I ended last week with a bald statement that to stop fighting with my spouse, I must arrive at the conclusion that every fight is entirely my fault, and accordingly it is up to me to achieve a peaceful relationship.
If this sounds extreme, consider: Isn’t this precisely the attitude I must cultivate towards God in the face of my sin? Granted, God is perfect and my spouse is not. But marriage was ordained by Him as a perfect means of our sanctification, and so it is eminently trustworthy. In the same way, a monk is called to submit to his abbott, or a directee to her spiritual director. In a marriage it is neither the husband nor the wife but the marriage itself that functions as spiritual director. In submitting to Karen, I submit to God Himself who is love.
(A word of caution here: Whether in a marriage or a monastery, it would be foolish to submit to someone who is cruel or abusive. Such a union may not be a true marriage at all but a travesty, calling for more drastic measures. Generally speaking, however, marriage is a sacrament ordained of God, and as such is inherently trustworthy as a perfect vehicle of His love.)
George MacDonald has an image of a great fire on a hearth. The fire is made of roses. The roses are burning, but they are not consumed, and their fragrance fills the house.
This fire of roses is love. Love not only comforts and warms—it can truly burn. It can hurt. But, as in MacDonald’s story, it will not hurt anyone who embraces the fire fully. So long as you trust love, you will find it perfectly safe. Only to the extent that your trust fails will you be burned.
The woman who puts on a beautiful wedding dress puts on a dress of fire, and the man who dons a tuxedo wears a suit of flame. They are entering into a covenant wherein the fire of love will burn everything that is not love.
When Jesus said, “Enter through the narrow gate … for narrow is the road that leads to life” (Mt 13-4), He meant that nothing else but love can pass through this gate, nothing but pure love can walk this road.
This is a wonderful predicament to be in. In our houses, we are glad that only one key opens the lock. This keeps us safe. And so it is in marriage: To come home, there is always only one key.
In the legend of the sword in the stone, only the true king could withdraw the sword. If this were a legend of marriage, then only when a couple places their hands together—only as one—can they remove the sword from the stone. This principle applies to their every smallest thought and action from the wedding day forward.
In Dante’s Divine Comedy, over the entrance to the Inferno are the words, “Abandon all hope, you who enter here.” At the gate of marriage the words are, “Abandon self.” Marriage is a realm of ‘we,’ not of ‘I’ or ‘you.’
The delicate part is that each partner continues to have an individual life that he or she is responsible to lead. Yet at every point where the pursuit of personal identity may seem to interfere with love (though it never truly does), one must lay it down. If marriage is a chain, it is a chain of pure gold, worth any amount of apparent freedom.
Of course it is quite possible to be married without stooping to wear the chain. Many couples, perhaps most, never surrender completely to love. One man, when asked what his parents’ marriage was like, replied, “It was long.” And so the fire burns.
In order to surrender, and so to put an end to fighting, one must see that it is entirely within one’s power to do so. The storms of life, we all know, are fraught with subtlety and complexity. But perhaps, in the end, the peace we seek lies in something very simple, a pure action of our will. The question is not What should I do? but Will I do it?
[End of Part 4. To be continued next week. Sign up here to receive weekly installments in your email box.]
(Photo by Steffen Papenbroock)