Love, Part 2: Sublime Joy and Unimaginable Pain

In a previous post, I talked about how the key to reaching people with the Gospel message is love. Love is the key to everything. I wrote about asking Christ to teach me to love as He loves, knowing that it will not only be hard to do, but will break my heart, as well. I finished last week’s post saying:

God isn’t calling us to a distant, safe kind of love. He’s calling us all to a reckless abandonment kind of love — one that is full of risks, but that will pay off huge rewards in the end. Real love isn’t safe. Real love will hurt. 

To know that, we only need to look at the Cross, for that is where Real Love is demonstrated for us.

I’ve thought a lot about love in this context: that genuine love can and will hurt us. I think it’s something our modern culture sees as wrong-headed. Everything around us tells us that real love heals and doesn’t hurt. While real love does heal us, it also opens us up to being hurt terribly.

The best example I can give is one that relates to being open to life. The Catholic Church has specific definitions for the sacraments — definitions that cannot change. The sacrament of Matrimony is defined thus:

1601 “The matrimonial covenant, by which a man and a woman establish between themselves a partnership of the whole of life, is by its nature ordered toward the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of offspring; this covenant between baptized persons has been raised by Christ the Lord to the dignity of a sacrament.”

Marriage must have four characteristics in order to be valid in the eyes of the Church. A friend of mine called them the Four F’s.

  1. It must be free. A husband and wife must freely consent to be married. No one can force you into getting married; shotgun weddings are not Catholic weddings. You must also be free to marry, meaning you must not be married already and must meet the requirements of matrimony. Getting a civil divorce is not against Catholic teaching — but remarrying without having determined that your previous marriage was invalid is against Church teaching.
  2. It must be forever. If you are validly married, it is for life. Again, a civil divorce might mean your legal marriage is over, but the sacrament cannot be undone. If a person is validly married, they are validly married until “death do us part.” The Church takes this very seriously. This is why part of being free includes that the man and woman are free under ecclesial law to marry.
  3. It must be faithful. The Bible is quite clear: adultery is a sin. Jesus took the idea of faithfulness to a new level: He said that if someone even looks at another person with lust, that person has committed adultery. For marriage to work, the spouses must forsake all others.
  4. It must be fruitful. A man and woman must be open to life. As the Catechism states, marriage, “by its nature [is] ordered toward the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of offspring.” This means that the Church asks us to work with the natural way our bodies work and remain open to children being created through the marital act. (You know, sex.) Monty Python aside, this does not mean that every sexual act must result in a child, or that a couple can’t take advantage of naturally-occurring infertile periods to avoid pregnancy when there are serious reasons to do so. If a family is going through a financial crisis, or a woman could risk her life by becoming pregnant (or even if she gets so gravely ill that she can’t care for her children) … the Church doesn’t tell you that you can’t use scientific methods to figure out when you’re not fertile and only have sex then. As a matter of fact, we are strongly urged to be responsible. But what the Church does forbid is the use of unnatural means to avoid having children. Artificial birth control works against our bodies’ natural functions (most methods pushed at women actually disrupt the natural and healthy functions of our bodies). The Church has always forbidden these things, but it seems that science is catching up to the teaching. Most artificial birth control for women have harmful side effects that should give us pause and make us question our doctors about whether or not it’s actually good for us to use them. But this aside, the Church asks us to be fruitful — to have children when we can and to learn to love better by loving them. Of course this openness to life looks different in different families.

One thing I have learned in my years of being friends with Catholic couples who are open to life is that there is a cross that comes with that openness. There’s always a cross, to be honest, no matter what life you live. No life comes without suffering. But the thing I have noticed about my Catholic friends who embrace this openness is how they also must embrace a particular cross that seems almost unbearable:

I don’t know a single family in my circle of friends who has not lost at least one child to miscarriage or an early death. 

I have a friend who has written openly about her miscarriages, baring her soul and sharing her pain in a very open forum. She and her husband are raising one lovely little girl, but they grieve for the children they’ve lost. Other friends have been open to life throughout their marriages, but carry the cross of infertility. Still others have large families, but mourn the loss of one or more children.

And this is what I mean when I say that love hurts. When I look at my friends’ families, I see their homes bursting at the seams with love. I see children who play together, celebrate together, even fight together. I see families who might have little by ways of material goods, but who are rich in the things that really matter: companionship and friendship.

But at the same time, I’ve also cried with many of these friends after they’ve lost a child. I’ve had Masses offered for the souls of tiny babies who never got to play with their many siblings. And I’ve looked on in wonder and awe at the way they pick themselves up and carry on and continue to love and be open to more children — because being open to those potential children in the future means being open to an immense love.

The thing I’ve learned from them is that being open to that kind of love leaves a person open to the horrible pain of loss, as well. And yet in spite of that, they are open. They’re open because the love far outweighs the pain, and even if it didn’t, they follow a different example of love.

IMG_0281As I continue to ponder learning to love as Christ loves, I must continue to ponder the Cross. I have to look at the sacrifice made there — a sacrifice made by Love for love of us.
God loves us, even more than we love our own children. He loves us perfectly, and so He has opened Himself up to all manner of pain and suffering. I know that when one of my children is in pain, I hurt, too. When one of my girls cries over lost friendship, I want to take their pain away and spare them from it.

God, too, wants to take our pain away and spare us from it. That’s what He did on the cross: He suffered the pains we should have been given for our sins, in an effort to show us how to love and how to heal the world.

There’s still pain and suffering in this world, and we’ll never be rid of it. It’s simply a part of our fallen state. But Jesus shows us that the key is love. He shows us that suffering and love go hand-in-hand, but that the love gives us the ability to get through our pain.
When we’re open to loving others as Jesus loves them, we are also open to the pain that comes from that kind of love. There’s the pain of loss and rejection — and those will come. But mingled with those things is a sublime joy that will carry us through it.

That joy is how God puts our hearts back together when they break with love.