Prologuean aerial parable
There are three things that are too
amazing for me,
four that I do not understand:
the way of an eagle in the sky,
the way of a snake on a rock,
the way of a ship on the high seas,
and the way of a man with a maiden."
The week of our honeymoon, my wife and I stopped one afternoon
at a Trappist monastery. It was a hot summer day, the air
bright and still, and the sky a deep, dusty blue. Nothing moved.
There wasn't a monk in sight. We got out of our car and strolled
hand in hand toward the monastery, and soon we emerged from
the hot blue brightness of the day into the cool silent chapel, where
there was a brightness of a different kind, and an interior stillness
too, that was quite different from the stillness outside. Our hands
fell apart, and a feeling of awkwardness crept over me, an embarrassment.
I suppose I was wondering what God really thought of
this marriage of mine.
We knelt to pray. The stillness clamored, echoed all over the
building like shouts. It was reflecting my heart, echoing back to
me my own confusion. All the questions and doubts from the time
of our engagement came rushing back. What was it all about, this
marriage? And was it for real now? How could I have gone through
with it? Was it really too late to back out? Who was this woman
anyway? Couldn't I just stay here and become a monk? The silence
of the chapel beat like wings all around us but offered not one particle
On the way out we met the guestmaster, a man who knew me.
I introduced my new wife to him and felt ashamed. Certainly it
would be all too clear to him, I thought, what a terrible mistake I
had made. We exchanged pleasantries, then turned to go, and as
we drove out the long, treed lane that leads away from that beautiful
place, I felt about as hopelessly trapped and as irredeemably
desolate as I have ever felt in my life.
At the end of the lane we came to the main road, where the
trees stopped and fields of ripe, blond wheat opened out in front
of us and stretched away to meet the blue distance. And now
another kind of stillness had descended upon us; not the stillness
of this great shining day nor the stillness of the little chapel, but a
new stillness, an eerie and agonizing stillness between my wife and
me, the loudest stillness of all.
Suddenly she pointed to a tiny dark dot above the wheat, far
away, but moving, coming this way. We watched, and soon realized
that there was a second dot as well, and that the two dots were
circling around each other. Occasionally they appeared to intersect,
only to come apart again.
"Hawks," said my wife.
"Yes, hawks," I said.
The pair were still very high up, but as they drew closer to us,
they began to descend in great lazy swoops down the blue invisible
banisters of the air. It looked as if they were coming down especially
for the purpose of putting on a show for us. I parked the car, and
we got out to watch. They were quite plain now. The sunlight
spilled soft auras around their splayed forms. We could see frayed
feathers, translucent at the tips. Not once did either bird move a
wing muscle. They held themselves perfectly steady, taut yet
relaxed, angling against the air and gliding as if they were a part of
it, just two molecules of the empty air made visible, turning in
slow and beautiful spirals that meshed together and then away like
gears, like a pair of ice skaters. One turned clockwise and the other
counter, and gyring down and down they seemed to form the vortex
of the day's stillness.
The longer we watched the clearer it became that these hawks
were doing absolutely nothing of any practical import: They were
not hunting, for example, or looking for anything, or going anywhere.
They were simply playing. They were enjoying the warm
blueness of the day, the strength and skill in their wings, the fun of
flying, and (perhaps most of all) the fun of each other. I do not know
much about hawks, but what struck me at the time, curiously, was
that I could not recall having ever seen two hawks together.
Whenever I had seen a hawk before, I thought, hadn't it always been
alone? So there was something in this soaring dance of the pair of
them, with a whole sky all to themselves, that spoke directly to me,
not just of play and freedom on a summer's day, but of the shining
beauty of love, the pure ease and joy of companionship.
We watched this stunning aerial parable for a long time, my
wife and I, and when eventually the great birds turned again into
tiny dots in the golden blue distance and we climbed back into our
car, there was yet another kind of stillness that descended upon us:
the stillness of perfect understanding.
This book grew out of that experience of the two hawks playing in
the wide-open summer sky outside the Trappist monastery on our
honeymoon. It grew, in other words, out of a deeply rooted conflict
in myself, the conflict between a yearning for solitude and a
yearning for companionship, and out of the beginnings of the resolution
of that conflict. It grew out of the slow and gentle
demolishing of a misconception I had had about the married life,
and I suppose about life and love in general: For I had never seen
the great blue sky of freedom against which marriage, and indeed
all relationships, are played out. As a single Christian I had come
to think of myself, rather pompously, as being celibate, when the
truth of the matter was that I was just a hard-bitten bachelor, who
had never considered that in getting married one espouses not an
institution but a person, not a narrowness but an unimaginable
breadth of possibility. For a person is the single most limitless
entity in creation, and if there is anything that is even more unlimited
and unrestrained in its possibilities than is a person, it is two
Not everyone is as fond of solitude as I have been. And certainly
not everyone has seriously entertained the notion of entering
the cloister, only to find himself falling in love and getting married
instead. But that is how marriage came to me. And marriage
comes to everyone, I think, with something of the same surprise,
the same reversal of fortunes, the same searching exposure of deepseated
conflict. Not only that, but whatever a person's
temperament or circumstances might be, it seems to me that the
conflict which marriage uncovers is always essentially this same
one: It is always some version of this tension between the needs for
dependence and for independence, between the urge toward loving
cooperation and the opposite urge toward detachment,
privacy, self-sufficiency. Even to people who have dreamed for
years about getting married and who think of themselves as hating
to be alone, marriage still cannot help but come as an invasion of
privacy. No one has ever been married without being surprised,
and usually alarmed, at the sheer intensity of this invasion.
So I was alarmed. From the moment I met my wife, I sensed
that a process of interior disintegration was beginning to work in
me, systematically, insidiously. In other ways, of course, I was
being rejuvenated, tremendously built up. But a thirty-year-old
man is like a densely populated city: Nothing new can be built, in
its heart, without something else being torn down. So I began to
be demolished. There were many times when I felt quite seriously
that everything my life had stood for was being challenged, or that
somehow I had been tricked into selling my very soul for the sake
of a woman's love! So there was a lot at stake as the wedding day
approached: In fact, there was everything at stake. Never before
had I felt that so much was riding upon one single decision. Later
I would discover, very gradually, that that is one of the chief characteristics
of love: It asks for everything. Not just for a little bit, or
a whole lot, but for everything. And unless one is challenged to
give everything, one is not really in love.
But how hard it is to give everything! Indeed, it is impossible.
One can make a symbolic gesture of giving all, accompanied by a
grand dramatic public statement to that effect (which is what happens
at the wedding ceremony). But that is just a start. The
wedding is merely the beginning of a lifelong process of handing
over absolutely everything, and not simply everything that one
owns but everything that one is.
There is no one who is not broken by this process. It is excruciating
and inexorable, and no one can stand up to it. Everyone
gets broken on the wheel of love, and the breaking that takes place
is like nothing else under the sun. It is not like the breaking that
happens in bankruptcy or in a crop failure or in the loss of a job
or the collapse of a lifetime's work. It is not even like the breaking
that takes place in a body wracked by a painful disease. For in marriage
the breaking that is done is done by the very heel of love
itself. It is not physical pain or natural disaster or the terrible evil
world that is to blame, but rather it is love, love itself that breaks
us. And that is the hardest thing of all to take. For in the wrestling
ring of this life, it is love that is our solar plexus. That is where
things really hurt. There is no hurt like the hurt that happens in
the place where we love. And when anything at all goes wrong in
a marriage, that is the place to be affected. That is the vulnerable
place in all human relationships. What is on the line, always, with
every person we meet, is our capacity to love and to be loved. But
whereas in most other relationships our vulnerability in this
respect can be hidden, more or less (and how expert we are at hiding
it!), in the relationship of marriage it is this very quality of
vulnerability that is exposed, exalted, exploited. And this is the
thing that can prove to be too much for people, too much to
handle. Many give up and run away, their entire lives collapsing in
ruins. But even those who hang on face inevitable ruin, for they
must be broken too.
There is an important difference, however, between those who
hang on and those who run away, between the marriages that last
and are good, and the ones that either break up or else drag on in
a state of unresolved tension and neurosis. Both must endure ruin,
but the difference lies in the place in which this ruin is experienced.
For in those who run away from the intense fire of marriage, the
ruin happens in the place in them that is love, and this place, this
glorious and mysterious and delicate capacity in them, really does
receive a terrible wound, sometimes enough to impair it for life.
But in the case of those who hang on to love and who see it
through to its mortal finish, the ruin that occurs, the internal
debacle, is not in the place of love (although it may often seem to
be happening there), but rather in the place, in the palace, of the
ego. And that makes all the difference in the world. It is one thing
to wreck the ego. But it is quite another, and indeed the very opposite,
to make shipwreck of the soul.
* * *
One of the hardest things in marriage is the feeling of being
watched. It is the constant surveillance that can get to one, that can
wear one down like a bright light shining in the eyes, and that
leads inevitably to the crumbling of all defenses, all facades, all the
customary shams and masquerades of the personality. Does this
make marriage sound like some ordeal of brainwashing? But actually
that is very much the sort of effect it has, with the single
exception that the one doing the brainwashing, the one holding
the bright light, is not some ruthless prosecutor or torturer, but
love. It is love that pins us to the wall and makes us answer, and
makes us keep on answering until the answer that comes out is the
one that love wants to hear.
So it can be hard to be watched, to have one's whole life put
under surveillance, and for the person who does not want to be
spied upon, it makes scant difference whether the watcher be love
or something more sinister. What is hard is the watchfulness. For
we are opaque, solid creatures; we resist being transparent. And yet
that is what love asks for: transparency.
Matrimony, then, through this devastating strategy of watching,
launches a fierce and unrelenting attack upon the fortress of
the ego, upon that place in a person that craves privacy, independence,
self-sufficiency, lack of interference. Nevertheless, for the
couple able to withstand this assault and who mature together in
love, there is a great surprise in store, for there is a gradual discovery
that marriage at its best possesses an uncanny power for deeply
gratifying this very ego, this peculiar separateness of each person,
even as it chastens it. Marriage, in other words, turns out to be the
best of two worlds, satisfying all of the needs relating to separateness
and solitude, together with those of companionship. Think
what it is like, for example, to be alone with one's beloved, to be
silent and still and enthralled, with no other purpose than that of
being together, being alone with love. It is, oddly enough, an experience
of being neither alone nor not-alone, but rather about
midway between the two, and somehow involving the very best of
both experiences. It means that one can totally relax, but with a
relaxation that nevertheless has an edge to it, for there is always the
awareness that one is being watched. And yet, being watched by
one who loves is not like being watched by anyone else on earth!
No, to be loved as one is being watched is like one thing only: It
is like the watchfulness of the Lord God Himself, the sense that the
believer has of living out his life in the invisible presence of the living
God, and of being so loved that it is as if an aura or halo had
already been conferred upon him, a spiritual electricity that surrounds
and fills all of his words and actions, for suddenly all that
he is and does is not only accepted and respected, but marveled at.
More than just being appreciated, he is treated as being awesome,
beautiful. He is cherished.
Under such treatment, of course, a person is given the opportunity
of opening like a flower and becoming perfectly natural,
perfectly himself. And yet this true self of his turns out, surprisingly,
to be someone he himself has never met before, someone just
mysteriously different enough from the real self he thought he was
that it can only be described, finally, as someone entirely new. Or
someone who has been there all along, perhaps, but who has
finally become self-confident enough, through the grace of love, to
step out of the shadows. For that is what love does: It brings people
out into the light, no matter how painful that transition might
prove to be. Love aims at revelation, at a clarifying and defining of
our true natures. It is a sort of sharpening process, a paring away
of dull and lifeless exteriors so that the keen new edge of a person's
true self can begin to flash and gleam in the light of day.
A diamond cannot be cut with a tin saw, and neither can a
hawk fly with a butterfly. A person, to grow keen and shining and
real, needs love, which is to say, needs another person: "As iron
sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another" (Proverbs 27:17).
And sharpening is a painful process: Extract the pain from love,
and there is nothing left.
When I saw those two hawks, therefore, I took them as a sign, as
a sign of God's pleasure in my marriage, and as His promise that
above and beyond the hurt, the uncertainty, the growing pains of
the sharpening process, showers of crystal fiery sparks were flying
up into the blue roof of heaven. It was not just hawks that were flying,
but angels that were dancing on account of my marriage, and
any yearning I might have had to be in a monastery (besides being
ludicrously unrealistic by that point) was nothing less than a temptation
from the devil. Those two hawks were a confirmation that,
for me at least, no worship could be more pleasing or acceptable
to God than the worship of marital love, of two lives being played
out against one another in a covenant of loving cooperation. What
happened to me that summer's day was one of those gentle eruptions
of grace that the Lord sends so quietly, so nonchalantly, so
playfully into our lives, but which has the power to explode our
inhumanities in our faces and to set within us a clean, new heart.
Never again would I have excuse to give in to those crippling and
agonizing doubts as to whether God had called me to be married,
or whether He had called me to be married to this particular