MARRIAGE – WHY BOTHER?
I want to say something about marriage. I need to emphasise first of all that there is no implicit criticism in the blog about those who are in other long-term partnership arrangements – heaven knows I’m the last person to be in a position to sit in judgement – and God, being God, will shower his blessings down on everyone who strives to live in fidelity and love; but having been married for nearly 40 years I should (at least in theory!) be able to articulate something. And besides, marriage tends to get a pretty rough ride in the media (fidelity is not given a high score) and I feel very protective towards it. In fact, I think there is something uniquely wonderful about marriage, though of course I am not starry-eyed on the subject – well, much less so than I used to be. With a large family our life has been not so much a roller coaster ride as a series of sub-orbital flights followed by steep descents through the atmosphere – sometimes without a parachute. This tends to attune you to reality.
Later I will claim that God thinks marriage is more like Heaven than anything else, but I’m starting by saying that it is a bit like madness. I’m thinking of these words:
To have and to hold
from this day forward
for better, for worse,
for richer, for poorer,
in sickness and in health,
to love and to cherish
till death do us part.
I like to imagine a team of hot-shot lawyers being asked to look over the text of the marriage service (surely the most heartbreakingly lovely collection of words ever assembled?) and to give their professional guidance to a client thinking of embarking on this journey. Their advice is brisk and by return of post:
“This is an absurdly open-ended, vague and irrational contract offering no escape
clauses and we are unanimous in advising you in the strongest terms to refuse to
enter into such an vacuous agreement.”
Yet millions still do.
In the twelve months before I got married I was working in London while my future wife remained in the North. It was a rather unreal but happy time and we saw each other for gloriously joyful reunions at weekends – and yes, at that time I WAS starry-eyed – our future marriage seemed to me a blissful yet rather remote state. And then a few days before the ceremony I duly turned up for the practice in the church in Preston and I am told I was, in the famous Private Eye expression, “ashen faced and tight-lipped”. Something of the enormity of the promises I was about to make in public had finally hit me. I am pleased to say that I had recovered my composure by the day itself and all went well. But no escape clauses are offered, and sooner or later I needed to realise this.
A friend of mine who had been happily married for many a long year was asked what the secret was. He immediately replied: “I does as the wife says”. We smile at this, but buried in his response is a shining jewel of truth. We tend to start off in married life frankly looking for what we can get out of it, though we may not be conscious of this. Then, God willing, we come to realise that, in order to be happy, we must sacrifice our own needs more and more. It is only when we start to do this that we can truly begin to gain the benefits of marriage and come to maturity. The more I think about it the more perfect a vehicle marriage seems to be (at least potentially!) for bringing us to that maturity and tender love that God so wants of us. Shakespeare’s beautiful words from King Lear spring to mind –
“Men must endure
Their going hence even as their coming hither.
Ripeness (ie maturity) is all”.
(which is inscribed on C S Lewis’s tombstone). On reflection, I’m sure my friend’s wife would also have said, in her humility, that it would be true for her in her turn to say: “I just does as th’usband says”. Then you would have the perfect marriage of selflessness.
Rembrandt’s The Jewish Bride – tender love
There is no doubt that God is a great supporter of marriage! There are an extraordinary number of references in scripture to the Kingdom of Heaven being like a wedding feast. I want to take just one – the wedding feast at Cana. It appears in St John (John 2:1-12) and is the first miracle or “sign” given by Jesus. Now John never uses a word or depicts an event without loading it with an enormous amount of significance and meaning. And immediately, at the beginning of the account, we have the extraordinary words “On the third day there was a wedding at Cana in Galilee. Nothing in the surrounding text directly explains the meaning of “on the third day”, but John knows exactly what he means and he assumes his readers will too – it is of course a reference to Jesus’s resurrection (see Matthew 17:23) John is at the outset creating a direct resonance between this wedding feast miracle and the Lord’s rising from the dead! In such a delightfully subtle and human way Jesus’s mother gently seeks to persuade her son to do something about the lack of wine – but his time has not yet come! It is as if the Son of God is saying: “Look, it is actually too soon now to embark on my ministry of salvation for the whole human race, but as this is a wedding feast then I suppose I must.” The most sublime act of courtesy imaginable. Yes, God is very much in favour of weddings – it is the best metaphor for Heaven.
And of course, the Church itself is the bride of Jesus.
Veronese’s Marriage Feast at Cana – Each word loaded with meaning
For Christians of course marriage is a sacrament and the only one that is not administered by an ordained person. It is, rather wonderfully, bestowed by each partner on the other, in the presence of the Church, and based on their declared unconditional commitment (see The Catechism of the Catholic Church 1131). The old definition of a sacrament is “an outward sign of inward grace” but what this really means, amazingly, is that in marriage the man and woman are able to ask God to touch their partner directly, unmediated, with His very Self. No greater gift than this is it possible to imagine. They will need it.
So, like the long journey of marriage itself, this blog this has been rambling, so I’ll try to conjure up something of a summary.
Marriage offers couples the bedrock of unconditional commitment (The first “C”). It gives us the opportunity to grow into loving, mature and less selfish adults, providing a secure and tender home for children. It is a royal road to heaven. God loves marriage.
On that solid base, in my experience, the following are vital (needless to say, with regard to all these pieces of splendid advice, I have to start again every day at the beginning, but here goes):
Good and regular communication (the second “C”) (as a white Anglo-Saxon I am not in a good demographic for this, but it is important to keep trying). This should involve discussing our deeper feelings and emotions, hopes and fears, not just commentaries on the weather.
And the third “C” – loving compromise – not on your commitment, but with regard to the million encounters and events that take place between you every day.
Be tender-hearted to one another.
Have fun and laugh a lot.
Be prepared to start all over again every day.
Do all that and you’ve cracked it. Piece of cake.
There was a lady who used to come to most wedding ceremonies at my church and sit somewhere near the back, often in tears. I have no idea of her personal circumstances, but she said that she loved to come because the ceremony was so extraordinarily beautiful and meaningful and that she could see love shining in the eyes of the couple. Whenever I am tempted to cynicism with regard to marriage, I think of that lady. But even more significantly, I remember the countless miracles, big and small, that marriage has brought to my life.
“The world will not be transformed by great social schemes, important though these may be, but by individual men, women and children learning to love those nearest to them, divesting themselves of themselves in order to give themselves to others. Only thus can God take possession of his world”. Ruth Burrows.