Chapter 9: The Spiritual Dimension of Marriage
Trust, trust in the world, because this human being exists. . . . Because this human being exists, meaninglessness, however hard pressed you are by it, cannot be the real truth. Because this human being exists, in the darkness the light lies hidden, in fear salvation, and in the callousness of one's fellow-men, the great Love.
Martin Buber, Between Man and Man (1)
Intimacy is the interlocking of two individual persons joined by a bond which partially overcomes their separateness. In the fullest expression of intimacy there is a vertical dimension, a sense of relatedness to the universe which both strengthens the marital relationship and is strengthened by it. Quite apart from any churchy or churchly considerations, the spiritual dimension of marriage is a practical source of food for marital growth and health. No single factor does more to give a marriage joy or to keep it both a venture and an adventure in mutual fulfillment than shared commitment to spiritual discovery. The life of the spirit is deeply personal, so that moments of sharing on the spiritual level are tender, precious moments in a relationship.
SPIRITUAL INTIMACY STRENGTHENS A MARRIAGE
By spiritual intimacy is meant the sense of a vital relationship with that which transcends our brief, fragile existence -- a relationship with the realm of values and meanings, with the flow of history and life about us, and with that "ultimate concern" (Tillich) which we call God. The need for a sense of spiritual intimacy includes the need for a sense of "at-homeness" in the universe, and a deeply experienced feeling of what Erik Erikson calls "basic trust." The need for this kind of intimacy is a fundamental one, both for the individual and for his marriage. St. Augustine's well-known words, "Thou hast made us for Thyself and our hearts are restless till they rest in Thee,"(2) emphasize the fact that the will to relate to the Spirit of life is an inescapable part of man's hunger for depth relationships.
Intimacy on the horizontal, person-to-person plane and intimacy on the vertical or spiritual plane complement and reinforce each other. A person who feels himself to be an emotional isolate in his human relationships usually also feels himself to be a spiritual orphan in the universe, whatever his head-level religious beliefs may be. Conversely, one who feels a strong bond with all other human beings usually has a sense of connection with nature and with all of life, whether or not it is expressed in conventional religious forms. The ability to establish, nurture, and sustain an intimate human relationship, and the ability to commune vitally with nature, the universe, and God, are closely connected. Further- more, each of these kinds of relatedness profoundly influences the other. He who loves his spouse, whom he has seen, is better able to love God, whom he has not seen, and vice versa.
The interconnectedness of interpersonal and spiritual intimacy is seen clearly in the area of trustfulness. The capacity to form a human relationship of mutual trust -- a relationship in which one feels accepted, able to relinquish his struggle to prove his worth, and safe to be himself -- springs from the same well as the capacity to trust Life. "To let go of the image which, in the eyes of this world, bears your name, the image in your consciousness of social ambition and sheer force of will. To let go and fall, fall -- in trust and blind devotion. Toward another, another . . . ."(3) These words of Dag Hammarskjold describe the experience of trust which removes the heavy burden of always being on trial. It is the fresh air of grace flowing into the stifling atmosphere of legalism. The person who knows this reality in his marriage is better equipped to experience it in life generally. Conversely, having a source of regular trust renewal in one's spiritual life provides a steady foundation for trustful human relationships. Vertical trust is particularly helpful in periods of marital stress when horizontal trust is weakened; the same is true in other crises when fragile human trust is not enough to sustain hope and courage. Having a sense that one can depend on life reduces the vulnerability that results from attempting to satisfy all one's trust needs in marriage. A couple which shares a robust spiritual vitality feels undergirded by life; this stabilizes their relationship when it is buffeted by fate and tragedy. There is usable wisdom in the words from The Prophet: "Give your hearts, but not into each other's keeping. For only the hand of Life can contain your hearts."(4) No human being can alone satisfy the spiritual hungers of his companion's heart.
Thus growth-producing intimacy is difficult if not impossible without a spiritual center and source. Intimacy reaches full flower for a couple only when they have found in, through, and beyond their marriage, a rich measure of those gifts which the great religions of the world have made available to men. There are at least three aspects to the fundamental religious needs of persons:
(1) The need for an experience of the numinous and the transcendent. Ruth Benedict has referred in her anthropological writings to the belief in "wonderful power" which was ubiquitous among the cultures she studied. This need to feel that there is something wonderful, transcending the mundaneness of life, is what is meant by the "vertical dimension." (2) The need for a sense of meaning, purpose and values in one's existence. . . . (3) The need for a feeling of deep trust and relatedness to life. Maslow uses the phrase "oceanic feeling," in his discussion of the self-actualized person, to describe the experience of being a part of the whole universe.(5)
In discussing the mature personality, Gordon Allport emphasizes the need for an adequate philosophy of life: "Maturity requires . . . a clear comprehension of life's purpose in terms of an intelligible theory. Or, in brief, some form of unifying philosophy of life."(6)
To be able to cultivate an intimate, long-term relationship, one needs sturdy self-esteem. He needs to feel and stand tall psychologically. Religion in the Hebrew-Christian tradition aims at helping persons to stand tall, with their heads spiritually erect as children of God, created in his image. Self-esteem is found and maintained only in relationships, horizontal and vertical. Pride or narcissism is the attempt, always foredoomed, to maintain a sense of worth apart from or even at the expense of others. To know that one is related to and accepted by the Spirit of the universe is a continued source of feelings of worth.
Psychiatrist Earl A. Loomis, Jr., has observed that "Man's image of God and his image of himself are somehow always linked together."(7) In a similar way, a man's style of emotionally significant relationships is always linked to his way of relating with the trans-human. Man creates his philosophy of life from the resources of his basic relationships; these relationships, in turn, are remolded by the influence of his faith, his values, his dedications, and his beliefs about life.
Shared meanings feed intimacy in a relationship; major differences in philosophies of life tend to lessen closeness. Couples with contradictory visions of life must cope with this conflict as well as learn how to compensate for the lack of sharing in the philosophical-religious area. All marriages are "mixed marriages" (in that all couples come from differing family backgrounds and world-views); but when there are deep disagreements about the core meanings of existence, a couple must work doubly hard to establish creative closeness. Religion is the celebration of life, and fortunate is the couple who can celebrate together. Those who cannot do so, because of religious conflicts, need to find alternative patterns of shared celebration of life's mystery and wonder.
Some couples from sharply mixed backgrounds avoid overt conflict by a tacit understanding that religious issues are off limits for discussion. This may be necessary to gain reduction of uncon- structive conflict, but the price of peace is high. It is much better if they can learn to communicate on religious, philosophical, and value issues. Communication is the instrument by which they can compromise and resolve differences on such matters as in which tradition the children shall be raised. Cultivating the capacity to respect each other's religious convictions and abandoning the futile attempt to force the other to agree helps to keep differing religious backgrounds from blocking intimacy.
A considerable degree of emotional maturity is required to maintain a close relationship in spite of deep differences. (The ability to respect and not be threatened by differences is one of the hallmarks of maturity.) Couples with a high degree of self-esteem and maturity often discover positive resources in their differences. It can make marriage more interesting to have a variety of religious ideas, traditions, and customs from which to draw in creating the family's own style of belief and practice. (The same is true of cross-cultural marriages.)
A couple from mixed religious backgrounds is confronted by a challenge which can lead to spiritual growth for them and their children. This is the need to search for and find a core of shared meanings which transcend their differences and give them a basis for spiritual closeness. This challenge is present in every marriage, but acutely so in a mixed marriage. If a couple finds a common spiritual ground on which they can stand, it is their ground. In some cases, the discovery of this core of shared meanings is facilitated by searching out and participating in a lively church fellowship where the search for life-meanings is a central activity. This may be a church in the tradition of one or the other partner; more often, it is one which is somewhere between their childhood traditions. The willingness to compromise, that is, for each to give up something which he finds desirable for the greater good of the relationship is an essential factor in the growth of spiritual creativity in mixed marriages.
A couple which is deprived of the cohesion of shared religion in their early marriage should not give up. Working through to a new level of shared meanings is usually a tough struggle, but the enrichment which results makes it more than worth the effort. It is important to remember that non-relating or conflict in the spiritual area frequently occurs even between spouses from the same religious tradition, but who have basically different value systems and world-views derived from their respective families-of-origin.
Religious differences may be simply the battleground for psychological problems. One submissive wife finally rebelled after ten years of marriage by joining a sectarian group which believes that other denominations are not legitimate forms of Christianity. Her passionate participation in this group was an act of self-assertion against her husband's domination. But instead of producing
healthy self-affirmation and constructive autonomy, her behavior had an angry, rebellious quality which resulted in chronic conflict and deterioration of the marriage. The husband, still a member of a middle-of-the-road Protestant group, felt the constant sting of her new affiliation and beliefs. In this case, what looked on the surface like a "religious problem" was actually a long-standing, hidden dominance-submission struggle in the marriage. In such cases, it is essential to deal with the destructive "game" the couple is playing, using religion as the playing board. Help from a skilled pastoral counselor may be necessary to distinguish genuinely religious problems from such pseudo-religious difficulties.
Religious one-up-man-ship is frequent in both of these kinds of marital conflict. It is based on the element of exclusivism in the religious traditions of the partners. Exclusivism is the belief that one's own position is the only right (true, Christian, road to salvation, etc.) approach or the "obviously superior" approach. Such attitudes create conflict by putting the other's tradition "one-down." Overcoming the elements of exclusivism in one's attitudes and feelings toward one's tradition contributes to spiritual intimacy.
That shared religion can be a strengthening factor in marriage is suggested by numerous studies which reveal a correlation between church attendance and greater marital stability.(8) There is no doubt that many families find positive resources in participating in a vital church or temple program. Worship is a nurturing, trust-restoring experience for many people, particularly when it takes place in a supportive network of meaningful relationships.(9) The lift of sharing in an experience of inspiring music and security-giving words can help a couple to mobilize inner resources for coping with the heavy demands of their day-to-day existence. The undergirding relationships of like-minded friends in a church fellowship are of major value to a family, particularly if they are separated by the generation gap and/or geography from their clan. Horizontal person-to-person relationships are supported by a shared view of reality, within the religious community of a church.
MARRIAGE AS A PATH TO SPIRITUAL REALITY
A shared spiritual life strengthens a marriage; conversely, a good marriage strengthens the spiritual life of the couple. Spiritual growth takes place best in a relationship in which religious values are experienced. A growing marriage provides just such a relationship.
Franz Rosenzweig once stated, "When pressed to its limits every psychological question becomes a theological one and every theological question a psychological one."(10) The truth of the assertion is illustrated throughout our discussion in this book, which deals with the issues and relationships that also are central in religion. George Albert Coe described religion as "the discovery of persons." Another way of putting it is that religion is the discovery of persons in relationships. A good marriage offers an ideal opportunity to discover each other in depth; in this en- counter, many couples experience the central realities of religion. Their marriages become pathways to those spiritual experiences which transcend the marriage relationship. In biblical terms, they discover in marriage that "God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God and God abides in him" (I John 4:16b).
The "good news" is that love is supreme and is available in relationships, including our relationship with God. Our discussion of intimacy in marriage is an effort to explore the ways in which the good news can come alive in a vital human relationship -- marriage. Its purpose is to illumine the ways in which the channels of the relationship can be deepened and broadened so that the love which is available in persons and in the universe can flow more fully. Movement toward a more joyful marriage illuminates the process by which the wholeness of persons is increased. Alienation and reconciliation are repeated realities in the periodic estrangement/reconciliation experiences of marriage. Fortunate is the couple in whose relationship there is something which allows them both to experience grace -- the accepting love which one does not need to earn because it is present as a spontaneous expression of the relationship.
Dostoevski once declared, "I ponder, 'What is hell?' I maintain it is the suffering of being unable to love."(11) The times when couples yearn for love but are unable to relate in loving ways are times when they experience the agonies of a hell-on-earth. Conversely, moments of loving connectedness which approach a communion of souls are moments which make the concept of heaven very much alive in the here and now.
In the wonder and ultimate mystery of love, spiritual truths come alive; they take on flesh-and-blood reality by being incarnated in persons. Encountering the being of one's partner -- really seeing and experiencing that unique person -- is a deeply moving spiritual meeting, spirit with spirit.
When couples achieve mutual understanding that goes beyond understanding about the person, to understanding the person in his being, they do so through what is essentially a spiritual experience. Paul Tournier catches this truth:
To find the key to understanding, the secret of living -- this is an inner experience, a discovery, a conversion, and not simply an acquisition of new knowledge. It may happen at the very time when a person feels most disheartened; it generally takes place in a way which he could not have imagined. He may have read many books, heard many sermons, accumulated much knowledge. And yet suddenly, it is a rather insignificant happening that strikes him, a word, an encounter, a death, a recovery, a look, or a natural event. God uses such to reach a man.(12)
Someone has described a wedding ring as "a small gold band that cuts off your circulation." For those in an unsatisfying relationship, marriage seems like a life sentence to the prison of boredom. Fidelity, if it exists at all, has the feel of a heavy weight. In contrast, fidelity in a healthy marriage, though perhaps strained at times, includes a feeling of opportunity for experimenting with more exciting forms of relating. Such fidelity is motivated by more than just the decision to be faithful in the formal sense, i.e., by not "cheating" on one's mate. It goes beyond this to the moving force of what in religious terms is called a "covenant." A covenant is more than a pledge of reciprocal faithfulness; it is such a pledge, but within the context of a wider framework of meaning for the couple, some wider context that includes but transcends the one- to-one relationship. This wider context usually includes some supportive community -- a community of shared values such as a church or temple fellowship. The wider context includes the couple's awareness of their relatedness to the "ground of being." Faithfulness to this wider context of meaning is the foundation of their fidelity. Horizontal fidelity is incomplete and fragile with-out the vertical context of meaning. One wife put it this way: "There's something beyond us that we experience in our marriage -- a kind of awareness of our place in the bigger picture. It's more than that, though. At times we feel a warm uniting presence which is in our being together. We usually don't call this God, but if we had to label it, I believe that would come closest to conveying the meaning it has for us."
In reflecting on the goals of his life, Bertrand Russell declared: "I have sought love first because it brings ecstasy -- ecstasy so great that I would often have sacrificed all the rest of my life for a few hours of this joy. I have sought it, next, because it relieves loneliness -- that terrible loneliness in which one shivering consciousness looks over the rim of the world into the cold unfathomable lifeless abyss. I have sought it, finally, because in the union of love, I have seen, in a the prefiguring vision of the heaven that saints and poets have imagined."(13)
The experience of loving intimacy is a pathway to those spiritual realities which give ultimate significance to our relationships and to our existence. No formal philosophy or theology of intimacy has been articulated in these pages, but all the issues which we have been discussing are ultimately matters of the spirit; they are potential paths to the Spirit of the universe.
SPIRITUAL NEEDS AND EXISTENTIAL ANXIETY
One of the roots of the need for spiritual relatedness is the experience of man as the animal who knows he will die. How can one cope constructively with the dizzy flight of the years, with the knowledge that every tick of the clock brings death closer? How can one confront the brevity of one's membership in the human family? How can one deal constructively with the ultimate threat of nonexistence? The fact that a man knows he will die colors all of his life. As noted in Chapter I, behind the will to relate is man's existential loneliness and anxiety -- the normal, non-pathological anxiety which is a part of what Paul Tillich once called man's "heritage of finitude." Erikson calls this form of anxiety the "ego chill." It slips up on a self-aware human being whenever he becomes conscious of his fragile position in the face of sickness, nature, fate and, ultimately, death.
There are echoes of such anxiety in any depth study of life or time. Consider this line from R. M. MacIver's The Challenge of the Passing Years, My Encounter with Time: "The deeds of men sink into the melting pot of time, with countless ripples that quickly disappear."(14) The impact of existential anxiety has had many effects in the life of mankind, including his long pilgrimage in every known culture toward understanding the nature of existence. This pilgrimage is man's religion. Existential anxiety drives man to seek a relationship beyond the limitations of human ties.
Unlike neurotic anxiety, there is no psychotherapeutic answer to existential anxiety. It is existential in that it is an inescapable part of existence -- a normal response to man's awareness of his own mortality. But, the way a man handles his existential anxiety makes it either a stimulus to creativity or a paralyzing force which dulls his vitality and self-awareness. As Tillich made clear, it becomes a stimulus to creativity only if a man confronts it and incorporates it within his self-image. The courage to do this can come only from facing existential anxiety within a relationship of trust and a philosophy of life which gives meaning to existence.
Awareness of the need for a sense of connectedness with something that transcends human intimacy grows stronger as the years fly by. It is strong in all those periods when existential anxiety is the most activated and pressing -- e.g., late adolescence, the crisis of the middle years, the retirement years, and in periods of sickness and bereavement. In these times, human and trans-human relationships of trust are needed as sources of that courage within which ultimate anxiety can be confronted and integrated into one's philosophy of life. The reciprocity of horizontal and vertical intimacy is seen in the fact that a person who comes into these periods possessing a sense of spiritual intimacy finds that his human relations are strengthened thereby, and vice versa.
As indicated earlier, a vacuous marriage becomes more and more painful as the couple approaches the middle years. If intimacy has not been achieved, a spirit of quiet desperation descends on the marriage in the mid-forties. The effects of the empty nest, the menopause, the death of parents, and the unavoidable evidence of one's own aging combine to produce the crisis of the middle years. The marriage problems of middle-aged couples cannot be understood fully unless one remembers the spiritual problem which is the context within which they occur.
Some couples try to deny their fear of aging by going to absurd extremes to stay young looking. The title of a recent paperback suggests the intensity of the pressure to escape from the reality of aging; it was. How to be Thirty for Forty Years. Sound ways of coping with aging focus on finding inner richness, making peace with existence and working to deepen one's relationships -- with oneself, other people, and God. Such approaches do not eliminate existential anxiety, but they do make it possible to live with it, without panic or paralysis. The person who jokingly says, "I'm approaching forty -- I won't say from which direction" probably is expressing both his continuing anxiety and his transcendence of it so that it does not interfere with his need-satisfying relationships.
The need for a trustful relationship with life, the universe, with God -- is insistent in the so-called "golden years" (which actually are more like lead than gold for some people). What Erikson calls "ego integrity" is the way of coping constructively with existential anxiety in this period. Ego integrity is the product of having accomplished the tasks of the ego in the previous stages of the life journey; it is the positive acceptance of the one and only life on earth one has been given. It allows an aging person to face his dying without panic and with determination to "die living rather than to live dying."(15)
Through relationships of trust -- both with persons and with a Higher Power -- existential anxiety becomes, in Kierkegaard's words, a "school." The trustful relationships allow one to face the anxiety rather than run from it, and to use it to enrich rather than diminish life.(16) An awareness of belonging to the human race and to life, makes it easier to maintain a sense of belonging in one's intimate relationships. In his prologue to The Family of Man, Carl Sandburg wrote: "The first cry of a newborn baby in Chicago or Zamboango, in Amsterdam or Rangoon, has the same
pitch and key, each saying, 1 am! I have come through! I belong! I am a member of the Family."(17) The awareness that one does belong and is related in a deep mysterious way to life, humanity, and God makes it easier to resist the centrifugal forces which threaten to pull us away from the human family, especially from those who mean the most to us.
Coping with the fact of the transitoriness of existence releases a couple to mourn real losses and then to return to live fully the years and days which are their gifts from Life.(18) A functional re- ligious faith and their awareness of the power of love free them to cope with losses and the anxiety they produce, and to continue to rejoice in the goodness of their life together.
Set me as a seal upon your heart . . . for love is strong as death. . . . Many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it.
Song of Solomon 8:6-7
The trust and responsiveness that make intimacy flower often make life exciting. "The aware person is alive because he knows how he feels, where he is and when it is. He knows that after he dies the trees will still be there, but he will not be there to look at them again, so he wants to see them now with as much poignancy as possible."(19) Vital religion helps people to find this quality of aliveness in their interpersonal relationships, their interaction with nature, and their communion with God. Erich Fromm and his colleagues declare:
The aim of life is to be fully born, though its tragedy is that most of us die before we are thus born. . . . The answer is . . . to develop one's awareness, one's reason, one's capacity to love, to such a point that one transcends one's own egocentric involvement and arises at a new harmony and new wonder with the World.(20)
Healthy religion has this pro-life thrust and goal. Many centuries ago a young carpenter reminded his hearers of the necessity of spiritual rebirth; he stated "I have come that men may have life in all its fullness" (John 10:10). Sound religion can help a marriage to become a place where persons find this fullness in their lives together.
INCREASING SPIRITUAL INTIMACY
How can a couple strengthen the spiritual side of their marriage? Here are some approaches which are helpful in increasing vertical intimacy.
Central in this process is discovering ways of "communion with the timeless."(21) Each couple needs to find ways of connecting with time-transcending experiences in which they can find spiritual meanings together. Marital partners are blessed if they have discovered how to share in a wide variety of such experiences. For each couple, the things that are so experienced are different. One couple told of standing together high on a hill in November listening in silence to the far-away honking of wild geese as they made a jagged V lumbering across the sky. Another couple found time-transcendence in hearing unexpectedly a half-forgotten melody filled for them with memories of sadness and quiet joy. For many couples it is a full, throbbing consummation of sexual union, when time stands still and two lives are fused in shared ecstasy.
We live our life when we exchange it for worthwhile experience, for experience that absorbs and satisfies. . . . There are high moments . . . when the life spirit takes full possession of us. It is as though all unknowingly we had reached a mountain top and see below us the wonder of the earth, as it never appears to our ordinary sight. And when we have descended, we say in effect: It was good for us to have been there. And memory bequeaths something to many quiet hours, conveying the sense that our time is no longer being lived through but being lived. (22)
Each couple must find its own style of intimacy with the unchangable in the midst of time -- a style which satisfies their spiritual hungers. For some it involves connecting with values or causes which will live after them, and which are "bigger than my little world." Sharing in such experiences of meaning and dedication adds a dimension of height and breadth to the intimacy of marriage. The outreach dimension of intimacy will be explored more fully in the next chapter.
Time-transcending experiences are available all around us in nature and in science. In his beautiful account of his own interaction with nature, Loren Eiseley declares: "I can at best report only from my own wilderness. The important thing is that each man possess such a wilderness and that he consider what marvels are to be observed there."(23) Possessing one's own wilderness allows one "to understand and enjoy the miracles of this world,"(24) -- for example, to see in an orb-weaving spider on a street lamp post, "a great black and yellow embodiment of the life force."(25) The pity is that so few persons have eyes which see such omni-present miracles. The more one knows about the world of nature, the more likely that one's eyes will be opened to these wonders. Mankind is a part of an "immense journey." He was there three hundred million years ago when a fish emerged from the water and hobbled along on fins, gasping for oxygen with primitive lungs. He was there, for that was the beginning of a long line that led eventually to man.
The wider perspective which comes from possessing one's wilderness provides time-transcending experiences that help to reduce the grandiose need to play God. Oliver Wendell Holmes once observed: "The first step toward a truer faith is the recognition that I, at any rate, am not God."(26) When one considers the immensities of the universe and of geological time, it is difficult to keep "I-ism" intact. Surrendering this defensive pride opens an individual to real communion with other people and with the Power of the universe.
A couple can enhance the vertical dimension of their marriage by working together toward spiritual growth goals. This includes developing religious concepts and values which are meaningful to them at their present stage in adulthood. As they move along the marriage journey, it may be necessary periodically to revise their understanding of religion, to keep it in touch with their changing experiences, views of life, and spiritual needs.
Many couples find spiritual intimacy in sharing experiences which are mediated through religious images. Unfortunately, some adults are restricted by childhood ideas and feelings about religion -- beliefs they can no longer accept as adults. They are ashamed to admit that they do not believe, even to each other, although neither of them still holds to the old beliefs. They are stuck with
their minds full of dead symbols. Some still have mental images of God as a "resident policeman" or "parental hangover." In J. B. Phillips' phrase, their God is "too small."(27) Such persons need to realize that all our religious ideas and symbols are "at best only echoes of meanings we cannot reach."(28) Couples who realize this may break through to new freedom which allows them to talk together about the meaning of life and death; they may experience the satisfactions of discussing their own inner quest for purpose and their lonely longing for the most real.
Spiritual intimacy requires spiritual growth. A couple has the opportunity to develop together a style of religious belief and practice which satisfies their needs and the needs of their children.
Chuck, a father in his twenties, reported:
It opened up a whole new way of understanding the ideas of my childhood religious training when I saw that I could reinterpret them, evaluate them, accept or reject them in the light of my adult experience. Salvation by grace never made any sense to me until one time in a child-study group, when grace was presented as the unearned love that's present in every good home.
Some couples are released to grow spiritually when they stop confusing moralism (the "thou shalt nots") with religion. Healthy religion has a great deal to do with core values such as justice, brotherhood, mercy, integrity; it has nothing to do with what young people call "Mickey Mouse morals" -- ethical trivia which unfortunately have occupied a prominent place in some expressions of Protestantism. H. L. Mencken once humorously defined a puritan as a person who lives in mortal fear that somewhere, sometime, someone is enjoying himself. The perspective which rejects enjoyment of life is not the viewpoint which leads to zest, joy, or fulfilling intimacy in marriage.
At the same time, as Erikson makes clear, sound values are essential ingredients in personality health and strength.?(29) Shared values can increase the spiritual intimacy of a marriage. Human beings live in their values. What a person considers important -- important enough to give his precious hours and days to -- these values will have a deep influence on his marriage. Conflict concerning values occurs in all marriages to some degree, simply because any two persons have some differences in their philosophy of life and value hierarchy. But understanding of each other's values, and basic rapport in this area in spite of inevitable differences, are valuable ingredients in intimacy.
A couple can test the adequacy of the values by which they are currently living by this simple exercise: Imagine that you are near the end of the road of your life and are looking back down the path along which you have come together. From that point of view, how do you feel about the way you are living now? Are the things that are consuming your time and energy the most important things? What changes in your present pattern of relating are indicated by your perspective?(30)
What counts most in human relations and life generally is the question of one's destiny. It is a question with which it behooves each couple to wrestle until they find an answer that satisfies them. The answers will change as the years pass. One of the deep satisfactions of some marriages is that the couples change together in their philosophies of life and values. One couple in their forties agreed: "We've changed radically in our theological ideas, since the early days of our marriage. We're thankful that we've changed in the same general direction and that we've changed in a way that makes us feel freer and more open to life." In order for growth to occur in the spiritual area of a relationship, a couple must be able to discuss their deep concerns, their doubts, and their convictions with each other. This is difficult but rewarding.
It behooves married couples who no longer find their childhood tradition satisfying to search until they find a church or temple which does satisfy their spiritual needs and those of their children. A young couple in a marital growth group paid this tribute to their church: "Having an opportunity to participate together in various groups in our church has done a great deal for our marriage. Just sitting together for an hour each week, sharing in the worship service, and having our thinking stimulated about important issues gives us a weekly re-fueling." There are all kinds of churches. Some are narrow and constricted in their approach to religion. Others are open to personal searching and dedicated to social change. A church or temple in which the whole family feels at home and is spiritually fed, provides invaluable resources for their growth.
Spiritual maturing occurs when a couple lives their religion; that is, when they relate so that realities like faith, hope, and love come alive in their relationship. William Genne defines love as "the overwhelming desire and persistent effort of two persons to create for each other the conditions under which each can become the person God meant him to be."(31) Couples who even approximate this quality of loving discover the truths of religion in the fabric of their relationships.
The meaning which is discoverable in the everydayness of marriage and family life should be sought by a couple throughout their experience. As Erikson declares: "Any span of the cycle lived without vigorous meaning, at the beginning, in the middle, or at the end, endangers the sense of life and the meaning of death in all whose life stages are intertwined."(32) Starting with the rich meanings in the human dramas of courting, marriage, having children, living through the vicissitudes of the years together, a couple can build on these and glimpse those meanings which are greater even than those within their family -- the meanings which are in the experiences of the family of man.
Marriage partners live their religion when they are sensitive and responsive to each other's pains and hopes, fears and longings. To sense that the other is struggling with hidden feelings of self-doubt, that he is wrestling with inner conflicts and tough problems, that he is watching for a gesture of affirmation from another -- this is communion that brings spiritual aliveness within a marriage. One who is aware knows experiences such as this:
The person sitting next to you is a thin darting line of awareness, playing peekaboo with the world, and run-sheep-run with eternal sleep -- and ultimately losing. And knowing that he will lose. So all the time he is quivering sensitivity.(33)
When one knows and cares, this caring becomes the channel for the healing power of the universe to move through the relationship. "Deep within us is love -- the throbbing life of the ages, . . ."(34) and this love means that fear and frustration and crushing failure are not the last word. In a growing marriage the experience of spiritual renewal occurs repeatedly. "As you relate to each other, each of you will again and again be reborn into present spirit."(35)
This is the day when theological truths, to be meaningful to most people, must be experienced in relationships. Marriage is the place where this can occur most frequently and powerfully. Here in the relationship where most people live and move and have their being, year after year, the good news must come alive or it will remain a dead abstraction for them.
Spiritual growth in marriage occurs as the couple become co-creators of newness -- in themselves, their children, and in broader areas and relationships. Participation in constructing and creating is at the same time a spontaneous expression of man's inherent creativity and a positive way of coping with existential anxiety. Making something that will live after him is one of man's responses to the knowledge of his mortality. In his insightful discussion of married love, Reuel Howe states:
By the discipline of creativity, I mean the discipline of learning and perfecting some skill in art or music or handicraft or sport in which there is opportunity to co-ordinate motor and mental power and to gain therefrom some sense of achievement. A creative approach to life, of course, is a part of a life of devotion. Creative activity is indispensable to the health of the human soul. . . .(36)
This approach to life and to marriage opens wide possibilities for shared creativity. Rearing children is a profound opportunity for participating in continuing creation. What could be more creative or more full of wonder than bringing a new person into being and helping to shape the direction of his development? Those who experience raising children as sharing in creation discover that it brings a new depth to a marital relationship.
The possibilities for marital creativity are almost limitless: sharing in helping to create a much-needed community service, a new approach to civil rights, a more humane approach to divorce laws, a new park, a group for intellectual enjoyment and serious study, a better mousetrap, a plan for increasing person-to-person relating across ethnic, racial and national boundaries, a program for helping eligible young adults to meet potential marriage partners; a new way of approaching disciplining one's children, celebrating holidays, taking trips, getting the household chores done efficiently, enjoying sex, participating in church, creating opportunities for fun in the family, and so on ad infinitum. "And without creation, love is an abstraction -- a mere puff of wind . . . a gust of emotion."(37)
Teilhard de Chardin, the French paleontologist-theologian, has opened up for many people new understanding of the creative order of man. By his correlating of science and theology, he has disclosed fresh possibilities of man's participating in the new creation. The thrust that Teilhard represents is the awareness that the next great phase in man's evolution will be growth in the
ethical, spiritual, and interpersonal realm and that man must participate actively in this process. This can provide a vigorous stimulus to thoughtful couples searching for a more creative style of married living. In "creating their own culture" (Snyder), as in all acts of deep sharing, a couple can experience a sense of communion.
MacIver, at the close of his book, poses the question of the ages -- a question which every married couple should raise together:
What makes life worthwhile? The answers offered have been themselves various and conflicting. But whatever they are, whether they find salvation through a way of believing, a way of doing or a way of feeling, they have all had at their base a common element. The way they prescribe must enlist the personality in wholehearted unison with some reality that absorbs and fulfills the being. The fulfillment of personality is thus a form of communion, whether it be with the God a man worships; or with nature under some aspect; or through intimate communication with ideal things, the inexhaustible quality of beauty or truth that pervades the universe; or with some cause that calls into action all one's powers; or even with things of lesser significance so long as they satisfy the human craving for union.(38)
One of the mysteries and marvels of intimacy in marriage is that it offers so many opportunities to find those shared transcendent meanings that ultimately make life worthwhile.
Find a quiet time and place and try to tell each other how you feel about several of the following:
1. What you believe to be worth living for.
2. What experiences give you a sense of time-transcendence.
3. What ideas seem to make the most sense to you, so far as the meaning of life is concerned.
4. How you feel and how you believe with respect to "religion."
5. How your feelings and beliefs have changed since you were married.
6. What you would like to see changed in your marriage and family, in the area of values,
spiritual realities, religious practices.
7. How you will feel about the present way of investing your minutes, hours, and days, when you stand near the end of life looking back at your marriage and family.
Communication in this area is difficult for many husbands and wives; it is also rewarding. Understanding and acceptance are the bridges which join differing world-views, philosophies of life and values between spouses. They make spiritual intimacy possible -- an intimacy that is at a deeper level than beliefs, even very personal beliefs.
1. Buber, Between Man and Man, trails. Ronald Oregor Smith (Boston: Beacon Press, 1947), p. 98. 200 ) The Intimate Marriage
2. Confessions of Si. Augustine (New York: Sheed & Ward, 1942), Book I, p.
3. (Translated by F. J. Sheed.) 3. Dag Hammarskjold, Markings, trans. Lief Sjoberg and W. H. Auden (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1964), p. 24.
4. Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1923), p. 20.
5. H. J. Clinebell, Jr "Philosophical-Religious Factors in the Etiology and Treatment of Alcoholism," Quarterly Journal of Studies on Alcohol, Vol. 24, No. 3 (September, 1963), p. 477.
6. Gordon W. Allport, Pattern and Growth in Personality (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1961), p. 294.
7. Loomis, The Self in Pilgrimage (New York: Harper & Row, 1960), p. 13.
8. Gurin, Gerald, et al., Americans View Their Mental Health (New York: Basic Books, 1960), p. 63.
9. For a discussion of the need-satisfying role of worship see H. J. Clinebell, Jr Mental Health through Christian Community (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1965), Chapter 3.
10. Rosenzweig, Academy Reporter, Vol. II, No. 6 (June, 1966), p. I, editorial.
11. Quoted in the journal Marriage, Vol. 49, No. I (January, 1967), p. 37.
12. Paul Toumier, To Understand Each Other (Richmond, Va.: John Knox Press, 1962), p. 59.
13. Bertrand Russell, quoted in Life, March 17, 1967, p. 37.
14. Maciver, Robert, The Challenge of the Passing Years (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1962), p. 81.
15. I am indebted to a counselee for this apt statement. Sharing mountain- peak experiences allows a couple to acquire resources for coping with existential anxiety. If one can face his finitude, it can enrich his life in many ways. He can gain satisfaction from his place in the stream of history. During her husband's terminal illness, Anne Philipe became keenly aware of his and her finitude; and yet there was an undergirding sense of being a part of a larger reality -- the ongoing family of mankind. "What are our lives in the world's course? No longer than a sigh. And yet it is the sum of all those existences placed side by side, starting with that ancestor in the caves, that has made the history of humanity. You would die, and I would die a little later. We will have been one link in that chain" (Philipe, No Longer than a Sigh, p. 41).
16. In The Concept of Dread (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1944), Kierkegaard observed that in the very experience of facing anxiety one is educated to inner certitude of faith. This gives him the "courage to renounce anxiety . . . which only faith is capable of -- not that it annihilates anxiety, but remaining ever young, it is continually developing itself out of the death throes of anxiety" (p. 104). The Spiritual Dimension of Marriage ( 201
17. The Family of Man (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1955), Prologue.
18. The ability to mourn and to accept the transitoriness of life permits one to enjoy beauty, nature, relationships -- all of which are transitory. In an insightful comment on the problem of two individuals who were unable to enjoy the beauties of nature, Sigmund Freud stated: "What spoilt their enjoyment of beauty must have been a revolt in their minds against mourning. The idea that all this beauty was transient was giving these two sensitive minds a foretaste of mourning over its decease; and, since the mind instinctively recoils from anything that is painful, they felt their enjoyment of beauty interfered with by thoughts of its transience" ("On Transience," pp. 80-81; in Collected Papers, Vol. V [The Hogarth Press, The International Psycho-analytic Library, No. 37], ed. J. D. Sutherland, M.D.)
19. Eric Berne, Games People Play (New York: Grove Press, 1964), p. 180.
20. D. T. Suzuki, Erich Fromm, and Richard DeMartino, Zen Buddhism and Psychoanalysis (New York: Harper & Row, 1960), pp. 87-88.
21. MacIver, op. cit., p. 129.
22. lbid., p. 126.
23. Loren Eiseley, The Immense Journey (New York: Vintage Books, 1957), p. 13.
24. lbid., p. 12.
25. lbid., p. 176.
26. Quoted in Erikson, Insight and Responsibility (New York: W. W. Norton, 1964), p. 30.
27. J. B. Phillips, Your God Is Too Small (New York: The Macmillan Co., 1961), pp. 12-29. Gordon Allport's thought provided a useful distinction between extrinsic and intrinsic religion. He stated "The religious sentiments of many people -- perhaps most people -- are decidedly immature. Often they are holdovers from childhood. They are self-centered constructions in which a deity is adopted who favors the immediate interests of the individual, like a Santa Claus or an overindulgent father. Or the sentiment may be of a tribal sort: 'My church is better than your church. God prefers my people to your people.' In cases of this sort religion . . . is utilitarian and incidental in the life. It is a defense mechanism (often an escape mechanism) and does -not embrace and guide the life as a whole. It is an 'extrinsic’ value in the sense that the person finds it 'useful' in serving his immediate ends. "Studies show that ethnic prejudice is more common among church-goers than among non-churchgoers. This fact alone shows that religion is often divisive rather than unifying. Extrinsic religion lends support to exclusions, prejudices, hatreds that negate all our criteria of maturity. The self is not extended; there is no warm relating of self to others, no emotional security, no realistic perception, no self-insight or humor. "At the same time the religious sentiment may be of such an order that it does provide an inclusive solution to life's puzzles in the light of an intelligible theory. It can do so if the religious quest is regarded as an end-in-itself, as the value underlying all things and desirable for its own sake. By surrendering himself to this purpose (not by 'using' it), religion becomes an 'intrinsic' value for the individual, and as such is comprehensive and integrative and motivational" (Patterns and Growth in Personality [New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1961], pp. 300-301).
28. MacIver, op. cit., p. 20.
29. See Erikson, Insight and Responsibility, "Human Strength and the Cycle of the Generations."
30. This exercise is adapted from an approach used by Viktor Franki in his practice of logotherapy.
31. From a discussion with William Genne, summer, 1958.
32. Erikson, Insight and Responsibility, p. 133.
33. Ross Snyder, Inscape (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1968), p. 42.
34. Ibid., p. 21.
35. Ibid., p. 19.
36. Howe, Herein Is love (Valley Forge, Pa.: Judson Press, 1961), p. 88.
37. Snyder, lnscape, pp. 16, 15.
38. MacIver, op. cit., p. 132.