The Bond Until Death, by Venerable Fulton Sheen, 12 February 1933

1952 photograph of Venerable Fulton John Sheen produced as promotional material for the television show 'Life is Worth Living'The birth to the higher life of God is achieved only by discipline. Individual discipline at its highest peak is the religious life. Social discipline in its most general form is matrimony – though there are few who think of it as such. It is a discipline because it demands of both husband and wife loyalty, fidelity and sacrifice, through sickness and health, joy and sorrow, poverty and affluence until death do them part. Everyone knows that the Church takes most seriously the words of Our Blessed Lord, ”What therefore God hath joined together, let no man put asunder but there are few who know why she is so insistent on the sanctity of the marriage bond. She has two reasons for such emphasis – one drawn from the natural order and the other from the supernatural order.

In the natural order, love is permanent and abiding. In the language of love there are only two thoughts: you alone, and always. In the hieroglyphics of love there is only one symbol: two hearts cut and interlocked in something stable and perma- nent, like an oak tree. In the history of love there is but one supreme devotion: the love of offspring. It is a well-known observable fact that higher animals require a much longer parental care than lower animals: the lower animals may therefore desert their offspring immediately after birth. But with a human father and mother, the situation is quite different. The child has to be cared for not only physically, but mentally as well. The more things there are for the child to learn, the longer the child must remain at the natural school for learning them, and the longer his teachers must postpone the dissolution of their partnership.

In vain does one say that the function of teaching can be fulfilled adequately by the state, for the state cannot be the nurse in every nursery, nor the government the governess in every playroom. There is only one place where the human tradition can be developed, and that is the home: there are only two persons who can love those whom the state does not tliink worth loving, and they are the father and mother. The moment we realize the child can attain the full development of heart and mind and soul only through the ministrations of those who love like parents, and not through those who only superintend like the state, the more we see why the relation between the sexes must remain normally static and permanent.

Even when the education of the child has been completed and it grows into its own separate life, there develops in it a high sense of honor toward those who brought it into being. Every reasonable man and woman realizes how much they cost their parents in terms of care and sacrifice. Some, perhaps, never realize this completely until they themselves have children. But in varying degrees all feel the need of “going back home” to pay loving tribute to a kind father and loving mother. The parents, too, in their old age, look to their children whom the mother nourished with her substance, and the father with his labor, and whose successive birthdays mark not only the milestones of years, but the increase of love for their own flesh and blood. Thus the sense of honor in children which makes them conscious of the debt of love to their parents, and the need of sympathy in parents which makes them crave the tribute of their children’s affection, equally suggest that only a union that death alone can break can fully respond to the needs of the human heart.

Such is the natural reason for the prominence of marriage. In the supernatural order the Church, after the manner of Our Blessed Lord, takes hold of this permanent character of love in the order of nature, and elevates the promise “I do” to the dignity of a Sacrament. The love which is always expressing itself in terms of the eternal, and articulating itself in such phrases as “till the sands of the desert grow cold,” the Church seizes and refines by finding a symbol of love more abiding still than even the sands of the desert. She goes to the most personal, permanent and unbreakable union of love the world has ever known, namely, the love of Christ for human nature, and during the solemnity of the Nuptial Mass reminds the young couple that they are to love one another with the same indissoluble love with which Our Blessed Lord loved the human nature which He took from the womb of the Blessed Mother. That love which desires to express itself in terms of the permanent the Church models on the great prototype of the marriage of God and man in the Incarnation of Our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ. When God veiled the awful terror of His glory, descended into the fiesh-girt Paradise of Mary, and assumed human nature, He assumed it not for an earthly life stretching from crib to cross, but permanently and eternally through the risen life of Easter Sunday and the glorious ascension to the right hand of the Father.

Now, since Christian marriage of flesh and flesh is modeled upon the permanent marriage of God and man, the Church says that it, too, must take on for life the character of permanence and indissolubility. As the womb of the Blessed Mother was the anvil of flesh upon which the Divine and human nature of Christ were united under the Pentecostal flame of the Holy Spirit in the unity of the Person, so too the nuptial altar becomes the new anvil whereon two loving hearts are fused and joined by a flame of the Sacramental Spirit in the unity of the flesh. Certainly this ideal of permanence is alone enough to transmute mere physical desire into something nobler than a Freudian urge, elevate the permanency which natural love demands into an indissoluble bond which Divine Love solicits, and thrill young hearts to speak the words of Tobias: “For we are the children of saints, and we must not be joined together like heathens that know not God.”

Having reminded the young couple that their unity is modeled upon the inseparable union of God and man, the Church goes on to inquire what guarantees they will give that their love will be as permanent as their model, Jesus Christ. They may answer, “We will give our word.” But the Church responds, “Nations have broken their word, human lovers have broken their vows before. Can you not give a better bond than this, that your love for one another will endure until death?” Then there comes from them the answer which the Church demands from every loving pair at its altar: “We Will give the bond of our eternal salvation. We will seal it with our belief that the promise we make to one another is a promise made to God, Himself, and if we are disloyal one to another, we shall forfeit the most precious thing in all the world, namely, our immortal souls.” When this bail of eternal salvation has been given, the Church seals it, not with a paper seal, but with the red seal of the precious Body and Blood of Our Lord and Saviour in the Communion of the Nuptial Mass. With their love thus bonded at the foot of the Cross, and the bail of their eternal salvation given in guarantee that in sickness and in health, in riches and poverty they will love until death, the Church pronounces them man and wife. As the priest sees them turn from the altar, united soul with soul and sealed with the blood of Christ, ere yet they are united body with body, he cannot help but think that such human love at such a peak is God on a pilgrimage to earth. They, too, realize as they go into their common life that it is not love which makes them marry, but consent. Love makes them want to marry, but it is their vow one to another, sealed with a seal of their eternal salvation, which makes them man and wife.

In the eyes of the Church, therefore, marriage is a permanent union patterned upon the abiding love of Christ for His Church, and not a terminable pact of selfish passion which endures only as long as the passion endures. By upholding such an ideal, by asking such a guarantee, and by teaching the sacredness of a vow, the Church makes marriage serious. It practically tells the young couple the same thing the sign over the cashier’s desk tells the customer: “Count your change. No mistakes rectified after leaving the window.” No one in all the world loves lovers as much as the Church – but only the lovers who mean what they say. Hence, the Church refuses to permit anyone to loosen the bond which has kept millions normal, and therefore will not allow any man or woman, who gets himself or herself into a hole, to burrow like a mole and under-mine the whole mountain of society. She believes that if people cannot mind their own business, which is the business of loyalty, then she will not free them to mind someone else’s business, or some-one else’s babies. To her the hilarity associated with divorce is like the hilarity of grave diggers in a city swept by pestilence; she is opposed to divorce not because she is unmodern but because marriage makes people two in one flesh, and they can no more be severed during the incarnate life of tKeir mutual love than a head can be severed from a body. She knows full well that if a man will not be a patriot in his own country he will not be a patriot in another; and that if he will not continue to love the first woman whom he has chosen above all women in the world, then he must be suspected of telling the second the same vain promises. She asserts against the world that no rascal shall be regarded as respectful at that moment when he breaks from a loving wife and chooses another woman. She is willing to permit a woman to be released from a drunken husband, but she says that the woman must be content with that release, be satisfied with that experience, and not seek another while he lives. In other words, the Church will assent to a separation • of man and woman when conditions become intolerable. She believes in a release of this kind, but not when release is spelled with a hyphen.

There is a word that means little to nations that repudiate their bonds; there is a word that means nothing to men and women who repudiate their vows; but that same word means everything to those who unite themselves in a bond under Our Blessed Lord Who came to be the truth of the world, and that is the word: ”Honor.” To those who still believe in it, each day brings not the burden of a forced union but the accord of heart and heart, and soul and soul. Just as two pieces of iron are fused into one by flame and fire, so too are the minds and hearts of husband and wife fused into one by the purging of mutual sacrifice and tribulation which brings them unto God. Succeeding years find them not as two hearts with tangled and toneless strings, but an instrument so delicately attuned that love’s skillful fingers need but brush over them to bring out their hidden beauties. The new vision of the flame of love comes to them, because they were faithful to its spark, and they see that

“Not in marriage is the fulfillment of love, though its earthly and temporal fulfillment may be therein; for how can love, which is the desire of soul for soul, attain satisfaction in the conjunction of body with body? Poor indeed, if this were all the promise which love unfolded to us – the encountering light of two flames from within their close-shut lanterns. Therefore, sings Dante, and sing all noble poets after him, that love in this world is a pilgrim and a wanderer, journeying to the New Jerusalem; not here is the consummation of its yearnings, in that mere knocking at the gates of union which we christen marriage, but beyond the pillars of death and the corridors of the grave, in the union of spirit to spirit within the containing Spirit of God.” – Francis Thompson