Orbiting Dicta

6th Sunday of the Year: True Blessedness

Beginning in 1991, I taught courses in dreams, spirituality, and memory for graduates and undergraduates at Loyola University and Dominican University. After twenty years of research and teaching, you could reasonably say that I take dreams seriously.  So when I had a dream this morning, shortly before arising, I took it seriously.  No that it was sad, tragic, or threatening.  It focused on a phone call from the director of Loyola Medical Schools’ Sexual Dysfunction Clinic, Dr. Domeena Renshaw – truly the most gifted psychiatrist I ever met.

Hearing her voice again was an unexpected delight. In my dream she was calling to find out if I could rejoin her team as a clinical therapist, which I had done for over two decades in the 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s. But Domeena retired in 2009 and the clinic was discontinued. (I hear that Domeena, now in her 90s, still attends grand rounds occasionally, which is not surprising.) Having worked under supervision those many years mainly helping clients strive to repair broken marriages and resolve marital problems, it got me thinking.

Today has been designated World Marriage Day, an achievement of Worldwide Marriage Encounter. It was approved as a day of commemoration by Pope John Paul II in 1993, ten tears after it had been proclaimed by 43 U.S. states and several foreign countries. The now permanent theme of WMD is taken from John 15:12 – “Love one another.”

Today’s readings are not about marriage, but there is a connection.  It has to do with happiness, something we all wish for married

Jer. 17:5-8
1 Cor. 15:12,16-20
Luke 6:17, 20-26

couples, sometimes noisily and with feasting and possibly a few family fistfights on the lawn after the banquet. People still take weddings seriously – sometimes perhaps too much so.

We commonly think of happiness as a state of perpetual bliss, a carefree celebration of the good things in life. We wish newlyweds a “happy life together,” and rightly so. But the happiness Jesus refers to in today’s reading from Luke, which continues our on-going readings from his gospel and, presently, St. Paul’s Epistle to the Corinthian Christians, deserves a bit of mulling over, not least because, unlike Matthew, Luke follows up his “beatitudes” with some sobering “woes.”

At the time the New Testament teachings were being put down in writing, the Greek word used for “blessed,”makarios, which is what Jesus speaks of, did not simply mean “happy.” There were perfectly good words available for happiness or bliss, going all the way back to Aristotle. But even Aristotle knew that makarios means a gift of the gods, “grace,” not the result of a life lived well, free from care and hardship (eudaimonia).

Jesus follows up his promise of ultimate joy with a warning – “woe to you!” he says four times.  Woe – ouai – is the counterpoint of “blessed,” in fact its opposite. “Woe” is not a bad translation of the Greek, which in Latin comes over as vae. But the Yiddish comes much closer – ‘oy vey!’ — an exclamation of distress or grief. It means “misery,” which is what awaits those who revel in their wealth, good fortune, and fame – to the detriment or neglect of their struggling neighbors.

The reading from Jeremiah comes into play here, and perhaps provided Jesus with a model for his four “woes.” “Cursed [arar] are those who trust in mere mortals and make mere flesh their strength, whose hearts turn away from the Lord” [Jer 17:5 RSV]. But Jeremiah also has his beatitude: “Blessed [barak] are those who trust in the Lord, whose trust is the Lord” [Jer 17:7 RSV].

All this is not unrelated to World Marriage Day.  Not by any means.  All those years of working with couples to heal ailing marriages – and with amazing success, thanks to the pioneering work of Dr. Renshaw – clearly taught us all that marriage is not some road to perpetual bliss, of unfettered happiness and trouble-free enjoyment. It can be a very rocky road and even great marriages require stamina and the endurance only deep love can foster.

Does marriage succeed? Much of the time. Statistically, the ratio in the U.S. of successful and failed marriages is about 50-50. At present the divorce rate is 2.9 per 1,000. In 2017, approximately 787,251 divorces were granted in America, which means that around one and a half million people got divorced that year. But since 1990, there has been a downward trend in divorce statistics. The divorce rate in 2018 and 2019 was significantly lower than in 2008 and 2009. And despite a slight increase in 2011-12, the divorce rate has fallen overall throughout the last decade.

There was a sharp decrease in the number of weddings in 2020, but this year there will be an estimated 2.5 million weddings, the most the U.S. has seen since 1984. Statistics indicate that the prospects for an enduring marriage are better today than in the previous three decades.

True blessedness is not merely a gift. It also requires hard work and fidelity, a willingness to bear one another’s burdens, and honest and effective communication. Marriage Encounter has performed near-miracles in fostering  successful marriages. And the pioneering efforts of compassionate, caring healers such as Dr. Renshaw have achieved astonishing results in helping couples grow in respect, love, and mutual endeavor. We have much to be thankful for today.