Misery, Miniskirts, and Games of Solitaire (homily)
February 8, 2009
World Marriage Sunday
The other day I talked with a woman who is worried about her daughter. She’s had a lot of trouble and heartache, the daughter has, and now that she’s in college, the mother told me, she’s really angry at God and at the Church, really doubting. She’s not at all religious, the mother said.
But I think that’s wrong. Anger and doubt are religious emotions, too, not just peace and joy. “Is not our life on earth a drudgery,” Job asks. Is it not all “misery”? And this is in the Bible. This is lament, one of the great literary forms in the scriptures, and it’s absolutely fine. There are reasons for it. Two thirds of the psalms are psalms of lament, of sadness, of doubt--My God, my God, why have you forsaken me--and who can blame the psalmist, given the way life often is? Who can blame the daughter?
It’s OK. Let it all out. God can take it.
I think about this because it’s World Marriage Sunday, and I think this is one of the holy things that marriage teaches us. It teaches us misery.
Last week there was a passage from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians that said that being a virgin is better than being married because virgins worry less than married people. Taken out of context I think that really gives the wrong idea, too, partly because worry is a good thing. Worry is part of what the Incarnation is all about.
The Incarnation, Avery Dulles says, the coming of Christ into the world, “does not provide us with a ladder by which to escape the ambiguities of life and scale the heights of the heavens. Rather it enables us to burrow deep into the heart of planet earth and find it shimmering with divinity.”
Jesus walks right into the house of Peter’s mother in law, and there are dishes everywhere and stacks of newspapers. The TV is blaring. This is a woman who’s been sick, after all. Under the weather. But Jesus doesn’t disdain her. He doesn’t think he’s too good for all that ambiguity and reality. No. He takes her by the hand and he heals her, and then they all have dinner together, the men and the women together, not apart. They laugh and they talk as evening comes and the shadows fall.
I think this is what’s sacramental about marriage, that it plunges us into the real, deep into the heart of the planet and deep into our own hearts, where there’s not just misery and worry, of course, but also laughter and joy. It’s all of it mixed up together.
“We are sometimes so busy being good angels that we neglect to be good men and women,” St. Francis De Sales says. We’re imperfect and we always will be--“our imperfections are going to accompany us to the grave”--and we simply have to accept that. We should keep trying to reform, of course. We should keep trying to improve. We just have to stop thinking that we’ll ever succeed. “Dear imperfections,” De Sales says. “They force us to acknowledge our misery, they give us practice in humility.”
Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not really talking about misery here, not in the sense of real cruelty or abuse or neglect. Those are entirely different things. We don’t have to suffer these things, and we shouldn’t.
And in a reasonable marriage, in a compassionate marriage, all the mushy stuff is true, too, the romantic stuff. Just off and on. Sometimes when I look at Barb I get the same feeling I got when I first saw her, in the band, in that yellow miniskirt I always talk about. Sometimes I just have to be with her. Most of the time. Just be with her in a room.
So all that is true, all those feelings are still there.
I’m just saying that there are other feelings, too, and that finally it’s not about feelings anyway. It’s about the day. It’s about that particular day and its challenges and its work. The routine. The commitments. Being faithful to the real.
The other thing that really strikes me in the gospel today is what always strikes me in this gospel, that Jesus gets up early in the morning and goes off to pray, and I think that this has a lot to do with marriage, too.
When I was a young husband I expected Barb to feel the way I did, at the moment I felt it. I thought we were supposed to like the same things and do the same things. Maybe this is a guy thing. I felt threatened when Barb wanted to be by herself and guilty when I did.
But if there’s anything I’ve learned in 33 years of marriage it’s that Barb and I are different and that that’s OK. Barb likes to travel. I don’t. Barb likes to play solitaire on the computer. I’ve always thought that was kind of strange, kind of sad. When Barb gets mad, she doesn’t talk. She goes silent running. When I get mad I explode--I get in touch with my feelings, and so does everyone else.
But all of that is fine. It’s OK.
What’s most holy and sacramental about marriage is that it teaches us difference, it teaches us otherness, it teaches us to accept the mystery of the human person, especially the mystery of one who is not us.
As the German poet Rilke puts it, “in marriage, we protect each other’s solitude.”
Maybe I’m just talking to the men here, I’m not sure, but husbands, give your wives some time alone. Give them the gift of distance from you, to pray or think or do whatever they want to do. Because it’s not about us finally. It’s about God and about the love that comes from God, and unless our wives can make contact with that love, unless they can open themselves up to it, their love for us will never be enough. Because it never is. We can’t save our wives, and they can’t save us. Only God can.
And husbands, we have to make time for ourselves. Alone. On the mountain. And for the same reasons.
There’s an ebb and a flow here that I think is itself holy and good, that exactly mirrors the life of Jesus, from the chaos of the household to the quiet of prayer, from the shock of the real to the peace of the Lord, back and a forth, day to day.
What husbands and wives teach each other every day is that they are not God. They are not the center of the universe. And this is a good thing. This is the source of our joy. Because it’s only when we accept this, only when we humble ourselves before the fact of this, that we are really free. It’s only when we accept this that we can really love the other, really love, not dominate and use. It’s only when we accept this that marriage begins to make sense, the misery and the miniskirts and the games of solitaire, that everything, all of it, becomes sacramental.