In this day and age, the understanding of what marriage really is is getting blurred into meaninglessness. It seems that most people don't get married at all these days, they have a wedding instead. What I mean is that these folk simply invest all their resources into a single day rather than into a lifetime commitment. I find it interesting that the very people who rail against the marriage of homosexuals often remain completely silent on the question of divorce. Yet, the reasons why two people of the same sex cannot receive the sacrament of marriage are almost parallel to why a valid sacrament cannot be dissolved. The fact is that marriage as a sacrament constitutes an indissoluble heterosexual bond between two people. People who complain about the violation of one aspect of this definition often forget the other aspect. Of course, if one rejects the idea of marriage as a sacrament and asserts that it exists as a merely legal entity, then the point is moot.
It is easy then for us to regard marriage as just a legal mechanism protecting assets of the couple and ensuring the sharing of state benefits and therefore just a matter of legal paperwork to dissolve when necessary. It seems that if one can splash out on a wonderful wedding day, one can also splash out on the divorce settlement later.
No wonder then that St Paul writes in his first letter to the Corinthian Church
But I would have you without carefulness. He that is unmarried careth for the things that belong to the Lord, how he may please the Lord: But he that is married careth for the things that are of the world, how he may please his wife. (I Cor vii.32-33)For St Paul it seems better not to marry in order to devote oneself properly to the service of God on the grounds that the focus of one's attention becomes the spouse rather than God. This has, of course, led many people to regard celibacy as a better state than marriage, and further to limit the clergy to a life of celibacy on the grounds that their lives will be preoccupied by their families.
It is interesting, then, that the profession of a Religious is not a true sacrament. To join a monastery one takes vows before God. You can still hear the idea that a nun is married to Christ and a priest to the Church. If that is true, then the vows would surely have some sacramental quality. Yet, reading the Rule of St Benedict, it is possible (though thoroughly discouraged as inimical to the spirit of the Rule) for one to leave the community and then, presumably, to marry. Likewise, the ordination of a priest does not contain in itself a commitment to celibacy. This is a point of Canon Law and enforced practice, not part of the sacrament itself. In recognising a calling as a priest, one is binding oneself by the laws of one's jurisdiction.
This lack of sacrament does seem to suggest that Marriage possesses a spiritual status that is not possessed by vows of celibacy.
Does this contradict St Paul?
Well, no. It looks like St Paul is issuing a sweeping generalization about married people, that it isn't possible for someone to be married and serve God fully. If he meant that, then he would contradict the blessing and sanctification of marriage made by Our Lord and thus giving marriage its sacramental character. Yet, St Paul is not making a generalization to tell folk not to marry, he is issuing a challenge to those who want to marry. When we marry, we are to do so for God's sake. God must be at the very heart of the marriage. That way He can make possible that which for human beings is impossible. He can give grace to a couple so that they can live together in love and harmony even when that love and harmony is tested by the events of living.
Marriage is just as binding if not more so than monastic vows. Just as with monastic vows, we seek actively to burn bridges, to commit wholeheartedly and without qualification. Just as the Religious takes monastic vows with the utmost gravity, we should also be taking our marriage vows with a greater gravity knowing that we hold in our hands, not just the hands of the beloved, but also the Hand of God making that indissoluble union.
Our wedding day should not happen at the expense of our marriage. Of course it should be an occasion of great joy together with great gravity. However, our marriage must also involve a sincere striving to approach God together for it to be of any true benefit, not just to us the couple, but also to the Church herself.