Politicians and religious leaders love to talk about the sanctity of marriage. What I have to say here is deeply personal, but at the same time I think it reflects directly on our common understanding of what those words mean, or ought to mean. As events keep reminding us, sanctity does not belong to marriage as an institution. Rather, it is something that can occur through the institution of marriage, but only with great effort and often with considerable suffering. If people have a trivial view of marriage that is not open to that suffering, the institution can be awfully unforgiving.
To be sanctified is to be made whole, which also means being touched by something greater than yourself. Marriage is a wonderful conduit for sanctification because, while it is undertaken in love, it often breaks us. People talk about broken marriages, but the truth is, it is marriage that breaks us, not the other way around.
It happens when things don’t go as you’d planned; when your beloved turns out to be someone different than the idealized partner you had created in your own mind. For some, this is the greatest challenge they will face, and it probably causes more divorces than any other. Sanctification is what comes when you begin to realize that living with that real person is worth the effort. It means you have to grow out at the edges so that your edges can continue to mesh. It means there will be bumping and shoving as you get settled into your new shapes. As the hymn that was sung at Barbara’s funeral goes:
If you find someone to share your time
and you join your hearts as one,
I'll be there to make your verses rhyme
from dusk 'till rising sun.
Yes, Lord, but the verses don’t always go smoothly, and the night is often dark. So much the better. Marriage sanctifies because it forces us to confront things in another person—and hence, ultimately, in ourselves—with which we’re uncomfortable; of which we’re afraid. It is these very things that must be explored if we are to grow spiritually: to outpace our limitations and become a soul whose scope and reach is the world at large.
When Barbara and I met, we instantly and instinctively bonded because we had both had to overcome things that most people in their early 30s never dream of dealing with. The symmetry of our life experiences drew us together in a way that far transcended the obvious differences between us. From the very beginning we treasured each other, and when you have treasured someone in that way, it is worth being broken repeatedly in order to remain what you have become for that person: a kindred spirit; a familiar patch in a foreign world; flesh of my flesh and soul of my soul.
When Barbara became sick, both of us suffered equally. This happened again and again. During the last two years, I watched her struggle with a torn rotator cuff and a pinched nerve in her left shoulder that caused her months of anguish, while at the same time she was getting bouts of truly intolerable pain from her trigeminal neuralgia. The two conditions did a dance of torment around each other, and I hope it doesn’t sound self-indulgent to say that the only thing worse than experiencing that yourself is watching it happen to somebody you love.
We both could have given up so many times. Instead, we let our marriage sanctify us. Apparently we did something pretty special, because I have received message after message from people who have been telling me how inspired they were by the two of us, and how much my testimony about our marriage has meant to them. We seem to have spoken in very broad terms to the world about the true, genuine sanctity of marriage. I’m proud of that. That’s why it distresses me so much to see this sacred turf being used for political football of the most cynical kind.
As I said earlier, my experiences are personal, and Barbara’s and my marriage was unique. I do know two things, though. Nobody who has experienced the sanctity of marriage as I have would ever dream of leaving their beloved when he or she becomes sick. Nobody who has experienced the sanctity of marriage as I have would ever dream of denying it to anybody else.