What it really means to work as ‘one flesh’

“What will your mission, your way of serving others, be as a couple?” A priest posed this question to my now husband and me when we asked him for advice during our engagement. Surprisingly, when we brought this question to our mentor couple, they disagreed and insisted that our marriage, becoming one and raising our children, would be our mission.

We were taken aback by what seemed to be conflicting advice, but now, years later, I have reconciled the contradiction and realized that they were highlighting different truths of marriage. That is, in marriage, man and woman “become one flesh” (Gn 2:24, RSV) and are to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it” (Gn 1:28, RSV). Our mentor couple stressed the need to focus on becoming “one flesh,” the oneness that leads to fruitfulness. The more unified a couple is, the more their love overflows. On the other hand, the priest’s question highlighted the opportunity to direct that fruitfulness, that overflow and abundance of love.

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The primary way married couples are asked to be fruitful is to be open to receiving children; sex (“one flesh”) proceeds the birth of a child (“be fruitful and multiply”). But sexual intimacy is not the only expression of a couple becoming “one flesh,” and having children is not the only way a married couple is fruitful. Couples can enter into this element of marriage through their daily work. For those couples struggling with primary or secondary infertility, this is of particular importance, yet this is just as important for those couples with large families. So what does it mean for the work of a husband and wife to be of “one flesh”?

Having a rightly ordered marriage

Marriage requires more than fitting each other’s activities into a common schedule. As a husband and wife together think about the life they want to build, they realize that they must work to have certain pieces fall into place. They will continue to need an income to support themselves. They need a home. And if and when God blesses them with children, they need to be able to raise and educate their children. This is the work they have set upon together. Being of “one flesh” implies that the man’s work is no longer his own and the woman’s work is no longer only hers. They have embarked on a new endeavor together. They are building a marriage, a family, a home, an entire new life as “one flesh.”

The work of a husband and wife must be rightly ordered in order to make their work be of “one flesh.” This may involve reframing how they have viewed their work and careers. They must combat the false assumption that neither men nor women should have to yield to the demands of family life, that each should be free to do what fulfills them individually regardless of the needs of the family. In contrast, a husband and wife with rightly ordered priorities place God first, their marriage second, children third, and everything else, including their work, to follow. So whether one or both spouses have paid work outside of the home, whatever work each one does, it is in service of God, their marriage and their family. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “Work is for man, not man for work” (No. 2428). Work done solely for money, recognition or even to just stay busy loses its value because it is not rightly ordered. When a couple’s work is rightly ordered, the work has eternal repercussions. “Work can be a means of sanctification and a way of animating earthly realities with the Spirit of Christ” (CCC, No. 2427).

What does this mean practically? For the spouses who work outside of the home, it is understood that their income supports the work of and the life in the home. Their work is not an escape from the home but makes the home possible. For spouses who care for the home, they understand that this work is imperative to the flourishing of family life. The work outside and inside the home are complementary, just as the work of husbands and wives, fathers and mothers are complementary, and each upholds the other.

The meaning of our lives

But what is the “why” behind striving to have work be of “one flesh” in marriage? As Venerable Fulton J. Sheen wrote in his book “Three to Get Married,” “Love is soon discovered to be oneness, more than the mere assimilation at which new lovers strain. The glamor passes, but the mystery deepens, until they are made one through the deep sharing of life’s meaning in the mystery of an Eternal Love, which gave only to receive.” Sheen claims in this quotation that becoming of “one flesh” is achieved through a “deep sharing of life’s meaning.” To understand how a couple’s work can be of “one flesh,” we must understand this phrase. How does a couple experience a “deep sharing,” and what is “life’s meaning”?

Beginning with the latter, as the Catechism states, “man is created by God and for God” (No. 27). The purpose of our lives is to be united in the “Eternal Love” of God. We are to give ourselves back to him. This is the great work of husbands and wives: to give one another back to God. The “deep sharing” comes as a couple becomes more and more united in this great work of helping one another to heaven. As a couple unites their love in Christ and makes the “Eternal Love” of God the ultimate goal of their lives, they become “one flesh.” And when they unite their daily work to this heavenly work of a lifetime, their daily work takes part in this unity and becomes “one flesh.”

So for a husband and wife’s work to be of “one flesh,” their work needs to be rightly ordered and it needs to be united to this purpose of giving oneself, one’s spouse and one’s children back to God. This requires a unity of life rather than the fragmentation promoted by our culture. It means that each of us, including husbands and wives, has to let the truth that everyone is created for God permeate every aspect of our daily lives. What does that look like?

It means that our homes and other places of work, learning, community and leisure, all the places where we live our lives, need to be ordered to help people recognize God and deepen their relationship with him.

Let us not become distracted by trying to break or uphold stereotypical roles. Let us not be dissuaded by the cultural expectation to separate our faith from our public lives. Let us not be discouraged by a growing disregard for protecting family life. Let us be emboldened, strengthened and encouraged, because to make God known and loved is our great work — starting in our families.

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