Thursday, January 10, 2008

Marriage and Love

There is an interesting My Turn column in the latest issue of Newsweek. The title is Yes to Love, No to Marriage. The column is the self-defense of a woman who “doesn’t need a piece of paper” to prove that she is committed to her lover Jeff for life. As is typical today, the outstanding feature of the column is its egocentrism. Marriage must justify itself before the court of the Almighty, Autonomous “I”, and if it cannot, then it must be summarily dismissed.

Of course marriage will never survive such a trial, for its very essence is the submission of the autonomous self to something greater than itself. That is why marriage has always been a public institution and, in the Church, a public sacrament. The public vows of the husband and wife are an acknowledgment that, in marriage, what happens is greater than either of them individually or even the both of them put together. Marriage is, in a very real sense, the death of the self; for true marriage involves the death of the purely autonomous, egocentric self that measures everything from the perspective of its own needs and desires. But in that death, the self may find itself reborn into a new life in union with the spouse and the community. Instead of “I”, there is “We”; the “We” that in its most fundamental nature consists of husband and wife, but one that naturally extends itself into the life of the community through children. Marriage is an institution authorized and witnessed by the public because, in forming the union of marriage, the couple creates the foundation for public life itself.

The author writes that “Meeting Jeff – an intelligent, creative, thoughtful man – became the icing on the rich cake of a life not wasted cruising singles bars and pining over lost loves.” What a metaphor for the egocentric life! Lovers once waxed eloquent about how their spouses completed them, how they were half a person without them, how they would die without them. But a cake – especially a “rich” one – is complete in itself without icing. Icing is nice to have but a cake can get along quite nicely without it. I wonder if Jeff was inspired by the news that he is the icing on the author’s cake. Maybe he is as egocentric as her and assumed that he was the cake and she was the icing. If we must use baking metaphors, then spouses in true marriage are like yeast and dough; they can do nothing apart from each other. But when they come together in something larger than themselves (say, an oven), they create something greater and more substantial than either of them; something that is not just good for themselves, but good for others as well.

Despite herself, the truth about marriage seems not to have entirely escaped the author. She laments the fact that if a couple does not perform a publicly recognized marriage ceremony, “some people just don’t give any weight to your commitment.” Of course not; a publicly recognized marriage ceremony just is the way the public gives weight to commitments. Her disappointment is like the disappointment of a witness who discovers that people won’t believe her if she refuses to swear an oath before testifying. And what does she care if anyone “gives weight” to her commitment? What happened to the glorious independence that sneers at “pieces of paper” and “pretty white dresses?”

The author has “lived life mostly on her own terms.” One can appreciate the strength of will in such a statement. Unfortunately, both the world and human nature is created on its own terms, not terms of our choosing. The best things in life, like marriage, can only really be experienced if we submit ourselves to their terms rather than our own.

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