For My Brother Gregory
on the Occasion of His Marriage to Liza Lachica
by Walter Wangerin, Jr.
ALL THE BLESSINGS OF GOD, my brother, upon this thing which you and Liza are beginning! He took time and care and mercy to create no other human relationship but this one. That relationship between parent and child; or that between ruler and ruled, between neighbor and neighbor, brother and sister, or that between the co-laborers—none of these received the same creative attention as the one you and Liza are now compacting with each other. Thus the depth of his concern for it: it is holy, Greg. It is different. It bears a divinity. The consequences of its rightness or its wrongness are more profound, more blessed or hurtful to you and others than the consequences of any other relationship between people, for it shall shape you and Liza and your children in all these others.
God’s blessings, brother, on your marriage.
Your heart convinced you of this decision. You love Liza. Her heart agreed. She loves you. It is an exquisite meeting between the two, and a sweet harmony greatly to be wondered at, for this conjunction more nearly strikes the image of God than either one of you alone.
But please permit me, Greg, to caution you.
Love may begin a marriage; but love does not make a marriage. You will ride a wild sea, if you think you can build your marriage upon your love. In fact, it is exactly the other way around: your love, eventually, shall be built upon your marriage.
Well, look. If marriage depends upon love, what will you do tomorrow when you discover that Liza’s feet stink? Or when you discover that she’s got a stubborn streak well hidden during courtship which, behind stiff lips, is as silent as the tomb and puts her a thousand miles away from you, even when you’re sitting across the table from one another? Or that she pouts? What will you do with such post-connubial, bedroom revelations?
I tell you, these cold shocks can freeze a love as fast as the northern wind. And then, lacking love, what will you do? Divorce her? (I don’t mean merely legally, since divorce can be written on thin lips and in the flashing eye as well as on a legal document.) Shall marriage die when love does — expire on the closer battlefields of bathroom, kitchen and the bunker bedroom? And when love warms up again, what? Are you married again? No, Greg. Such sea-changes would cause a confusion from which the both of you would finally seek release.
But marriage should be itself the solid thing to hold an evanescent love. Marriage is the arena in which love comes, acts, goes, and comes again. Marriage is the house to hold your unpredictable hearts. Marriage, ultimately, is the soil from which a finer love — a sacrificial love—may spring and grow. Marriage itself, by your conscious decisions, is the thing, the bedrock, the reality, that which is to be trusted. And love is the blessing on that marriage.
You do not love in order to have a marriage. You have a marriage
in order, sometimes, to love.
Well, after that fusillade of opinion, dear younger brother, I’d better define the thing I’m calling “marriage” in better terms than metaphor, right? Fine.
Marriage is a common act between you, common for two reasons:
1. You both perform, independently, the self-same act. You promise your lives to one another, wholly, daily, and without end. Publicly you pronounce oaths (this though neither of you knows exactly what you’re getting in the bargain; that is discovered only in the doing).
2. You both trust absolutely the promise of the other (even though the oath has not yet truly been tested, since trust is commitment without all the facts to hand). Marriage, to be brief, is the vows of two, faithfully given, faithfully received, and binding despite both time and ignorance.
Neither whim, nor life-circumstances, nor stinky feet, nor even the sins of either of you dissolves these vows. Nor love lost. For what in fact does a vow have to do with any of these things? (Which is, of course, the whole point of a vow, something immutable in mutability!) Since death alone cancels the votary, death alone cancels the vow.
I suppose that seems almost cruelly rigid to you, Greg? It is. Houses are built of a wise rigidity. And I recognize that if this were all, it might squeeze your changing, spontaneous selves to death. For how, says all the world, can one make an everlasting promise in ignorance? And what of the hurts and the mistakes that each of you shall surely deliver the other?
Well, but there is one other essential element to your marriage which makes the house-building possible (which makes the house a living thing, not stone alone), and which shall permit you not to break under the sinful hurts, but rather to heal and grow the stronger. This is the element which ultimately plants the highest form of love in the soil of marriage. This, my dear brother Greg, you cannot do without:
That you can forgive one another the sins which shall surely come is the growth and flexibility of a rigid house. It is the one single thing in all the world which saves marriages and fosters their maturity. Even the much-vaunted “communication” is only a tool, good in a good hand, bad in a bad. Communication often magnifies a sin. Forgiveness alone puts that sin away.
You smile. You say, “Oh, we knew that. People sin, people forgive, and people go on.”
I smile. I say, “That’s only the game-plan, but half of the truth, and none of the power. Let me finish your sentences for you. People sin— infinitely. People forgive —only finitely. And given that crippled equation, people cannot go on.”
Now hear me, Greg. You can forgive Liza a little. Love’s a firecracker, all right; but it is not the sun. You alone cannot forgive her forever, nor ever to the measure that she can sin against you. You will say, with all of the men of the world, “There’s a limit!” or “I can take only so much and no more!” or “I’m tired, Liza, worn out. I quit.” And she would say the same to you. Humans die, don’t you know. Human resource is sadly quantifiable. And human relationships are no greater than the souls that feed them— may die as well.
Your marriage, then, would be doomed to a limited existence, either in its time or in its depth — except for this: that Jesus Christ forgives forever and infinitely!
I’ll say it straight. Without his resource to alpha-and-omega it, I could with my small mind span your marriage from its beginning to its end. It is Christ whom you must, each of you, draw upon. You make the marriage; but he doth heal and nourish it. His is forgiveness without end.
Therefore, Greg, for Liza’s sake, acknowledge most earnestly that for your infinite sin against Christ, Christ pours infinite forgiveness into you. (It must, first, be personal and Liza-less, this act.) That establishes the relationship of faith and makes, in you, a bottomless well of the Lord Jesus. Then turn to Liza. Christ’s forgiving you, Greg, enables you, Greg, to forgive Liza in the same measure as she needs forgiveness. And his forgiving of Liza, Greg, will make his infinitely merciful face to appear in her face for you. You will look at Liza, and behold! You will see Jesus. And then — then, for God’s sake — will you be able to believe in her word of forgiveness for your measureless sin.
Do you see, dear brother? Christ, the life of your vows, is himself the life of your marriage!
So build a house, Greg and Liza. Of the vows and of forgiveness, build a mansion for your hearts.