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franciscan - January 1998

© Copyright, The Society of Saint Francis, 1997

Marriage

by John and Dorothy Dennis TSSF

What is the theology of marriage? Why has God given us this state, where ‘a man shall leave his father and mother and cleave to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? It is possible to approach this subject from such an intellectual viewpoint. However, regardless of what the theological answers may be, marriage is such a personal experience that only in such experience will the answers come to life. We make no apology therefore for offering a very personal answer to the question of ‘where is God in marriage?’ Whilst others will have different tales to tell, there will be common strands for us all.

We first met in the Divinity School in Cambridge. Each at different lectures had caught sight of the other. Each later admitted to having the individual certainty, even then, that this was the person we would, and should, marry. It wasn’t ‘love at first sight’. In fact for some time Dorothy didn’t even like John much!

Since then, we have realised that for many there is some subconscious urge which draws like to like, so the story is not so strange as we then thought. Yet we believe, forty-one years later, that God was at that time acting very firmly in us.

There have been many other instances since. After all, when people are committed to each other under God, encouraged to see the Divine in the other, and living a life which, at least on the best days, is seeking to serve God, an awareness of the Divine Presence is to be expected. Here are some examples. In human terms it wasn’t an easy start for us, either in engagement or marriage. Heavy opposition from one pair of parents (though loving support from the other) and a massive post-natal depression could each either have broken us or helped to make us. In a sense they did both. At the time of Dorothy’s depression, and psychological illness, John was led to seek out and study Clinical Theology. As a result both of us could, with deepening understanding, begin to grasp what was happening to us. We both grew in our dependence on God, and on each other and found ourselves more able to be alongside others in their distress. John later used his understanding to become a tutor to other clergy undertaking Clinical Theology training.

Of course, we have been immensely privileged. We both began our marriage believing in God, and believing that it was God who called us together. We have also always talked about God together, sharing thoughts and experiences, reflecting theologically, though no doubt often simplistically, on world events, things we have read, or the events of our own lives. When our children grew up and Dorothy ceased to have outside paid work, we began to pray together in ways suited to us temperamentally, through silence and the daily round of Office and intercession, besides ‘doing our own thing’.

We have also had a common purpose. Through two curacies, two incumbencies, and two episcopates, we have had a common aim in furthering John’s calling by God. In a way, it is Dorothy who has gladly paid the heavier price of dedicating her own gifts to that end, rather than following her own career line. Nevertheless the task proved to be full of rewards for her in terms of inner needs met, and new insights gained into the nature of God’s presence which have, in their turn, deepened our relationship.
When two people are called together into the intimacy of marriage, they learn a lot about the other, and also about themselves. It isn’t always easy, and indeed cannot be if the relationship is real.


Yet, if we look at the passion of Christ, we have to recognise that conflict and suffering can also be places where Christ is to be found. For us, certainly, there have been times when the relationship has become very strained. Sometimes, especially in those earlier years, it seemed as if it might have been easier to call the whole thing off than to go on through the difficulties, even though we had tried to talk things through. When you believe that you are in the relationship because it is God’s will that you should be, this isn’t so easy to do, however. We personally are not against divorce if a relationship has irrevocably broken down, but in these days of ‘instant’ answers it does often seem as if couples give up too easily. Again and again we have found that brighter sunshine lies at the end of the tunnel. But, most importantly, it has only been by enduring the darkness and difficulty with, sometimes minimal, faith that we have been changed enough to see this light.


What about the ‘cleaving’ of the Genesis story? Sex has an enormously important part to play in a marriage, beyond the desire to have children. It is indeed sacramental, though perhaps with a small ‘s’, and God is present unifying, binding, and healing, If only the phrase ‘having sex’ could be replaced by the much deeper, and truer phrase ‘making love’. For that is what happens. Love is expressed in mutual self-giving. Injuries are forgiven and forgotten. Love grows. There are times in a married relationship when ‘talking things over’, whether in quietly reasonable or very heated ways, over yet another cup of coffee, needs to be foregone for ‘love-making’.


A marriage, also, is not simply the concern of husband and wife. Fellowship, friendship and hospitality have to be offered, to one’s children, family and society. What the intimacy of this relationship makes us is what we have to offer to the world. Perhaps it is that truth which throws light on Christ’s comment that in heaven there shall be neither marriage nor giving in marriage, but we shall be as the angels.


It cannot mean that somehow the richness of the happy married relationships will be diminished there.
Rather, it is that what we have here, in an exclusive relationship with one other person, is a foretaste of the relationship we shall have with all God’s children, and which the angels already have with each other! §

 

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