My good friend Murray Phillips, a renowned wilderness painter and one of the kindest and most interesting people I have ever known, died on March 1 of a brain tumor, the day after his third wedding anniversary.
After losing his first wife to cancer, Murray remarried in 2015 to Evelyn. They asked me to give a talk at their reception, and here’s what I said:
A marriage, or a marriage partner, may be compared to a great tree growing right up through the center of your living room. It is something that is just there, and it is huge, and everything has been built around it, and wherever you happen to be going—to the fridge, to bed, to the bathroom, or out the front door—that tree has to be taken into account. It cannot be gone through; it must respectfully be gone around. It is bigger and stronger than yourself. True, it could be chopped down, but not without tearing the house apart. And certainly it is beautiful, unique, exotic; but also, let’s face it, it is at times an enormous inconvenience.
The above passage is from my book The Mystery of Marriage, published thirty years ago. I feel it’s appropriate for a couple who both love nature, and especially for a man who loves trees and has painted thousands of them. But it’s one thing when the wilderness is outside, where it belongs. It’s another thing when wilderness moves into your home.
A new marriage is a wilderness, in the best sense of that word. It’s wild, beautiful, unexplored, unlimited, and perilous. It’s perilous for those who enter without a respect for its dangers.
George MacDonald imagined the 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 can truly burn; it can hurt. But, as in MacDonald’s image, it will not hurt anyone who embraces the fire fully.
Murray and Evelyn, on this your wedding day, it is easy to regard your relationship purely in romantic terms. A man who has lost his first wife finds new love at the age of seventy, and a woman who has never been married discovers late in life the joy of being cherished. What a beautiful story!
Yet there’s another aspect to this story, which is that you’re both entering into a fire—a fire that not only comforts and warms, but that burns. The fire of love burns 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 want there to be only one key that 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 by placing your hands together—only as one—can you remove the sword from the stone. As a couple, this principle will apply to your every smallest thought and action from this day forward. Marriage is a realm of ‘we,’ not of ‘I’ or ‘you.’
At the same time, each of you will continue to have an individual life that you are responsible to lead. Yet at every point where the pursuit of your own identity may seem to interfere with love (though it never truly will), you must lay it down. If marriage is a chain, it is a chain of pure gold, worth any amount of apparent freedom.
Today we celebrate the shimmering romance of your love, but we also celebrate all that is unromantic: the sinkfuls of dirty dishes, the daily disappointments, the tug-of-war between two wills, the sickness as much as the health. We celebrate all this because here is where marriage can save you—can save you from yourself. Your love, if you let it, will take everything that is unbeautiful in your lives and make it radiant.
Murray and Evelyn, we pray for you every blessing: a blessing on your high times, and equally on your low; a blessing on the whole gamut of your lives together. As you pass through the narrow gate today, may you continually be amazed at how safe and homey is the wide, wide wilderness of love.
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