Two Real Tomatoes, perhaps on their
I write on the Feast of the Sacred Heart, and having just read an article in the Los Angeles Times declaring that even foes of gay “marriage” admit its inevitable legalization. What is this “gay marriage” they are trying to sell us? Is it the latest version of “Love American Style?” It can’t be anything more than another cheap American imitation, one without savor and without heart, that we are selling to the rest of the world.
Perhaps you have had a garden. Gardeners take supreme delight in their tomatoes. One of life’s greatest satisfactions is to pick a few garden tomatoes, if you can get home for lunch, and cut them up for sandwich or salad. Just a few wedges of freshly-picked tomatoes, with a drop of olive oil and a pinch of salt, maybe a sprinkling of pepper and a splash of balsamic vinegar. The taste is real. It has heart. Food in Italy tastes so good because they use garden tomatoes rather than the mass-produced things we pick green and spray with ethylene gas to look ripe. These
“tomatoes” are generally tasteless and textureless and they don’t even smell like tomatoes.
But what if an entire generation grew up knowing no tomato but this plastic kind of “tomato?” They would not know what real tomatoes tasted like, looked like, smelled like or felt like. I suppose, in a way, you can call those plasticky, reddish, hard round balls “tomatoes,” but they are almost nothing like what you pluck from real, living, pungent tomato vines. Plastic tomatoes, plastic marriage. We’ve artificially manufactured a new kind of “tomato,” and we’ve artificially manufactured a new kind of “marriage” that does what we want it to. But there’s one problem: it’s not natural, and it doesn’t taste good.
The savor of marriage comes precisely from its difficulties, heroically overcome by spouses who learn, gradually, to give rather than to take, to accept rather than to manipulate, to receive rather than to demand. Ever wonder why the homosexual movement demands what it wants like a spoiled child? It’s because its members are not married. They have not learned to accept that you can’t put a round peg into a square hole. They are used to forcing nature. But our marriage problems began with artificial contraception, which unnaturally forces nature. They got worse when we began giving up on lifelong marriage. Now, please understand me: I’m talking about social trends. Many people have nobly sustained divorce and heroically rebuilt fine human lives from the wreckage. But as a culture, we’ve lost the nerve required to sustain lifelong married love.
Marriage is lifelong because it takes an entire lifetime to become a good person. We only learn to love another gradually, over the years, through trials and errors. Marriage forces people to mature, and without it we are a peevish, inconstant, selfish people. Yes, marriage has always been difficult, and folks have always cheated by having affairs with secret lovers and letting themselves devolve into the “married singles” lifestyle. But we’ve never come to a point of denying the goodness of marriage itself. Until now, perhaps. In the last fifty years personal wealth and security have increased to the degree that we can afford divorce. In years past, folks just couldn’t come up with the tens of thousands of dollars for divorce lawyers and therapists and setting up a second household. So they stayed married, and they worked things out, or learned to live with disappointment. If things were really bad, they divorced, but they didn’t deny marriage itself.
But we have done that, over the last fifty years. An entire generation or two has grown up with a tasteless, savorless, cheap imitation of “marriage” in America. Mostly what we have seen since 1968 is superficial, egotistical, confrontational relationships—on TV, in movies, among friends, and at home. We’ve grown up with a plastic imitation of marriage. How would anyone who knew nothing but “Love American Style” know what real marriage looks like, smells like, feels like? So when the totalitarians of culture tell them gay “marriage” is marriage, they say: “I guess so.”
But real tomatoes taste better, and so does real marriage. We can settle for plastic tomatoes, and we can settle for artificial marriage, but at some point, I suppose, we’ll get sick of it. We will make the sacrifices necessary to grow and ship and buy real tomatoes. And we will do the same with marriage. There comes a time when you just won’t settle for cheap imitations anymore. You plant real vines, and hoe around them, and weed, and water, and sacrifice, because you want a real tomato.
I was a parish priest for 20 years, and now I am a college chaplain. What’s the difference? In the parish I prepared people for divorce, and in the College I prepare them for marriage.
In the parish, people generally don’t come to the priest until they have a problem, and most of those problems are marriage problems. Some couples come with strong faith in God and solid hope for their marriages. Most, however, come for the last rites. Usually they’ve been living a “married singles” lifestyle for years before I see them. I would ask: “Do you pray the rosary together?” No, father, we don’t know how. “Do you attend Mass on Sundays?” No, father, we haven’t gone to Mass for years. “Are you contracepting?” Not anymore—we don’t sleep in the same bed. “Have you seen a counselor?” No, father, it’s too late for that. I felt like asking them sternly why they disregarded the Church’s precepts, and why they ignored her wisdom, and why they didn’t come to a priest sooner. But all I could do is comfort them as their marriage broke apart, and as they entered into the dreary and painful desert of the divorced. They could still be saints, if they faced the ongoing trauma of custody battles, financial crises, and darksome loneliness by turning to God in prayer. Many do become saints precisely through the tragedies of divorce, in the way that widows and widowers turn to God. Nevertheless, “preparing people for divorce” greatly pains and discourages the parish priest.
In the College, on the other hand, most of the people I serve are under 21. They are too young to drink, but not too young to prepare for lifelong marriage. Courtship at the two dozen or so serious Catholic colleges in the United States is a major occupation, and rightly so. Not only does College afford them intellectual, social, and spiritual formation—it affords an unprecedented pool of faithful and marriageable Catholics. Interestingly, a significant percentage of students at these colleges have been called to the consecrated state. But living with authentically beautiful men and women anneals their call to virginity for the sake of the kingdom. For the rest, those called to the married state, a lifetime of happy marriage awaits them. They have only to follow the rules. They prepare for marriage by learning to pray alone and together, by sharpening their minds and their bodies for the contests ahead, and by assimilating the patrimonies of art and science. No one expects perfect happiness in their marriages, and they know grave marriage problems are always possible. But the smiles and lightness of foot among these couples lift us all up.
In the parish, a priest can come to resent marriage preparation. Precious few engaged couples take their faith as seriously as they must to avoid divorce. As we witness their vows, we wonder how many will file for divorce within the decade. In the college, however, I have rediscovered the joy of marriage preparation. These young couples—witnesses to purity and joy—have restored my confidence in marriage. If we have despaired of the very nature of marriage (as is evident in the ludicrous push for homosexual “marriage”), we need look no further than these young people to be reassured.
Resources: For those in courtship, I recommend Steve Woods’ The ABC’s of Choosing a Good Husband or The ABC's of Choosing a Good Wife, as well as a CD set by Steve Woods called Catholic Courtship - A Challenge to Teens & Twenties. If you are engaged, there is Kimberly Hahn’s Life-Giving Love: Embracing God's Beautiful Design for Marriage. If you are having difficulties in your marriage, I recommend Michael McManus’ Marriage Savers: Helping Your Friends and Family Avoid Divorce.
Fr. Joseph Illo
Star of the Sea Parish,