The Taser's Edge

A Theology of Marriage from the Monastery

“There is a great deal to be done by way of breaking yourself in, if you mean to preserve peace and harmony when you are living in community.”  So begins chapter 17, “On Life in a Monastery”, in Book One of Thomas a Kempis’ The Imitation of Christ.  For some reason, most of the chapter seems to me to be just as applicable to Christian marriage (itself a lifelong “living in community” where “peace and harmony” are accomplished by hard work and even “breaking yourself in”) as it is to the monastic life.  Roman Catholic sacramental theology and Karl Barth would agree—Christian marriage is just as much a vocation as Christian monasticism.  (Here I must say I’m anxious to hear Holly’s take on this.)

So here’s more of Thomas a Kempis, continuing directly after where I left off, and with bracketed commentary from yours truthfully: “To enter a monastery or a congregation [or a Christian marriage], live there without reproach, and be true to your vocation till death [i.e., ‘till death do us part’]—all that is a serious undertaking; no greater happiness than to live a holy life in a cell, and make a good end…To take the habit, to get the tonsure, [to dress up and exchange some rings] does not carry you far; what makes you a real religious [or marriage partner] is the changing of your life, is dying completely to your own inclinations.  If you came here looking for something that wasn’t just God and the salvation of your soul, you mustn’t expect to find anything but trouble of mind and unhappiness…You came here to obey orders, not to issue them.  A vocation means having a hard time and doing honest work…This place is meant to test people, like the furnace in which you assay gold; and only one thing will help you to stand up to the test—whole-hearted self-abasement for the love of God.”

Sounds pretty rough to most of us contemporary marrieds, but I kind of want to offer the parallels between monastery and marriage to anyone I marriage counsel in the future.  (Maybe if I had marriage counseled anyone in the past, I would know whether or not such a sharing is a good idea.)  At this point, I think the challenge for us is to read Thomas a Kempis twice.  The first time we find ourselves repelled.  Marriage as a cell, a test, a furnace?  But then we can read it again.  What are we looking for in marriage?  I think a 15th century monk may have some insight.

Tuesday Reading Wrap-up 1 (a.k.a. Tuesday Reading Roundup 11 (a.k.a. Tuesday Reading Retrospective 1))

Due to the 2-hit combo of shrill popular request and common sense (a dramatization of that conversation can be found here), I decided to change the weekly preview to a weekly retrospective.

1. Batman: The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller–This book is divided into four books.  It starts out very promising, but now at 3/4 of the way through, I wonder if there is too much going on.  This is why I hate talking about books before finishing them and judging them before I finish them.  But, so you know what the convolutedness is about, Superman has shown up; the Soviets have launched a nuclear war with a bomb which also had an electromagnetic pulse, knocking out all America’s electronics (and thus her own launch capacities); and Superman has almost died because of the fact that the blast blocked out the sun.  Oh yeah, Batman is still around, getting shivved by the Joker and then getting rescued by the new Robin (who’s a girl!).

2. The Giving Gift: The Holy Spirit in Person by Tom Smail–Smail is (was?) a Church of England priest who had some very real charismatic experiences and then felt the need to write about the charismatic world theologically, in order to correct both the excesses of the non-denominational charismatic movement and the shortcomings of the larger Church in speaking of the work of the Holy Spirit.

3. Great Lent: Journey to Pascha by Alexander Schmemann–Ha.  I finished it…at least the bulk of it.  It has a rather lengthy appendix attached, which I am inclined to read.  It took me forever, but I would still suggest you read it.

4. Beyond Companionship: Christians in Marriage by Diana S. Richmond and David E. Garland–The selection for this week is the final chapter of the book, “What God has Joined Together.”  As you might guess, it is a chapter on divorce, a very good chapter, indeed much better than the other resources we read for this week, apparently Divorce Week, in Esther Acolatse’s Christian Marriage and Family Across Culture.

5. Ending Marriage, Keeping Faith: A New Guide Through the Spiritual Journey of Divorce by J. Randall Nichols–I actually read the selections from this book before the last book, and I was really disappointed by it.  Nichols, I think, is purposely trying to push buttons of conservative Christians with chapters titled “Divorce is Not a Sin” and “Forgiveness Has Its Limits” (which, while they may not sound provocative to you, they certainly do in certain circles).  He then claims to set out to see “what the Bible really says” on the topic of divorce, but fails to do any real exegesis.  While I think that most people need to be shown how complicated the difficult parts of life really can be, Nichols mostly talks in generalities while claiming to talk in specifics about various Scriptures coming into contact with modern life.  As I already said, it’s disappointing.  All caregivers need to problematize life to show how complicated it really is; pastoral caregivers need to take no less trouble in respecting the complexities of Scripture.

6. “Divorce and Remarriage in the Catholic Church” by Michael G. Lawler–Lawler digs into canon law, Church history, and Scripture in order to argue for inconsistencies in the Roman Catholic Church’s views on marriage, annulment, and divorce.  It’s interesting, but only so compelling to me as an outsider.

Personal Growth, Christian Friendship, and One Perfectionist’s Problems With Therapy

“Any effort to improve life, whether by education or religion or philosophy or therapy, seldom makes life simpler.  In fact, it makes it more complex.  Just as labor-saving devices have caused us more labor and complicated our lives, so counseling has further burdened our marriages by asking us to live up to what we know to be our best relationship that is achievable only under the special circumstances of the psychotherapeutic hour…Perhaps most serious, counseling gives a person the feeling–much more than is probably true–that he is in charge of his own life, that his problems are basically of his own making, and that their solutions are within his control…Constant attention to our problems as personal rather than as universal (which happens in counseling) has given us a highly distorted picture of what we can do about the problems we find in marriage.”  (Richard Farson, quoted in Beyond Companionship: Christians in Marriage by Diana S. Richmond Garland and David E. Garland, pp. 153-154)

Garland and Garland are writing specifically about marriage, but this sentiment can just easily be applied to all counseling.  To be clear, their context is a pastoral care text.  As such, it is talking all about psychology.  Diana is a social worker and both authors are trained academics.  They are not at all saying that there is not a need for couples’ therapy or for personal therapy, and from my own experience of counseling, I truly believe that a few sessions would be helpful for almost all people in terms of self-discovery and human growth.  With that said, these authors are pointing to a particular mindset that we can begin to take when we seek help for ourselves or for our marriages (or any other relationships we have).  We can begin to think that we are working toward perfection and can become more discontented than before we began counseling.  We can dig up new problems, and old problems can be renewed.  We can make progress in the big problems, but then small problems take their place.  I know this is true, because I do it.

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Dear T.D. Jakes

For this week, I had to read and review The Lady, Her Lover, and Her Lord by T.D. Jakes.  As you’ll see, Dr. Acolatse said that she intended to send some of our papers to him.  So I wrote the review in the form of a letter to him.  I really hope she doesn’t actually send it.  I would have written it more positively, if I really thought there were any chance he would ever see it.

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Tuesday Reading Roundup

1. A Bit on the Side by William Trevor–A book of short stories by an English writer whom I’ve seen compared to Chekhov in several reviews.  All kinds of “best living short story writer in the English language” stuff.  A few years ago I read his novel, Death in Summer, and I have to say that it was awful.  A mystery with no suspense.  I’m really not sure how to describe what went wrong with that novel.  But I’ve complained about it to a few people, and then Mom told me that his short stories are much better.  This is a Christmas gift from her and Dad.  I own far too many unread books, and thus I work to read books that I receive as gifts.  Part of this is because it bothers me when I gift books to people (as I always do, albeit a little tempered by Holly’s helpful wisdom since we’ve been married), and then they never read them.  So, part of my gratitude for this particular gift is to read it as soon as possible.  Lovely short stories here, giving good evidence that you don’t have to have much plot in order to write something gorgeous.  Little wisps of stories and very nice reading.  Especially nice since the short story format works well with the chopped up bits of time I have to read during the semester.

2. Great Lent: The Journey to Pascha by Alexander Schmemann–Okay, so I haven’t yet begun this book.  Part of Tuesday Reading Roundup is to set the reading plan for the week ahead, and starting this book is on the agenda.  Schmemann is an incredibly well-known and well-respected Orthodox scholar.  He is especially known, at least in Protestant circles, for his work on worship and the sacraments.  Why am I reading it now?  Because Lent is not too far in the future, and I just have never gotten Lent.  Might this year be the year?

3. Mimesis by Erich AuerbachActually, I’ll only be reading the first chapter–“Odysseus’ Scar.”  This is for Introduction to Midrash.

4. Reflected Glory: The Spirit in Christ and Christians by Thomas Snail–The title probably explains as much as I could tell you about this book.  I’m reading it for Jeremy Begbie’s Spirit, Worship, and Mission class.

5. Beyond Companionship: Christians in Marriage by Diana Garland and David Garland–A book for Christian Marriage and Family Across Cultures.  All I would note is that the title is important–“Christians in Marriage” not “Christian Marriage.”  Dr. Acolatse, who is teaching the class, insists that the former is a better choice of words.  That might be a separate post sometime, as I’m not yet convinced that she’s right.

6. Perspectives on Marriage: A Reader by Kieran Scott and Michael Warren–Since mentioning this book last week, I actually did read a couple articles–a history of marriage within Judaism and Christianity as well as articles on specifically Protestant theologies of marriage (as this book seems to be Roman Catholic in perspective) as well as Jewish and Muslim understandings of marriage.  This also needs to lead to a separate post at some point on the issue of a Christian standpoint on gay marriage, one based in the history of church-state relationships with the institution of marriage, a history regarding which I at least had not been aware.

7. Nicomachean Ethics by Aristotle–As I’m finishing out this time through the work, I’m sure I shall return to it.   Incredibly rich and important, it certainly has earned its status as a classic.

8. Christians Among the Virtues by Stanley Hauerwas and Charles Pinches–You’ll see this a lot from week to week, as it tracks throughought the class I’m taking with Hauerwas this semester–Happiness, Virtue, and the Life of Friendship.

I must say that I’m finishing up this list for the week, it seems a bit daunting.  Losing last Friday to being out of town and today due to the flu is not going to help, either.