This week I’ve been reading Christopher West’s Heaven’s Song, an unforgettable reflection on marriage as a metaphor for the perfect union God longs to have with us. When I reached a section called “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Becoming ‘One Flesh,” I was so struck by the boldfaced truth of one passage, I had to stop and process it a bit. West writes:
If the Song of Songs reveals the ecstasy of becoming one flesh, the marriage of Tobias and Sarah reveals the agony. Only by holding the two together do we get a realistic vision of marriage.
Catholic writer Melinda Selmys brought this point out well in an article entitled “Divorce: In the Image and Likeness of Hell” (National Catholic Register, 9/30/07). … “The theologians remind us that our married life is an image of the union between Christ [and the Church]. We hear of … the bliss of two becoming one …. But how are you to fall in love again with an insensitive beast who has broken your heart and slept with another woman? How can you see your sex life as an image of the intimate life of the Blessed Trinity when your wife consents only on a full moon when Mars is in Virgo, and makes love with the enthusiasm of a dead frog?”
For whatever reason, such brutally honest writing seems rare in much of the Catholic press. It is as if those who promote Catholic teaching are afraid it will not go over so well if we talk about the real sufferings of following Jesus. So we conveniently promote the glories of the Christian life without a realistic assessment of the sorrows (Heaven’s Song p.143).
Now, some of you reading this may be cringing, wondering where on earth I’m going with this. No, Craig has never cheated on me (he says he can barely handle one woman … what on earth would he do with another one?). And he assures me that I do not bear the tiniest resemblance to a dead amphibian. No, the specific examples Selmys offers aren’t directly relevant to me . . . but the underlying message is important. Marriage can be hard. There’s really no getting around it; you just have to get through it.
No matter how much you love the man you married, there are going to be times when you cast a wistful glance to the other side of the bed, and wonder how the chasm between your pillows has grown so incredibly wide. Wonder how the nightly dramas of family life have so encroached on marital bliss that you can barely span the distance with your outstretched hands.
Can you relate to this? If not — if your life is so flowing with marital bliss, you can’t imagine greater happiness in this lifetime – you’re excused from reading any further.
But if a tiny part of you can relate to this kind of loneliness, this kind of sorrow, take heart. Bridal joy need not be the stuff of memories. But sometimes the only way to catch the sweetest strains of heaven’s song is to walk through that valley of shadows.
Marriage isn’t always “happily ever after.” Sometimes it’s, “Faithful even when.” For it is especially at these times of white-knuckled trusting that we are best able to mirror – to ourselves and to the world around us – the kind of no-holds-barred, sacrificial kind of love Christ has for us.
In the story of Tobias and Sarah, a courageous young man accepts the hand of a beautiful girl who had already been widowed seven times on her wedding night. Talk about baggage. To be joined to her would have been such certain death that on their wedding night, his father-in-law was digging Tobias’ grave before the wedding feast was over.
Most of us enter marriage with our own custom set of personal baggage, which out of sheer love our spouses learn to navigate (for better or worse), just as we learn to manage theirs. In most cases, that baggage isn’t quite as lethal as Sarah’s … On the other hand, it can be just as deadly to the union if we don’t recognize it for what it is, and resolve to do whatever is necessary to get the healing we need. And most often, this requires three kinds of ongoing choices:
The choice to let go. The expectations brought into marriage can provide a useful pattern for the future … or a trap of ongoing negativity and strife. For example, I grew up in a home where my father was home for dinner every night, and worked around the house every weekend. Neither of these things has been possible for Craig, who works long hours just to keep up with the demands of his job. And so, I had to manage my expectations: I could continue to harp at what he is unable to do for us, or appreciate what he does provide, and find ways to connect with my husband in ways that worked for us.
The choice to “cleave.” In and out of the bedroom, the choice to hold on to one another, loving and caring for one another as husband and wife can be obscured by all kinds of things. Health or other necessity may make physical intimacy difficult or impossible. And yet protecting that “shining barrier” of love (as memorably captured in Sheldon Vanauken’s work A Severe Mercy) is crucial, even when it is not exactly the stuff of fairy tales. When shadowy demons of separateness prowl, in the story of Tobias and Sarah, we rediscover the antidote: deep, intimate, prayerful, thankful togetherness.
The choice to forgive. It always boils down to this, doesn’t it? Forgiving each other. Forgiving ourselves for our own failures. Sometimes even forgiving God for not keeping us out of harm’s way. (Imagine Sarah’s mental state from enduring the pain and isolation of seven dead grooms.) The oil of forgiveness is the healing balm that washes away the dirt and debris, so the woundedness can begin to heal.
Of course. You knew that, didn’t you? An article in a Catholic forum about marriage has to include the necessity of forgiveness within our most intimate relationship. And yet, I was recently reminded of the importance of not carrying past grievances into marriage (this kind of baggage can do real harm within our vocation) and how the graces of marriage can also do a great deal to heal past woundedness.
The other day Craig got uncharacteristically angry because I was less than supportive of his piano practice. My “constructive suggestions” for improving his piano technique fell on deaf ears. All he heard was the sound track of his own childhood, when his dreams of learning a musical instrument were dashed by the critical remarks of family members who told him he had no talent, and should stop.
Intellectually, he understands why unproductive practice time is painful for me to listen to. But his heart needed me to re-record that inner soundtrack, to replace criticism with encouragement so he could practice from a place of confidence and strength.
Choosing to relinquish, to cleave, and to forgive. Embracing the crosses and hardships so something better and stronger and life-giving can result. Through it all, God can be trusted to guide us toward something infinitely better than a fairy tale – something more tangible, real . . . and everlasting.
“Blessed are you, O God of our fathers,” we pray with Tobias and Sarah. “Blessed be your holy and glorious name forever. Let the heavens and the whole creation bless you. You made Adam and gave him Eve his wife as a helper and support. From them the race of mankind has sprung.
“Lord, we believe you have given us to each other for richer or poorer, in sickness and health, to love and to cherish. Help us to love not in our own strength, but with all the graces you have for your Bride. Confident in these graces, we will take up with courage even our crosses and follow you with all our hearts. In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen!”
(c) 2011 Heidi Hess Saxton