A Progressive Marriage

2014-07-30 16.04.03

How is your marriage progressing?

This simple question is a way of focusing our attention on right-thinking about progress and the Christian life. I posed the question to myself – I have been married now for 40 years. My first thought was, “What would ‘progress’ in a marriage mean?” Do I love my wife more, or any less? What would more love look like?

The truth of marriage is that progress is not the right measuring stick. The word “progress” originally referred to travel on a journey. Progress means to travel further. Thus the “Pilgrim’s Progress” really only means “the Pilgrim’s Journey.” If marriage is a journey, it is mostly measured by finishing the course. In that sense, 40 years is a lot of progress, and I pray the journey has only just begun.

The image of progress permeates our culture. It’s not an ancient idea, indeed, it is pretty much synonymous with modernity. It is probably one of the three most dominant ideas in our culture.  So how is it that we are able to bear being married without “making progress?”

We bear being married because it is satisfying, in one manner or another. My parents were married for over 60 years in a relationship that was probably as satisfying to both as being themselves was to each. That is to say, the problems I observed them endure, were primarily the problems inherent to being themselves and would have been problems no matter how they lived nor with whom they lived.

My father engaged his working life in the same manner as his marriage. One year was perhaps different from another, as every day is from another. But when he retired, it was from the same work (auto mechanic) that he had done for his entire adult life.

For most of human history, it would seem, we lived without progress. There was little difference between the flint spear-point of 100,000 B.C. and 10,000 B.C. People lived and died, enjoyed good days and endured the bad. Of course, somewhere along the line, human beings made certain discoveries that brought greater wealth and improved technology. It has allowed us to succeed as a population and fill the world.

But, like marriage, the living of human life has not and does not change. The illusion of progress arises by the things we choose to measure. If acquiring wealth is progress, then it is obvious that some make progress. But one can still only live with wealth. And, like marriage, that living can only be done a moment at a time. The same can be said with regard to technology.

My small point here is that life itself is like a marriage. It is not something that can be described by the idea of progress. Life is “a progress,” a journey. But the end of the journey is as inevitable as ever and differs in no way from that of the meanest of cavemen.

I suppose the right question is “how is your life?” To know the true measures with which to answer that question is to know how to live.

 

 

 

 

40 comments:

  1. Fr. Stephen, not sure if you’ve read Wendell Berry’s short story collection called “Fidelity”? You basically wrote in your post what he shows in five stories. Not making progress but being grateful for the journey is what serenity looks like. Thanks for the much-needed reminder.

  2. Sharon,
    I’m sitting in my living room/den with my wife of 40 years. We’ve both got our laptops. Share laughs and other stuff periodically. I read, she reads. The cat is sitting between us and the dog is around here somewhere. I want to tell young people who are all crazy about dating, and choosing, and courting, and sex, etc., that it’s just about this. All of that is about this.

  3. Dear Father Stephen,
    I spent the last couple of years with wrong choices of partners and the consequences of wrong choices..And indeed the topics of choosing and courting are what I’d like to hear more on..
    And now that you are grateful for the journey..what would you advice the “young people” to reach this blissful state and avoid unnecessary heartaches,especially that one can be easily decieved by emotions and desires of the old man

  4. Father, these three bogus modern ideas. Please write more on them, specifically on 1) how to resist them “sacramentally”, and 2) how we parents can inoculate our children from them.

  5. Fr. It seems that the two additional ideas are just other ways of postulating progress.

    Of course what it is founded on is the idea that there should be no restraints.

    Marriage of course is about restraints

  6. Unfortunately there are a lot of those.

    Now, you can see and reinforce the goodness in your spouse. It is a discipline. As you do that the things that used to irritate find their proper place and can even become positive.

  7. Father Stephen:

    A tangential interlude touching on modern myths, stories, and understanding (or even hermeneutics):

    There is a passage in Lewis’ Perelandra where the UnMan tells the Lady stories. Some stories are silly, others absurd, still others heroic. All are about a vaguely rebellious woman enduring sorrow and sacrifice for some (iconoclastic?!) act. When Ransom refutes one story, another begins. When Ransom challenges a tale, it peters out to be resumed in another key under another name. The Venusian equivalent of The Woman with a Thousand Faces.

    That passage stuck with me and bothered me for years. I could not tell why, but it irritated me to the bone with the wrongness of the thing.

    In the last few years I have noticed how few stories there are anymore. The writing may be more available and the voices more varied, but the tales sound fewer and fewer. I have loved fantasy, medieval lit. and “swords and sorcery,” and there is a stream of Self-Actualized Hero/Heronines following their (culturally approved) Rebellious Stars. One can also see a televised 16th century version of the same story in Henry VIII. Or a 17th century version, or many 19th century ones. American history is replete with them. As for 20th venture and contemporary telling, that’s all the fare. So I mourn over all these creative-types — many truly blessed with talent — whose imagination is so conventional and limited. The narrative is so fixed that we — bards and audience alike — can scarcely hear any other story.

    The ideological conformity — this is not a political reflection at all — makes us impose our times and ourselves on everyone and every-when and everything. We cannot fathom the “Other” because we cannot see it anywhere. (Except among priests in Tennessee. 😊).

    I used to think that the reading of Pascha into the Old Testament was artificial. Now I see it as natural, it is the way Story (and salvation) are made. And while I feel almost drowned in the modern story, I still can cry,

    Lord, have mercy!

  8. Anna, the answer is the title of the blog.

    Giving up the illusion of control–accepting that of your own self you can do nothing

    Having a daring trust in God.

    This is not some sort of fatalism in fact just the opposite.

    Learning to give thanks us a work.

  9. Lou,
    Very insightful. I remember a young lady friend reading Lewis’ That Hideous Strength and struggling with the heroine – precisely because Lewis challenges so many of the modern stereotypical stories and myths. I recall feeling sad that at so young an age her mythic sympathies were distorted somewhat. Pascha is the one great true story. All truth is relative to Pascha.

  10. Anna,

    Been there, done that. I give thanks for my husband – now, but for the first ten years, we both wanted to run – not into each others arms but away from each other! 🙂

    If I was single again, I would hope that people would tell me to stop. No really.

    Stop being busy and breathe for a minute: give thanks to God for everything in your life at this very moment – the good, the bad and the ugly; then do the next right thing (clean house, go for a walk, pay a bill, call a friend); if you fail at doing the next right thing – repent; give thanks for everything at that moment – the good, the bad and the ugly; fail; repent; give thanks; repeat….

    My husband takes these steps pretty much every day and it seems to have brought out the best in him (just kidding) 🙂 both of us doing these simple things has brought out the best in both of us.

    There is no formula that will help you to avoid wrong people but as I have become grateful and repentant, I tend to want to hang out with people who are also grateful and repentant – and they are usually kind, gentle and fun to be around 🙂

  11. Thank you Father once again for your words. I woke up today feeling a bit listless regarding the lack of progress I appear to be making in my ‘Christian life’…which of course I am reminded is the wrong measure of it all. The deep grammar of modernity/secularism sure is pervasive…

    On that note thank you Michael as well…related to this whole false idol of progress is the viewing of ‘good works’ as things we do to intentionally ‘make the world a better place’. When being thankful itself is a good work, perhaps the greatest work – for thankfulness changes us, and we then make the world better without ‘trying to’. Or rather the Spirit of God shines through us in a truly natural, unforced/unguilted way.

  12. Neal, thanks for sharing the video. I counted eight complete revolutions of the earth around the sun to complete that pattern. Sacramental symbolism pointing to Pascha is everywhere in the cosmos.

  13. Lou – yes, VERY insightful. Thanks for posting that.

    The UnMan is definitely the crafter of nearly all modern stories.

    The modern anachronism has also greatly bothered me as well, for many years. When was the last time you ran into anyone who recognized Romeo and Juliet as a comedy? When has hollywood/books ever portrayed a king as anything other than a modern hedonistic libertine on a homicidal power trip? For that matter, when has any historical character ever been presented as anything other than a transplanted modern? Vice is portrayed as the universal honest reality of everyone, while virtue is cast as an outward pharisaical show of the especially viceful. When has a priest (or any religious person, for that matter) ever been cast as even so much as neutral, much less virtuous, intelligent? When has tradition ever been good (or even neutral)? When has heroism ever been anything other than the assertion of the hero’s individual hedonism over a benighted, backwards culture?

  14. The three phases of marriage are as follows:
    First, expending all one’s energy attempting to “fix” one’s spouse;
    Second, succeeding;
    Third, attempting to undo said success. 🙂

  15. Father Stephen, could you perhaps help me to understand the difference between wanting to fix our spouses, and desiring their growth and healing?

    I’m asking particularly in the context of dealing with a spouse with addiction and mental health issues. I know I don’t have any power to change my spouse, but oh my word, our lives would be so much less painful if said spouse was willing to deal with those issues.

  16. Not codependant,
    I think intervening in an addict’s life is not an issue of trying to “fix” them. Of course, the bottom line is that no one can keep you sober if you won’t allow them. But friends, children, spouse, fellow-workers, family, etc., can all play key roles in a successful intervention.

  17. not codependent, the way you ask the question shows you already know the difference. May God bless you both.

  18. This text has a very Aristotelian flavor, Father, although it seems to me that he would not be in full agreement with how you describe the journey, unless there is no specific destination for it. Let me explain.

    Perhaps there is no progress in marriage precisely because it is already an energeia from the beginning. It seems to me that we often think in terms of dynamis/kinesis, and not dynamis/energeia. In the first dichotomy, the journey begins from a point and goes toward another, and so the actualization ends the “dynamis.” If, however, in the second dichotomy, the journey itself is the destination, then the actualization is already happening daily. Similarly, we have every day the potentiality to actualize our marriage. Sometimes we actualize it better than other times–just like sometimes we live our human lives better than other times (there are days when we are healthier, spiritually and physically, than other days). But we cannot progress in our marriage just as we cannot progress in being human; we were born this way (human) and we will die such.

    There is one thing, though: is it possible to transcend marriage, to transform it fully into a reality of the kingdom? I don’t have an answer, but, if I think of Aristotle, I think that this would be his point when he says that nous is the actuality of a human psyche. But even then there is no progress, but rather genuinely living.

  19. What if the whispering said this: “Let me love you so much that I diminish to the point in which, as far as I am concerned, the sacramental marriage descends into our marriage.” Somehow, psyche is transcended into nous due to Nous. 🙂

  20. Father Stephen and Michael,

    Thank you for your responses– I appreciate the generous spirit in which they are offered.

    Honestly, though, I’m still a little confused by the difference. I am frequently accused of trying to fix my spouse because I am not “happy” with the way things are. I’m told I should accept it and stop wanting change at all. My spouse’s disorder has unfortunately led to complete isolation– there are no friends or family who are capable of intervention (I do have a small support system for myself, but they have no influence over my spouse).

    In light of Octavian’s comments, what might that kind of love look like in my situation? Because loving an addict/person with psychological challenges frequently presents the danger of codependency— “I’ll take care of you while you feed your addictions, and I’ll make you feel better about yourself the way you are, despite the destructive reality.”

    I’m sorry to belabor the issue. It’s just that I’ve been looking for answers for a long time, particularly from the Orthodox spiritual perspective, and no one seems to have any, other than suggesting divorce. Perhaps there are none.

  21. My thoughts on Octavian question was what does it *mean* to “transform” marriage into “a reality of the kingdom”, is it not already (even if we graft onto it aspects of sin – the “problems” of our marriages)? Same thing on our humanity – is it “transformed” or is it better described as “translated” into the Kingdom? Very Platonic of me…I am starting to sound like Hart… 😉

  22. Christopher, of course it is, in a way, but it is not at the same time, in another way (just as we are and we are not in the Kingdom). This is why I think it is rather Aristotelian thinking, and not Platonic (although Plato is much less of a Platonist, I think, than people make him). To me, Aristotle’s potentiality/actuality model works very well in Orthodoxy. I am always married to my wife; some times I am fully present in it (energeia), and then it is rather Love that is manifested in our marriage, some other times I am less present, but still there (dynamis), and Love is manifested less through me. Anyway, forgive me. Too much Aristotle :).

  23. Octavian,

    What would you recommend as a starting point to Aristotle and Orthodoxy? I have had Bradshaw’s “Aristotle East and West” on my shelf for years but have never gotten to it except to skim.

    I really liked the post on your site “My son, Solzhenitsyn, and The Lord of the Rings”. Made me think of Hart’s reasoning where we are all “victims” of certain moral consequences of creation (ex nihilo- in his model). In Tolkien’s classical Christian model, things turn out a bit different…Hart’s article has obviously gotten under my skin. Praise be to God, for there are certainly worse things that could be poking me 😉

  24. Perhaps another way of viewing marriage that has less to do with modernity is to see it as a garden. The question would then be, “How is your marriage growing?”

    Realizing that we don’t even see ourselves as we are, still this relationship, more than any other human one, has, I think, the potential to show us both what dwells in the shadows as well as what God has brought into the light.

    On a journey, it’s possible to just move along, trudging sometimes, sprinting others, but a garden needs care. Water, fertilizer, weed eradication, pest control are all part of gardening.

    If as Scripture says, “As iron sharpens iron, so a brother sharpens the countenance of his brother”, what does a wife or husband do? I’ve occasionally referred to marriage as being “hooked in the heart”. No other human relationship has had the same ability (used by my Father) to bring me humbly to my knees in the inner man. Even though our relationship has been anything but perfect outwardly, God has used it perfectly.

    It is possible to arrive spent at the end of a journey, but the end of a garden can be flowers and fruit.

    For me, it is a great mystery to know another person. Among other things it requires that I come out of myself and this is difficult. After 45 years of marriage, you might think one would have learned. I am grateful that God has taken “the long view” with me.

    “It seems a sometimes severe mercy
    that shepherds us toward the Day,
    casting off our outer life
    along the way.”

  25. Christopher,

    I wanted to read Bradshaw’s book for some time as well, but I did not get to it. Now, that you mention it, I think I should really get to it. Otherwise, I have not read anything on Aristotle and Orthodoxy from the writings of Aristotelian scholars. I just think, however, that such an endeavor would be truly fruitful.

    I have not read Hart, so I don’t know what to say about that. However, since I’ve done much reading on testimonies of those who were martyred in communist prisons in Romania, I can say that this topic, of whether we are or not victims, comes up quite often.

    not codependent,
    I’m really afraid (and I mean it) to say anything about the problem you mention, since it is so difficult. However, reading your lines, I remembered what a priest once told me in confession. I actually wrote about it once, so it was easy for me to get the quote:

    “We all have one our several problems that are given to us, and if they are given to us, it is in them that we can find our salvation. If you cannot yet be free of this problem, perhaps it is in your fight with it that you can go closer to God.”

    I do not know how helpful this is; in my case, it helped it quite a bit, since it reminded me to give thanks for anything that I have, including my shortcomings. Not because I love my shortcomings, but rather because, being my companions, they can be my occasion for my salvation. Of course, I can also get lost in them, but I have to believe that, if God allows it that I have a problem, it is also because I have the strength to go through it. May you be well in all things!

  26. not co: “Fixing” someone is done for one’s own ego and self-sstisfaction and has no real care for the other.

    To struggle for someone out of love is entirely different. It may seem futile and it is certainly not without risk. Likely you will, by worldly standards and even your own hopes seem to fail. You may succumb to anger, self-condemnation, etc.

    But done with repentance and prayer your struggle will bear fruit. God sees and acts where you cannot.

    However you are not required to destroy your self in the process. At some point it may be necessary to disengage a bit. That does not mean you stop struggling with your spouse lifting him/her up to God and giving thanks even as you rage against the cruel circumstance.

    It is hard and seemingly thankless but God rewards through His mercy.

    My experience was not as intense as yours but it was exhausting and left scars that are still healing. I seemed to fail as did my late wife but God did not.

    The sorrow will likely never leave me but it is wrapped inexplicably in His joy–I know not how.

    May God’s mercy and blessing uplift you, protect you and strengthen you.

  27. Father, thank you for your words. I was feeling rather discouraged today with my marriage, and your words helped me look up from the immediate now and look at the journey so far, and how much farther we (God willing) have to go, and realize it is not so bad.
    Also thank you for helping me put my finger on my unease with modern “progress.” The idea that humans currently are so much better than humans even 1,000 years ago has always bothered me.
    I look forward to meeting you next week and listening to your talks.

  28. Octavian and Michael,

    Thanks for your kind words. It does help to be reminded that there is always a glimmer of Christian hope, even when there are no easy answers.

  29. It’s interesting that our culture accepts Corrie Ten Boom as a hero, because her forgiveness and love “worked,” it “fixed” her oppressors, causing her prison guard to fall at her feet asking forgiveness.
    It takes Orthodoxy to uphold St. Elizabeth the New Martyr as a hero – her love and forgiveness didn’t “work,” didn’t “fix” her husband’s murderer (who saw himself as completely justified and maintained that he would do it again). He never repented.
    Both women displayed the same love. The outcome is not ours to dictate.

  30. Justin,
    It is of interest that the arguments against pacifism always seem to turn on the notion that it does not work. Of course, it doesn’t work. Although what truly “works” must be judged in eternity. There, there will be much surprise. Those who labored and did things in a manner that “worked,” will be turned aside, while those who labored only to do the truth will be welcomed.

  31. Ironically, I recall seeing a historian state that war does solve numerous issues! He explained how WWII solved the issue of German or Russian domination of Eastern Europe. I found the explanation fascinating at the time. Now I realize that it really only opened a much larger can of worms that continues to snowball into other issues.

  32. Yes, the annoying trouble with pragmatism (what “works” is “fixed” or “better”) is, among other things, its inherent subjectivity – which is where the violence comes in, as those enlightened few/majority defining the terms must enforce their vision upon the benighted majority/few.

    Another annoying little feature of pragmatism is that it never leads to life, only death. An example: Hitler is the only person in history who ever proposed – much less attempted to enact – any effective elimination of anti-semitism. (Only when the world is devoid of semites could the hatred against them cease). What a modernist case for the charity of the thing could be made – put a mere 6 million semites to sleep now, and think of the countless trillions of future semites who now are certain to never suffer the ills of anti-semitism (because they won’t exist).

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