I lived in Mexico for two years as a missionary, and I’ve been accustomed to speaking, and thinking, of those years as the most formative of my life. There I walked a godly walk—entering into the homes and hearts of real people who loved and longed and ached and wept. I laid hands on heads and pronounced words far beyond my experience or knowledge. My heart expanded and my soul soared. It was more humanity, sometimes, than I could bear. I was only twenty. But I felt so much sorrow and so much love. I learned there what Paul means in his letter to the Philippians when he says that Jesus “emptied himself” and took upon himself “the form of a servant.” I poured myself out in service, and I felt close to God and his angels.
But it struck me the other day with the force of revelation that the most truly formative, shaping, re-creating experience of my life has been my interaction with my bright, holy wife. If my missionary years gave me a sense of the way I wanted to live my life, then my Half Orange (as they would call her in Mexico) has shown me how to mobilize those desires. Julie is the most salient element in my mortal experience.
Let’s celebrate in song-and-dance
the day that she said yes
and I said yes,
and songbirds sang, and angels left their nests.
Marilynne Robinson writes, in my favorite novel, “I know this [life] is all mere apparition compared to what awaits us, but it is only lovelier for that. There is a human beauty in it. And I can’t believe that, when we have all been changed and put on incorruptibility, we will forget our fantastic condition of mortality and impermanence, the great bright dream of procreating and perishing that meant the whole world to us. In eternity this world will be Troy, I believe, and all that has passed here will be the epic of the universe, the ballad they sing in the streets. Because I don’t imagine any reality putting this one in the shade entirely, and I think piety forbids me to try.” If that is true, and it feels true to me that we will look back with great affection on this strange and wonderful mortal existence, then for me the songs will largely deal with the quiet, gentle struggle for joy that marriage has mobilized.
I don’t really know why I feel so inclined, but I want to sing a paean for marriage today, in praise of the brilliant, dizzying adventure of matrimony. Marriage is holy. It is ordained of God because God loves us, and marriage is the vehicle for more joy in this life than any other thing. Joy is the measure of our creation. This is why a man leaves father and mother and cleaves to his wife. This is why the twain should be one. In our world there is a fear of marriage extant that frankly baffles me, and a propensity to give up on it too easily that saddens me. When I knelt in a sacred place across an altar with the girl—and she was really just a lovely, scared, excited girl—I love more than anything in the bright world and received a promise from her holy, wise grandfather that our love would sing and shout and shine long after the earth was a smoldering heap of rocks and steam, I could not have been happier.
But that was just the beginning. I had no idea then the strength that would come from having a helpmeet, a perpetual teammate who would always play on my side, lay by my side laughing in bed about something one of our little bedlamites said or did. This communion is the closest thing to contact with God I have ever achieved. And we do laugh. And it’s one of my favorite things. If I were trying to calm young Von Trapp children on a stormy night, I would sing of late night laughing and two heads on a pillow. Still, my wife is a holy mystery to me sometimes. But I know her better than any person on the planet. This is the deepest and richest of friendships. And that fact alone—the possibility of really coming to know just one person on this earth—makes marriage a really remarkable thing.
In oneness she’s shown me some things—
eternity is made up of more than solemnities,
though solemn sometimes I feel in the face of her faith,
her sunbright soul, her singsong spirit,
her God-gifted goodness, her yes.
And yes, this yes whispers shoutingly, brightbird-singingly.
My heart sits on the edge of a warm dirt path, next to hers,
(life-green grass) smells the air, takes in the dawnsong,
feels her fingers feeling, blessing, giving.
Outstretched and open.
And, oh, my heart beats: Thank you. Thank you. Thanks.
Don’t get me wrong, I understand that marriage can be quite difficult sometimes. Catholic theologian, Michael Novak, wrote something very nice about the benefits of marriage: “Marriage is an assault upon the lonely, atomic ego. Marriage is a threat to the solitary individual. Marriage does impose grueling, humbling, baffling, and frustrating responsibilities. Yet if one supposes that precisely such things are the preconditions for all true liberation, marriage is not the enemy of moral development in adults. Quite the opposite. Being married and having children has impressed on my mind certain lessons, for whose learning I cannot help being grateful. Most are lessons of difficulty and duress. Most of what I am forced to learn about myself is not pleasant. . . . My dignity as a human being depends perhaps more on what sort of husband and parent I am, than on any professional work I am called on to do. My bonds to my family hold me back (and my wife even more) from many sorts of opportunities. And yet these do not feel like bonds. They are, I know, my liberation. They force me to be a different sort of human being, in a way in which I want and need to be forced.” Do you sense what he’s saying? Of course it can be hard to pour yourself out, to empty yourself. That can hurt. But that is what makes a person like Jesus. This is a sanctifying experience.
Our first, and to this day most memorable, major argument was about chocolate chips. I argued emphatically for the benefits of milk chocolate chips. My wife retaliated with a fervent testimony regarding semi-sweet. I stormed out of the house. I really did. Now that all is affable we find the whole thing laughable. But not then. It mattered. It wasn’t until I realized that it didn’t matter that peace came. I had to pour myself out. And I’ve come to learn that it’s relieving, liberating, to do so. My soul wants to let go of things that don’t matter. And marriage has given my soul the opportunity.
Back to Robinson’s Gilead. Reverend Ames writes of the experience of blessing an infant, “There is a reality in blessing . . . . It doesn’t enhance sacredness, but it acknowledges it, and there is power in that.” Well, marriage is performed in holy places. And the ceremony certainly sanctifies the union, or at least acknowledges that this is a sacred thing: a man and a woman are about to become like Christ, to give themselves for the good of the other, to empty themselves out. They are about to experience communion and joy unrivaled. They are about to embark on the most creative endeavor.
We sometimes speak of some future godhood in which we will create worlds. But I think that is here and now. That is marriage. We create a home and a brand new culture, a small world, and children. That is surely godlike. Every day I am Adam, deeply grateful for my Eve.
Do you remember the morning
we awoke to see the deer
right outside our window?
I was Adam, you were Eve
and the golden world was new,
glistening with possibility.
He ate the trees, and you
kissed my cheek.
And now, every morning I awake
to the song of your smile,
and the world feels refreshed,
as if your lips had gently,
ever so gently,
brushed its brilliant face.
She is the mother of all living. Praise her. And praise the union that made us one.
(The painting is "Dancing on a Very Small Island" by Brian Kershisnik)