, his body, and is himself its Savior…Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the Church and gave himself up for her.” Christ is Savior because of His sacrifice, because of His suffering. Christ loved the Church by giving Himself up for her. The bridegroom establishes unity with and life for the bride through suffering. Even as far back as the creation story in Genesis we can see these same elements at work, the elements of self-giving and self-forgetfulness as the means by which a marriage is established and sustained. In order for Adam to be brought into unity with his bride, he first had to open up, literally, in an act of self-giving. He opened up to give of himself in order to bring about new life, both the life of his bride Eve and the life of the marriage itself. But the opening up required self-forgetfulness, implied by the deep sleep into which he fell. He entered into an ecstasy characterized by self-giving, not self-concern and self-absorption. In this is priesthood. The priesthood of the husband is rooted in his call to sacrifice, but sacrifice is not the only aspect of priesthood. Ministering to his bride is as necessary as the sacrificial part of it.
Let us not become lax in praying for the men of today, that they will recognize the great calling that comes with masculinity. It is a calling to service that leads us out of ourselves and into a proper understanding of masculinity. We pray for this in the name of Jesus Christ, through the intercession of Pope John Paul II. Amen.