In the Judeo-Christian tradition, marriage has offered a set of images helpful in illuminating our communal relationship with God. Whether it is Israel’s covenant with Yahweh or the church’s bond with Christ, the nuptial images of bride and bridegroom have long helped believers reflect upon the radical dependence, fidelity and intimacy of the believing community’s relationship with the divine. Mystics, often drawing on the erotic imagery of the biblical Song of Songs, have also made use of nuptial images to suggest the intimacy and vulnerability of spiritual union.
Weddings and Marriages
Too often, however, nuptial imagery has been put to the service of a very romantic and idealized view of the church. It is true that nuptial images can help us understand the church’s bond with Christ; but viewed from a different perspective, they can also deepen our understanding of authentic church membership.
Faithful marriage has much to offer regarding the demands of any lifelong commitment, including lifelong commitment to the church. For this to happen, however, the heady confidence and virginal innocence of wedding-day promises made by the bride and groom must give way to reflection on the lifelong embodiment of marriage vows. It is marriage itself, not the wedding day, that can teach us about the real demands of church membership. This insight is not disclosed in white dresses and black tuxedos but in mortgages, children, layoffs, illnesses, arguments and reconciliations, boredom and delight.
The vows of marriage involve couples in the free embrace of limits (here there is much to compare to the vowed life of professed religious). In marriage, spouses vow themselves in a covenant before God to walk the Christian journey bound to one person in a radical and exclusive way. This free embrace of limits is not an end in itself but a means for entering into the paschal rhythm of the Christian life and for witnessing publicly to the transformative power of this rhythm. We Catholics celebrate the unique intimacy of marriage, as we must. But we need also to celebrate the conversion and growth in discipleship that the vowed life of marriage demands through the limits it imposes. Those who vow themselves in marriage allow their vows to shape their very identity.
Stanley Hauerwas coined the aphorism, You always marry the wrong person! Anyone married long enough understands the ironic wisdom of this insight. Culturally and spiritually, we are encouraged today to think of marriage as a decision to commit ourselves to Mr. or Ms. Right. We embrace the myth that there is only one right person for us. Ask engaged couples why they believe they are right for each other, and as often as not, you will receive a list of common interests and personality traits that they find attractive in their future mate. They will exude a wonderful confidence in their future together. Yes, they tell you, they know that they will go through difficult times, but they love each other and are committed to each other, and that love and commitment, they are confident, will be enough.
Unfortunately, their confidence is based on what they know of each other at that time. But the person to whom they are professing their marriage vows is, in many ways, quite different from the person he or she will be in five, 10 or 20 years. Each spouse will inevitably change. Sometimes the change will be subtle, almost imperceptible in its minute variances. At other times the change will be more dramatic, perhaps brought on by some unexpected crisis: illness, job loss, death in the family or infidelity. At some point in the marriage the thought may well occur to one or both partners: This is the wrong person for me; I made a mistake. The measure of the marriage is often determined by how the couple copes with this realization.
To move through this difficult time in faithful love is to experience the more sober recognition of the limitations of the marital commitment. It means acknowledging that, no, my spouse is not who I thought he or she was. My spouse will not be able to meet all my needs. My spouse will not fulfill all my fantasies; she or he will not finally accept the obvious superiority of my vision of life together. Paradoxically, this embrace of limits can bring with it a heightened gratitude for the precious comfort, support and companionship spouses offer each other.
Love need not die in such situations, but it does change. In Leonard Cohen’s haunting ballad, Hallelujah, he sings, Love is not a victory march, it’s a cold and it’s a broken hallelujah. There is a sober realism in these words. The hallelujah on the lips of mature married couples is not at all the giddy victory march of the bride and bridegroom; it is sometimes cold and broken, yet sincere in its hard-won gratitude.
Our Commitment to the Church
How might we rethink our baptismal commitment to the church if our images of church belonging shifted from the innocent promises of bride and bridegroom to the battle-tested vows of mature married couples? A shifting of images might remind us that the vows of baptism also impose limits and give shape and substance to our lives.
Though often first made by others on our behalf, as we ratify our baptismal vows they direct us along the path of discipleship. These vows demand that we renounce, daily, the seductive powers of evil and that we take up, daily, the cross of Christ. They insist that we orient ourselves in all that we do to the transformative power of grace in service of the coming reign of God. But these vows do this by way of Christian community. Our baptismal vows do not engage us in a private relationship with God, nor do they send us on some secret mission. We are baptized into the body of Christ. Like marriage, we do not vow ourselves to an abstraction. We vow ourselves to God, in Christ, by the Spirit, but these vows are enfleshed in community and this community imposes its own limits upon us. Like our spouses, our church inevitably changes over time.
Mario Cuomo, the former governor of New York, once introduced himself at the beginning of an address with the words, I am a Catholic, first by birth, then by choice, and now by love. This captures something of my own lifelong exploration into the depths of Catholic identity. In my early adult years, having returned to Catholicism after a college sojourn in more evangelical forms of Christianity, I was fascinated by Catholic teaching. The symmetry and systematic rigor of Catholic doctrine, the rich textures of church discipline and practice, all had immense appeal for me. Real presence, holy week, purgatory, holy men and women giving dramatic witness to the Gospel, often in the oddest of waysthese were the marks of a meaty yet romantic religion.
Decades later, now a professional theologian, I maintain my fascination with the depth and breadth of our great tradition. Yet it is a fascination that has become chastened. The smooth and clean surfaces of my faith have given way to a much rougher and more uneven texture filled with jagged edges and unseemly pockmarks. This past year has forced me as never before to face up to the brokenness of my church. The central affirmations of my faith remain soundI profess the Creed each Sunday without hesitationbut more and more I find that where once I felt only blissful certitude, now questions, complexity, ambiguity and even anger emerge. My Catholic identity is not what it was when, two decades ago, I returned to the church as a young adult. Much like that terrifying moment of marital crisis, in which I dare to question whether I married the right person, I read the latest Vatican decree or the latest report of ecclesiastical malfeasance and find myself struggling to keep my moorings in this broken church secure.
The Long Haul
I wonder whether this might not explain a trend that I have encountered in recent years. A profile has emerged in my experience of a surprising number of leaders in the orthodoxy police of the Catholic right who turn out to be adult converts to Catholicism (these must be distinguished from the many genuine conservatives who teach us much by their profound love of our tradition). This is only a trend, I hasten to point out, admitting of many exceptions. But still I wonder if there is not some unconscious need to justify their conversion by asserting a new form of Catholic triumphalism. Do they feel secretly compelled to out-Catholic the lifelong Catholics? As a mentor of mine once wryly observed, lifelong Catholics seem less likely to believe that the Catholic tradition needs to be saved from its critics. When I consider the romantic passion and easy certitude that some of the new apologists evince in their triumphalist presentations of Catholicism, I am reminded of the heady flush of optimism and confidence exhibited by engaged and newly married couples.
We lifelong Catholics have our own baggage, to be sure, and many of us are certainly not innocent of triumphalism. Still, most believe that our fidelity to our baptismal vows also gives us a freedom to embrace the brokenness of our church. We can criticize the church because our commitment to her has been chastened; we know we are in it for the long haul. We have long since learned to distinguish between the ruptures in fidelity that can call vows into question, and the daily gripes and reconciliations that are the stuff of vowed living. We have sorted out the essentials of our faith from the ambiguities, inconsistencies and, too often, even contradictions that are bound up in all that might count for being Catholic. We find we can embrace a whole set of tensions without losing fidelity.
For my part, I affirm the wondrous mystery of the Incarnation but wonder why my church finds it so difficult to embrace the body without romanticizing it. I affirm the Trinity but wonder why we insist on domesticating our God as some reigning super-being hovering around the periphery of daily concerns. I affirm the Eucharist but wonder why we turn a sacred action that demands everything of the eucharistic assembly into a sacred object that demands little beyond our private piety. I defend the need for an apostolic office but wonder why it is so often exercised like the rulers of this age (1 Cor 2:6).
Ask me now and I can repeat, without hesitation, my baptismal vows. But they are as different to me now as are the vows I made to my wife years ago. What remains is the fidelity to something greater, something that is glimpsed but never captured, something that possesses me more than I possess it. It is because of this deep felt consciousness of Catholic identity, the determinative and formative shape of my Catholic existence, that I find the freedom to question this particular teaching or that practice.
When I first married my wife, Diana, I was confident in our future together because I thought I knew herknew her beliefs, her convictions and interests. We loved golf and theology and both wanted children. But we have played golf three times since we were married, and we rarely if ever have the theological conversations and debates that animated the months of our engagement. We have children, but must constantly renegotiate our vision of parenting them as new situations arise. The intuitions and instincts that led us to marriage were sound, even if our perception and articulation of them have not always been clear. It was the vows, more often than not, that forced us to go deeper when some new conflict, some glaring difference in perspective, stared us in the face.
It is the vows of my baptism that sustain me in my Catholic identity today. The precise articulation of my Catholic identity in theology, doctrine and practice has proven as elusive as my attempts to explain to anyone who asks why Diana continues to love me and I her. Incarnation, Trinity, sacrament, redemption, authoritythese are just words and romantic abstractions until they become enfleshed in the vowed living of a baptismal community.
I have encountered no more eloquent testimony to the sober realism of Catholic ecclesial commitment constituted by baptismal vows than that of Walter Burghardt, S.J., who wrote in Tell the Next Generation:
In the course of half a century, I have seen more Catholic corruption than you have read of. I have tasted it. I have been reasonably corrupt myself. And yet I joy in this Churchthis living, pulsing, sinning people of God, love it with a crucifying passion. Why? For all the Catholic hate, I experience here a community of love. For all the institutional idiocy, I find here a tradition of reason. For all the individual repressions, I breathe here an air of freedom. For all the fear of sex, I discover here the redemption of my body. In an age so inhuman, I touch here the tears of compassion. In a world so grim and humorless, I share here rich joy and laughter. In the midst of death I hear an incomparable stress on life. For all the apparent absence of God, I sense here the real presence of Christ.
Faithful baptismal living, like faithful marriage, embraces both the blessings and limits that meaningful vows entail. For the paradox of our faith is that our human fulfillment comes when we abandon the quest for fulfillment in imitation of the self-emptying love of Christ. It is in that movement of love that the essence of all vowed living is found.