Thursday, November 11, 2010

Falling in love, and remaining in it (Reflections on Marriage and the Priesthood, on the 9th Wedding Anniversary of a Good Friend)

Have you ever noticed how radical the words of love songs can be? “Forever”, “always”, “never”, “you alone”, “no one else”, “for all eternity”. There are no “if’s”, “but’s”, or “maybe’s”; just a lot of certainty and single-minded focus on the person one loves.

That’s perfectly understandable, since falling in love is that way; no “if’s” or “but’s”, just an invincible certainty, not necessarily in one's head but in one's gut. The world changes when we fall in love. Things are more beautiful; life’s more interesting. We have more energy for things. And there’s a whole lot of excitement all around.

That’s what happens when a man falls in love with a woman, and a woman with a man. But that’s also what happens when a young man first chooses to follow Christ in the priesthood. Whether in marriage or the priesthood, the first step is always the same: a person falls in love and the whole world changes. There’s so much to live for, and enthusiasm for life is at an all-time high.

The disciples of Jesus experienced pretty much the same thing. They fell in love with his teachings and with the good things he was doing. And so they followed him around, sat at his feet, listened to his every word.

Like a man or woman in love or a young man who becomes a priest, Jesus’ disciples fell in love with his ways. And their world was changed. It was good and beautiful and exciting. And they liked it.

But “falling in love’s” just half the story. And beautiful as it might be, there’s the second and more important half: “staying in love”.

If “falling in love” is the first part of a relationship; “remaining in love” is the second. It’s longer, and without it, the first part just fizzles out. “Falling in love” just happens, “staying in love” needs work. “Falling in love” is grace. You don’t earn it. “Staying in love” is commitment. You take out as much as you put in. “Falling in love” is easy, “staying in love” is tough.

Because as any married couple or priest would know, when the honeymoon ends and the excitement subsides, the daily grind begins. And soon, the high’s and low’s of life take over and reality sinks in.

The disciples of Jesus do arrive at that point. The honeymoon stage of their relationship did come to an end, the excitement began to wane; and worse, Jesus entered a difficult stage in his ministry.

His words and actions were beginning to cause trouble. The Jewish leaders were no longer amused, and sooner or later things would get messy, not just for him, but for his friends as well.

For his disciples, reality had sunk in. The initial stage of being attracted to Jesus had ended. The early excitement was gone. Were they going to stick around and endanger themselves? Would they stay with him?

They didn’t. One by one, these men who found themselves drawn to Christ before, slowly abandoned him.

When that “thing” hits the fan—that’s when you know who your real friends are. When life’s no longer as bright and beautiful as on your wedding or ordination day, when the peaks have turned into valleys, and you’re still in love, that’s when you know your love is real.

But not everyone abandoned Christ. His real friends stayed. Among them was Peter who says: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of everlasting life.”

Peter and all the other disciples had one thing in common. They all fell in love with Christ. But while they all “fell in love”, Peter “remained in love”. While the others left, Peter stayed.

Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of everlasting life.” These were not the words of a fair-weather friend, but of a man who stuck to his commitments. He knew that while his initial attraction to Christ was important, sticking to him through thick and thin was even more. He simply knew his priorities.

The others left. Peter stayed. And he stayed not because he was stronger than they. He will after all, deny Jesus three times. He stayed not because he was holier than they. Jesus called him “Satan” at some point. He stayed not because he was, smarter, wealthier or more powerful than they. He was a lowly fisherman.

Peter stayed because his heart belonged to Christ, and Christ alone.

“Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of everlasting life.” They might as well be the radical words of a radical love song. They were the words of a man in whose heart Christ had sunk roots so deep, no “high” or “low” point of life could rip Christ out. Nothing could make him fall out of love.

And life can make us fall out of love. Life can complicate things. It can make us forget why we got married or ordained in the first place. Life’s up’s and down’s can dim our love. It can make us less enthusiastic, even cynical and jaded. A husband can fall out of love with his wife (and vice-versa), a priest can lose sight of why he chose to become a priest in the first place.

Life can make us less like Peter, and more like the disciples who left.

Peter stayed in love because he kept his eyes on Christ. He anchored his life on his reason for following Christ in the first place. And he kept that reason alive. To fall in love is great; to stay in love is greater.

Nine years of marriage is no small feat. In this day and age when love is seen more as a feeling than a promise of commitment, the challenge can be overwhelming. And becoming like the fair-weather disciples of Jesus is an ever-present danger.

But we don’t have to be like them. If we can keep our eyes on the essentials and less on the marginals, we will remain faithful to Christ.

And how do we distinguish the essential from the marginal? We have only to go back to Peter’s words:

“Lord, to whom shall I go? You have the words of everlasting life”.

When a husband and wife look into each other’s eyes and see only the person they fell in love with many years ago, they’ll know they’ve stayed in love. When a priest considers Christ and sees in him, the only reason for becoming a priest in the first place, he’ll know he’s stayed in love.

Nine years ago, a very good friend of mine, a fellow thinker and kindred soul, fell in love and followed his heart. Nine years into his marriage with his beautiful wife, and they have remained steadfast in that love. May it continue to sustain you my friend, your beautiful wife and kids, and your ministry of teaching and service to God’s people, for many more years to come.

“Lord, to whom shall I go? You have the words of everlasting life”.

"The Kingdom of Heaven is a condition of the heart." (Friedrich Nietzsche)