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.