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July 27, 2011

This week, I turn over This Pilgrim’s Progress to a dear friend, Chris Sperling. Chris is a licensed marriage and family therapist working with couples in the Diocese of Austin. Every Tuesday at 6:00a.m. Chris and I huddle in the corner of coffee shop to digest Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body. His guest post was, at least in part, inspired by one of those conversations. Enjoy!

As humans, we are consumed with the desire to understand ourselves. Who are we? Where do we come from? Where are we going? What is the “in between” supposed to look like?

In our striving to answer those questions, the best we can often manage is analogies and metaphors. Over the past several years I have been profoundly struck by the analogy most often employed by Blessed Pope John Paul II: the spousal analogy. John Paul II, recognizing the variety of analogies we have employed to describe the human condition, refers to the analogy of us as “spouses,” calling it the least inadequate analogy we use to understand ourselves and our relationship with God. However, understanding the spousal nature of marriage and the human person has proven to be a significant undertaking.

You might say to me “the spousal nature of marriage…isn’t that obvious?” I don’t think that it is anymore, if it ever was. We approach marriage today as agreement to get what we need from the other person. I scratch your back, you scratch mine. Many of the clients I work with struggle to understand what marriage means because it has not been modeled to them by parents and family. For many people, marriage, like most relationships, is viewed as disposable, disappointing, and, at best, utilitarian. Their understanding and conception of the marriage relationship is a pale comparison to the image that was infused into the human person by God at the dawn of creation.

Our Lord, as St. Paul points out in Ephesians chapter 5, gave us the ultimate example of being spousal: total self-donation of your being for the good of another. Jesus willingly and without argument went to the cross for his bride the church. We are his bride! Christ “gave himself up for [us] to make [us] holy, purifying [us] in the bath of water by the power of the word, to present to himself a glorious church, holy and immaculate, without stain or wrinkle or anything of that sort.” This is what is means to be groom.

If we understand the groom’s role of self donation, what then, does it mean to be bride in this scenario? Are we not all church? Then are we not all bride? If we are all bride what does it look like in action to be bride? If we look at a man and a woman’s body then we can have some understanding. The bride receives the groom’s body into hers in a very intimate way. It is the groom who gives himself to his bride. John Paul speaks of this in this way that, “the husband is the one who loves and the wife, by contrast, is the one who is loved (TOB 92:6).” The groom gives himself to the bride who in return receives.

It is in this image of receptivity that man has been created by our loving God and in our receptivity we image God himself. When we describe the trinity, we give light to the reality of our God as a reciprocal communion of loving persons. God the Father has eternally loved God the Son who has eternally loved him. From this reciprocal love proceeds the third person of the Trinity, God the Holy Spirit. This is the image and likeness that human persons were created after. It is in total self-donation that God the Father gives himself and which God the Son receives. In return God the Son gives himself in total self-donation to God the Father who receives this love. Notice there is only giving and receiving. There is no taking.

Too often as spouses we fail to image this reciprocal relationship, instead, spending our time attempting to get our needs met. A part of the work that I do when counseling couples is to teach them to make room for one another in the relationship. Often a couple falls into what we term a demand-withdraw cycle in their relationship that most likely becomes habituated. One spouse demands attention or interaction from the other spouse to which the answer is to withdraw from the relationship. Often the answer to solving this situation is to “make room” for the withdrawing spouse. The demanding spouse is attempting to take from their mate the attention to which they perceive they deserve.

Marriage was not created to be this way. Marriage is meant to be a giving-receiving model in which both spouses are looking for opportunities to donate themselves to the relationship. It is through this giving-receiving model that love most effectively proceeds from a relationship. Through this model, couples most effectively imitate the first and ultimate reciprocal communion of loving persons.

For each of us, this receptivity for is found every time we receive our Lord’s body and blood in the Eucharist. We are entering into this model as bride to Christ our groom in a real and physical way every time we do this. Likewise, we turn to our mother Mary who modeled this receptivity to the call of Christ as she “took all these things and pondered them in her heart.”

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