“For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church.”
Making sense of love is hard to do, and our race has spent itself in poetry and song, passion and violence to mark out its fuzzy outlines, to see where it begins or to find out how it can end.
To judge by the sheer amount of times we use the word, it would seem to be constantly on our minds, always at the forefront of thought or on the tip of the tongue.
But just as familiarity breeds contempt, so it is also dross in every precious metal. The same word encompasses the deepest act of sacrifice and the most trivial preference of taste or sound.
Not only do we love everything, but we even seem to love love, as if the idea could be somehow hypostasized and thereby attained. Why else do we daydream about those feelings we see endlessly portrayed in our cinematic fantasies or panegyrized in our favorite songs? Or some nostalgia for that one time, that one summer, that one season, in which all the persons and locations and such are really ultimately accidental to the subjective desire to return?
Love itself must be subsumed to this seemingly all-reaching gaze, brought in line with every other preference and appetite. I can love that flavor because of how it makes me feel, but such an affection is surely one-sided, for there is no room for giving, but only for taking.
If only these sorts of loves were confined to puppies and chocolate, then we would only be faced with a matter of semantics. Yet there is often little distinction demonstrated- be they puppies or persons- save perhaps in scale. For are they not all ultimately aligned to the posture of one’s own subjectivity, that inner inclination which wills to reorient everything to its own orientation?
Sex often becomes the sine qua non of this kind of love, something to be had at nearly any cost. What is meant to join two into one becomes by its very familiarly a more convenient and self-satisfying way to avoid this at all costs. The language we use of choice and of being free is really a way to disguise the face behind the mask, the naked will which will have what it desires, which is not really what it seeks to obtain, but rather simply to do so.
The irony is that sex is meant to be the antithesis of this bare-faced will, for its very act presupposes a certain incompleteness, something to be obtained not because it desires a satiation but rather because it desires completion. The opposition of the sexes in this joining highlights that to be complete in the marital act is not primarily to receive, but to give. After all, the orientation of opposition is what brings unity, for only in it does the self- whose tendency is to close inward- manage to open to another, and not only to be completed in the union, but to complete.
Even when the stain of sin encroaches and co-opts the meaning of this expression of unity, there can still burst forth from the union its final cause, a life that demonstrates that the freedom found in openly giving of oneself to another and refusing to make insular that which is meant to be gift is not in the indulgence of the passions or the embrace of the romantic but in the unity of love that demands all from each of the lovers and is unwilling to mar the gift because of its stinginess.
Such total transparency and gifting finds its meaning in that the will must finally be bridled, must finally admit that there is another whom it can admit into its universe. The corruption of sin transforms the will into a tyrant, and not only for the one willing. Like a child who doesn’t want to share his toys, and would rather have no one play with them but himself, so the self-will is ever-turning inwards, and like a raging maelstrom, will not rest until all float along aligned in its currents. With such a reference point, the will becomes the focus of all, the lens through which all is seen, the meaning by which all is measured.
The mystery of matrimony, which St. Paul tells us is ultimately a mystery about Christ and the Church, brings profound illumination to the myopic tendencies with which we break into the world. St. Paul sees the marital union between Adam and Eve as a type of the beginning of the Church: Adam slept in the garden and Eve was brought forth from his side, Christ slept in death and brought forth the Church. Adam and Eve brought forth the whole human race, Christ and the Church the body of believers. Adam and Eve became one flesh, Christ and the Church are one.
Buried in the natural meaning of marriage is a theological foreshadowing of the Beatific Vision, the union of God and man. But since marriage is in this reading only a type, it is not the ultimate end, but rather an analogy which by its limited nature is meant to one day pass away. This mystery is further seen in the comparison of type and archetype, for while Adam and Eve fell from grace and from them all their children inherited the loss, Christ is the source of grace for the Church and the one who will perfect her and her children. Adam turned his will unto himself, making even the words of God something to be measured by the man, but Christ refused to set his will against the Father, becoming himself the measure of all men.
To plunge further into one’s will, to acknowledge no arbiter but oneself as Adam did, is to make a marriage that loses its way, for the union is one-sided, collapsing the beloved into a mirror image of oneself. The natural language of sex becomes tangled in its insularity, for it can never imagine anything but its own appetites. A life imprisoned in self-will brings the appearance of freedom- a very serpentine promise– but is more like a dying star slowly devouring itself, seeking out every last bit of control until its own dimness catches it unawares.
We are all meant to be in union with God, the end unto which the nature of marriage and the meaning of sex direct us. And like a lover loves his beloved, so the infinite delights of union await the ones with the grace to attain it.
But what would it be like to have a bad marriage with God?
Any lover knows that even after years have worn by there are things about the beloved that one learns, new facets or experiences from the past that have to be revealed. The good husband delights in these revelations, for they give a new insight and an entirely new realm of the wife to explore. He could never find them dull or wish she would stop talking, for it is in this process of discovery that love can lay down new roots and ripen in the fullness of time.
The man mired in self-will, however, has little time for such nonsense. Initially it may be amusing, or provide openings for one-upmanship. He may even tactfully weave them into his own experiences until they ultimately become not new understandings of her, but really only about himself. The point of reference can rarely move, and it tries to draw all competing wills into its influence. Like a boy with only one crayon, he can only draw with one color.
There is finally no need for unknown stories and they can hardly draw his interest, at least to the extent to which they cannot be about him. The more he draws into himself and frames all around his will, the more colorless the world becomes, the far fewer things can pique his interest. Every new experience or delight is not graciously accepted for itself, but only taken insofar as it can reinforce the will, the ultimate justification of the appetite.
Death usually comes too quickly for most of us to fully drown in such quicksand, but what if the quicksand finally has no bottom? The tighter the cord is drawn and the more insulated the will becomes, the more uninteresting the universe becomes, even in all its beauty and wonder, like a stained-glass window made of only grey pieces. Escape could never come, and how could it, since every effort of the will on its own behalf makes the universe smaller and smaller, since everything has finally become about oneself, and oneself alone, absorbed into the whimper of a boy who doesn’t want to share his toys.
It may be that Hell is so terrible because it so terribly boring, left only with oneself and the will which endlessly demands itself and its recognition. Even if creative effort were possible it would not be desired, for that would only be another competitor, another thing to bring under one’s canopy. The occupant of Hell has made his universe so limited and so dull, so colorless and bereft of life, for there is nothing left to oppose it, nothing left to stand in opposition. At the end one is left standing on a darkened shoreline, staring off endlessly into a nothingness which envelopes everything, as each final star flickers out for eternity.
For a man to leave his parents and be united with his wife, he must leave the shoals of Hell behind. Hell has no marriages, but neither does Heaven, except for the matrimonial union of God and man. But only one will can be supreme, and a marriage where the two are not one is no marriage at all.
It’s really just Hell.