Man is the only creature on earth which God willed for itself, [and he] cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself. — Gaudium et Spes 24
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Of all the marriages in all the movies ever made, surely the most exquisite narrative to capture the heart of the nuptial mystery flows from the lips of The Impressive Clergyman in The Princess Bride:
Mawage. Mawage is wot bwings us togeder tooday. Mawage, that bwessed awangment, that dweam wifin a dweam…And wuv, tru wuv, will fowow you foweva…So tweasure your wuv.
OK, he’s not exactly speaking in “the tongues of angels,” but the scene is funny and serves up a fluffy, absurd counterpart to the mature love between Westley and Buttercup: sacrificial, faithful, pure, patient and lasting.
My own wedding day wasn’t exactly a fairytale, but I remember it fondly: a wonderful service at a white country church, a frigid outdoor reception under a leaky tent, bales of sawdust poured on the soggy ground for a makeshift dance floor, and lots of merriment. And while I fully treasured every moment, my mind also raced ahead to the evening when my bride and I would be alone. I hate to seem like the buffoonish Prince Humperdinck, but I also kept thinking, Skip to the end!
I mean, I had earned this. I had waited. I was careful about who I dated. I tried, did my best to stay pure. This was the end to my long wait, and even the Bible confirmed that our bodies belonged to each other now. We talked about these things beforehand, and we were ready for the biggest wedding gift of all — that one-flesh union no one fully understands.
I thought I was ready, but like many young adults, I didn’t really understand God’s design for sexuality. I felt that sexual desire was a bit dangerous and unstable, so I focused on keeping the one big rule: Never with anyone but your spouse. Once you were married, though, it was “game on.”
As it turned out, that night provided our first lesson as a married couple: Things will go awry. My dear wife’s hairdresser had sculpted a magnificent fortress of hair, elaborately curled and masterfully restrained by three dozen hairpins jammed deep into her tresses and bent in half. It was effective, like breaking off a key in the lock. My wife’s hair never moved. We also found that she couldn’t lie down without the sweet kiss of metal against her skull. So even though we had finally “skipped to the end,” we sighed and settled down to the painstaking and seemingly endless task of disassembling her hair.
There was another lesson to be learned that night, but it took another few years before I began to realize that my marriage wasn’t all about me. It was with true horror that I finally grasped that my seemingly loving relationship with my wife was one in which I thought more about taking from her than giving to her. This attitude began long before I was married. In the absence of a well-developed, Christ-centered sexual ethic, my view of marital love was more influenced by pornography and secular culture than the Bible. Somewhere along the way, what could have been a pure and holy desire for union turned into an entitlement mentality which kept me focused on myself and what I should be getting sexually.
I know I am not alone. Christian young adults tend to invest an awful lot of hope and desire in the “salvific” effects of the eventual marital union. That is, they’ve thought and dreamed and prayed for this: the end to loneliness, the quenching of desire, and finding a true hearth and home. Especially for those who reserve sexual activity for marriage, there is a strong sense of having earned what comes next, of collecting on what’s due.
In his book Man and Woman God Made Them, Jean Vanier describes why pinning such high hopes to marriage is doomed. He writes, “The human heart thirsts for a paradise and an eternal wedding feast.… So many of the young who lack maturity believe that marriage will be this paradise. But then they discover that it is a school of life and love; it is a place of transformation.” Put another way, the reality of life in a fallen world grinds the marriage fantasy to dust.
According to scholar Edward Sri, both the paradise view of marriage and the entitlement approach to intimacy are signs of a significant failure in how people approach relationships. In his book Men, Women and the Mystery of Love, Sri poses the question that every person pursuing marriage must ask:
Am I committed to this other person for who she is or for the enjoyment I receive from the relationship? Does my beloved understand what is truly best for me, and does she have the faith and virtue to help me get there? Are we deeply united by a common aim, serving each other and striving together toward a common good that is higher than each of us? Or are we just living side-by-side, sharing resources and occasional good times together while we selfishly pursue our own interests and enjoyments in life?
Read that last question again and see if that doesn’t describe the sad reality for many people today. Divorce happens in large part because people see others as means to personal pleasure rather than persons to whom they wish to give themselves. Yet, for those willing to stick around, Vanier describes the renewal that comes with opening up a marriage to its divine calling:
Through the joys and ecstasies, but also through the pain, the blockages, and times of forgiveness, they progressively learn how to love and be faithful. They learn that love is a gift, a beautiful gift, but that each one has to work at loving.… At first the gift of their tenderness and their bodies is very immature. But because they want their union to be a sign of the presence of God and a sacrament, they grow together in love and truth through this ‘work.’ Together they become a sign of the Kingdom.
Love in the Image of God
This idea of marriage becoming a “sign of the Kingdom” will no doubt confuse many, in part because no one speaks like this today. The key to this mystery comes by discovering that the Bible’s presentation of marriage is more than a collection of unrelated phrases that make fine readings at wedding ceremonies.
George Weigel writes that “stuff matters” in the Bible. He means that everything is there for specific purposes and has real (as opposed to culturally constructed) meaning for our lives. To believe that about Scripture is to begin to discern a divinely structured whole that presents marriage as an integral aspect of our lives on earth and eternal life with God.
If you don’t believe this, read your Bible from cover to cover. In the very beginning you witness the creation of man and woman and their joyful union, the first marriage. Soon after begins the tortured story of God’s relationship with faithless Israel. In this, God calls himself a faithful husband to wayward Israel. Of course, you know well the center of the Bible, which contains the erotic love poetry of Solomon. Jesus calls himself the bridegroom and willingly gives up His body for His beloved. This is further reinforced by Paul who refers to believers as the bride of Christ. Finally, at the very end of time, we are treated to the true, final and ultimate wedding feast of Christ and His church.
Taking God’s love — sacrificial, faithful, pure, patient and lasting — as our model, we have an authentic vision of love that stands in stark contrast to a culture that persistently pushes people to take from others. The selfish cultural narrative fails to satisfy precisely because it violates our true calling.
In one of the documents prepared at the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, we find this truth: “Christ … fully reveals man to man himself and makes his supreme calling clear.” If we know anything about Jesus it’s that He came to give himself for others, especially for His beloved bride, the church. The calling that Christ reveals to us has been called the “law of the gift.” We are meant to make our entire lives a gift to those around us.
This is more than sexual, but has implication for sexual expression, too. Christians teach that sex is a gift from God, but we too often see it as a gift that we can use as we see fit. A more mature understanding is to recognize sexuality as a gift we hold in trust for another or for God alone. How differently I would have approached my new bride if I had known this before we were married!
Journey of Love
While I may wish that I had begun our married journey with an unspeakably pure heart, I have also learned that moving toward this kind of mature love is a process that takes time. Even as I write these things I am still learning them myself. Marital bliss isn’t a destination you arrive at on the honeymoon or on your five-year anniversary or even, perhaps, after 10 or 20 years. Again, Jean Vanier describes love’s steady calling of love as a path to transformation:
The union of the man and the woman, and the life with their children, are there for the growth and healing of each other. They are there to grow together in love and service, towards a true maturity, to be better able to open themselves to others, to the world and to God. They are there to be transformed.
Copyright 2012 Christopher Riordan. All rights reserved.