Sunday, May 24, 2009

On love and marriage

A few days ago I posted to some friends a short extract from Thomas Merton’s essay, “Love and Need.” a chapter in one of his less widely read books, Love and Living:

“Our philosophy of life is not something we create all by ourselves out of nothing. Our ways of thinking, even our attitudes toward ourselves, are more and more determined from the outside. Even our love tends to fit ready-made forms. We consciously or unconsciously tailor our notions of love according to patterns we are exposed to day after day....

“Love is our true destiny. We do not find the meaning of life by ourselves alone – we find it with another. We do not discover the secret of our lives merely by study and calculation in our own isolated meditations. The meaning of our life is a secret that has to be revealed to us in love, by the one we love.

“[In our society] Love is regarded as a deal. The deal presupposes that we all have needs which have to be fulfilled by means of exchange. In order to make a deal you have to appear in the market with a worthwhile product, or if the product is worthless, you can get by if you dress it up in a good-looking package. We unconsciously think of ourselves as objects for sale on the market. We want to be wanted. We want to attract customers. We want to look like the kind of product that makes money. Hence we waste a great deal of time modeling ourselves on the images presented to us by an affluent marketing society.

“In doing this we come to consider ourselves and others not as persons but as products, as ‘goods,’ or in other words, as packages. We appraise one another commercially. We size each other up and make deals with a view to our own profit. We do not give ourselves in love, we make a deal that will enhance our own product, and therefore no deal is final. Our eye is already on the next deal, and this next deal need not necessarily be with the same customer. Life is more interesting when you make a lot of deals with a lot of new customers.

“This view, which equates lovemaking with salesmanship and love with a glamorous package, is based on the idea of love as a mechanism of instinctive needs. We are biological machines endowed with certain urges that require fulfillment. If we are smart. We can exploit and manipulate in ourselves and in others....

“The trouble with this commercialized idea of love is that it diverts your attention more and more from the essentials to the accessories of love. You are no longer able to really love the other person, for you become obsessed with the effectiveness of your own package, your own product, your own market value.”

The night before last Nancy was reading Merton’s essay and was so struck by this passage (seen in context above) that she paused to read it aloud:

“We do not find the meaning of life by ourselves alone – we find it with another. We do not discover the secret of our lives merely by study and calculation in our own isolated meditations. The meaning of our life is a secret that has to be revealed to us in love, by the one we love.”

Beautiful and true. But how often in marriage husbands and wives fail to see each other but instead see false selves that one or both have created as an adaptation to the other. It’s possible to be married yet never really see one’s partner, or oneself.

I’ve often thought how difficult it is to see oneself – perhaps impossible. The non-seeing of self is one of Walker Percy’s recurrent themes in both his novels and essays. God sees us perfectly and those who know us see us to some imperfect extent, some more clearly, some less or some not at all. It is only with God’s love that we really see another person. Merton mentions this basic truth this in a letter to Dorothy Day: “Persons are not known by intellect alone, not by principles alone, but only by love. It is when we love the other ... that we obtain from God the key to an understanding of who he is, and who we are. It is only this realization that can open to us the real nature of our duty, and of right action.” [Living With Wisdom, pp 170-1]

Ideally in a relationship of love, as fear diminishes, there is the gradual falling away of the costumes we’ve put on out of our own insecurity as a means of self-defense. In a healthy relationship, the true self gradually becomes stronger and more daring – and then a gradual disrobing occurs until the couple find themselves in a state of Eden-like “nakedness” – a state of being without costumes or masks.

But in so many marriages this never happens. We never reach the state of being in communion with each other – rather live in a state of disconnection, where at best we collaborate on practical matters but without the dimension of love.

-- Jim

More on this topic: See Nancy's essay, "Marriage and Hospitality:

[The icon is of Saints Anne and Joachim, the parents of Mary, and has the title "The Conception of the Theotokos." As an image of marital love, it is an icon often given to a newly married couple.]


beth said...

I think that you are on to something, Jim and Nancy.

I have often longed for more "attention" to the sacrament of marriage, as a way to God. Every bit as holy as that of a so-called religious vocation.

The notion of hospitality as the center of marriage rings true to me - opening oneself to others -to the stranger, to children, to each other. This is radical.

That Merton's words could lead one to the sacramentality of marriage is remarkable (but what isn't remarkable about his words?).

And finally, I will look at the icon of Saints Anne and Joachim for awhile ...

Jim & Nancy Forest said...

Thanks, Beth.

It seems in the Catholic Church, perhaps because of its celibate priesthood, that there is far too little attention paid to marriage as a path to the kingdom of God. It's interesting that attention to Mary's parents is so absent.

As you are taking a closer look at the icon of Sts Anne & Joachim, let me share with you this few paragrpahs from my book, Praying With Icons:

Saints Anne and Joachim

It is related in a second century apocryphal Christian text, the Infancy Gospel of James, that Mary’s parents were Anne and Joachim. They are among the saints always invoked at the end of every Orthodox Liturgy. No words better communicate how blessed is the vocation of marriage than the icon of Anne and Joachim embracing each other. (The full name of the icon is the Conception of the Mother of God.)

The mother of the Messiah was the only child of Joachim and Anne, who met and married in Nazareth. Like Abraham and Sarah, they waited for decades for a child until Anne was past her child-bearing years. Even then they prayed, vowing that if they were blessed with either son or daughter, they would offer their offspring as a gift to the Lord. After the promise was made, an angel appeared to Anne, announcing she would bear a daughter “whose name would be proclaimed throughout the world and through whom all nations would be blessed.” Soon after Mary’s birth, Joachim and Anne brought her to the Temple in Jerusalem to offer her to God. According to tradition, the couple lived long lives, Joachim until he was 80, Anne until she was 79.

“God is love,” Saint John the Evangelist declares. We see in the gentle embrace portrayed in the icon not only the love that joins Joachim and Anne in marriage, but we glimpse the deliverance of the world in the love which unites the grandparents of the Savior. So much depended on Anne and Joachim’s devotion to each other and to God.

In modern writing about the nativity of Christ, some authors reject the Gospel account of his virgin birth, not only because they object to miracles in general, but in some cases because they see a pregnancy occurring through the Holy Spirit’s intervention as diminishing the value of procreation within marriage. The problem is made more complex because in the history of Christianity celibacy has often been presented as a higher vocation, with marriage and sexual activity between husband and wife as something only to be grudgingly tolerated.

This icon reveals a very different attitude. We see in it a celebration not only of the sanctity of the parents of Mary, but a ringing affirmation of the vocation of marriage. Here Joachim is the ideal husband and Anne the perfect wife. The essence of marriage is suggested by the slight bending of Anne and Joachim, each toward the other. Each is the servant of the other rather than one the ruler and the other the slave. Their faces touch while the two arms visible in the image make a crossing gesture similar to that associated, in Orthodox practice, with receiving communion.

There is another remarkable detail: Anne’s outer garment seems blown open not by a wind but by the inner opening of Anne to her beloved. Though husband and wife are clothed in the most modest way one can imagine, the icon communicates a climate of the deepest intimacy.

In some versions of the icon we find a single building behind the two, suggesting the perfect unity that should occur within marriage. In other versions, there are two houses, one behind Joachim, the other behind Anne, both with open doors, with the two connected by a red banner draped between the roofs: another symbol of separation overcome — between man and woman, but also between humanity and the Creator.

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