MARRIAGE VOW: SADLY CULTURAL MEMORIES ARISE FROM TELEVISION!
Cultural memories arise today not so much from literature or oral traditions as from television. We have all seen the marriage scene numerous times. Bride in white and groom in black stand before a priest, minister, or rabbi and repeat the following words: "I [Christopher] take you [Jennifer] to be my lawful wife, for richer or poorer, in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health 'till death do us part. I will love you all the days of my life." His fiancée repeats the same promises. These are often the only public oaths people make in their entire lives.
DO WE UNDERSTAND WHAT WE SAY? DO WE UNDERSTAND DIFFERENT KINDS OF LOVE?
Yet do we understand, really understand what we say? What exactly are we promising? If we know how to do a wedding 'right,' why do so many of us fail to do a marriage right? I wonder sometimes if the intentions and practices of many getting married today would be better reflected in these vows: "I take you to be my spouse in good times but not bad, for richer but not poorer 'till further notice." Some actually do substitute "as long as we both shall love" or sign pre-nups without blushing. But almost everybody else says the traditional vows or ones very similar to them, and almost everybody does at least wish to live up to them. One must understand what one promises to live up to what one promises.
The bride and groom promise to love on another. But in making this promise are they aware of the different kinds of love? The Greeks used three different words all of which can be translated by our English word 'love.' These three loves are Eros, Philia and Agape. How do they differ?
EROS, A LOVE BASED ON BASIC INSTINCT
Eros is the love arising from the basic instinct described by Shakespeare in Romeo and Juliet. Eros is intense, passionate, and deeply sexual. It can begin with a glance and be entirely spent in well less than 9½ weeks!
Plato's Symposium treats the topic through a dialogue in which each person at a drinking party endeavors to give a speech in praise of love. The most memorable speech is perhaps that of the comic playwright Aristophanes. Originally, he says, there were three sexes, a pure male, a pure female and a mixed creature half female and half male. These beings rebelled against the gods. As punishment, in order to weaken and disorder these creatures, they were split in two. As a result, sexual desire of three kinds arose!
The original male/male creature or female/female creature having been split gave rise to the male yearning for its separated male half or the female for its female half in homosexual erotic love. From the male/female composite, the female yearns for the male and the male for the female, and thereby heterosexual erotic love arises. Like most ancient Greek apologists for male homosexual Eros, Aristophanes, as depicted by Plato, suggests that since the male is superior, the male/male erotic love is superior to heterosexual love.
Perhaps the outlandishness of Aristophanes' story is itself supposed to cast doubt upon this view, but there is a profound truth that can be culled from his narrative.
EROS IS SELDOM UNDER-ESTIMATED. BUT . . .
Martha Nussbaum, in her book The Fragility of Goodness (1986), notes that this truth is both utterly serious and utterly comic.
As we hear Aristophanes' distant myth of this passionate groping and grasping, we are invited to think how odd, after all, it is that bodies should have these holes and projections in them, odd that the insertion of a projection into an opening should be thought, by ambitious and intelligent beings, a matter of the deepest concern" (172). "From the outside we cannot help laughing. They want to be gods-and here they are, running around anxiously trying to thrust a piece of themselves inside a hole; or perhaps more comical still, waiting in the hope that some hole of theirs will have something thrust into it (173).
In marriage, Eros plays an element. Deep calls to deep, and two persons yearn to be as one, and they feel complete only in this oneness. Today, the importance of Eros to a marriage is seldom underestimated.
PHILIA, AN UNDER-APPRECIATED LOVE
Philia is a love perhaps less familiar to moderns in part because 'friendship' in modern culture tends to be under-appreciated perhaps because under-experienced. Our Lord called His disciples His friends (John 15: 14). We tend to have many acquaintances and few friends. How many of us are as fortunate with respect to friends as Augustine?
All kinds of things rejoiced my soul in their company-to talk and laugh and do each other kindnesses; read pleasant books together, pass from light jesting to talk of the deepest things and back again; differ without rancor, as a man might differ with himself, and when most rarely dissension arose find our normal agreement all the sweeter for it; teach each other or learn from each other; ...these things and such like things, proceed from our hearts as we gave affection and received it back, and shown by face, by voice, by the eyes, and a thousand other pleasing ways, kindled a flame which fused our very soul and of many made us one (Confessions, Book Four, VIII).
Conjugal love is greatly diminished without this kind of love, or when this friendship is based on merely utility or pleasure instead of excellence of character.
CAN MEN AND WOMEN BE FRIENDS EVER?
In When Harry Met Sally, Billy Crystal remarks that men and women can never be friends because the "sex thing" always gets in the way. C.S. Lewis with more precision suggested that men and women can be friends under certain condition.
When the two people who thus discover that they are on the same secret road are of different sexes, the friendship which arises between them will very easily pass-may pass in the first half-hour-into erotic love. Indeed unless they are physically repulsive to each other, or unless one or both already loves elsewhere, it is almost certain to do so sooner or later. And conversly, erotic love may lead to Friendship between the lovers.
We may want to add more conditions than Lewis, but before we do that it might be wise to speak about the nature of friendship in general before addressing friendships between the sexes or friendships between husbands and wives.
FRIENDSHIP AND SHARED ACTIVITY
Perhaps Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics offers an interesting and detailed consideration ever given of friendship. He suggests that friendship must involve mutual good will, shared activity, and a love for the other. We cannot be friends with someone who is not friends back. Friendly as we might be, friendship is a two-way street. Similarly friends don't just have good will for one another as fellow travelers might wish each other well. But true friendship seems to involve some sort of shared activity, be it mountain biking, analyzing fashion trends, or watching Monday Night football. Or sacrifice as our Lord declared:
No one shows greater love than when he lays down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. 15I do not call you servants anymore, because a servant does not know what his master is doing. But I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. (John 14: 13-15).
THREE KINDS OF FRIENDS
There seems to be three things that human beings find loveable, the useful, the pleasurable, and that which is good in itself. From this, Aristotle concludes that there must be three kinds of friends - friends of utility, friends of pleasure, and friends of the excellence he calls 'virtue.'
FRIENDS OF UTILITY
I recall vividly my first experience with friends of utility. I was one of the oldest sophomores and so was able to get my drivers license before almost all my classmates, indeed earlier than many juniors. Boy, was I popular then. The phone rang weekend after weekend from friends with great ideas about how we could pass the time. All they needed was a ride from me. Then strangely the next year the phone no longer rang. Having turned 16 themselves, Kaczor and his Kitcar had become dispensable!
A friend of utility is a person that has love for another not so much because of who that person is but rather for what that person does for them. Insofar as what is useful changes frequently, friendships of utility last only so long as one party is useful to the other - for buying beer, for helping with homework, for rides around town. These friends are also more prone to disagreements because they basically have a business arrangement but with no formal contract. Each fears giving too much and receiving too little.
Now there can be, it would seem, marital friendships of utility. One might think of a 26 year old model and her 90 year old billionaire husband. She may get a huge sum in hundreds of millions, and he gets a 'trophy'. Less blatant cases happen frequently despite the maxim that whoever marries for money earns every penny of it. However, a marital friendship of utility need not be a crass as mere economics. Consider the 30 something woman with biological clock ticking and the late 30 something man whose bachelor days are becoming a bit of an embarrassment to the family business. People in these situations might marry someone whom they would never consider marrying 10 or even 5 years earlier. Better settle for something than nothing.
A marital friendship of utility is a kind of business in which each partner negotiates for the fairest allotment of resources and the lightest burden to bear. It will be a 50-50 deal, or no deal at all. I met a couple who took this principle quite literally. She cooked on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday; he cooked on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday. They alternated laundry and cooking on Sunday. She didn't know where his sock drawer was; and from the looks of it he didn't either. They didn't mention how they handled nursing. I thought it odd that such arrangements were needed between those who say they love one another eternally when such conditions were not even necessary for my roommates and I during college--but to each his or her own.
FRIENDSHIP OF PLEASURE
Another kind of friendship described by Aristotle is a friendship of pleasure, another good that people love to find in others. He says this kind of friendship is common among the young. Here we might number 'drinking buddies' in whose company we share the good times, but not the bad. Jokes, reverie, and merry- making bond together friends of pleasure. Friends of pleasure have bright and clean faces and are enjoyable to be around.
These friendships appear more stable than friendships of utility. As Aristotle notes, unlike feeling slighted in a friendship of utility, it is ridiculous to get angry with someone about a failure to give you pleasure. "Your jokes are just not funny any more. What's your problem!?" "Wow. You've got a bad break-out of acne, and I've had just about enough of it!" However, what we take pleasure in does not always seem to be the most lasting. It is great to watch a TV show once but if you were to watch the same show again and again it grows tiresome. Seldom do the "party people" keep it going past college, and when they do it is often rather pathetic.
For those with sexual passion between them such friendships of pleasure involve sexual pleasure. As one student told me, these arrangements are so common that they've been given a title: "friends with benefits." It is clearly possible to initiate a marriage on this basis. The seemingly irresistible beauty of a woman or a man has led many a person down the aisle.
The question arises whether this would be the richest of marital friendships. Ben Franklin suggests that a happy marriage must be based on more than an original amorous fixation:
"Well, they are married, and have taken their full of love. The young spark's rant is over, he finds his imaginary Goddess mere flesh and blood with the addition of a vain, affected, silly girl; and when his theatrical dress is off, she finds he was a lying, hot brained coxcomb. Thus, come to their senses, and the mask thrown off, they look at one another like utter strangers, persons come out of a trance; he finds by experience that he fell in love with his own ideas and she with her own vanity. Thus plucked from the soaring heights of their warm and irregular passions, they are vexed at and ashamed at themselves first, and heartily hate each other afterwards."
Lest we think that such advice is confined to the 18th century, present-day popular lyrics express much the same anxiety. As Madonna sang in Express Yourself, Satin sheets are very romantic. What happens when you're not in bed? Even for the most sexually active, being in bed constitutes only a small part of a person's life (perhaps 30% or so, and the vast majority of this is spent sound asleep!). Actual sexual activity perhaps accounts for 1-2% of one's time which would seem to make choosing a partner exclusively on this basis rather small-minded.
What we take pleasure in varies over the course of our lives. That which delights the ten year old differs entirely from that which delights the twenty year old and that differs again from the pleasures characteristically enjoyed by the thirty year old. My fiftieth beer was not as pleasurable as my first; and the first kiss cannot be repeated. Just as one sees oneself better by not looking directly at oneself but into a mirror, so pleasure is best enjoyed when pleasure itself is not the focus but some other object. As nothing ruins fun faster than the constant, "Are we having fun yet," so nothing ruins pleasure like concentrating on it. Friendships of pleasure turn out much less pleasurable than first expected.
A FRIENDSHIP OF VIRTUE
This brings us to the third kind of friendship described by Aristotle, a friendship of virtue, excellence of character. Friends of virtue are certainly useful to us and they also are pleasurable to be around but they are loved not for what they give us or for how they make us feel but rather because they are a certain kind of person. Virtues are good habits, and habits generally are long lasting. These stable dispositions make possible a self-mastery, ease, and joy in doing what is good and right. Unlike, at least on some understandings, Kant's person with a good will, Aristotle's morally excellent person delights and freely practices good works and it would find it painful to do the opposite. Hence, Aristotle reasons that friendship of virtue will tend to be longer lasting than a friendship of utility or pleasure. When one describes the virtues, it is clear why.
CARDINAL VIRTUES AND FRIENDSHIP
Among the cardinal virtues of character, Aristotle numbers courage, temperance, prudence and justice. Without these characteristics, it seems difficult, if not impossible, to maintain a friendship with someone. Take first, courage. Courage is firmness is pursuing the good despite difficulties. Friends stick up for one another even at personal expense. They are not afraid to endure difficulties for the others' sake. Temperance, the enjoyment of bodily pleasures in accordance with reason, also seems to be required for true friends.
For example, it would be difficult to maintain a friendship with someone who had severe problems with alcohol or drug abuse. Prudence, which discerns what is right and what is the right way of attaining what is right, also contributes to friendship. In order to have any sort of relationship with another, one would first need a minimal conception of oneself and one's place in the world and how to handle the every day cares of life. Finally, true friendship requires the persons to exercise the virtue of justice, which has sometimes been defined as giving someone what is due. At the very least, friends must practice justice towards one another if they are to remain friends. I cannot be friends with a person who steals from me, attacks me, lies to me, or tries to murder me. A perfectly unjust person would be perfectly unsuited for any friendship.
Virtue or excellence of character seems to be longer lasting than either the useful or the pleasurable. Hence, the friends of virtue would seem to have the best chances for a strong, lasting friendship. Although friends of virtue are also pleasurable and helpful to one another, friends of virtue love each other, not what they get from each other.
Now, although Aristotle questioned whether men and women could be friends, (concluding finally that they could) friendship between "unequals" troubled him. Thomas Aquinas, that great lover of Aristotle, loved the truth still more:
[T]he greater a friendship is the more solid and long lasting will it be. Now there seems to be the greatest friendship between husband and wife, for they are united not only in the act of fleshly union, which produces a certain gentle association even among beasts, but also in the partnernship of the whole range of domestic activity.
On the basis of this equality, Thomas rejects the ancient custom that a husband could divorce his wife but not the wife her husband:
[I]f a husband were permitted to abandon his wife, the society of husband and wife would not be an association of equals, but, instead, a sort of slavery on the part of the wife.
Just as there can be marital friendships of utility or pleasure, so too there can be martial friendships of virtue.
WHAT IF A FRIEND OF VIRTUE LOSES VIRTUE?
Now what if a friend of virtue loses virtue? Virtue may typically last longer than what is pleasurable or what is useful but it can be lost. Aristotle indicates if a person loses virtue a friend should do everything possible to help that person regain the loss of character. If a true friend would help a person recover from a physical heart attack, surely a true friend would help a person recover from a moral heart attack. If after a long time, the person did not regain the lost virtue then Aristotle says that the friendship must end. However, Aristotle never wrote of the virtue of hope which would indicate that even were virtue to be lost temporarily one could never shut the door on the possibility that a person could go back to virtue.
GOD'S GRACE INFUSES VIRTUES
From a theological perspective, God's grace can actually infuse virtues and make up for those deficiencies a person may lack. The Christian then will add to courage, temperance, prudence, and justice also the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity. The faith that trusts in God to see one through the good times and the bad, the hope that one can attain happiness despite the obstacles that loom, and the love both of God and of this person who trains us in loving constitute needed dispositions for a marital couple. These theological virtues as well as the infused moral virtues are part of the sacramental grace of marriage.
Time and shared activity strengthen a friendship, and thus a maritial friendship of virtue would have the conditions needed for the best kind of friendship. Particularly, and this Aristotle did recognize, the procreation and education of children can become a great bond between husband and wife. This is a shared, pleasurable activity that they share uniquely between them. Every child is a unique testimony to the union and activity existing between one man and one woman. A child then can be the source of shared activity lasting a lifetime.
AGAPE LOVE: CONSENT TO UNCONDITIONAL LOVE
Finally, there is Agape, sometimes called Charity. It is the unconditional will to do what is good for the other. It is the love of God for His people, even when His people are molding the golden calf or otherwise accommodating to the cultural Zeitgeist. When St. John tells us that God is love, he means that God is Agape, not Eros, or Philia. God so loved the world that He sent His only Son to suffer and die for us. It is this love in which our salvation is found. Agape is not mere sentimentalism, but real service characteristically involving self-sacrifice.
A good marriage has all three kinds of love--Eros, Philia, and Agape. But the importance of each kind of love is often misunderstood. Eros is the love that comes to our mind most readily when we think of marriage and then perhaps the love of Philia, that friendly love of companionship, and then finally, if at all, the unconditional love of Agape. Self-help books on marriage emphasize the pursuit of erotic love 'sizzling passion' without worrying nearly as much about Philia, without even mentioning Agape.
In reality, it is only the love of Agape which one promises in the wedding vows. One does not promise to be sexually attracted to or stimulated by one's spouse. Such passions and feelings cannot be controlled by an act of free choice. We have no conscious control over such feelings and so could hardly promise to have them. The love mentioned in the marriage vow could not even be the love of friendship. Friendship involves mutual good will and shared activity. It takes two for the tango of friendship. In a wedding, the man promises what he, not they as a couple, will do and the woman promises what she, not they together, will do. The love promised in the vows is not Philia.
LOVING ONE ANOTHER AS CHRIST LOVES THE CHURCH
The love that is promised in the wedding is Agape. This consent to unconditional love promised by man to woman and woman to man confers the sacrament of marriage. Unlike other sacraments, the couple ministers the sacrament to one another. From that moment on, the husband is obliged to love his wife unconditionally and the wife to love her husband unconditionally. In this, each spouse acts as God who loves each spouse unconditionally. In a way, one might say that each spouse acts in persona Christi by loving the other as Christ loves the Church in all circumstances until death itself severs the bond. Marriage also makes present God's love insofar as each spouse in being loved unconditionally experiences God in being so cared for. Hence, in both an active and a passive way, marriage is a sacrament, a sign of God's love in the world. The spouses act as God acts by loving even when love is undeserved. The spouses receive the love of God when they experience the love of God in being loved unconditionally. The love of spouses for one another, both as it is given and received, is an image of God for those seeing this relationship, extended family, friends, acquaintances, and especially children.
GOD GIVES THE COUPLES GRACE TO MAKE IT WORK
Through the sacrament of marriage, God gives couples the grace and infused virtues needed to 'make it work.' If the couple is open to children, God normally provides an essential bond for the couple that allows them to grow in natural virtues as well. In his book Covenanted Happiness, Cormac Burke notes that children are able to elicit sacrifices that spouses are unable to elicit from one another. These sacrifices offer an opportunity for the spouses to become better persons.
Without a moment's hesitation my wife Jennifer will nurse our newborn Catherine when she cries every three hours or so throughout the night for months on end. Now if I were to wake up Jennifer for similar activities every three hours throughout the night for months, I suspect her response would markedly differ. Likewise, our three-year-old John Paul mastered the 'potty' save for the final step of properly wiping his bottom. Hence, after every job, he grabs his ankles, sticks his hiney high in the air, and calls for 'dada' to come and clean him up. Now were Jennifer to make the very same request, …. Clearly, children can elicit sacrifices that spouses cannot, or would not, and these requests provide opportunities for love to grow.
The love shown by spouse to child, inevitably noted by the other spouse, has two effects. First, it demonstrates the good will and growing character of the one who gives care. Care for the children is a sign that spouses have a common goal and a common project. Such care then bonds not only parent and child but also husband and wife. Husband and wife see the commitment of one another to their shared, unique activity-the procreation and education of children. This shared activity is a kind of friendship of moral excellence. Secondly, there is an interior change in the person giving care making the caregiver more lovable. The mother nursing the baby at night or the father cleaning up dirty diapers develops the habit of charity over time. Although aided by the natural affection of parent for child, nevertheless the effort expended through continuous loving acts can transform a selfish person into a generous one. This transformation by the demands of love changes each spouse into a more virtuous, more lovable person.
It is this way in part that spouses work out their salvation. How does Christ separate the saved from the damned in the Gospel of Matthew? "I was hungry and you fed me, naked and you clothed me." It is this service that parents render to children daily and often one spouse in times of sickness or old age render to one another. John Paul II has said that the civilization passes by way of the family. Our salvation often does as well. Marriage is indeed a sacramental way of working out one's salvation by becoming more like God by loving in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health 'till death do us part.