Catholic Activity: Engagement and Wedding
Maria Trapp reminds us that preparing for a loving and faithful marriage is more important and foundational than confining your preparations to the material aspect of a wedding. Here are some suggested discussion topics for engaged couples.
We felt that such talks were indispensable, that we owed them to our children, especially in a time when sex assails them through advertisements, in magazines, newspapers, television, radio — wherever they turn. They have to get the right bearing, and where should they get it if not from their parents? They have to be fortified, in order to be able, when the time comes, to choose a partner for life. If they have been brought up from their earliest years to do nothing, however insignificant, without first considering whether it conformed with the will of God — and this is something only to be found out in prayer — when they reach their twenties they will most certainly apply this most important lesson for this most important decision. Is he — is she — the one with whom I can become a saint more quickly than alone? This was the final test adopted in our family. (It leaves out of consideration, as points of much less importance, such questions as: "What is his job?" "How much is he earning?" "What does he look like?" "Is she pretty?" "Is she musical?" etc., etc.) When this one question has been answered with "Yes," our young people decide to get engaged before the Church. In the old country it is the custom that the boy and girl give each other engagement rings. These rings are blessed by the priest, not as solemnly as the wedding ring, but the blessing turns them from ordinary rings into a sacramental. While they put these rings on each other's finger, they pronounce solemnly their intention to marry and this solemn promise binds them before God and men. Of course, this is a family feast and a day of great rejoicing for everybody. The two young people sit in the place of honor and are showered with presents from the family. These are the gifts they get before the invitations are sent out and wedding presents start to arrive from the outside.
As every member of every family is an individual, unlike anybody else, the ways of celebrating such an engagement were different with each child. Some of our children wanted a very quiet celebration, and "no guests, please." Others, however, wanted a hilarious evening after the solemnity in church, with folk dancing and punch and games and lots of fun. That is why one can never rely on a handbook treating how to celebrate feasts. So much depends on the individuality of the people who do the celebrating. The days between engagement and wedding are dedicated to preparations — but not, first and foremost, as the world seems to emphasize in all the magazines "for the bride," on the preparation of the material goods alone — furniture, household utensils, dresses, dresses, and more dresses. Our first concern is with laying a solid foundation for the couple's new life. For this, we set aside a first preparation period right after the engagement, and an immediate preparation during the last days before the wedding. During the first preparation period, we have the young couple discuss with the parents (as a rule the parents of the bride) all the important facets of family life. This we do on the evenings of a full week. The discussions include, of course, the prayer life of a family — morning prayer, grace before and after meals, evening prayer; a resolution to say the rosary together at least at certain times of the year (such as during May, the month of Mary; during October, the month of the rosary; during November, for the souls of the departed; on all the eves of a feast of Mary). We speak about preparation for Mass before Sundays and great feast days; about pilgrimages — all such devotions being family devotions. And we tell the young people that later, when children arrive, they should be associated with the prayer life of the family as soon as possible, even if they do not yet understand what it is all about. The young soul will always respond to the atmosphere of prayer.
Another topic on these evenings is the daily cross, which will never be found wanting — how to prepare for it, how to meet it, how to learn to carry it ungrudgingly and willingly, and as long as possible with a smile. Such an attitude, we tell them, will keep a marriage from getting "on the rocks."
And of course we talk about love — what its true nature is, and what it is not. The thirteenth chapter of the First Epistle of St. Paul to the Corinthians is as good a guide in this respect as any.
Then there is the imitation of Christ in the life of a family. "I have given you an example and I want you to do as I have done" is an excellent motto for a young family. To keep one's eye on the Lord, to get used to the idea of saying, "What would He do now? What would He say in my place?" provides the most reliable method for bringing up children.
Evidently each of the young, boy and girl, have their special problems and questions, and their own ideas to discuss; and the family into which he or she marries will each have their own views to bring out. The essential thing for us, however, was and is that there should be a full week set aside for such a first preparation for married life, as a meeting not only of the hearts but also of the minds.
Then comes the time when the young bride prepares her bridal gown. In our family this important garment is prepared at home, with the help of the mother and sisters. This may sound very old-fashioned, but the hours spent in loving work together seem to us very precious, and many loving thoughts and resolutions are stitched into the bridal gown.
The weeks pass, perhaps the months, and the time for the wedding itself approaches. The first few days of the week preceding the wedding we reserve for the last and most important talks. Throughout their young lives the young people have received all the information on sex necessary to the stages in their development. Strangely enough these seem to come in cycles of seven: when the child is seven years old it is ready for its first story about God sending the child and letting it grow under the mother's heart for nine months, until she gives it life with great pain. This first talk creates a firm bond between mother and child. About seven years later the child is on the threshold of puberty and needs more enlightenment and instruction. Now it has to face the realities of sex, and learn how to deal with its problems. This instruction should be frank, clear, and explicit. We cannot afford to leave our children in ignorance in times such as ours. This information need not be given in one discussion only. We have always given our children the opportunity of asking questions as they came to their minds.
But during the last days before the wedding, a new kind of approach seems to be called for. Now is the moment to speak of the union of husband and wife as a fulfillment, as a source of joy. Too many of our manuals are one-sided in their discussion of sex. We should tell our children of the true value and the God-givenness of healthy and sound sex life — though not for its own sake. We should try to make them see it as a symbol of the greatest thing in creation: as our soul longs to be one with God, as all our striving for perfection is toward that one end — our union with God — we have a perfect symbol for this fusion in the most intimate union of husband and wife. In this light only does sex life find its true evaluation and place.
I have always deplored the fact that there is a tendency among certain writers and theologians to put a stigma on the married state in its relation to holiness. These people seem to regret that certain saints were married; if they could hush it up, they no doubt would. But there is no getting around it there was a St. Catherine of Genoa, a St. Monica and a St. Elizabeth of Hungary, a great St. Louis of France, and the excellent family man, St. Thomas More, to mention only a few among many, many others. I feel that the Church has placed these great heroic figures in the forefront of the canonized saints in order to assure us that sanctity is not incompatible with married life. And how absurd such a thought would be! Only if we see marriage as a great sacrament, the symbol of the relationship between Christ and the Church, between the soul and God during all eternity, only then chastity becomes meaningful as a sacrifice, when marriage is given up voluntarily by our priests and religious. What good would it be to offer up something second-rate, something we shouldn't want anyhow? Again, how absurd!
These thoughts belong to our final preparation during the first three days of the last week. The second three days the young couple retire and make a retreat, either under the direction of a priest-friend, or, if this is not possible, by themselves, their discussions on the spiritual life in the family having provided them with ample food for prayer and meditation.
On the day before the wedding feast our young people return from their retreat, strengthened in mind and spirit, and ready for the great day.
The evening before the wedding is celebrated, as in the old country, as the Polterabend, again a survival from pagan times when the people with great noise and much singing, chanting, and music wanted to shy away the evil spirits. The Church has taken over and Christianized this folk custom. All our guests are invited to come the day before the feast — and the feast day receives its vigil. There is a festive dinner with the two young people sitting for the last time each with their parents. Afterwards, the evening is spent in merrymaking, folk dancing, games, and music. Around ten o'clock, however, the feast is over and ends with family evening prayers. Of course, this again varies according to the wishes of the bride. Once we had only nine guests present, and the last time, at my youngest daughter Lorli's wedding, we were about a hundred and forty.
The next morning finds mother and daughter for the last time in their intimate closeness. Now I assist the bride to put on her bridal gown and to fasten the veil to her hair. Then she kneels down while the bridal wreath made of fresh white flowers is placed over the veil, at which time the solemn words are said "Receive here this symbol of your virginity which I have helped you to keep intact that you may give it unspotted to your husband as your greatest gift," to which the daughter answers with a heartfelt, "Thank you. Praised be God." This is always a moment of deep emotion. After the last long embrace I sign the forehead of my daughter with the sign of the Cross and then lead her downstairs, where the procession is already formed.
In Tyrolia, that part of Austria where I come from, the parish priest leads the bride to the altar. They are the last couple in the procession, which is headed by the bridegroom leading the bride's mother. And that's the way we do it in our family. And so we attend the Nuptial Mass and listen, deeply moved, to the words of the priest [Editor's Note: These prayers come from the older version of the Roman Missal.]
Dear friends in Christ: As you know, you are about to enter into a union which is most sacred and most serious, a union which was established by God Himself. By it He gave to man a share in the greatest work of creation, the work of the continuation of the human race. And in this way He sanctified human love and enabled man and woman to help each other live as children of God, by sharing a common life under His fatherly care.
Because God Himself is thus its author, marriage is of its very nature a holy institution, requiring of those who enter into it a complete and unreserved giving of self. But Christ Our Lord added to the holiness of marriage an even deeper meaning and a higher beauty. He referred to the love of marriage to describe His own love for His Church, that is, for the people of God whom He redeemed by His own blood. And so He gave to Christians a new vision of what married life ought to be, a life of self-sacrificing love like His own. It is for this reason that His Apostle, St. Paul, clearly states that marriage is now and for all time to be considered a great mystery, intimately bound up with the supernatural union of Christ and the Church, which union is also to be its pattern.
This union is most serious, because it will bind you together for life in a relationship so close and so intimate, that it will profoundly influence your whole future. That future, with its hopes and disappointments, its successes and its failures, its pleasures and its pains, its joys and its sorrows, is hidden from your eyes. You know that these elements are mingled in every life, and are to be expected in your own. And so, not knowing what is before you, you take each other for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death.
Truly, then, these words are most serious. It is a beautiful tribute to your undoubted faith in each other, that, recognizing their full import, you are nevertheless so willing and ready to pronounce them. And because these words involve such solemn obligations, it is most fitting that you rest the security of your wedded life upon the great principle of self-sacrifice. And so you begin your married life by the voluntary and complete surrender of your individual lives in the interest of that deeper and wider life which you are to have in common. Henceforth you belong entirely to each other, you will be one in mind, one in heart, and one in affections. And whatever sacrifices you may hereafter be required to make to preserve this common life, always make them generously. Sacrifice is usually difficult and irksome. Only love can make it easy; and perfect love can make it a joy. We are willing to give in proportion as we love. And when love is perfect, the sacrifice is complete. God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, and the Son so loved us that He gave Himself for our salvation. 'Greater love than this no man hath, that a man lay down his life for his friends.'
No greater blessing can come to your married life than pure conjugal love, loyal and true to the end. May, then, this love with which you join your hands and hearts today, never fail, but grow deeper and stronger as the years go on. And if true love and the unselfish spirit of perfect sacrifice guide your every action, you can expect the greatest measure of earthly happiness that may be allotted to man in this vale of tears. The rest is in the hands of God. Nor will God be wanting to your needs; He will pledge you the life-long support of His graces in the holy sacrament which you are now going to receive.
And then we all receive Holy Communion with the new husband and the new wife. After this ceremony, all friends present can congratulate and wish God's blessing and happiness with confidence, knowing that the fulfillment of their wish has already begun.
We see to it that the table is most beautifully decorated — if possible it should be a sitting-down meal. This is the time for speeches. The father of the bride will address his daughter and the father of the bridegroom will address his son. Somebody will thank the friends and the guests for sharing this great day with the family.
When the meal is over and guests and friends are still standing around, the young couple disappear quietly. Hand in hand they go over to the house altar; while the young bride bows her head her husband takes the white wreath from her. Together they place it at the feet of the Blessed Mother and make the sign of the cross on each other's forehead. It is the first act in their new life.
A little later everyone will wave good-bye as they get into the car to start their journey through life together.
This is one of the beauties of a large family: when the older ones leave the house to marry, the younger ones take their places, and when the youngest is still in grade school, grandchildren are already arriving for long visits around Christmas, Easter, and summer vacation. There are always children around — the next living links in the chain of the generations — learning from their elders the most important lesson of all: how to celebrate the feasts of their life.
Activity Source: Around the Year with the Trapp Family by Maria Augusta Trapp, Pantheon Books Inc., New York, New York, 1955