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Marriage and the Tear in My Heart

by Dr. Tom NealMarch 15, 2016

A friend recently asked me for some advice on marriage, and so I paste my reply here. It was enjoyable to write, though it is as messy as an undisciplined email can be…

…You asked me yesterday about my relationship with Patti, and how she and I have been able to connect intellectually, with depth, etc., because you really desire that kind of intellectual intimacy with the woman who would one day be your future wife. I gave that thought. It’s a remarkable question that made me think long and hard.

I’d say the union of minds in marriage is really, at heart, not about the meeting of intellects per se, though there’s that in spades with Patti. She’s very smart and we love challenging each other with arguments and ideas. What’s really the “grace of graces” in marriage, for me, is the power of marital love to tear you open in your soul’s deepest parts; to shatter your porcelain idols; to break you down and rebuild you; to make you afraid only to then wither your fears and push you to the cliff in a free-fall act of trust in what God has made of marriage: an absurdly extreme union of two persons, knit by God into one inseparably “oned” new reality.

What’s that reality? The biblical shorthand is, of course, “one flesh.” But “flesh” in the Bible captures the whole complex living human person. Becoming “one” cuts into so many different levels — Wow! — levels within and without you never even knew existed until the Sacrament threatened your well-guarded, solitary ego with the terrifying prospect of a home invasion, i.e. holy communion with another person who gets into all of you and you into them. In that sometimes spacious, sometimes space-less distance from your spouse you begin to discover you have become/are becoming (re)defined by another human being, right down into the most intimate inflections of your personality: soul, spirit, mind, imagination, emotions, heart, flesh. Even as I “lose myself” in love with my wife, I discover myself more fully alive. My Pop, speaking of his own 69 year old marriage, said to Patti and me just before our wedding day:

"From now on, it is up to you, Tom, and you, Patti, to love together, to laugh together, to cry together, to respond together, to be joined together. When one is cut, the other bleeds; when one wants, the other gives. There are no rules;  there are no formulas; there are no singular pronouns. There is no “I,” “me,” “my,” “mine.” Only “us,” “ours.”  I don’t know where Nana begins and I end, or where I begin and she ends…And for over 69 years of oneness, each year has been an exponential factor, a geometric multiplier, that carries our fidelity way beyond the puny magnitude of E=mc2. Long ago we have outscored the dimension of such a feeble concept as infinity."

There’s all that. But even more! I have discovered in, with and through Patti what it means to say she is the image of God that completes me (Genesis 1:27), a Temple of the Spirit that allures me into union with Christ (see 1 Cor. 6:15-20’s wild argument that one-flesh union entwines in a one-spirit union with Christ’s temple-Body), a daughter of God whose dignity fills me with holy fear, the woman who is co-grafted with me into Jesus’ Body. That’s the “great mystery” St. Paul was taking about (Ephesians 5:32). If you let yourself sink down into all this, you suddenly see – if faith be your light – your one-ing with her has actually drawn you deep-deep into God. If you’re open to that, I’m telling you it’s absolutely wild, beyond what you could ever have imagined union with God means. Before Patti, I had my pure-spirit God safely buffered in my solitary pieties, controlled in my interior castle’s walls, indwelling on my terms. But in marriage – my God! – I see Him come forcefully through all the unpredictability and freedom of my wife. In marriage, I discovered descending within myself in prayer at once led me deeper into her Temple. There was where the Lord of the ring awaited me. I discovered my interiority requires entry also into her interiority. In a thousand ways. That’s so unambiguously clear to me, but as I attempt to translate that raw experience into words, it is seems ridiculously obscure and unclear. Martin Heidegger once said that “translation is a betrayal.” Truly. “Come and see” (John 1:39).

Here’s yet another way to see this. “Intellectual connecting” with a spouse is not so much about an exchange of ideas or arguments, though it must be that. More, it’s a willingness to be redefined by her worldview, and her by mine. Finishing each other’s thoughts, or her laughing before I even tell the joke gives me more joy than almost anything else in life. That’s the far more mysterious form of intellectual intimacy. Like Jesus’ expression of the inter-indwelling of God and humanity: “I in them and you in me” (John 17:23)My whole worldview, to its very roots, is always evolving with hers. And let me say that a woman’s super-charged gift is helping a man realize that he has an inner depth, a soul with passions, dreams and desires; something he is terribly afraid will get stepped on. And often a man lives outside of himself, in the world of action and ideas, often evading the painful stretch of interior exploration. But she will have no part of this evasion!

Okay, this now seems to be a crazed stream of consciousness, like gibberish. Yuck. Let me turn elsewhere and resort to musical art.

Okay, so there’s this music video by a group I love called “Twenty One Pilots.” It totally captures what I’m trying to say. Here’s how I read it: The video’s an iconoclastic parable about the love of a woman who takes a man down into his own depths; a man who naturally mistrusts the fallen and hostile world around him. Because of this mistrust, he forgets he has a living soul made for love, for the God who only permits himself to be encountered through the face – and fist! – of another. Like 1 John 4:20. The blonde woman in the video is the lead singer’s wife in real life, which makes it all even better.

The brutal “fight” they engage in at the end is a fantastical metaphor that perfectly sums up what I’ve tried to say here: marital love possesses a necessary violence-of-sorts. Notdestructively abusive violence, obviously, but the tender violence of love that God revealed in Christ on the Cross. The wife permits the Kingdom of God to conquer the man’s hardened, fearful, guarded heart. Check out Matthew 10:34 and 11:12 for kicks on this. The Kingdom come through her “tearing” love. She pierces the man’s armored heart, cuts into it like a “butcher with a smile,” taking him higher than he ever imagined possible.

The “tear in my heart” is Patti. That has been the deepest impact our marital “embrace” has had on me, fierce love’s wound that cut me to the quick and startled me awake and alive. Still does, every day. This marital embrace far transcends the intimacy of sex, which is only a faint sign of the real cleaving union of love that intensifies over years – “way beyond the puny magnitude of E=MC2” – years of restless, but faithful striving.

Check it out, with good speakers:

About the Author

Dr. Tom Neal

Dr. Tom Neal

Dr. Tom Neal presently serves as Academic Dean and Professor of Spiritual Theology at Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans...

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