For if that which is done away was glorious, much more that which remaineth is glorious

Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Marriage and St Paul

A brief digression is in order before returning to the main purpose of this third and final post about marriage, in addition to the previous posts The Definition of Marriage and Nature and Sign.

Hugh of St Victor, one of the monks of the Abbey of St Victor in Paris, a broad river for the thought of the middle ages before Aristotle was re-discovered in the West and universities were born, a place where theology was taught by men of prayer and men of the Psalms, said this in his De Sacramentis Fidei: "Habet autem omnis aqua ex naturali qualitate similitudinem quamdam cum gratia Spiritus Sancti... et ex hac ingenita qualitate omnis aqua spiritalem gratiam representare habuit, priusquam etiam illam ex superaddita institutione significavit." Here is C.S. Lewis on this passage (ch.2 of the Allegory of Love): "For Hugo, the material element in the Christian ritual is no mere concession to our sensuous weakness and has nothing arbitrary about it. [There is] a pre-existing similitudo between the material element and the spiritual reality. Water, ex naturali qualitate [from the kind of thing it is by nature] was an image of the grace of the Holy Spirit even before the sacrament of baptism was ordained."

As an aside, when I first read these words, Hugh via Lewis, I was excited but didn't get the point completely. It set me thinking, however, and meditating, and I think will do all my livelong days. Here (as I think) is the golden key to the spiritual unity of both Christian Platonism and Romanticism. There are truths meeting here in a kind of gracious dance, each a pattern ruling the movement of the whole: creation completed through the sacraments; nature, the very elements and things of creation, bearing the stamp of God's making; the descent of God into matter through the Word and in the Spirit in both creation and the sacraments; and nature a symbol of which God is the foundational meaning and reality.

As mentioned, this post is the conclusion of several on marriage. The reason for introducing Hugh of St Victor is that if marriage as traditionally understood is a sacrament, then penetrating to its "nature" is to approach its sacramental significance. To understand it nature is to see that which, as an image of its divine originator, it represents. And, qua sacrament, to enter into sacramental marriage is to be a part of the divine life which marriage communicates. Thus (and this is a task which I can't undertake, but which I shall try to give a "bullet point" schema of how I think it might be undertaken) I shall attempt to point up the ways in which the diverse ends of marriage lead up to and require a sacramental symbolism as their unifying source and ultimate end, their Alpha and Omega.

The objection to this mode of proceeding is that I am taking the traditional definition of marriage and running with it as a working definition throughout the process of argument, so of course any conclusions are going to rubber-stamp this original definition as the "right" one. This isn't completely fair: I think if one is sensitive to the subjective "phenomena" of marriage as well as its "objective" aspects, one can defend the use of the working definition and rule out the inclusion of e.g. bigamy on the grounds that it fails to add anything worthwhile and merely takes away from the good ends of marriage that bigamy "piggy-backs" on. All changes to the definition of marriage are in a sense parasitic on the traditional notion in the first place. They simply want to get rid of some bit of the traditional formula (such as: between a man and a woman) and keep most of the rest. But part of my point is that altering the formula pulls out a thread that unravels the whole picture, which is a unity by being a sacramental picture; and part of one's judgment of the success of my argument is whether it is a persuasive explanation of how marriage as sacrament is the best account of the traditional formula, and why a change to the formula would take away its sacramental character and therefore both its foundation and purpose.

One may obviously choose to see all this as silly, and marriage as a flawed social institution with no ultimate moral foundation and which can be changed at will by political force. The only purpose this argument will serve to such a mindset is as prophetic judgment: do not undo the fabric of the world, or you may live to see its falling masonry crush you and your children; do not smash the mirror in which we appear in the image of God.

The first thing I want to clear out of the way is the notion of courtly love. Romantic attachment historically hasn't been, and for most people still isn't, what marriage is about. Courtly love and chivalry (much as they are ennobling ideals) have only been around since the twelfth century, carried to their poetic height by Dante's love for Beatrice, the archetypal "high lady" for whom love draws one upward to God from the dark wood; and have been enshrined as an almost sine qua non of true love leading to marriage in Western Europe since the invention of the novel. It is the final development that, I think, is sentimental in a bad way and causes confusion. I don't think it exaggerated to say that many people see romantic involvement as the authentic sign of love and (even worse) its absence as a reason for divorce. Rubbish. I don't mean that chivalry and romantic love cannot form part of marriage, but that the universal phenomena of marriage are not this.

The normal experience of marriage is quite a different one.

For the woman, it means giving up her bodily independence to another solely, her domestic world becoming circumscribed by the life of her husband, and her own family life (that of her parents) being submerged and in a sense forsaken. "Hearken, O daughter, and consider, and incline thine ear; forget also thine own people, and thy father's house; so shall the king greatly desire thy beauty: for he is thy Lord; and worship thou him" says the Psalmist rather more poetically. St Paul's advice is for the woman to love her husband as the Church should love Christ: all of these elements are there from the forsaking of the world, to the bodily union to one alone, and the devotion to another's will. I think that this comes more easily to some women than others, and some women no doubt actively resist elements of this description (perhaps with very good reason), but I would tentatively suggest that these phenomena - whether welcomed or resisted - will be recognised by a married woman.

For the man, it means devoting his own body to another solely, humbling himself to cherishing that woman alone, and entering into the practical concerns of the daily life of his wife, and continual sacrifice for her. St Paul again: loving his wife as Christ loved the Church. Now it will seem a proud and monstrously chauvinist thing to say that the man must "humble" himself to the woman's body and domestic concerns, but this isn't a point about the undesirable woman, or the her petty household cares. It is a point about how the two complement each other, and the position the man is likely to find himself in with his wife. For example, someone defending marriage will get most laughs if he says that monogamy is "natural" to humans, especially men. Faithfulness to one woman doesn't come naturally, in that sense of the word natural. But marriage demands such faithfulness, and that involves a kind of pulling the man down from an ideal height, surveying womankind in its alluring beauty as mating potential, into a very real and concrete and (potentially) mundane physical relation. In fact, I think fidelity is less likely to make a man consider a woman as an object, because he is sharing board and bed with the selfsame woman whose personhood he cannot escape. Allied to this, is the truth behind the well worn caricature of the husband and wife, she pulling him out of the pub where he is pontificating with his mates, to fix the blocked sink. Women are in general less concerned about the theoretical and more with the practical, and it is "humbling" in this sense for the man to serve his wife in this faithfully and willingly.

Thus, when St Paul is talking about how the husband and wife should behave with each other, he hasn't forgotten his words about the sacramental reality of the marriage: for the marriage is a sacrament of Christ and the Church (when, of course, the pair are incorporated by baptism into that body). Neither has he forgotten the phenomenal reality of what being a husband or wife is like: for the "natural" facts of marriage are, if Hugh of St Victor is right, exist as an image and participation in the sacrament itself. It shouldn't surprise us if "natural" phenomena anticipate the life of grace.

It may seem odd not to talk about children as part of the natural phenomena of marriage, but then a marriage is blessed but not created by children. There are a lot of things that flow from the notion of giving one's body to another from the sacramental idea of marriage, and that touch very closely upon the whole question around contraception etc. What I wish to get to, however, is some foundational unifying idea behind the traditional idea of marriage, and children are not a necessary part of that idea. What is necessary, from the angle I am coming, is the kind of complementarity that reaches down into the bodily union, not only for the purposes of procreation, but that images the love of Christ and the Church. Part of the argument rests on the fact that in marriage, the body becomes the other person and the other person becomes the body. The man is no longer merely thinking of an ideal woman, nor is he taking a whore about whom he cares nothing, but loving and making love to a person; the woman is accepting into her native independence of body and soul, an ordering will and bodily union. The image of marriage evokes the descent from heaven to earth, the incarnation of Christ, and His Passion, and the buying or redeeming of the Church from the world, and its giving itself up to His Lordship and the giving of His Body. This descent and union of mind and matter, of one with another, cannot be reproduced in "same-sex" relations in the same way. It is only by divorcing the person and their body that one can put such relations on the same footing as marriage. But then one has lost the sacramental significance of marriage altogether.

A rough summary of the position would be: St Paul's teaching on marriage as a sacrament gives him a moral theology of marriage, which throws into relief its lived-out phenomena. The traditional idea of marriage fit St Paul's pattern, but other versions of marriage do not, and there really isn't any unifying idea of marriage outside the sacramental idea we meet in the letter to the Ephesians. "Natural marriage" (I here refer to the canon law definition which means marriage between the unbaptised) is still a sign or symbol of the sacrament of marriage; it is a lot better for the world if it doesn't fiddle around with the definition of what this is, and that not only for pragmatic reasons: else the world will have lost a spilling over of the life of grace into its imagination. That is what worries me most about the current plans to redefine marriage in Britain. An imagination without truth, especially a collective imagination, is a diabolical thing and can do diabolical things.

Finally, two brief comments.

To return to an earlier mention of romantic love: it is in the context of the love of Christ for the Church that one finds the most fruitful use of the ideals of chivalry and courtly love: in the forsaking of physical force and power to win over the lady by love, and in the ideal of serving the beloved. I know this isn't the trajectory of Dante and his use of the notion of courtly love, and I am firmly persuaded that his version of love purifying the soul is, in another discourse, tremendously important. But anyone can see that it isn't a description of the path one follows in marriage or even a flourishing courtship. And I say that as one of the few people who seem to believe that Dante isn't writing about Beatrice as an ideal or an abstraction.

I am not learned enough in the classics or ancient pre-Christian civilisations to say what the marriage symbolism generally was. But I think I am not entirely wrong in saying that some of the meaning had a cosmic significance, probably agrarian, the fruitful meeting of Sun-god and Earth-goddess. Frazer's Golden Bough records a few native ceremonies with similar significance, but perhaps these were mainly about the fertility of the marriage, rather than the couple themselves. There is plenty of material in the Old Testament of course, of the marriage between the Lord God and his people Israel, particularly in the prophets, and there is no doubt that this is what one finds transposed into the New Testament, St Paul, and the final chapters of Revelation. And can one in this spirit "re-mythologise" nature as (ultimately, in the redeemed people) the Bride in the marriage feast? Perhaps one meets this spirit towards nature breaking out most dramatically in St Francis, in his immediate feeling for things: is there not in his brotherly love a sense that every created thing is called to the marriage supper of the Lamb?

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