2103/14 re-post — My favorite post of all.
Set me as a seal upon your heart,
as a seal upon your arm;
for love is strong as death,
passion fierce as the grave.
Its flashes are flashes of fire,
a raging flame.
Many waters cannot quench love,
neither can floods drown it. — Song of Songs 8:6-7
In our third year of marriage, I wrote my wife a poem that I would like to share here. She gave me permission.
I wrote it as a meditation on St. Bonaventure’s contention, not shared by St. Thomas Aquinas, that the covenant bond of sacramental marriage endures even beyond the grave. Though no longer a sacrament in the next world, and no longer sexual, something of the unique bond of marital love remains in the new creation. This position is an open opinion, a matter of theological speculation (what is called a theologoumenon, which is just the best word ever), and is not a defined article of faith.
St. Bonaventure says that marriage, from the Garden of Eden to the Garden of Paradise, bears within it the indelible mark of three mysteries: (1) the three-in-one Trinitarian communion of Persons, (2) the union of human and divine natures in Christ and (3) the covenant bond of Christ with his Bride, the Church. What a subject for prayer for a couple to reflect on together! Together they embody and communicate to all of creation these “deep things of God” (1 Cor.2:10), all in the midst of day to day nothings, small gestures of love and fidelity. Marriage is a sacramental nexus where God’s boundless self-emptying love and humanity’s bounded and muddling expressions of love coincide. No wonder marriage is so volatile!
Marriage was created and re-created by God to be a singularly thin and translucent window into His life-giving mystery — for the spouses, for their children and for all humanity. If “to love another person is to see the face of God,” then what kind of vision of God is possible when I choose to love another person in a most absolute, radical and final way? To see, touch, hear, smell and taste your spouse in faith is to see, touch, hear, smell and taste the beauty, goodness, fidelity, love, life and terribly disconcerting nearness of God incarnate. In the words of Gaudium et Spes:
Authentic married love is caught up into divine love and is governed and enriched by Christ’s redeeming power and the saving activity of the Church, so that this love may lead the spouses to God with powerful effect…
The Eastern Orthodox Churches, at least in their canonical-legal tradition, take the “radical monogamy” teaching very seriously. They view a subsequent marriage that follows a first valid sacramental marriage as a concession to human weakness. A second marriage is celebrated as a penitential act. In fact, the prayer after vows in the nuptial liturgy for a second marriage ends with the words, “You know the frailty of human nature, O Lord.” For the Orthodox, it matters not whether the first marriage ended by divorce or by the death of a spouse.
This is certainly a very strange notion for most Catholic or Protestant Christians for whom death dissolves marriage. Fr. Tom Hopko says of this Orthodox tradition:
In fact, we even believe, and I preach this many times in my life that when a man’s wife dies or a woman’s husband dies, as real Christians they remain faithful to them forever, and they cultivate a new relationship with them since they are in the presence of the Lord. But Chrysostom says that explicitly. He said if you’re really a strict Christian, you will be faithful even through death. And we have no expression in our marriage service “until death do us part.” There is no parting.
Radical monogamy is the most perfect expression of the love of God for creation, as is also virginity. Those are the two perfect human expressions of the love of God in human form. Sure, there can be penance. Sure, there can be compassionate “oikonomia” [accommodation to human weakness]. Certainly, there can be condescension to people’s sins and weaknesses, but they should be understood as being sins and weaknesses. They should not be justified in any case.
Now of course in the secular, fallen world you’ll have people who will say, “Well, why would I commit myself forever to anybody anyway? Maybe we’ll fall out of love. Maybe this is only good for a time. Maybe we’ll love somebody else. Maybe we’ll love many people. Maybe we’ll want to have sex with everyone.” Well the ancient Christian and Scriptural Christian answer would be that that’s part of the corrupted world, but that’s not the way Christians behave. That’s not the way Christians do it. If you’re a Christian, you just don’t do it this way. Period. One God, one faith, one baptism, one spouse.
Notwithstanding the uneven status this tradition of radical monogamy holds in the Church, what it highlights with laser focus is that married love is a most radical form of human love., i.e. love of neighbor in extremis, “in the extreme.” It contains and models within itself all other forms of love — of the friend, the lover, the martyr. Its absolute exclusivity demands an undivided heart. Upon this rock of marital love the human family is built, and through it, as through a diamond, the covenant love between God and humanity refracts its richest spectrum of color.
This should give each married couple pause, and the vivid sense of a vocation is vastly greater than the mere sum of their own individual personalities and preferences. Married love exists to tell the greatest love story ever told and, as sacrament, this love story has in reality been entrusted to them in “good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over” (Lk. 6:38).
It’s the most important story you will ever tell your children, that helps shape their view of everything.
But we are so weak and small, sinful and inconsistent, petty and miserly! I mean, just yesterday we bickered as we couldn’t even agree on which route to take to the restaurant. How can we bear the burden of an immortal love story and not despair? Ah, yes we can, because this love story is the story of weak and small, sinful and inconsistent, petty and miserly humanity being saved by God while drowning in an ocean of mercy. So nothing, absolutely nothing given over to His providence will fail to tell this story.
“We have this treasure in earthen vessels, to show that the transcendent power belongs to God and not to us” (2 Cor. 4:7).
“O God, be merciful to me a sinner” (Lk. 18:13).
“And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband; and I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Behold, the dwelling of God is with men. He will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away'” (Rev. 21:2-4).
May my love for you, my bride, be deathless,
and God now forbid that death do us part,
for death has died and surrendered its hold;
the grave, now forbidden to cleave our heart.
May our oneing love, my bride, flare bright
we now all-consumed in Christ-lit flame,
as our love, cross-hewn, stands stern as death,
carved deep into God’s Blood-writ Name.
May the Spirit sing through us, my bride,
bind us, even as with Father and Son is He,
that when death’s shadows threaten Night
Dawn will bid us One by immortal decree.
May we, O flesh of my flesh, my very me,
together in our laughter have eyes to see
ever and forever wrapping all around us
the all-unifying, ever-lovely One-in-Three.