As is all of life, marriage is a gift. This gift comes to you in a distinct shape because the person who has been given to you is distinct. You must bear in mind that the gift you have been given is reality and not some phantom or wish. Remember that “…to accept the given as it gives itself, and to allow it its existence as such, in its own truth, goodness and beauty, is the precondition for learning anything about it.”[i] You must allow your spouse to exist as he has given himself. This is the very heart and purpose of your marriage: to create a space in which you can both become who you are. You stand in the tension between the reality of yourselves as you currently are and the selves that you will be. You are at home even as you wander in the wilderness. This relationship is your Sabbath rest, your place of renewal, until the coming of Him who is our Sabbath rest.
This gift is given to you in a world which perpetually vacillates between reality and unreality; it hovers always between being and nonbeing. How will you live in this suspension? You will live through memory and sight. By ‘memory’, I do not mean the kind of recollection which results in exaltation of the past and denigration of the present. As Qoheleth warns, the question, “Why is it that the former days were better than these?” is not born of wisdom. This question is folly precisely because it is not a question of remembering, but of forgetting. The fool ‘remembers’ the former days as better than his present lot, but forgets to recollect them in their fullness: the painful and pleasurable aspects of the past. He was not satisfied with the ‘former days’ even when they were present to him.
What, then, do I mean by ‘memory’? One of the primary blessings and curses given to humankind is the ability to reinterpret the past. Because human vision is partial and selective, human memory will also be selective. Both what and how you remember is vitally important to your marriage. As time goes by, you will continually reimagine – remember – the beginnings of your marriage and its movements since that first beginning. You must take care to remember in such a way that revivifies and renews your marriage. These memories will fill your present with life if you will only pause to remember the details.
I do not of course mean a false remembering that glosses over hardship or erases pain suffered throughout the years. You must never trivialize suffering or try to dull your memory to it. Rather, you must learn to remember without bitterness and interpret every event as the work of an Artist. Remember the past events and sensations and reinterpret everything as God’s own shaping hand, filling the earth with light and life, for that is what it truly is.
This remembering is the daughter of sight because sight is the beginning of memory. By ‘sight’ I do not mean simply the physical eyes or capacity of vision, but perception – awareness of the persons and objects around you. Sight, however, requires not just awareness, but love. To gaze is to gaze with love; sight without love is neither loving nor seeing. The words of Rainer Maria Rilke describe well a kind of sight that considers, values and trusts the small, seemingly insignificant things:
If you will cling to Nature, to the simple in Nature, to the little things that hardly anyone sees, and that can so unexpectedly become big and beyond measuring; if you have this love of inconsiderable things and seek quite simply, as one who serves, to win the confidence of what seems poor: then everything will become easier, more coherent and somehow more conciliatory for you, not in your intellect, perhaps, which lags marveling behind, but in your inmost consciousness, waking and cognizance.
The distractions of technology and the busyness of contemporary American life will conflate your memory and pull your gaze away from the details of your recollection. The distinct shape of your marriage and the person you married will become blurred in your mind if you do not pause to remember with delight and dignity the contours of your beloved and your life together. But if you pause to notice the ‘little things’, life itself will become easier to embrace because of your own trust in its reality and how vast and large and wonderful are these ‘simple’ things.
You will, however, have to fight for your memory. The temptation in our age is to rely on photographs and films as the sole aid to memory instead of writing letters and keeping journals. I urge you to keep a journal or make a habit of writing down a few reflections about the details of important events and daily life. This is not to denigrate pictures or the ever-popular home movie, but to acknowledge that this kind of memory keeping has its limitations and sacrifices (as all technologies do). Writing itself is a technology that was destined, Plato tells us,[ii] to make us more forgetful because it enables memory to be located in a space outside ourselves. Thus, instead of remembering from within, we rely on external text to remind us of thoughts and events. Today, we most often locate our memory only within photographs and films. But these particular visual reminders affect us differently from the reminders of writing.
The act of writing will help you to think and also shape your own thoughts. Someone said something. An event occurred. What did you think about what was said? How did the event affect you? What are the details that are most important to you presently? These are reflections which are difficult to render through a photograph or homemade film. A skilled film maker could express these in various ways – but the leisure, training and resources to create quality films about our memories is not available to most of us.
Writing letters (or even short notes) to your spouse will not only communicate that you love him, but remind you of the ways in which you love him and make those memories concrete. The words we use do not just express what we already are, but shape who we are and what we think. Recall to mind the intricacies of your first days together; of your hardships and moments of delight. Let your own words give your memories the shape of thanksgiving and, when you can, use the words of others as tools to fashion a doxology of praise.
For the words that you write are the song you will sing; the song that you sing is the life you will live. This song will illuminate your present and set the tone of thanksgiving for your future. In a lonely remembrance, a single song, you will find the existence of the world gathered together and set before you as a love offering. The moments of your marriage (these movements in Time) will become the place of renewal where you will glimpse what you are and what you will be.
Rebekah Michelle Devine
[i] Hans Urs von Balthasar, Foreward to Josef Pieper: An Anthology (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1989), x.
[ii] ‘Among the ancient gods of Naucratis in Egypt there was one to whom the bird called the ibis is sacred. The name of that divinity was Theuth, and it was he who first discovered number and calculation, geometry and astronomy, as well as the games of draughts and dice, and, above all else, writing. Now the king of all Egypt at that time was Thamus, who lived in the great city in the upper region that the Greeks call Egyptian Thebes; Thamus they call Ammon. Theuth came to exhibit his arts to him and urged him to disseminate them to all the Egyptians. Thamus asked him about the usefulness of each art, and while Theuth was explaining it, Thamus praised him for whatever he thought was right in his explanations and criticized him for whatever he thought was wrong. The story goes that Thamus said much to Theuth, both for and against each art, which it would take too long to repeat. But when they came to writing, Theuth said: “O King, here is something that, once learned, will make the Egyptians wiser and will improve their memory; I have discovered a potion for memory and for wisdom.” Thamus, however, replied: “O most expert Theuth, one man can give birth to the elements of an art, but only another can judge how they can benefit or harm those who will use them. And now, since you are the father of writing, your affection for it has made you describe its effects as the opposite of what they really are. In fact, it will introduce forgetfulness into the soul of those who learn it: they will not practice using their memory because they will put their trust in writing, which is eternal and depends on signs that belong to others, instead of trying to remember from the inside, completely on their own. You have not discovered a potion for remembering, but for reminding; you provide your students with the appearance of wisdom, not with its reality. You invention will enable them to hear many things without being properly taught, and they will imagine that they have come to know much while for the most part they will know nothing. And they will be difficult to get along with, since they will merely appear to be wise instead of really being so.”’ Plato, Phaedrus, trans. by Alexander Nehamas and Paul Woodruff (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1995), 78-80.