If we have trembled with Abraham

[taken from an email I sent a friend before he married…]

Our response to life is different if we have been taught only a definition of faith than if we have trembled with Abraham as he held a knife over Isaac. — Flannery O’Connor

The story of the ‘binding of Isaac’ (Gen. 22:1-19) is the story of an absolute commitment: all or nothing.

This is marriage! Todo o nada. The day you marry, you voice promises that are so absurd in their extremeness that we need a Sacrament, born of the opened side of the dead Messiah, to give us courage and strength to flourish and persevere in joy. Think: you promise to love, honor, and remain unyieldingly faithful to this one person no matter what happens, till death. And these vows contain every contingency imaginable:

I promise to be faithful to you,
in good times and in bad,
in sickness and in health,
to love you and to honor you
all the days of my life.

I’ll never forget the day when my wife and I confronted a painful distance between us. Just before we had the necessary and very hard conversation, she put her hands very firmly on my shoulders, looked into my eyes and said with deep emotion: “Tom Neal, your father left you, but no matter what I will never leave you. Now, let’s talk…”

Like God’s extreme love, which marriage exists to render visible and embody, there is no point prior to death at which the promise of fidelity, love and honor expires, whether in the face of illness, poverty, hardship, betrayal, failure or estrangement. Even for those who civilly divorce and separate out of necessity, the vows remain as equally binding as the happily married, until death. And then beyond death, in the New World, the fire-refined gold of those vows will be swept up into the eternal wedding feast of God and humanity.

Set me as a seal on your heart,
as a seal on your arm;
For stern as death is love,
relentless as the nether-world is devotion;
its flames are a blazing fire.
Deep waters cannot quench love,
nor floods sweep it away. – Song of Songs 8:6-7

When Patti and I exchanged promises, we said Yes to every unknown of life that awaited. Twenty-seven years later, we now have a small taste of what that means. To this one human being, Patricia, I pledged that October day the entirety of my life, my whole future, inextricably twining my life’s purpose to hers and so making her person into my life’s axis of meaning in God’s totalizing economy of covenant love.

In the marital vows, we say to this one human being what we only say to the one God: I will love you with all my heart, all my soul, all my mind and all my strength. And in that pledge, we both commit to striving with our ‘all’ to each day become more more of one-mind, one-heart, one-flesh, one-spirit. I always quote my paternal grandfather to this effect in a letter he sent Patti and myself for our wedding day:

God brought you together so don’t expect Him to orchestrate the wedding sonata. From now on, it is up to you, Tom, and you, Patti, to love together, to laugh together, to cry together, to respond together, to be joined together. When one is cut, the other bleeds; when one wants, the other gives. There are no rules; there are no formulas; there are no singular pronouns. There is no “I”, “me”, “my”, “mine”. Only “us”, “ours”. I don’t know where Nana begins and I end, or where I begin and she ends. There is and always has been the union of all singular pronouns into a composite image of joy, happiness and fidelity which floods our togetherness which has never lost the first moment of magnetic reverence and worship which blanked out all the world and its occupants. And for over 67 years of oneness, each year has been an exponential factor, a geometric multiplier, that carries our fidelity way beyond the puny magnitude of E=mc2. Long ago we have outscored the dimension of such a feeble concept as infinity. So, Tom and Patti, to you we bequeath our heritage, our fidelity and reverence for each other and our gratefulness to God for bringing us together. We know He has never shed one tear of regret!

They were married for 78 years when my grandmother died.

Marriage is the central fulcrum through which God makes all things new, and fulfills his desire: “As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be one in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” (Jn. 17:21).

Marriage is astonishing, thrilling, agonizing, soaring, descending, earthy and redeeming — celestial in its mundanity, and is what every healthy civilization is built on. Remember, marriage isn’t just about you, or even about the two of you — it’s about Christ, the Church, your children, humanity, the whole cosmos’ transformation into a sacrament of love.

Allowing your life to be defined by such an absolute and unconditional commitment that seals you together by solemn oath and the Spirit of God is to have everything in life look different. Everything. Recently, because of her mom’s sickness and death, I had a fairly lengthy time apart from Patti (nearly three weeks) — and in that space I gained a new appreciation of just how much I have come to see the world through her eyes. Even when she’s gone, she remains my lens.

To see love as the highest aspiration of human life is to see all of this as supremely desirable, and to see in marriage not the chaining of freedoms but an opening out into the vast horizons of life, of mystery, of possibilities forever expanding outward and upward between two faces.

The late Orthodox theologian Fr. Tom Hopko captures some of this magnitude as only he can. And in his signature, vibrant voice:

And when I was telling you about my talk at Vassar College [on lifelong monogamous marriage], I never finished the story. The story was that when I finished giving this whole talk to these young people in Chicago Hall in Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York, some fellow, I can picture him in my mind right now, with a black afro, wire glasses, and wearing a lumberjack shirt, probably of Jewish origin, he simply said to me, “My first question to you sir is this, do you actually believe that?”

And I answered and said “Well, I believe; help my unbelief. My name is Thomas. If you know Christian tradition, Thomases are known for doubting. But yes I try to believe that way; I try to live that way.” And then he said to me, “If you ask me, it would take a miracle to pull that off.”

And I loved my answer. To this day, I loved my answer. Just out of my mouth came the following words, “I’m very happy to let you all know that at least one person in this auditorium tonight understood my talk.” Because it does take a miracle, and to live as human beings are supposed to live, which Christians believe is in a Christian manner, is humanly impossible without the grace of God. It’s humanly impossible without the power of God.

If you ask the Lord Jesus, “Who can do what you teach?” His answer is, “With human beings, this is impossible, but with God it becomes possible.” So the Christian life is the life of human beings, living a humanly impossible life that becomes only possible by the grace of God; by the power of God; by the gift of God in Christ by the Holy Spirit.

So tremble with Abraham on your wedding day, but like Abraham say: “God will provide.” Then you can laugh with Sarah!

I bet your shoulders can hold more than
Just the straps of that tiny dress
That I’ll help you slide aside
When we get home

I’ve seen ’em carry family
And the steel drum weight of me
Effortless, just like that dress
That I’ll help off

Because I’ve seen you
And I know you
And I’m not going anywhere
Because I’ve seen you
And I know you
And I’m not going anywhere
I bet your back can carry more than
Just the weight of your button-down
One by one, they’ll come undone
When we get home

I’ve seen you carry family
And all my insecurities
One by one, they’ll come undone
When we get home

Because I’ve seen you
And I know you
And I’m not going anywhere
Because I’ve seen you
And I know you
And I’m not going anywhere
Because I’ve seen you
And I know you
And I’m not going anywhere
Because I’ve seen you
And I know you
And I’m not going anywhere

One comment on “If we have trembled with Abraham

  1. Brilliant, beautiful, beatific!
    Deeply grateful for this inspiration!

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