Instructions for Married People

June 13, 2021 • 16 min

From Introduction to the Devout Life, page 204

This is part of an Anthology of the Saints on Friendship, Love, and Marriage.

Chapter XXXVIII.

Instructions for Married People.

“Matrimony is a great sacrament, but I speak in Christ, and in the Church.” (Eph. v. 32). It is honourable to all, in all, and through all: that is, in all its parts to all; because even virgins ought to honour it with humility; in all, because it is equally holy in the rich and poor; through all, because its origin, its end, its advantages, its form, and its matter, are all holy. It is the nursery of Christianity, that supplies the earth with fruitful souls, to complete the number of the elect in heaven; in a word, the conservation of marriage is of the last importance to the commonwealth, for it is the origin and source of all its streams.

Above all things, I exhort married people to that mutual love which the Holy Ghost so much recommends in the Scriptures. Oh, you that are married, it is unnecessary to tell you to love each other with a mutual love, like turtle doves; nor to say, love one another with a human love like heathens; but I say to you, after the great Apostle: “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ has loved his Church. And you, wives, love your husbands, as the Church loveth her Saviour.” (Eph. v.) It was God that brought Eve to our first father Adam, and gave her to him as his wife; it is also God, O my friends, who with his invisible hand, has tied the knot of the holy bond of your marriage, and given you to one another; why do you not then cherish each other with a holy, sacred, and divine love?

The first effect of this love is an indissoluble union of your hearts. Two pieces of fir glued together, if the glue be good, cleave so fast one to the other, that you may sooner break the piece in any other place than that wherein they are joined. But God joins the husband to the wife with his own blood; for which cause this union is so strong that the soul must sooner separate from the body of the one or the other than the husband from the wife. Now this union is not understood principally of the body, but of the heart, and of the affections.

The second effect of this love ought to be the inviolable fidelity of the one to the other party. Seals were anciently graven upon rings worn on the fingers, as the Holy Scripture itself testifies. Behold, then, the mystery of this ceremony in marriage. The Church, which by the hand of the priest, blesses a ring, and giving it first to the man, testifies that she puts a seal upon his heart by this sacrament, to the end that henceforward neither the name nor the love of any other woman may enter therein so long as she shall live, who has been given to him; afterwards the bridegroom puts the ring on the hand of the bride that she reciprocally may understand that her heart must never admit an affection for any other man, so long as he shall live upon earth, whom our Lord here gives to her as a husband.

The third fruit of marriage is the lawful production and education of children. It is a great honour to you that are married, that God, designing to multiply souls, which may bless and praise Him to all eternity, makes you co-operate with Him in so noble a work, by the production of the bodies into which He infuses immortal souls, like heavenly drops, as He creates them.

Preserve, then, O husbands, a tender, constant, and heartfelt love for your wives; for the woman was taken from that side of the first man which was nearest to his heart, to the end she might be loved tenderly by him. The weaknesses and infirmities of your wives, whether in body or mind, ought never to provoke you to any kind of disdain, but rather to a sweet and an affectionate compassion; since God has created them such, to the end that, depending upon you, you should receive from them more honour and respect, and that you should have them in such a manner for your companions, that nevertheless, you should be their heads and superiors.

And you, O wives, love the husbands whom God has given you tenderly and cordially, but with a respectful love, and full of reverence, tor therefore, indeed, did God create them of a sex more vigorous and predominant; and was pleased to ordain that the woman should depend upon the man, being a bone of his bone, and flesh of his flesh, and that she should be made of a rib taken from under his arm, to show that she ought to be under the hand and guidance of her husband. The holy Scripture, which strictly recommends to you this subjection, renders it also pleasant, not only by prescribing that you should accommodate yourselves to it with love, but also by commanding your husbands to exercise it over you with charity, tenderness, and complacency: “Husbands,” says St. Peter, “behave yourselves discreetly towards wives, as the weaker vessels, giving honour to them” (1 Epist. iii. 7).

But while I exhort you to advance more and more in this mutual love which you owe to one another, beware lest it degenerate into any kind of jealousy; for it often happens, that as the worm is bred in the apple which is most delicate and ripe, so jealousy grows in that love of married people, which is the most ardent and exacting, but of which, nevertheless, it spoils and corrupts the substance; breeding, by insensible degrees, strifes, dissensions, and separations. But jealousy never comes where the friendship on both sides is grounded on solid virtue, and therefore where it enters, it is an infallible mark that the love is in some degree sensual and gross, and has fallen upon a subject where it has met with but an imperfect and inconstant virtue, subject to distrust. It is then a stupid ostentation of friendship to try to exalt it by jealousy; for jealousy may be a sign of the greatness and grossness of the friendship, but never of its goodness, purity, and perfection; since the perfection of friendship presupposes an assurance of the virtue of those whom we love, and jealousy a doubt of it.

If you desire, O husbands, that your wives should be faithful to you, give them a lesson by your example. “With what face,” says St. Gregory of Nazianzen, “can you exact purity from your wives when you yourselves live in impurity? How can you require of them that which you give them not? If you would have them chaste, behave yourselves chastely towards them.” And, as St. Paul says: “Let every man know how to possess his own vessel in holiness.” But if, on the contrary, you yourselves teach them not to be virtuous, it is no wonder if you are disgraced by their fall.

But you, O wives, whose honour is inseparably joined with purity and modesty, be zealous to preserve this your glory, and suffer no kind of loose behaviour to tarnish the whiteness of your reputation. Fear all kinds of assaults, be they ever so small; never suffer any wanton address to come near you: whosoever praises your beauty, or your genteel behaviour, ought to be suspected, for he who praises the ware which he cannot buy is strongly tempted to steal it; but if to your praise he adds the dispraise of your husband, he offers you a heinous injury; for it is evident that he not only has a mind to ruin you, but accounts you already half lost, since the bargain is half made with the second merchant, when one is disgusted with the first.

Ladies, formerly as well as now, were accustomed to wear a number of pearls on their ears, for the pleasure, says Pliny, of the jingling which they make in touching one another. But for my part, as I know that the great friend of God, Isaac, sent earrings as the first earnest of his love to the chaste Rebecca, I believe that this mysterious ornament signifies, that the first part of his wife which a husband should take possession of, and which his wife should faithfully keep for him, is her ears; to the end that no language or noise should enter there, but the sweet and amiable music of chaste and pure words, which are the Oriental pearls of the Gospel; for we must always remember that souls are poisoned by the ear, as the body is by the mouth.

Love and fidelity joined together, beget always familiarity and confidence: and therefore the saints have used many reciprocal caresses in their marriage, but always pure, tender, and sincere. Thus Isaac and Rebecca, the most chaste married couple of ancient times, were seen through a window caressing one another (Gen. xxvi. 8), in such a manner that, although there was no immodesty, Abimelech was convinced that they could be no other than man and wife. The great St. Louis, equally rigorous to his own flesh, and tender in the love of his wife, was almost blamed for the abundance of caresses, though, indeed, he rather deserved praise for being able to bring his martial and courageous spirit to stoop to these little offices, requisite to the conservation of conjugal love; for, although these little demonstrations of pure and free affection bind not their hearts, yet they bring them near one another, and serve for an agreeable disposition of mutual conversation.

St. Monica, before the birth of the great St. Augustine, dedicated him by frequent oblations to the Christian religion, and to the service and glory of God, as he himself witnesses, saying: “That he hath already tasted the salt of God in his mother’s womb.” This is a great lesson for Christian women to offer up to his Divine Majesty the fruit of their wombs, even before they come into the world; for God, who accepts the offerings of an humble and willing heart, commonly at that time seconds the affections of mothers; witness Samuel, St. Thomas of Aquin, St. Andrew of Fiesola, and divers others. The mother of St. Bernard, a mother worthy of such a son, as soon as her children were born, took them in her arms, and offered them up to Jesus Christ, and from thenceforward loved them with respect, as things consecrated and entrusted to her by God; which succeeded so happily to her, that in the end the whole seven became very holy.

But when children begin to have the use of reason both their fathers and mothers ought to take great care to imprint the fear of God in their hearts. The good Queen Blanche performed this office fervently with regard to the king, St. Louis her son; she often said to him: I had much rather, my dear child, see you die before my eyes, than see you commit even one mortal sin; which caution remained so deeply engraved on his soul, that, as he himself related, not one day of his life passed in which he did not remember it, and take all possible care strictly to observe it.

Families and generations in our language, are called houses; and even the Hebrews called the generations of children the building up of a house; for it is in this sense it is said that God built houses for the midwives of Egypt. Now, this is to show that the raising of a house or family, consists not in storing up a quantity of worldly goods, but in the good education of children in the fear of God, and in virtue, in which no pains or labours ought to be spared, for children are the crown of their parents. Thus, St. Monica, with so much fervour and constancy, fought against the evil inclinations of her son, St. Augustine, that having followed him by sea and land, she made him more happily the child of her tears, by the conversion of soul, than he had been of her blood by the generation of his body.

St. Paul leaves to wives the care of the household, as their portion; for which reason many think, with truth, that their devotion is more profitable to the family than that of the husband, who, not residing so constantly amongst the domestics, cannot consequently so easily frame them to virtue. On this consideration Solomon (Prov. xxxi.), makes the happiness of the whole household to depend on the care and industry of the valiant woman whom he describes.

It is said in Genesis (chap. xxv. 21), that Isaac seeing his wife Rebecca barren, prayed to the Lord for her, or, according to the Hebrew, prayed to the Lord over against her, because the one prayed on the one side of the oratory, and the other on the other; so the prayer of the husband, made in this manner, was heard. Such union as this of the husband and wife, in holy devotion, is the greatest and most fruitful of all; and to this they ought mutually to encourage and to draw each other.

There are fruits like the quince, which on account of the harshness of their juice, are not agreeable except when they are preserved with sugar; there are others, which, because of their tenderness cannot be long kept, unless they are preserved in like manner, such as cherries and apricots; thus wives ought to wish that their husbands should be preserved with the sugar of devotion; for a man without devotion is a kind of animal, severe, harsh, and rough. And husbands ought to wish that their wives should be devout, because without devotion a woman is very frail, and subject to fall from, or to become weak in virtue.

St. Paul says: “That the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the believing wife, and the unbelieving wife by the believing husband;” because, in this strict alliance of marriage, the one may draw the other to virtue; but what a blessing is it, when the man and wife being both believers, sanctify each other in the true fear of God.

As to the rest: the mutual bearing with one another ought to be so great, that they should never be both angry with each other at the same time, nor suddenly, to the end that there should never be a division or contention seen between them. Bees cannot stay in a place where there are echoes, loud sounds, or voices: nor can the Holy Ghost remain in a house where there are sounds of clamour, strife, and contradictions.

St. Gregory Nazianzen relates that in his time married people made a feast on the anniversary day of their wedding. For my part, I should approve of introducing this custom, provided it were not attended with worldly and sensual recreations; but that the husband and wife should confess and communicate on that day, and recommend to God with more than ordinary fervour the happy progress of their marriage; renewing their good purposes to sanctify it still more an more by mutual love and fidelity, and recovering breath, as it were, in our Lord, for the better supporting the burdens of their calling.

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