Daily Meditations

The Destiny of Eros: The Nuptial Way (Part II)

Marriage is chaste because it integrates the erotic relationship of the two persons into their communion within the Church; as their mutual love is expressed through their complementary natures, each gives the other to the world. For nine centuries there was no distinctive rite of marriage for Christians. The couple would marry, then go together to communion. For a man and a woman whose life is rooted in Christ, their love is something they have to discover, renew, provide with a face- each giving it the face of the other, and both giving it the faces of their children. They do not have to invent it; it existed before them, it brought them together; it is the love of God for the world, of God for the human race, of Christ for his Church.

According to the usual account the woman was born during the man’s ‘sleep’, but the Greek of the Septuagint is more accurately translated ‘ecstasy’. In the same way the death of Christ on the Cross is an ‘ecstasy’ which gives birth to the new humanity. This ecstasy of the Crucified is the basis of all human love. Every true love, even far beyond the visible borders of the Church, wittingly or unwittingly retraces this ecstasy. The unwitting love will wear itself out, unless death comes first, for ‘love is a sickness full of woes’. But the love that knows will be enabled to draw from the inexhaustible ecstasy of Christ. From his pierced side flow the water of baptism and the blood of the Eucharist. From the gaping wound of his torment the Spirit springs.

When human love seems to be running dry, we need only bore down into the limitless reserves of divine-human love. After repentance, forgiveness, the ‘wilderness’ of unreciprocated trust, the other is suddenly restored to us; our amazement and gratitude deepen as our faithfulness becomes, in the Spirit, an opportunity for renewal. As a result, again and again we experience between us not just the transitory flights of passion but peace, joy, mutual trust—sure evidence of the ‘great mystery’.

So in the discipline of marriage there are three golden rules.

The first is that hindrances must be internalized, not conjured away. Love will endure, will avoid sinking into promiscuity or fatigue, only if its way is peppered with obstacles. In a true marriage, these do not disappear, they are internalized. They remain as obstinate reminders that the other is a person in his or her own right; all too close, perhaps, but nevertheless a neighbour. ‘One flesh’ means one life; not fusion, but communion; they must know how to stay two. Each must be aware of the other’s distinct existence, just as real, just as profound; mysterious, not in its opaqueness, which can all too easily provoke hatred, but in its very transparency.

The second rule is that we must refuse to objectify eros. After the reticence of Victorian times, Western society is now obsessed with the ‘arts of love’. If love is a language, by all means let us learn to speak it. But what good is that if there is nothing left to say to each other, if we are nothing more than smoothly functioning machines? Rejecting the wanderings of fantasy on one hand and mechanical sex on the other; balancing the other person’s need for attention with our own wish to live life to the full- that is a discipline which hardly anybody finds attractive.

The third rule is that human love is fulfilled and transcended in joint service. A couple who are completely wrapped up in each other are lost. The only choice they have is between mutual destruction and combined creation, in that general impetus of service and life, or service to life, which is the distinguishing mark of the Church. This is clearly exemplified in the married clergy of the undivided Church, and of the Orthodox today, where the priesthood is, in a sense, assumed not by the man alone, but by the couple.

And here arises the mystery which is at the heart of the family: the child. ‘For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named’ (Ephesians 3.14-15). From a properly Christian point of view, the end of marriage is procreation. True love has no end; it is its own justification. But that means it cannot be fruitful except in the fruits of joint service and effort, the joint welcoming of others, or bringing children ‘into the world’. How few couples really bring their children into the world! How many are wrapped up in them, devouring them with their sweaty adoration, till the children, with pitiless cruelty, deliver themselves from that sterile family womb! How many adults seek the meaning of life in their children, instead of transmitting it to them! They are servants of the species, not of the person.

Truly bringing children into the world means knowing how to give them not only life, but the example of creative service; it means accepting the fate of the bark which surrounds the bud, giving necessary protection, opening little by little, until it is no longer needed. It means making of the family and household the ‘little Church’ of which St John Chrysostom speaks; where the children, learning from the example of their elders, undertake a double apprenticeship, being opened to God and to their neighbour. How rich in meaning is the custom, in traditional Christian peasant societies, of always leaving a place free at the table, in case a stranger should knock; who might, for all they know, be the Stranger, God visiting his people under a familiar guise.

But surely the child is itself a little stranger who visits us. In however many reassuring ways it resembles us, it nevertheless remains radically different. As we know, we discover more and more as time goes by how much the child was wanted all along. There is something magnificent in this freedom that can transform fertility from a biological urge into the desire for a vaster love. But it will happen only on one condition: however much the child was wanted, even if it had been possible to ‘programme’ it, it must have been welcomed in the beginning, and welcomed as a stranger.

~Olivier Clement, On Human Being:  A Spiritual Anthropology