This is the article by Louise Cowan that Toby recommends to be read in advance of the meeting on Sunday night. It is not essential to listening the talk so if you can't read it don't worry you will still be able to follow his talk. Just to cover citation rules, this is taken from the Newsletter of the Thomas More College of Liberal Arts Volume 21, Number 1 on November 2003.
Marriage as a Creative Work
by Louise Cowan
I want to talk about marriage in all its senses this evening: first, to see it as a metaphor for the proper relationship with the universe; second, to look at its implications as myth; third, to consider its metaphysical significance and, fourth, its Christian meaning as sacrament; and, finally, to come to see it as the major work of a person’s life. You realize that I speak from the discipline of literature and not as a theologian or a philosopher. Marriage, of course, is one of the central concerns of literature; and if, as I maintain, literature is a mode of knowledge, then surely it must shed some genuine light on this important sacrament. As a metaphor, it represents the union of different aspects of being: the individual soul and the soul of the world. This is the sense in which Zora Neale Hurston presents it in her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God:
She was stretched on her back beneath the pear tree soaking in the alto chant of the visiting bees,
the gold of the sun and the panting breath of the breeze, when the inaudible voice of it all came to her. She saw a dust-bearing bee sink into the sanctum of a bloom; the thousand sister calyxes arching to meet the love embrace and the ecstatic shiver of the tree from root to tiniest branch creaming in every blossom and frothing with delight.
So this was a marriage! She had been summoned to behold a revelation.
There is something of the mystical marriage here, a yearning of the soul for union, a desire to
give one’s inner being in ecstasy to the divine presence that is to be sensed in both inner and outer reaches of the universe. This kind of eros may be consummated either in marriage or in the committed single life. The person who chooses celibacy, then, may live life as fully as those in marriage; and this is the profound spiritual aspect of the concept that applies to all of us. Our souls must have erotic communion with the divine as it manifests itself in the world. Shakespeare’s sonnets, Donne’s love poems, Marvell's apparent poems of seduction—the carpe diem theme—all of these urge us to a giving of self, to a generous bestowal for which the paradigm is marriage and the opposite is coldness,
self-centeredness—what might be called “the economy of the closed heart.” We need in our time to redeem the concept of celibacy by refusing to consider it a narrowly restricted life, recognizing in it not a denial of love but a marriage to a reality sought and found in a spiritual ideal— for Christians, in a union with Christ himself.
Mythically, we need to awaken in ourselves the sense of a marriage between earth and sky. Nearly all ancient myths express a sense of this dynamism in existence: pre-Scriptural accounts of creation depict the original source of being as not a single entity, but a conjunction. Two things came together to produce the vitality that is life, the living organism that is the universe our home. The Greek myth, of course, posited Gaia and Uranos in the first hieros gamos; and their offsprings were the Titans, the natural forces that control our physical existence. The access of Zeus and Hera to the throne of Olympus perpetuated the hieros gamos on another level: it represented the coming into being of intellect and emotion. One stunningly beautiful passage in the Iliad portrays something of the splendor and mystery of the hieros gamos. The lyrical celebration between Zeus and Hera on Mt. Ida, even though Hera has contrived by means of it to seduce her husband away from his watchfulness of the battle, is a high point of the poem. It establishes the generative effect of their union on all the vegetative life of the cosmos. Hera has borrowed Aphrodite’s loveliness and desirability (these aphroditic qualities no doubt symbolizing a distinct change from Hera’s usual regal pride) for
the purpose of enticing Zeus, who when he looks upon her feels desire as “a mist about his close heart as much as on that time they first went to bed together and lay in love, and their dear parents knew nothing of it.” (This is a reference to one version of the story in which the two, from the beginning, are lovers.) Zeus feels a resurgence of that early love and entreats her, “Hera, . . let us go to bed and turn to lovemaking/ For never before has love for any goddess or woman so melted the heart inside me, broken it to submission /as now”—and then he proceeds, rather ingenuously, to enumerate his many loves, including, finally, Hera herself: “not [even] yourself,” he says, “have I loved so much as now I love you, and the sweet passion has taken hold of me.” Then,
. . . the son of Kronos caught his wife in his
arms. There underneath them the divine earth
broke into young, fresh grass, and into dewy clover,
crocus and hyacinth so thick and soft it held
the hard ground deep away from them. There
they lay down together and drew about them a
golden wonderful cloud, and from it the glimmering
Here Homer has allowed himself to portray the generative power of the marriage bond Between Zeus and Hera, showing it as an analogue to the original hieros gamos, in which, as the Theogony tells us, “great Uranus came, bringing on night and longing for love, and he lay about Gaia, spreading himself full upon her.” The union of Zeus and Hera, despite their quarrels, is a genuine Incarnation of the original holy marriage, and it is through this Olympian pair that the very face of the earth is renewed.
In the Old Testament, the paradigmatic marriage, of course, is that of Adam and Eve.
Karol Wotyla, Pope John Paul II, describes their creation in his Original Unity of Man and Woman,
where he speaks of the original “solitude” of adam (mankind), as being pertinent to the original unity of male and female, who, unlike the other creatures, have a self-consciousness and so become “Partners of the absolute.” This original solitude, in which man, adam, is both male and female, is a solitude before all the other things of the universe and before God. But this original solitude is not destroyed when the separation of the sexes occurs. “In the second account, the man (adam) falls into that deep sleep in order to wake up male and female.” The word for this sleep, tardemah, Wotyla points out, is used only one other time in the Pentateuch (when God passes mysteriously over the fire with Abraham, and the full revelation of the covenant is given). The tardemah, the deep sleep into which Adam fell in his longing for a companion in the action of love is translated in the Septuagint as ekstasis, ecstasy, standing outside the body. And this ecstasy is the realm accessible to human beings in marriage. Jesus spoke (Mt 19:3ff) joined to his wife, and “the two shall become one flesh. So they are no longer two but one flesh.” When Christ speaks of marriage in this way as “forsaking all others” (marriage is the only tie that he seems to consider absolutely binding; the biological ties are not), they achieve this mysterious henosis, this state of being one flesh, by returning to that original unity. According to Wotyla, “Man and woman, uniting with each other (in the conjugal act) so closely as to become ‘one flesh’ rediscover every time and in a special way the mystery of creation.”
I am maintaining that this mysterious phenomenon of becoming “one flesh” occurs only
in marriage, not in any relation outside marriage. It is not a property of sexual love, then, but of
marriage. Marriage is an actual, very real vocation: its task, primarily, is not just the happiness
of two people, or the establishment of a family, or even the salvation of two souls; but the construction
of an entity, which constitutes a sacred area within society, a territory within which the divine may pitch its tent. (Recall Abraham and Sarah; the Holy Family.)
Now marriages can be characterized in no other way except to say that they have been made by the decision to “cleave to one another” as long as life lasts. Each marriage is a unit, having its own character; there can hardly be any standardized measurement for quality, nor any prescribed roles that either partner must invariably play (Men may do the housework; women may earn the living.) Its single requirement is the shared intention of mutual bestowal of self to the end, through whatever pleasures or ordeals circumstances may bring. Each marriage has its own arcane discipline, its secret wellsprings. Yet each shares in being an alliance recognized by legal, political, social, and religious institutions. Matrimony as legal contract, as social custom, and as sacred ceremony are institutional ways of dealing with a fundamental and private joining that Church and state acknowledge as occurring—in whatever circumstances—when a man and woman pledge themselves to each other, body and soul, with a lasting commitment. Customs and mores change; but the reality represented by
marriage, from as far back as human investigation can determine, is unchanging.
In considering this fundamental conjunction into which a man and a woman enter with the aim of permanence, we are speaking not simply of a relationship but of a union. Outside marriage there can be, of course, and are quite profound relationships, according to the disposition of the persons involved: some may be deep and lasting friendships; some, bonds of piety, or romantic passions; others may be based on a connaturality—not necessarily eros or philia—but a special agape—a bestowing love in which the two partners “recognize” each other and discover an intimacy in which they feel they know each other's total being, so that they seem to be two halves of one whole: “soul mates.” (Faulkner depicts this relationship in Gavin Stevens and Linda Snopes, who appear in The Town and the The Mansion.) Theirs may be a truly I-Thou relationship, in which the beloved is known from within. And though, according to the ways of the world, one would expect this relationship to result in a sexual consummation—and though it would seems, ideally, that it should issue in marriage—still it need not necessarily do so. (We oversimplify the human heart in our day. Human beings are capable of all sorts of loving relations.)
Marriage does not require as its basis this sort of affinity, though ideally the union should be founded on a genuine empathy. This truly mutual love of the soul is a gift—and, when it occurs in marriage, a very great blessing to a wedded union. But fundamentally marriage should be founded on something else: on one’s sober estimate of the other person as a life partner, on his or her character, on his ability to grow, his willingness to enter fully into a life adventure. And the marriage is initiated by a decision: a vow, a pledge. For the promise creates the reality, or at least opens the way for its creation. Married love will be given as the result of the pledge.
Love is a gift: marriage is a work. The feeling of belonging to another person comes of its own accord; marriage, in contrast, is a free act like any act of choice. It marks the beginning of a new status. Once established, marriage creates a metaphysical reality shared by two people; the two partners give themselves to each other, fully sanctioning this new conjunction for an entire lifetime. Their bodily union consummates this pledge. In this manner a freely willed act can bring into being an objective status which, once founded, is no longer limited to or dependent upon the will of either person. (It is something like having a child; one cannot undo its existence.) For a marriage to exist at all (in the ontological sense), it must be entered into as something that cannot be revoked—and herein lies the reason for the failure of so many matrimonial ventures launched with such high hopes in
our day. In the inevitable disappointments that follow—the disagreements, the hardships and disappointments—the sins, possible infidelities, psychological aberrations—both partners at times, no doubt in most marriages, look for a way out. And for many, the desire to start over, to rid oneself of the painful imperfections of the past, takes on the semblance of a high moral cause—divorce becomes almost an obligatory rite of purification.
For how can one go on with something so marred as most human lives turn out to be? How can we bear having a witness to the mistakes and failures in our lives, the vanity and littleness uncovered—
our own and our spouse’s? Only by holding to the belief that matrimony seriously entered into is irrevocable can marriage partners grow beyond the natural repugnance that any two people at times feel for each other—the sense of being trapped by something alien, the wild desire that comes intermittently to be absolutely free to choose one’s own path, completely alone. Only by encountering, sometimes in violence, the permanence—and the sacredness—of the union and its enduring ability to heal and be healed can conjugal partners surmount their sense of injury—to go beyond even the sense of their own virtue. And in doing so they consent to enter by stages into a realm that has little to do with virtues or vices, but more to do with giving and forgiving; a realm governed by a deep and pervasive presence that is not simply love of each other, but a love far superior to that of either partner—a love that instructs.
Now let me make clear that I am not speaking of an ideal state, or of a lyrically happy situation. I mean to be describing what has heretofore been taken as actuality: for in every century before this one and, as far as we can tell in every society, marriage has been considered not simply as a contract between two separate parties, nor a fulfilling romantic relationship in love, but a solemn union, celebrated by a joining, that is always recognized as sacred and connected to the primordial. The new life of marriage is a being in itself; and it need not necessarily be a happy one. For just as not every individual in him or herself is happy or fortunate, so too with matrimony. Many marriages are, one recognizes, quite miserable; most are neutral, neither happy nor unhappy; but if they have been genuinely entered into with the intention of permanence, they all become a source of grace to the participants. Happiness is not the goal of marriage: the work of creation and redemption is.
In the unity of marriage, there are still two separate minds, two hearts, two imaginations, two proclivities; there is no mystical transformation into one substance. It is not, as Catherine declares in Wuthering Heights: “I am Heathcliff!” The union does not produce sameness in its two halves; it is more as the myths would have it: Earth and sky, yin and yang, etc. These make an ontological unity—a whole—that is not composed of similitudes but contrasts. Indeed, if we look back at ancient myths, we shall see that this diversity—the difference in the two sexes—is the precise reason for their existence. For ancient myths speak of one originary sex: split into two for punishment, as some accounts have it; for joy, as the Genesis myth tells it—divided in order that the creature ha-adam, man (both male, ish, and female, ish-shah) could be provided with a companion: in order, as I would put it, that the dynamic of love might be exercised in action, over and over again. “Bone of my bone, flesh of
my flesh,” Adam exclaims joyously on awakening from his creative sleep.
Few poets have written of marriage per se: epithalamia, prothalamia, peripheral lyrics commemorate
events in the wedding or the married life, but very little in the poetic tradition expresses its inner content. Most love poems in the ancient and medieval world celebrate extra-marital amours, particularly courtly love and medieval romance, both of which glorified a passion outside of wedlock. It was not until the Renaissance that an attempt was made to unite romantic love and matrimony. Shakespeare might be said to devote his entire body of work to the establishment of the priority of love in marriage and the right of a young woman to choose her mate. The tragedies Hamlet, Othello, and Romeo and Juliet depict the death of the daughter because of the father’s interference with this choice. A Midsummer Night’s Dream portrays the way in which the tyrannical father may be outwitted by fantasy and imagination; The Merchant of Venice shows marriage to be a sacrament of sacrifice—“Give and hazard all” is the inscription contained with the leaden casket. In his problem comedies Shakespeare testifies to the indissolubility of marriage; Measure for Measure and All’s Well That Ends Well show its perdurance even when it is repugnant to the husband (the bed trick); and in Much
Ado About Nothing Shakespeare works to separate wedlock from the romantic love tradition that both Beatrice and Benedick find so demeaning. Only in the Tempest does Shakespeare firmly unite love and marriage; and in this final play he distinguishes between amor and married love, calling up Juno, Ceres, and Iris for Ferdinand and Miranda's nuptial pageant, omitting Venus and her unruly son, Cupid. Prospero delivers a serious speech to the young lovers that is an injunction not to consummate their love before the ceremony, with the implication that marital love is something that, ideally, ought not begin in dalliance.
The supreme poet of the existential reality of marital love, I would suggest, is John Donne, who, a little after Shakespeare, writes boldly and directly of this sacrament—though his fundamental fiction as poet, his “cover,” so to say, is the illicit union of the sexes. We know of his own marriage to Ann More and the stint he served in prison for marrying her in secret. (“John Donne, Ann Donne, Undone,” as he ruefully wrote in one of his letters.) We have the biography by Isaac Walton, which pictures an extraordinarily happy marriage, though one much plagued by poverty and illness: the couple produced twelve children, of which only three survived into adulthood. After Ann’s death, we know that Donne almost immediately entered the Anglican clergy, to become the great Dean of St. Paul’s, the most famous preacher England has ever known. We can read his sermons and meditations; we have evidence of his profound religious thought. There is no corresponding evidence of any extra-marital affairs; the legend of John Donne the Rake, a biographical fallacy, had to be invented, deriving
from the intense and sensual nature of his love poems, which were not ostensibly directed toward his wife.
What I am saying, I suppose, is that the actual connubial intimacy cannot be expressed overtly: one has to write of it under another guise. It is not a “sex life” that a married couple have: the marital act probably ought not even be called “sex” if what we see and hear in movies and television and which many people apparently enjoy as a fairly exhausting but addictive sport is to be designated by that name. What happens in the bodily communion within marriage is a physical and spiritual joining that is part of a primordial integrity; it is not just that the two halves of one whole are rejoined but that in the joining, to speak in theological terms, the union becomes the human “image of God.” To borrow Coleridge’s phrase—there occurs in this conjugal act “a repetition in the finite [person] of the infinite I AM.” As William Faulkner has Isaac McCaslin say, in Go Down Moses, “every man and woman, at the instant when it dont even matter whether they marry or not . . . at that instant the two of them together are God.”
Donne’s superb love poems of consummation—“The Canonization,” “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning,” and “The Ecstasy,” among others—express the metaphysical mystery of faithful love, in which the two lovers become one flesh. In a poem that we know was written to his wife just before he undertook a journey, “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning,” Donne designates the permanence and indissolubility of their union by means of his characteristic “metaphysical conceits.” He speaks of “a love so much refined/ That our selves know not what it is,” and goes on to say that “our two souls, which are one/ . . . endure not yet/ A breach, but an expansion/ Like gold to airy thinness beat.” And then in the very process of poiesis, his thought moves on: “if they be two, they are two so/ As stiff twin compasses are two;/ Thy soul, the fixed foot, makes no show/ To move, but doth, if th’other do.”
In “The Canonization” he speaks of the absolute withdrawal from the world that a couple must make if they are to enter into the task of their love (which, ultimately, is to redeem the world—that world that urges him to take up something practical). “Call us what you will,” he says, “we’are made such by love;”
Call her one, me another fly,
We’are Tapers too, and at our own cost die,
And we in us find the’Eagle and the Dove;
The Phoenix riddle hath more wit
By us, we two being one, are it,
So, to one neutral thing both sexes fit.
We die and rise the same, and prove
Mysterious by our love.
After we are dead, he tells us, the world will recognize our value as ones who have loved truly: they will invoke us, he says, as the saints of love:
. . . . You whom reverend love
Made one another’s hermitage;
You, to whom love was peace, that now is rage;
Who did the whole world’s soul contract, and drove
Into the glasses of your eyes,
So made such mirrors, and such spies,
That they did all to you epitomize,
Countries, Towns, Courts: Beg from above
A pattern of your love!
This is the portrait of a marriage: something pointed beyond itself—toward the redemption of the world; something that supplies a “pattern” for love. Donne’s chief fiction is that of an impassioned
lover persuading his mistress to yield—and usually succeeding in his persuasion. (This fundamental fiction, I would maintain, is the archetypically proper diagram for the intimacies of marriage: the male partner continually seeks out the female: she remains perpetually virgin though nonetheless mother, mistress, nurse, coworker, counsellor.)
It seems a hardy undertaking: this bringing together of love and marriage. It is a task still going on in our own day. In its deepest sense it is a prophetic work, based on a vision of the future rather than the past. It is something to come, perhaps only at the end of time, when the whole of creation will be united to God in a marriage feast. And it is of this that Dostoevsky writes in The Brothers Karamazov, when Alyosha has his vision of his blessed elder Father Zossima at the marriage feast of the Lamb.
Marriage is the community in which love can grow beyond personal feelings to reach its full dimension. But that love is not turned inward to each other, though the nuptial gaze is face to face. Instead, this contemplation, in a mysterious way, yearns outward—to the world— and upward—to the numinous reaches of the divine life. An early twentieth-century edition of The Catholic Encyclopedia has something rather daring to say about the task of marriage: “The original marriage, and consequently marriage as it was conceived in the plan of God before sin, was to be the means not only of the natural propagation of the human race, but also the means by which personal . . . sanctity should be transmitted to the individual descendants of our first parents.” It was, therefore, a great mystery, intended not for the sanctification of those united by the marriage tie but for the sanctification of others.
This can be so because the two souls of the married couple enter into the same metaphysical space: the intimacy of marriage comes from a shared interior habitation. And it is not just that one knows the other from within, having exchanged one limitation for the other: it is that between the two a space, a sanctuary, is dedicated which both can inhabit. Hence the two may be quite distinct personalities, with separate and differently directed careers; they may be physically apart, if need be, a great deal of the time; but the sanctuary of marriage is large enough and high enough and expansive enough to contain them both, with all their noblest aspirations and all their most unlovely faults, their sins, and it may be even their betrayals. It is a house not built with hands, a house in which the two may dwell and within which they dwell with an awareness of eternity. The pledge for eternity brings into view the entire life cycle of the partners—their complete myth, its orientation toward the end, the telos, of their union. And this presence of final things remains and deepens over the years, strengthening two perhaps quite ordinary people, gradually transforming them into heroes (or, we might put it, saints). The work of art that is the conjugal union takes on a form far superior to the mere cooperation of two selves, or even their mutual love. It is this art form that provides the free field for the great abundance of the nuptial state, far beyond the imaginings of either member of the partnership.
From within this microcosm, the two reenact the progress from Eden to the New Jerusalem: all the myths are present; the darkness of the underworld is a very real part of the topology, as is the region of light into which Dante enters in the “Paradiso.” (As the mark of the underworld is a heavy darkness through which one must make one's way alone, so the paradisal regions manifest themselves in mutual laughter and delight.) From within this cosmos, the two may look out upon the world and share a commonality of feeling— about art, music, poetry, education, life, death, God; their cosmos extends, “like gold to airy thinness beat,” so that they are free to do whatever individual work they are called to do. Within the center of the structure, there are moments of sacramental union, of conversation, celebration, joy, suffering; sometimes a probing of each other’s minds and imaginations. Each comes to understand, so to say, the divine plan for the creation of this particular “team”; and each participates in the working out of this plan: it becomes the most serious work of both. On its most basic level, marriage is a work; on a little higher level it is a mission. But on its highest level, marriage is a metaphysical creation: its task, ultimately, is to make a dwelling place for grace in the midst of human culture. The presence of a third thing, a brooding presence that seems intimately involved with the well-being of this union, makes itself manifest in the dark times as in the light.
The intimacy of marriage consists, then, not in the constant baring of souls or the sharing of every thought and feeling, but in dwelling within this sacramental cosmos that the two partly build and partly simply enter into—a structure that the two recognize as a channel of grace not so much for themselves as for the world. When we speak of healing the wounds of society—the crime among youngsters, the violence on all sides of our lives, the inadequacies of our schools—we tend to turn to the decline of the family as their causes. Families change as cultures change, and we can do little from the outside to restore the coherence of the family. But marriage is an eternal resource, and every new marriage undertaken with the intention of making an indissoluble union recovers the primordial freshness of a world lost in callousness and self-centeredness. We need to bring up our young with a renewed understanding of what William Faulkner has called the “fire on the hearth”—that fire of the creator’s love for humanity that is rekindled among us by good marriages, even in the midst of injustice and suffering, in hidden places all over the world.