Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant searching for fine pearls. When he finds a pearl of great price, he goes and sells all that he has and buys it.” (From this Sunday’s Gospel Matthew 13: 45)
In the space of these pages, I have frequently told the tale of how I spent the majority of my young adult years oscillating between two vocational decisions: Priesthood? Marriage? Priesthood? Marriage? After six years in the seminary, and seven years adrift in the frightening wasteland of dating, I finally found my “pearl of great price.”
At age thirty-three, I was ready to settle down. After waiting that long to discern a life’s course, just any old way of popping the question wouldn’t do. I went out and purchased a nice Bible, and book marked it to the passage just quoted (Matthew 13: 45). I wrapped it, along with a much smaller box. Despite her best efforts, I refused to tell Lisa (my girlfriend), that I was taking her to the spot where we first confessed our love for each other.
Having arrived at our relationship ground zero, I handed her the Bible and asked her to read aloud the section that was book-marked and highlighted. After she finished reading Matthew 13: 45, I handed her a tiny wrapped package. As she opened it, I could feel my heart pounding in my ears. Inside was a single pearl. Fortunately, Lisa was pretty good at deciphering a metaphor. She looked into my questioning eyes and immediately responded in her parent’s native tongue, “Oo tanili kita.” I think I said something romantic like, “Huh?” Then came the translation I had spent a young adult lifetime waiting to hear. “Yes, Tom. Yes. I will marry you. I choose you.”
In a love story, Hollywood generally gets the “pearl” part of Matthew 13:45. What is harder to grasp is the “selling everything to buy it” part of the parable. Dostoyevsky once wrote that “Love in dreams” is a beautiful and magnificent thing to contemplate. Love in real life is “a harsh and dreadful thing.”
This past week, the week after our twenty-third wedding anniversary, Lisa joined two of my kids at a family camp that is one part retreat to two parts vacation. My alotted portion of time-off would not allow for me to accompany them three and a half hours across the state for a week in rural Missouri. For the last evening of their adventure, I was able to leave work early to help her pack up for the return trip home.
After a week of unseasonably cool camping weather, and a retreat theme of focusing upon “Five Love Languages,” my wife welcomed me as if I were her pearl of great price. Apparently, a week apart gave her the opportunity to comtemplate the Tom of her dreams. On Saturday, Lisa encountered the Tom of real life. Two and a half hours into her return trip home, she passed my pulled over mini-van. Even as I write these words, I am imagining her frown as she observed the police officer having a friendly little chat with her lead-footed husband. “I don’t know why you feel like you have to drive like that?” As I looked into her concerned/exassperated eyes, it occurred to me that it didn’t take long for me to wipe this week’s shine off of her pearl.
The great marriages I have had the privilege of observing up close and personal have more in common with the “Indiana Jones” swashbuckling adventure kinds of movies than the “Toby McGuire” tissue soakers. At some point, every marriage calls a spouse to fill the role of the hero. And once in awhile, if we were honest, each of us could acknowledge that we have played the role of the villain.
In a whole hearted marriage, a marriage filled with passion, intimacy, and adventure, a spouse has to be ready to “sell everything” again, and again. It is precisely in the all-encompassing self-donation where the genius of this sacrament comes in. At some point in married life, a spouse looks across the table and sees a person that in some respect is not as compatible as once imagined. At some point for most of us, we will wake up one day to find ourselves mired in some relational tar pit. The quagmire’s name might be one of the old standards, for example: finances, parenting styles, or physical relations. It could be almost anything.
Uncomfortable though they may be, these moments are the royal road to a more profound intimacy and self-transcendence. It is precisely in these conundrums where Christ looks you square in the face and says, “Are you ready to sell everything all over again?” In other words, are you willing to put it all on the line and to become more than who you currently are? Will you develop a more rich and differentiated self in order to love this person with whom you have cast your life? Or will you secretly stash away some of your holdings and defend your right to be who you have always been? Will you demand that your spouse do all the changing and accommodating?
If your vowed life is beginning to feel a little stale and passionless, are you willing to set out on the hero’s (or heroine’s) journey? Are you willing to ask yourself this question: “Where am I holding back?” There is only one way to re-purchase the pearl of great price. Are you willing to sell everything all over again?