“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.” (This Sunday’s Gospel Mt 13: 45)
When was the last time you revisited the story of your engagement with your spouse or children? My story starts with the saga of a young ex-seminarian casting back and forth indecisively like Shakespeare’s Hamlet. “I ask to be, or not to be… a priest, or a married man?” This was the constant refrain to my young adult song. After six years in the seminary, I left to discern whether or not the married state fit this fickle soul better than priesthood. After seven years adrift in the frightening world of dating, I found my pearl of great price.
I waited thirty-three years to discern a life’s course. Just any old way of popping the question wouldn’t do. Having purchased a hard cover Bible, and book-marking it to the passage quoted above (Matthew 13: 45), I wrapped it, along with a much smaller package. Next, I arranged a “mystery date,” in which Lisa was told only what to pack in an overnight bag. I picked her up after work, and drove the hundred miles to the exact place where we had originally uttered the words, “I love you,” to one another.
When the moment arrived, 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, she unwrapped the second, tiny package. My heart pounded in my ears as she tore through tape and paper to find a single pearl mounted on a gold chain. Fortunately, Lisa was pretty good at deciphering a metaphor. After an impossibly long, and pregnant pause, she responded in the language of her Filipino ancestors, “Magpakasal sa iyo.” “Yes, I will marry you.”
If this were a movie, the next thing you know, (depending upon the rating of it I guess), the movie credits would be rolling as our main characters went off to lead a blissful life together. Pretty romantic huh?
In a love story, Hollywood generally gets the “pearl” part of Matthew 13:45 right. 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.”
While my relationship with Lisa has been anything but harsh and dreadful, from time-to-time, that pearl of great price had to be repurchased at the cost of blood, sweat, tears, and egos surrendered. The good 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.
Marriage, like religious vows, or ordination requires a person to “sell everything.” 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: finances, parenting styles, or intimate 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?