Quotes from The Mystery of Marriage by Mike Mason
From the moment I met my wife I sensed that a process of interior disintegration was beginning to work in me, systematically, insidiously. In other ways, of course, I was being rejuvenated, tremendously built up. But a thirty-year-old man is like a densely populated city: nothing new can be built, in its heart, without something else being torn down. So I began to be demolished. There were many times when I felt quite seriously that everything my life had stood for was being challenged, or that somehow I had been tricked into selling my very soul for the sake of a woman's love! What I am saying is that there was a lot at stake as the wedding day approached; in fact, there was everything at stake. Never before had I felt that so much was riding upon one single decision. Later I would discover, very gradually, that that is one of the chief characteristics of love: it asks for everything; not just for a little bit, or a whole lot, but for everything. And unless one is challenged to give everything, one is not really in love.
But how hard it is to give everything! Indeed, it is impossible. One can make a symbolic gesture of giving all, accompanied by a grand dramatic public statement to that effect (which is what happens at the wedding ceremony). But that is just a start. The wedding is merely the beginning of a lifelong process of handing over absolutely everything, and not simply everything that one owns but everything that one is.
There is no one who is not broken by this process. It is excruciating and inexorable, and no one can stand up to it. Everyone gets broken on the wheel of love, and the breaking that takes place is like nothing else under the sun. It is not like the breaking that happens in bankruptcy or in a crop failure or in the loss of a job or the collapse of a lifetime's work. It is not even like the breaking that takes place in a body wracked by a painful disease. For in marriage the breaking that is done is done by the very heel of love itself. It is not physical pain or natural disaster or the terrible evil world "out there" that is to blame, but rather it is love, love itself that breaks us. And that is the hardest thing of all to take. For in the wrestling ring of this life, it is love that is our solar plexus. That is where things really hurt. There is no hurt like the hurt that happens in the place where we love. And when anything at all goes wrong in a marriage, that is the place to be affected. That is the vulnerable place in all human relationships. What is on the line, always, with every person we meet, is our capacity to love and to be loved. But whereas in most other relationships our vulnerability in this respect can be hidden, more or less (and how expert we are at hiding it!), in the relationship of marriage it is this very quality of vulnerability that is exposed, exalted, exploited. And this is the thing that can prove to be too much for people, too much to handle. Many give up and run away, their entire lives collapsing in ruins. But even those who hang on face inevitable ruin, for they must be broken, too.
There is an important difference, however, between those who hang on and those who run away, between the marriages that last and are good, and the ones that either break up or else drag on in a state of unresolved tension and neurosis. Both must endure ruin, but the difference lies in the place in which the ruin is experienced. For in those who run away from the intense fire of marriage, the ruin happens in the place in them which is love, and this place, this glorious and mysterious and delicate capacity in them, really does receive a terrible wound, sometimes enough to impair it for life. But in the case of those who hang on to love and who see it through to its mortal finish, the ruin that occurs, the internal debacle, is not in the place of love (although it may often seem to be happening there), but rather in the place, in the palace, of the ego. And that makes all the difference in the world. It is one thing to wreck the ego. But it is quite another, and indeed the very opposite, to make shipwreck of the soul.
A marriage lives, paradoxically, upon those almost impossible times when it is perfectly clear to the two partners that nothing else but pure sacrificial love can hold it together.
It is so that a couple may be reduced to sheer amazement that they are together at all, and that they may know that what has brought them together and what keeps them together is something entirely outside of themselves, something not natural but supernatural, something which they themselves cannot control or produce at will.
When this event takes place between a man and a woman, it means that forever afterward these two will be doomed in the situation in which they shall have no business whatsoever in being together at all unless it is first and foremost the business of continuing this same wondrous gazing into one another's eyes, this helpless contemplation of the mystery of their love.
That the natural human inclination is not toward good or toward love or toward depth of relationship is a fact that is absolutely fundamental to a proper appreciation of marriage. For if marriage is to be seen for the great miracle of grace that it is, what must first be seen is how much it goes against the grain of fallen human nature. Are there problems in marriage? Every one of them results from the partners trying desperately to renege, however subconsciously or surreptitiously, on a choice that they have already made, a choice to which they have been led by love, and by love alone, as a man is blindfolded and led to the edge of a cliff, informed that he is standing beside his comfortable bed, and encouraged to lie down in it and relax. Love coaxes and even hoodwinks us into the making of a decision so radical that if left to our own devices we would never have entertained it for a moment. For it is a far stranger thing for two people to live together in love all their lives than not to. Like life itself, it involves a decision so staggering that it cannot really be made at all; it can only be grown into, at best consented to with ever-decreasing reluctance.
The Christian faith, like marriage, aims at teaching us that the time when we are most ourselves is, paradoxically, when we are busy losing ourselves in another, when we are before the altar making vows of love and self-sacrifice, when we are out of our own depth and drowning in the deep waters of otherness. That is when we can begin to discover, experimentally, that others are as real as we are, and therefore begin to love them as we love ourselves and even as God so incredibly loves His people.
Too often others are but the punctuation marks in the dry and windy monologues of our own self-centered existence.
Certainly that is why there is nothing the New Testament about beautiful sunsets. The heart of biblical theology is a man hanging on a cross, not a breathtaking scene from nature.
Other people, let's face it, confront us directly with the reality of love or hate that is in our hearts, in a way that all the beautiful sunsets in the world cannot do. It is as if every person we meet wore a strip of special litmus paper on their forehead, designed to reveal the presence of love or hate in us, and all the gradations in between. How shameful and embarrassing that would be! And yet it is precisely the situation we are in, and that is why everyone on earth bears a secret resentment toward everyone else, simply for being alive. We resent one another for revealing so accurately and so openly and so painfully the depth of our own lovelessness. It is a lovelessness that is not revealed in a starry sky, but only in the eyes of a fellow human being.
The essential task at which man failed was not that of living in peace with God, but of living in peace with another person before God, in the presence of temptation. That was, and remains to this day, the crux of religion, the place where all other spiritual work must begin.
For in the first place, love convinces a couple that they are the greatest romance that has ever been, that no two people have ever loved as they do, and that they will sacrifice absolutely anything in order to be together. And then marriage asks them to prove it.
The Lord God made woman out of part of man's side and closed up the place with flesh, but in marriage He reopens this empty, aching place in man and begins the process of putting the woman back again, if not literally in the side, then certainly at it: permanently there, intrusively there, a sudden lifelong resident of a space which until that point the man will have considered to be his own private territory, even his own body. But in marriage he will cleave to the woman, and the woman to him, the way his own flesh cleaves to his own bones.
What is interesting, however, about this question of the fortuitousness of love, of whether it turns upon fate or coincidence, is that it is probably only seriously asked by those who are not yet in love, or not deeply in love, or who in fact have no idea what love is. These are the sort of people who like to ponder whether the lover they have found might be only one of any number of possibilities. But the person who is truly in love, by contrast, couldn't care less about other possibilities, just as one who has found the Truth takes no interest in "other truths." For the one who believes and for the one who loves, there is no other truth and there is no other love.
Marriage, even under the very best circumstances, is a crisis¾ one of the major crises of life¾ and it is a dangerous thing not to be aware of this. Whether it turns out to be a healthy, challenging, and constructive crisis, or a disastrous nightmare, depends largely upon how willing the partners are to be changed, how malleable they are.
Love wins over selfishness by actually making the whole concept of self obsolete, or at least by redefining it out of all recognition. For it is the special magic of love to demonstrate convincingly that the real goal of self, which is total self-sufficiency, can only be achieved by way of total self-sacrifice. Only love is completely self-sufficient, for only love has nothing whatsoever to lose in spilling itself out, since that is its very nature. Only love is so inwardly strong and deeply confident of itself that it does not ever need to retaliate, even against its bitterest enemies. Love alone stands alone, through having already surrendered everything.
And so the best marriages and the deepest relationships with God grow out of the startling discovery that there is nothing one can do to earn love, and even more startling, that there is also nothing one can do to unearn it, or to keep oneself from being loved. This is a religious awakening that is utterly different from any other religious experience, no matter how profoundly spiritual it may seem it is the recognition of the true self in the simple discovery that one is loved.
Still, in spite of all resistance, the words of love are important. It is important that they be heard, and it is important that they be spoken, out loud, no matter how painful this hearing and this speaking might be. It is a marvelous thing when love comes bubbling up like tears in the throat as one is gripped by a sudden stabbing realization of the other's beauty and goodness, of how incredibly precious this person is. But more imperative still than the speaking of love when it cannot be held in is the speaking of it when it can, even if the speaking seems almost impossible, even if the words must be choked out like some piece of foreign matter in the esophagus that has to be coughed up before one can breathe again freely. Perhaps the time to speak will be a time of strife and hurt, or perhaps a time when one or the other's deepest and most incorrigible human weakness shows painfully through, like a splintered bone protruding out of the skin. At such times, like an apology or a confession, an "I love you" can drop thunderous and unexpected and shockingly bright and innocent from the lips, coming as a profound surprise even to the one who speaks it. For it is sin, every bit as much as beauty or goodness, which occasions real love, and the thing that is most amazing about a word of love is how often, in spite of all circumstances, it does indeed spring from the place of genuine love, managing somehow to be always true, always new, always startling.
Others are mirrors in which we are constrained to see ourselves, not as we would like to be, but as we are. Whenever we pull away, searching in one mirror after another for a more pleasing image, what we are really doing is avoiding the truth about ourselves.
For hiding is not what marriage is about. Marriage means being in the spotlight, being under the unceasing scrutiny of another person, just as we are all under the constant gaze of the Lord our God. Marriage is about nakedness, exposure, defenselessness, and the very extremities of intimacy. It is about simple unadorned truth between two human beings, truth at all levels and at all costs, and it does not care what pain or inconvenience must be endured in order for the habit of truth to take root, to be watered, and to grow into maturity.
Of course, only God can give people the strange desire to know the whole truth about themselves, and the strength and courage to live wide-open, exposed lives before one another. And how does He do it? How does He slip us this bitter pill, coated with intense desire and determination? Fortunately, the pill is also lavishly coated with the mystery we call love, which is the only thing in heaven or on earth which can shield us from the horror of knowing what we are really like. That, in fact, is what God's love is: it is His armor, an armor of forgiveness and acceptance that we put on over our corruption, an armor of worth or worthiness that completely covers our own worthlessness.
Only love can drive out the constant threat of condemnation and rejection that otherwise haunts and spoils all experiences of intimacy.
We must buy others, in a sense, at the cost of ourselves, at the expense of painful self-disclosure and annihilation, just as Jesus bought us through the agonizing and passionate disclosure of the depths of God's love in the sacrifice of His Own body on the Cross.
One thing that is very important to know in a marriage is that there is always a way out. And the way out is not divorce. No, the way out in marriage (no matter how bad things may get) is simply to put everything we have back on the line, our whole hearts and lives, just as we did the moment we took our vows. We must return to an attitude of total abandonment, of throwing all our natural caution and defensiveness to the winds and putting ourselves entirely in the hands of love by an act of the will. Instead of falling into love, we may now have to march into it.
For it is often God's way that what He Himself has taught us to do in the light, we must repeat on our own in the darkness.
We would like to think of ourselves, perhaps, as having a great impact on the world, touching and influencing thousands of lives. How great is our frustration when we realize that we do not adequately touch even the one single life of the person closest to us!
In the Lord's plans for the world there is no work more important than the work of relationship, and no relationship is more important than that of one's marriage.
Sex is sacred ground. It is a place where men may turn themselves into animals as effortlessly as a magician waves a wand, or else may begin to be transformed into the children of God. It is, more conspicuously than anywhere else, the place where the angel and the animal in man meet face to face, and engage in mortal struggle. One of them must die.
What the sex life really demands is the loving gift of the self, the sincere devotion of the whole heart.
There is something amphibious about marriage, something neither fish nor fowl. It is like a three-legged sack race or a cloth-covered dancing horse, except that it is not only the feet and body but one's whole being that gets tangled up in the other person's. Marriage is not just a sharing but a mingling of identities, a consanguinity of psyches. It is a blend so intimate that it actually becomes hard to tell where one person leaves off and the other begins. People will peer and peer, for example, at a couple's offspring, trying to determine which one of the parents they resemble. Perhaps in a mysterious way what they re really trying to do is tell the couple themselves apart, to separate again what has become impossibly intertwined.
The fact of the matter is that holy matrimony, like other holy orders, was never intended as a comfort station for lazy people. On the contrary, it is a systematic program of deliberate and thoroughgoing self-sacrifice.
The reclaiming of submission as the heart of love, and particularly of married or covenant love, is without doubt the single most demanding, dangerous, and important task that Christian couples have before them in the modern age.
If we love other people for their saintliness, then we do not love at all. Love is wasted on saints. It is meant for sinners.