A long-loved love.
On Saturday we attended the wedding of young friends, the groom having been my student over the last months. We met a year ago in his final semester at the University of Virginia, and after a lecture he came up to me, asking good questions. The longer we talked, the more intrigued I was, and I invited him to come study with me when he graduated— which he did, taking part in the Fellows program in Washington DC.
With eager happiness we drove to Charlottesville in the afternoon, and with a community of family and friends took part in their promises, smiling with them at the hope of a long love. After the wedding we found our way to the Blue Ridge Farm west of the city, a grand homestead with pastures and meadows gracing the grounds, under the haunting mountainscape of the Blue Ridge. A beautiful day in every way.
Weddings are meant to be glorious. The planning for a nearly-perfect day, the ordering and organizing of everyone and everything, the dresses and the suits, the flowers and the food, in every way it is meant to be the most wonderful of all days—and sometimes it is.
But when all is said and done, honeymoons are had, and life begins… as does love. While it would be unfair to say that the affection of a couple before marriage is unreal— because it is very real in its own honest, but limited way —when the wedding is over, and the marriage begins, we begin to understand what love means, because we begin to understand what love requires.
While I am a professor and not a pastor, there have been enough times over the years when I have been asked to muse on the meaning of marriage at a wedding, offering a homily for the occasion, that I have come to believe that some things are important to say because they are at the heart of the hope of young love. The gift of marriage is that we can be known, and be loved— in our very bones we yearn for that. There is nothing deeper in us than that hope.
But there is a perennial fear that flows across the centuries and civilizations, running through every the mind and heart of every son of Adam and daughter of Eve, and it is that becoming naked will bring us shame. We hope against hope that being seen for who we really are will bring gladness, not grief. That doesn’t always happen though. In these last days and weeks I have spent hours and days talking with good people whose marriages are stumbling, who have found that it is very hard for the words of a wedding to have flesh, living into them over the years of life. If the last word before the Fall was that they were naked and not ashamed, the first word after the Fall was that they were naked and ashamed. There is no more stark contrast in all of history, because this difference, and the difference it makes is profoundly primordial. Can I be known, truly known, and still be loved?
Often over the years we have given a young couple two books, both by Madeleine L’Engle, both about the meaning of marriage. Even the best books don’t answer all the questions, but some books are worthy of our hearts, especially the ones that tell the truth of our hearts, that explore the truth of the human condition played out so intimately between a husband and a wife.
The first is A Two-Part Invention: The Story of a Marriage, which tells the tale of her own marriage over 40 years. Echoing off of Bach’s imagery, the “two-part” is a year after year remembering of what kept them keeping on as husband and wife, from newly-wedded bliss to the marriage’s heart-aching end; but at the same time it is the tender reflection on the last year of their marriage, from the discovery of his cancer to his death a year later. Anyone with ears to hear can learn about love, about what matters and what doesn’t matter, which is hard to know when we are just starting out, making heartfelt but mostly innocent promises. The other is a collection of her poems, The Weather of the Heart, which begins with seven poems “To a Long-loved Love,” each a poignant, poetic window into the hearts of husbands and wives everywhere, glorious ruins that we are, hoping and hoping that our love will be long, but more aware as the years pass that long-loved love is hard to come by.
As we have found. For years Meg and I have had a painting in our bedroom, and now it hangs over our bed, tenderly, artfully. Called “Love in the Ruins,” it shows a man and a woman embracing, holding onto each other, with a ruined world around them. While we don’t look at it every day, it is always looking at us, mysteriously attentive to the best and worst of our marriage, the glory and the ruin of our love.
That, simply said, is why we choose these two books for a new husband and wife, so full of love and life as they are, but so unaware of the meaning of love for life as they are. We want them to ponder together what it will mean to grow a long-loved love, because of course that is the very reason-for-being married. We marry for nothing less. More than anything, we long to know and to love, to be known and to be loved; but it is our stumbling over this possibility that brings us face to face with one of the strangest truths. Marriage for everyone everywhere, while wonderful in the most surprising ways, is also wounding in the most horrible ways— both are true, glorious ruins that we are, and what we do with that reality either makes or breaks a marriage.
Wedding days, at their truest, are the beginning of a long love— as the days become years, we understand more than we ever imagined that a long-loved love is a gift, one of the best of all gifts, but a hard-won gift.