Marriage…”When the Flame has Grown Cold”

By Jack Rigert

Over dinner, a friend and I were discussing an ecumenical workshop he had attended with mostly Protestant and Evangelical Ministers. What stood out to him above everything at the workshop were the number of Ministers who shared the loneliness they felt, especially in their marriages. Since he was the only Catholic priest at his table of seven or eight and the only one who was not married, his tablemates were interested in his life as a celibate priest. He told them that it was his fear of loneliness that concerned him the most when he first contemplated being a priest. Yet despite its many challenges, twenty plus years later he is still a priest, still living a celibate life and despite his initial fears still feeling fulfilled, happy and at peace.

His story reminded me of a similar experience that I had during a marriage retreat I presented at a nearby Parish. After the first session of the day, as I walked out to the coffee bar, a man came up alongside me, introduced himself as Joe, and asked if I had a minute to chat. I invited him to walk with me. He said he was attending the retreat with his wife and wondered if I thought that anything could be done to salvage their twenty-two year marriage which he described as hanging by a thread at best. He shared a few details and then added that their sex life was virtually non existent and that he felt angry, rejected and unhappy. In addition, the friction between them and their talk of divorce was having a negative effect on his relationship with their two boys, one in high school and one away at college. He came to the retreat as a last ditch effort and asked me what I thought.

I replied, “What do I think? Joe, I think that you need to retire”. He said, “Retire? I have so many bills, tuition payments”… I stopped him.

”No, Joe, you need to retire from thinking that any person or material thing in this world can make you infinitely happy, infinitely fulfilled. They were never supposed to and it’s unfair to try to ‘hang your coat on a hook’ that was not made to hold the weight. Let me ask you, Joe, if I spoke to your wife, would she tell me that you have fulfilled her every dream and desire?  Of course not.”

“So what’s the solution?” he asked. “Do we just settle for this downward spiral of unfulfilled desires or do we divorce, move on and try to find happiness with someone else before it’s too late?”

“Let me ask you a question, Joe. How did the flame of love that burned so brightly and held so much promise for you and your wife as newlyweds grow cold and turn into such a dislike for one another? And how does my friend, a Catholic priest, despite taking a vow of celibacy, still feel happy and fulfilled after twenty years?”

The answer often comes down to where one goes to fulfill the deepest most burning desires of the heart to love and be loved.

In the Gospels, Jesus answers a similar question posed to Him by the Pharisees (Matt 19:3-8)  “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?”

He answered, “Have you not read that he who made them from the beginning made them male and female,” and said, “for this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one? So they are no longer two but one. What therefore God has joined together, let no man put asunder.” They said to him, “why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce, and to put her away?”  He said to them, “for the hardness of your heart, Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so.”

Jesus takes us back to the beginning, right to Genesis. “In the beginning” before sin and before the fall, Adam and Eve understood that they were created as partners and co-creators with God. In their original state of holiness, they understood that God was the source of love.  God is love (1 John 4:8), and He bestowed to them this utterly gratuitous gift of Himself, his Grace, in a word Love, and they were filled. Created in the image and likeness of God and full of Divine life and love, they became a visible sign of Trinitarian love in the created world. When the two, Adam and Eve, offer themselves as a sincere gift to one another and become one body in marital union, being open to new life, they are joined by a third. Marriage from the beginning was intended to be a sign making visible the invisible, the Spiritual and the Divine Love of God and reflecting it back in a created way.  Made visible is God’s Inner life of love and His desire to be One with them in a Spiritual Marriage.

All men and women, born after the fall from Grace, find themselves in a world broken by sin. Yet all newlyweds carry an “echo” of that original flame in their hearts and are disappointed and frustrated when they are not fully satisfied. As Christopher West puts it, “the heart longs for something more than this life can offer.” The good news is that Christ came to restore what was lost.

“Joe, you asked earlier for the solution. It is to begin by aiming your infinite desires at the One who can fulfill them. Open ‘your flame, your desires’ to Jesus Christ, and He will purify and redeem them (Eph 3:17-19) and Christ will dwell in your heart… and you will know how wide, how long, how high, and how deep His love is…for you! Then, your flame of love reunites with the Flame of the Lord, God’s Flame of love for you. The Song of Songs, the Bible’s Love Poetry, describes this Flame of Love as a blazing fire. Deep Waters cannot quench it, nor can floods sweep it away, a love that even death cannot conquer.”

I continued, “We were always supposed to turn and open our deepest, most passionate desires for infinite happiness and infinite love to the one that placed them there in the first place… Joe, listen to your heart… you are being invited to open the desires of your heart and be filled at the Banquet… only then, filled with Divine Life and Love, can you turn and be a person of love to your wife, your boys and your neighbor. The two Great Commandments Christ gave us:  Love God, and then turn and love your neighbor.”

Father Carrón, a Spanish Priest and professor, describes it this way, “the woman, with her limitation, awakens in the man, who is also limited, a desire for fullness out of proportion with her capacity to answer it. She awakens a thirst that she is unable to quench, a hunger she is unable to satisfy. This is what gives rise to the anger and the violence that married couples so often experience, and the delusion they feel if they do not understand the true nature of their relationship….If husband and wife do not encounter what the sign is pointing to, the place where they can find the fulfillment of the promise that the other has aroused, then they are condemned to be consumed by a pretension from which they cannot free themselves, and their desire for the infinite, which no one like the person loved arouses, is condemned to remain unsatisfied.” (1)

The German poet, Rainer Maria Rilke, identified very keenly this drama in loving relationships, sensing that ending up in this spiral cannot be the only way out. This is the paradox of love between man and woman: two infinites meet two limitations, two infinite needs to be loved meet two fragile and limited capacities to love. Only in the ambit of a greater love (God’s Love for them) do they not consume themselves in pretension and not resign themselves, but walk together, each towards a fullness of which they are a sign.

If you do not love Christ, Beauty made flesh, more than the person you love, the latter relationship withers. Christ is the truth of this relationship, the fullness to which both partners point, and in whom their relationship is fulfilled. Only by letting him in is it possible for the most beautiful relationship that can happen in life not to be corrupted and die in time. This is the audacity of his claim.

By the end of the day, I saw a spark coming back to Joe’s eyes. I hope that with the proper perspective and a return to the Sacraments and Prayer the spark ignites a flame in his marriage once again.

  1. (Father Carrón is a Spanish priest and professor of theology at the University of Milan. [From Disarming Beauty: Essays on Faith, Truth, and Freedom. © 2017, University of Notre Dame Press, Notre Dame, IN.])