The first task in marriage

A recent wedding address, we’re in a church…

Mark and Sarah have asked me to say a few words…always a mistake.

Few…one of the least understood words in the dictionary.

But I suppose the most common misunderstanding about marriage is that it’s a coming together of two people.

The traditional ceremony does tend to encourage this: ‘That which God has joined together let not man divide.’

You could imagine a merging taking place, that’s what marriage preparation sometimes speaks of, ‘when two become one’, as the Spice Girls helpfully put it.

In this telling, marriage is two people entering a love bubble, an emotional, as well as a contractual, oneness…absorbed in each other.

But the Austrian poet and novelist Rainer Maria Rilke thought differently, and I mention Rilke because, of course, I shouldn’t be here; I’m not Mark’s first choice…

Rilke is. I’m just filling in because sadly Rainer died in 1926.

But were he here, he would tell us, I know he would, that our first task in marriage is not to look after our partner but to look after ourselves and our own humanity through inner work.

And why? (Because yes, it could all sound a little selfish.) Because then we’d have something worth offering others.


So love becomes an exercise not in smothering affection for the other…but in letting go of them, that they might grow:

‘We need, in love, to practice only this: letting each other go.’ That’s what he says.

Of course, this is all a bit counter-intuitive. The love narrative doesn’t usually start with letting go. It usually starts with ‘You’re everything to me, I need you so much!’

But with Rilke it starts with letting go.

‘The point of marriage,’ he says, ‘is not to create a quick commonality by tearing down all boundaries. On the contrary, a good marriage is one in which each partner appoints the other to be the guardian of their solitude, and thus they show each other the greatest possible trust.’

And he goes on ripping up the rule book.

‘A merging of two people,’ he says, ‘is an impossibility; and where it seems to exist, it is only a hemming-in, a mutual consent that robs one party or both parties of their fullest freedom and development.’

‘But once the realization is accepted that even between the closest people infinite distances exist, a marvellous living side-by-side can grow up for them, if they succeed in loving the expanse between them – which gives them the possibility of always seeing each other as a whole and before an immense sky.’

So to move from the Spice Girls to Elton John, ‘I want love – just a different kind.’

Rilke speaks of a love, a marriage, where two people protect the solitude of the each other, where they are guardians of the other’s solitude – that each might freely grow, becoming bigger people.

No hemming-in, no closing down of the spirit to appease the other, or to collude with their damage.

Rilke describes that sort of love as a union of the ‘unclarified and the unfinished’ – how could it ever work out well?

Even between the closest people, he says, even between the closest people, infinite distances exist…yet if we allow this, if we allow our beloved to be other than ourselves, the distance is kind, funny and liberating….and so the walk together is kind, funny and liberating.

And I’m sure that is how it will be for Mark and Sarah…kind, funny, liberating.

And Sarah and Mark will not walk alone, for Rilke pulls one more rabbit out from the hat when he talks about love.

And it’s a big rabbit.

For while he speaks – against both intuition and culture –  of love as letting go, such a shocking idea, his contemplative faith places this story, this trial-and-error
unfolding, in a circle of love…a circle of love which we can never leave, and never step outside of.

‘Believe in a love,’ he says, ‘believe in a love that is being stored up for you like an inheritance, and have faith that in this love, there is a strength and a blessing so large that you can travel as far as you wish without having to step outside it.’

Nice…a gracious and infinite circle of love.

And just occasionally, maybe you sense this inheritance, even in a world that can be very difficult, traumatically so, this vast storehouse of love, discovered in so many ways, in which we could walk for a thousand years without leaving it.

In love, we guard the solitude and freedom of the other, we trust it, we let go in love… and we can do this

because love will never let go of us.

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