January 28, 2018
1 Corinthians 7:32-35; Mark 1:21-28
As someone who has been married a long time, I can certainly agree with Paul today that wives are a big distraction. And I’m sure Barb could agree, too: that husbands are. All of us who are married can agree. The people we live with can drive us crazy, and in our reactions to them we allow ourselves to be distracted from what’s really important and who’s really important: God.
But then I know monks and sisters who struggle with distraction, too, even in a monastery. To be human is to be distracted. I’d be distracted if I were alone on a desert island, because distraction is in me, not outside of me. I carry my compulsions and preoccupations with me wherever I go, and in that sense the point isn’t marriage at all but what we do in marriage; not a life of celibacy but what we do with celibacy.
The unclean spirit is in the demoniac, and Jesus has to call it out: quiet! Come out of him! And then it’s gone.
Besides, this passage in first Corinthians is one of those passages where the context is crucially important—where it’s important to realize that Paul is writing at a time when the second coming of Christ is expected any moment, where the end of the world is really about to happen. If that were true, literally, we should be getting ready.
The Carmelite writer Ruth Burrows talks about the difference between physical virginity and what she calls “spiritual virginity.”
Physical virginity of itself means nothing, what matters is spiritual virginity, this wholeness and totality. Now every Christian is called to this spiritual virginity, implied in his baptismal consecration. He has to belong to God body and soul. Some are called to reach this in marriage, others in a single life in the world, others in a state of consecrated celibacy. The means are different, the end is the same. Indeed only certain of the means are different, most are identical. No one can attain it save by the constant effort to love at the expense of self, a constant disregard of self for the sake of others. Marriage and sexual love do not automatically lead to maturity and neither does abstention. Only love brings to maturity.
So I think the call here for those of us who are married is to work at not being distracted by our own selfishness—to look beyond whatever it is that irritates or worries us in the person we love to the soul beneath, to the one who is loved by God wholly and completely—and in fact to see God himself in that person, to see God incarnate in our husband or wife.
After the death of his wife C. S. Lewis looked back with joy on their marriage. We “feasted on love,” he says, “every mode of it—solemn and merry, romantic and realistic.” But at the same time, he says, he and his wife both knew that they “wanted something besides one another—quite a different kind of something, a quite different kind of want,” and they glimpsed this something else exactly in their married life day to day. It’s not an accident that the scriptures use the image of married love as an image of Christ and God’s love for his Church because that’s the intensity of God’s love for us, and the ordinariness, and the beauty of it. And yet, however much we satisfy each other in marriage, however wonderful a marriage is, we’re always longing, too, for this something other, this something greater. We’re always longing for what only God can fulfill.
We’re always longing for Christ. This is why marriage is a sacrament, both because Christ is present in it and because he isn’t. There’s a gap, a seam, and through it we are being called.