It’s a happy day when an engaged couple comes to the rectory to plan their church wedding. The conversation is almost always upbeat and full of hope. Bride-to-be and groom-to-be are eager to talk about their future together — their dreams about children, about a house and maybe even a picket fence.
Their plans, of course, can verge on the unrealistic. Do they know (for example) that the neighborhood they want to live in has zoning ordinances strictly forbidding picket fences? More importantly, do they know that children don’t always show up and grow up exactly according to parental plans?
It’s part of my job as a priest to temper some of their giddy dreams with reality.
I find that sometimes one individual or the other has dreams they’d like to keep private, even from their future spouse.
They want to retain a bachelor pad off-limits to the other — or a bank account, or credit cards, or long vacations.
That’s a major problem. It shows that the couple — or at least one of them — is not really planning to enter a marriage covenant. They want a partnership of sorts, but not a true and total giving of self. They’re holding something back. They want to be married while still keeping one foot in the land of the single.
It doesn’t work.
It doesn’t work in married life, and the same principle applies in the spiritual life. When we enter into a covenant, with God or with a spouse, our giving has to be total. We must not hold anything back.
The Bible is full of the stories of people who tried. Think of the Maccabees, the fierce warriors who were fighting to restore the temple in Jerusalem. When they’re killed in battle, their friends and family members are horrified to find that the soldiers had kept images of pagan gods in their pockets — as superstitious good-luck charms. It seems that they didn’t quite trust God to come through for them.
Think about Ananias and Sapphira, the two early Christians who lied to St. Peter. They told him they were donating all their property to the Church, but they held back a portion. They wanted to give the impression that they trusted God, but they didn’t really.
All the great spiritual writers warn us against “attachments” — the little things we hold on to that keep us from total surrender to Jesus Christ. St. John of the Cross compares us to little birds that are held to the ground by a slender silk string. It doesn’t matter that the string is practically invisible and seemingly inconsequential to us. It keeps us from rising up to heaven.
When I was a kid, one of the local TV stations regularly played old Westerns. There was one particular movie where the members of the wagon train were faced with a flood, and they needed to jettison their belongings before they could cross the torrent. One man insisted — against the advice of everyone — on wearing his money belt, which was filled with gold and silver. Well, you all know what happened next. He drowned in the raging waters, and he didn’t get to enter the promised land of the American West (where I happen to live today).
I get the allegory. I understand the moral point the director was trying to make. But still I find that I hold on to certain possessions or consolations rather than surrendering them to God. I check social media so that I don’t miss something entertaining — and then I keep checking, and I show up late to my time of prayer.
Most of us are OK with a partial surrender. But we want to hold on to something. A big part of life — especially spiritual life — is identifying those things we cling to and disciplining ourselves to let them go.
It’s not as if we get to keep anything forever. Time and age will deprive us of our enjoyments one by one. I don’t have today the appetite I had as a teenager. Food doesn’t mean the same thing to me that it once did. I’m told that some people older than I have even lost their taste for chocolate.
We can give these things up willingly for love, and know the joy that goes with sacrifice. Or we can lose them eventually anyway, and know bitterness.
Love — in the marriage covenant or the covenant with God — is a choice. When we love, we surrender, or we don’t truly love.