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Posts Tagged ‘faithfulness’

When I was in Cardiff two weeks ago I had a couple of hours to visit the National Museum. It was the first time I had seen a life-size version of Rodin’s famous sculpture The Kiss. What really threw me was not the sculpture itself, but the textual explanation on the side. I had no idea before what the image actually depicted: two lovers in an adulterous embrace who will later be slain by the woman’s jilted husband.

It was a real hermeneutical challenge to me, showing how one’s lifelong perception of a situation or event can be partial or distorted or misleading.

I’d always taken this beautiful sculpture to be a symbol of intimacy, tenderness, passion and romantic love – which in many ways it still is. But when you know the story, it shows how something so pure, beautiful and even ‘innocent’ as romance can sometimes do such damage, when it causes someone to separate themselves from everything else that has been important to them – from all their other loves and commitments.

Passion and romance seem to justify themselves, in the heat of the moment, and to justify all the decisions that flow from them. Love, in our culture, often seems to have the final, decisive word; as if there is no possibility of having another perspective on it, or putting it in a larger context.

Don’t misunderstand me: love, passion, romance – these are good things; as long as they help us to deepen and make sense of the life we have, rather than destroying it. (And nor does the understandable passion of the betrayed husband justify him murdering the lovers…)

Here is the caption from the Tate website (referring to their marble version):

The Tate’s The Kiss is one of three full-scale versions made in Rodin’s lifetime. Its blend of eroticism and idealism makes it one of the great images of sexual love. However, Rodin considered it overly traditional, calling The Kiss ‘a large sculpted knick-knack following the usual formula.’ The couple are the adulterous lovers Paolo Malatesta and Francesca da Rimini, who were slain by Francesca’s outraged husband. They appear in Dante’s Inferno, which describes how their passion grew as they read the story of Lancelot and Guinevere together. The book can just be seen in Paolo’s hand.

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I was at a beautiful wedding recently, and I had a small moment of revelation about the meaning of wearing a wedding ring. It’s not an exaggeration to say that my understanding was turned completely upside down.

I’ve always thought that wearing a wedding ring was a sign of the commitment you are making to your spouse and to your marriage. Not to pretend that it all depends on you – because it’s about a relationship and a vocation, and about God’s blessing on that relationship. But to see the wearing of the ring as a constant sign of your own re-dedication and re-commitment to this relationship, and to make this continuing acknowledgement of your marital commitment public by wearing a ring. The ring becomes, as it were, a public profession of your marriage and what it continues to mean to you. This is why in those films (cf. Bruce Willis in the first scene of Unbreakable), when a husband meets a stranger on a train and starts plotting how he might hook up with her, he quietly slips his wedding ring off and puts it in his pocket.

But I heard the words of the wedding rite as if for the first time, and this is absolutely not what the wearing of the ring signifies. Here they are:

Take this ring as a sign of my love and fidelity. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

So the ring that is given is a sign of the love and fidelity of the one who gives it. The ring that you wear, that was placed on your finger by your spouse on your wedding day, does not represent your commitment to your marriage, your love for your spouse, your faithfulness to this relationship and to the vocation God has called you into, etc. It represents the commitment, love and faithfulness of your spouse to you.

The ring is not there, first of all, as a sign of your continuing commitment to this person (although of course it can come to mean that as well). It’s an ongoing reminder of the promise that the other person has made to you. It’s a sign of the covenant that your spouse has made with you, and that God has sealed, and that you have freely embraced and entered into. The same covenant that you have also made with your spouse.

I know this is obvious – I’m ashamed to say that I’d just never thought of it before. It changes things. I’m sure I’ve given lots of wedding sermons about looking down at the ring on your finger and choosing to live your marriage and love your spouse. It’s all true, in one sense. But the symbolism of the ring is not, ultimately, about your own efforts or decisions or commitments, it’s a reminder of the promise that another has made to you, and of the promise that God has made to you both. I know that life, and marriage, are not always tidy or easy, but I think there is a truth worth pondering here.

Do contradict me, and write in the comments what your wedding ring has meant to you over the years!

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We often think that the big lies are the important/damaging ones – and they usually are. But the small lies, and even the ‘innocent’ white lies, can be equally destructive. It’s not just because they can set a pattern of deception that might have greater consequences; it’s also because the core moral decision to deceive or to conceal something apparently trivial often reflects a much bigger background compromise that we are wanting to make.

We justify small lies by saying they are of no real consequence. But if that’s really the case, why do we think that simply telling the truth in this minor matter would be such a difficult option?

Last Night is 6/10 film about a young married couple in New York tempted by infidelity. The husband goes away for a business meeting with a gorgeous and seductive colleague; and that same night his wife bumps into her former French boyfriend who was never really reconciled to their separation. What will they do? What choices will they make?

The ‘will they/won’t they?’ tease is what keeps the slightly dull plot moving forward. But the moral interest, for me, lies in those moments when they have to decide how much truth to tell, or when we realise that something not insignificant from the past has been concealed. Infidelity (don’t worry – I’m not giving the plot away) very often depends on whether or not someone is willing to tell the truth about the ordinary, boring things.

When you are about to tell a small or habitual lie, it’s worth stopping to ask: Why?

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Some people would prefer to replace the traditional wedding vows with words they have composed themselves, thinking that this would make their promises more personal and more authentic. I’m not so sure about this.

Amish wedding ring quilt

I did an email interview last week with David Gibson for the website ‘For Your Marriage‘. He was asking me about some of the ideas I sketched in my recent Royal Wedding post. You can read the interview here, and this is the full response I gave to his questions:

In my experience most young people hope to get married one day, despite the prevalence of marriage breakdown and a general suspicion of institutions.

It’s not just the romance of a wedding day. I think they recognise that love finds its deepest fulfilment in a lifelong commitment, in giving oneself to another person without conditions, without reservation. And they know that marriage is a way of making that commitment. It frightens them, because commitment is frightening, at the same time as it attracts them.

The words of the wedding vows are so simple and so profound: ‘To love and honour each other for the rest of your lives… For better for worse, for richer for poorer… Till death do us part’. Young people are not, on the whole, cynical, selfish or hedonistic. They want to fall in love; and when they do, they want that love to last. They know, deep down, that love requires commitment and sacrifice; and they are longing to give themselves to something of lasting value.

They also sense, perhaps without understanding why, that love demands a promise, a definitive Yes; and that this promise needs to be made in public. In other words, the institution of marriage still speaks to young people with great force.

Of course a couple can express their love for each other in many different ways; and they can commit themselves to each other in their own words. They should do this often! But I don’t think this can ever substitute for the traditional words of the wedding vows. This is partly because the words themselves are already so meaningful – it’s simply hard to better them. ‘I promise to love and honour you for the rest of my life… For better for worse, for richer for poorer…’ So to substitute your own words would somehow be a diminishment.

But I also think there is something important about entering into a tradition that is larger than yourself, and freely choosing to use a set of words that you haven’t yourself chosen, because then you allow yourself to be freed from the limitations of your own vision. This ‘humility’ allows your love to be purified, stretched, and transformed into something far deeper than you could have imagined.

To use the solemn words of the wedding ritual, rather than your own composition, is to say ‘there is more to love than we have yet understood, and we choose to let this larger love possess us’. It’s not impersonal to use the formal words of the wedding ritual; it’s a way of lifting what is deeply personal into something larger and even more beautiful.

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One of the highlights of the royal wedding was the marriage. I’m not just being clever with words here: we all know how easy it is for the paraphernalia of a wedding day extravaganza to dwarf the marriage ceremony itself.

The simple and solemn words of the wedding vows had such a weight about them; they seemed to ‘hold their own’ – to carry a significance richer than the beauty of the service, more enduring than the dazzle of celebrity and media, deeper even than the monarchy itself. Two people standing before God, promising to love each other and remain faithful to each other for the rest of their lives, whatever happens, and praying for the gift of children.

Much of this is because of the way the Anglican Book of Common Prayer (Revised 1928 version, I think) holds together, in its beautiful language, the heart of the Christian understanding of marriage.

Thank goodness William and Kate chose not to invent their own wedding service. There is so much suspicion today of ‘institutions’, but on Friday you saw what it meant for a couple to enter ‘the institution of marriage’. It means they are taking on something far bigger and more beautiful than they could ever have invented for themselves – no matter how many books of poetry they might have plundered, or how many hours they could have put into phrasing their own heartfelt sentiments for each other and hopes for their future.

The words of marriage, and the meaning they embody, add a seriousness that young people are actually looking for, and remind them that they are not just creating a landscape from their own imagination, but going on a journey into a vast, beautiful, awe-inspiring but unknown, uncharted and slightly risky territory.

The marriage service was still deeply personal – you can’t get more personal than to say, in the first person, before two billion people, ‘I will’. But by celebrating the sacrament of marriage and not just their own transitory affection for each other, by entering into a tradition larger than themselves, they allowed their love to be transformed. The words of ‘the institution of marriage’ challenged them to love in a way that wouldn’t have been possible through their own resources. That’s the point of institutions – or at least it’s meant to be.

And hats off to William for resisting the pressure from his lawyers to insist on a pre-nuptial agreement.

In case you missed it, this is the ‘Introduction’ to the marriage service that took place right at the beginning:

DEARLY beloved, we are gathered here in the sight of God and in the face of this congregation, to join together this man and this woman in Holy Matrimony; which is an honourable estate instituted of God himself, signifying unto us the mystical union that is betwixt Christ and his Church; which holy estate Christ adorned and beautified with his presence, and first miracle that he wrought, in Cana of Galilee, and is commended in Holy Writ to be honourable among all men; and therefore is not by any to be enterprised, nor taken in hand, unadvisedly lightly or wantonly; but reverently, discreetly, soberly, and in the fear of God, duly considering the causes for which matrimony was ordained.

First, It was ordained for the increase of mankind according to the will of God, and that children might be brought up in the fear and nurture of the Lord, and to the praise of his holy name.

Secondly, It was ordained in order that the natural instincts and affections, implanted by God, should be hallowed and directed aright; that those who are called of God to this holy estate, should continue therein in pureness of living.

Thirdly, It was ordained for the mutual society, help, and comfort, that the one ought to have of the other, both in prosperity and adversity.

Into which holy estate these two persons present come now to be joined.

Therefore if any man can shew any just cause, why they may not lawfully be joined together, let him now speak, or else hereafter for ever hold his peace.

You can see the whole Official Programme here.

[Interesting that the word paraphernalia is originally connected with marriage; and - as it were - with the original form of a pre-nuptial agreement. I didn't know this before going to the dictionary this morning. Chambers dictionary says: 'Formerly, property other than dower than remained under a married woman's own control, esp. articles of jewellery, dress, personal belongings. From para, beside, beyond, pherne, a dowry]

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How do you represent evil in literature, art or film? Is it possible to get beyond the surface effects of evil to the malevolent heart, where choices are made and the fundamental moral drama is played out?

I’ve just finished reading Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock. (No, I haven’t seen the film yet – I was desperate to read the novel before seeing the film, so I’d come at it fresh and without knowing the ending.) It’s meant to be a study of evil, in the person of Pinkie, the teenage protagonist - but I’m not sure it works. [Minor plot spoilers follow]

Brighton Rock

He certainly does some terrible things, but he comes across to me more like a trapped animal than a moral agent. He’s heartless, he knows he’s doing wrong, but he doesn’t really know what the moral alternatives are as practical possibilities. He’s a bully, living off the strategies he learnt in the school playground. He’s constantly reacting, often with much cunning and forethought, but only once or twice does an almost metaphysical abyss open up before him, and the feint possibility of freedom become a reality.

This is from J.M. Coetzee’s introduction to the Vintage edition:

[In the person of Ida Arnold Greene creates] a stout ideological antagonist to the Catholic axis of Pinkie and Rose. Pinkie and Rose believe in Good and Evil; Ida believes in more down-to-earth Right and Wrong, in law and order, though with a bit of fun on the side. Pinkie and Rose believe in salvation and damnation, particularly the latter; in Ida the religious impulse is tamed, trivialised, and confined to the ouija board.

In the scenes in which Ida, full of motherly concern, tries to wean Rose away from her demonic lover, we see the rudiments of two world-views, the one eschatological, the other secular and materialist, uncomprehendingly confronting each other…

Rose’s faith in her lover never wavers. To the end she identifies Ida, not Pinkie, as the subtle seducer, the evil one. ‘She ought to be damned… She doesn’t know about love.’ If the worst comes to the worst, she would rather suffer in hell with Pinkie than be saved with Ida.

This last point is the most interesting aspect of the book: how love (however ambiguous) might bring you to want to be with someone in the depths of hell, rather than deny that love and lose them. But, in hell, wouldn’t you lose each other too? And are you really doing someone a favour by joining them on that road? Rose is worried that by choosing something ‘right’ (in Ida’s terms) it would be a betrayal of her relationship with Pinkie, of her faithfulness to him. It reminds me of Simone Weil, and her worry that to accept baptism would alienate her from all those who were not baptised.

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Some good news, at last, about HIV and AIDS. A recent press release from UNAIDS (and see the Reuters summary here) said that HIV prevalence among young people has declined by more than 25% in 15 of the 21 countries most affected by AIDS. This is because the number of new HIV infections among young people has declined significantly.

In eight countries—Côte d’Ivoire, Ethiopia, Kenya, Malawi, Namibia, the United Republic of Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe—significant HIV prevalence declines have been accompanied by positive changes in sexual behaviour among young people.

For example, in Kenya there was a 60% decline in HIV prevalence between 2000 and 2005. HIV prevalence dropped from 14.2% to 5.4% in urban areas and from 9.2% to 3.6% in rural areas in the same period. Similarly in Ethiopia there was a 47% reduction in HIV prevalence among pregnant young women in urban areas and a 29% change in rural areas.

What’s striking is that the first two factors cited as playing a part in this reduction are (i) waiting longer before young people first have sex and (ii) reducing the number of sexual partners.

Young people in 13 countries, including Cameroon, Ethiopia, and Malawi, are waiting longer before they become sexually active. Young people were also having fewer multiple partners in 13 countries. And condom use by young people during last sex act increased in 13 countries.

Yes, condoms are mentioned. But the report recognises that significant changes have come about in part through a transformation of patterns of sexual behaviour among young people. This is UNAIDS reporting, not the Vatican Press Office. And it’s a reflection of what’s working not just in one or two statistically insignificant areas but in two thirds of those countries most affected by AIDS today.

It’s interesting that the person who uploaded this image to Flickr in May 2006 did so in order to criticise abstinence campaigns because of their illiberal suggestion that people might want to rethink their patterns of sexual behaviour. This is part of the image caption:

AIDS campaigns funded by churches and/or the US government tend to emphasize abstinence and fidelity to one’s spouse instead of describing options available to persons who choose to have sex outside of marriage.

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