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.

Karl Barth and Marriage

Kind of interesting to some, maybe.  Basically a summary of Karl Barth’s theology of marriage in Church Dogmatics III/4.  I post it because I wrote it.  Don’t get too excited.  I didn’t have space for spiritual monogamy within polygamy.

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Tuesday Reading Roundup

It’s here again already??  I really do want to write my loving audience something interesting, but as some of you predicted, the weight of the semester is affecting both the quality and the quantity of my updates.  Perhaps I just need lower standards.  Perhaps you’re thinking I already do have lower standards.

1. A Bit on the Side by William Trevor–Still plunking away, although I’m not actually sure that I read a page of it last week.  Tonight as I think on it, I am reminded of another amazing short story writer–John Updike.  Pay him tribute not by reading his novels (they are truly not his best work, despite what people may tell you) but by reading Pigeon Feathers, one of his earliest (if not the earliest) short story collections.

2. The Augustine Catechism: The Enchiridion on Faith, Hope, and Charity by St. Augustine–I hereby predict that this is not going to get the read or write-up it deserves.  Despite many successive weeks of good intentions, Hauerwas’ class keeps receiving less reading and writing time than it demands.  (The jury is still out on the question of how much time it deserves.)  What is cool about this book is that Augustine wrote it because a layperson asked him to.  Apparently, according to this book’s introduction, he was always really good about that.  Busy bishoping away (a job he didn’t want) and then he would give up what little free time he did have set aside for the studies he loved in order to help out normal Christians with their faith.  Name a bishop today who has the time or inclination to do that.  I hope there is one.

3. Church Dogmatics by Karl Barth–Yes, I have to have the whole thing read by Wednesday.  Seriously, I am just now taking a break from writing a paper on his theology of marriage, contained in III/4 but drawing on some of his anthropology in III/2.  Good to know that spiritual monogamy is possible within outward polygamy.  Gracias, Karlos.

I’m sorry, but that might just be it.  I guess I just had to clean up a bunch of my reading for this week yesterday.

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.