The most terrifying aspect of living out Catholic sexuality is that it requires us to unflinchingly kill an entire world of potentials. In this world of dreamers, it can be very difficult to commit oneself to a given way of life simply because it entails giving up all other ways of life. It can be very difficult to reduce the world of potentialities to a single actuality, even if it seems that this is what you are called to do.
While I was discerning married life during my junior year in college, this was actually a significant source of anxiety for me. I loved the man who would become my husband, but I was worried that I was choosing the wrong vocation. I was also worried that I was “selling myself short.” Rather than going on to obtain a master’s degree or spend a year doing missionary work overseas, I was leaving school to get married. If my mother’s fertility was a reliable indication ( I have eight younger siblings), I was going to have babies–LOTS of babies.
A vision of life as a stay-at-home mother waist deep in dirty diapers and confinement floated before me–a woman never able to achieve anything big. I loved my fiancé and looked forward to spending my life with him, but I was afraid of the sacrifices. I was afraid of the certainty that this is what I was going to be doing with my life. I wanted to make something beautiful of my life. Though I knew intellectually that marrying young was what God was calling me to, and that the life of a wife and mother is something momentous and beautiful, emotionally it felt almost like entering a prison.
This fear that I felt is part of the reason that the secular vision of sexuality, in which co-habitation and voluntary sterility are the norm, is so seducing. You are not tied down. If the ‘job of your dreams’ or ‘an amazing opportunity’ comes up, you can take it. You practically have a responsibility to take it. After all, you are a free, independent person! No one, not even your “romantic partner” has a right to impede that. The reasons that people choose to forgo the bonds of marriage are varied of course, but it would be naïve to say that this reason is not one of the more enticing ones.
What the Catholic Church asks of the faithful is to commit, to “forsake all others”; forsake all other people in the case of the vocation of marriage, but also of all other opportunities, loves, and dreams, and to commit oneself totally to one way of loving God and serving Him and His people. Even when the commitment taken on in love and hope turns into a heavy cross, we are still called to be true to it.
St. John Paul II beautifully illustrated this truth (and the fear of it) in his play The Jeweler’s Shop. Anna, a woman trapped in a loveless marriage to a man named Stefan, is told “soon the bridegroom will pass by.” She sees a man identified to her as the bridegroom. She walks towards him, “But when he lifted his face, I nearly gave a shout. It seemed to me I clearly saw Stefan’s face.”
Adam, the man who had indicated that Stefan was the bridegroom asks her, “Are you really afraid of love?” She answers, “Yes, I am afraid…I am afraid of that face.”
Love can be terrifying when it takes the form of undying commitment to something that is not glamorous, comfortable, or comforting. In walking the way of love, we take up the cross. Yet it is in being faithful to this very commitment that we can make something beautiful. This call to commitment, to love, is a call to come closer to God and to draw others close to Him as well. If Mother Theresa had not made her entire life obedient to the restrictive vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, she would not have had the freedom to minister to all that she did.If Zelie Martin had not bound herself to another in marriage, the Church would be without one of her greatest saints.
It is, ironically, by binding oneself to a certain way of life that one is loosed to make that way of life his or her own, to build it into something truly awe inspiring. As blogger Simcha Fisher put it, “The Catholic Church’s teaching on the marital vocation is like the Tardis. It looks small and confining from outside of it, but it’s bigger on the inside.” The commitment of your vocation ultimately gives you a foundation from which to build, rather than being a cage to hold you in.
Ironically, it is in the assertion that one should live his life without commitment that real tyranny can be found. If a person never commits to anything seriously, then they will never achieve anything serious. An Olympic swimmer has no time for learning piano. He can be either a champion swimmer or a concert pianist; he cannot be both at the same time. Similarly, a young woman can be either a postulant in a religious order or be engaged to be married. Both are good, and a period of prayerfully discerning between them is necessary, but eventually she will have to choose one or the other.
As difficult as it is can be to commit, it is absolutely essential in order to obtain holiness. Be either hot or cold, not lukewarm, lest you be spit out (Revelation 3:15). A person forever in a state of limbo, never making a commitment to anything great, will never achieve anything great. (In the single life, this commitment is to living out a chaste life. The sacrifice necessitated in giving up opportunities is absolutely the same.)
I am now a married woman with a four-month-old baby and a house to manage. While there is perhaps no evident greatness in my life to someone looking in from the outside, I am fully committed to the process of building my family. There are still some days in which I wonder what impact I could have made had I chosen a different path. What if I had taken a year off and did mission work? What if I had spent some time discerning with a religious order? I wonder, but I am committed to the path that I am on. It certainly is not glamorous (though it is an adventure), yet it is substantial and meaningful. There is now a new purpose to my life. Two souls are now at least partially dependent on me, a greater responsibility than I have ever been entrusted with before.
Every great enterprise starts with humble beginnings. In my vocation as a wife and mother, I hope to build something that stretches to heaven.