From The Cloister Walk
True intimacy is frightening, and I was well into my marriage before I realized that I either had to seek it or live a lie. Intimacy is what makes a marriage, not a ceremony, not a piece of paper from the state. I have shared great intimacy with several people; my friend dying of cancer for whom I would hold (and later clean) the bowls in which she frequently had to vomit; the monk homosexual and resolutely celibate, with whom I’ve shared the deepest confidences. But it is only with my husband that I feel the mystery Saint Paul speaks of in Ephesians, our lives so intertwined that they feel like “one flesh.”
I had forgotten how much marriage imagery there is in this feast that ends the Christmas season. On the third day there was a wedding at Cana in Galilee, I read last night in my breviary. Cana again in the morning hymn, and Here is my beloved, at morning prayer, and again at Mass. But why, at the end of Mass, a song about a wedding garment? Is baptism a kind of marriage? Why, to celebrate the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan, hymn verses that echo the Song of Songs, the lover knocking on a door that is locked against him, and the night?
It brings a flood of memories that exhaust me. For years I hated weddings. I used to think it was simply a cultural prejudice against a ceremony that seemed only to celebrate sentiment and money, the barbaric custom of “giving away” a woman, as if she were not a person but property. But it ran much deeper, a fear of giving myself to anyone. And then, one night, when my husband had hidden himself away, and was found by a gentle policeman (who later told me, M’am, your husband was so depressed, I never saw a man so depressed as that), I read myself to sleep with the Song of Songs and found us there, the beloved knocking, calling, Open to me, my sister, my love, and my own delayed response, the selfish thought, in the face of love – I had put off my garment, how could I put it on again? I had bathed my feet; how could I soil them? The comic scurrying, my bad timing: I opened to my beloved, but my beloved had turned and was gone.
That night I discovered, in the “Song,” a religious dimension to something I’d never fully understood. When I found him whom my soul loves, I held him and would not let him go, until I brought him to my mother’s house, into the chamber of her that conceived me. I had, in fact, brought my husband from New York City to my grandmother’s house in South Dakota, the house where my mother was born, and now I wondered if this had been an attempt to build a marriage, to free us from the distractions of the city so that we could get to know each other. Maybe love needs space around it, and time. Is love fostered by time as much as it needs and fosters intimacy?
Yes, I am married, but do I know how to love? Has my heart been shut for so long? I look up that passage in Paul. The two will become one flesh, he says, but only after sputtering on for a good long while, trying to make explicit the comparison between marriage and Christ’s love for the church. Finally, he gives up; I hear exasperation as well as wonder in his voice when he says, This is a great mystery. I read the end of Ephesians 5 as an example of what happens when you discover a metaphor so elusive you know it must be true. As you elaborate, and try to explain, you begin to stumble over words and their meanings. The literal takes hold, the unity and the beauty flee. Finally you have to say, I don’t know what it means; here it is.
A mystery indeed, elusive as prayer. For years I had chosen relationships that seemed safe, because I was choosing; in fact, I had chosen them because they didn’t require commitment. It’s hard to change old ways, to let myself be chosen, blessed by love, as if anointed. I don’t know what it means, but after my husband had been missing for three days and I found him in the emergency room, I did not know him. Depression had turned him inside out; he looked as ravaged as the corpus on the crucifix on the wall behind him. (I’m afraid all the time, is what he told me, a few days later, when he could speak.)
Of course, it was a Catholic hospital, Benedictine; one of our best friends, a young monk, had just become a chaplain there. Here it is, a mystery: I carry with me still the photograph of the three of us taken the summer before. My husband, our friend (who had just been ordained), and me. David had left, but I went to find him and brought him back. The three of us smiling, in the abbey courtyard. And that night, in the wine cellar, when the celebrating was done, I helped Father Robert wash glasses. He’s an older monk whom I had yanked out of semi-retirement to help me become an oblate, and wine tasting and washing up in his cellar were part of the deal. I’d been an oblate for a little more than a year and felt as lost as ever. Prayers were a torment, but what I knew I needed to do. My life was a hurricane, and our marriage, confused as it was, the calm at the center. You are entering the deep, uncharted waters, is what he said to me.