Marriage is a universal characteristic of human culture. In fact, as soon as the difference between the sexes came into existence (Gen. 2:21-23), the “one flesh” union of their coming back together is already in view (Gen. 2:24). This is not to say that every human person should be married in the earthly sense, but that there is an archetypal aspect to marriage which goes to the heart of what it means to be a human person.
Earthly marriage is an icon of perfect spiritual union – of the ultimate eschatological marriage of Christ the Bridegroom and his Bride, the Church; of the final reunion of all things in Christ. In other words, marriage in its ultimate reality – in the fullest and most real eschatological sense – is the same as mystical theology, the highest level of the spiritual life.Earthly marriage is an icon of perfect spiritual union Click To Tweet
St Maximos the Confessor and many other Fathers describe three levels in the spiritual life: practical philosophy or purification of the heart, natural theoria or illumination of the nous, and mystical theology or communion with God through theoria. We can also think of these levels as the physical level of bodily purification, the psychological level of the illumination of thought and reason, and the spiritual level of direct knowing through mystical union.
These are not sequential steps; the higher levels depend on the lower just as the lower lead on towards the higher, and the top level is defined by marriage: it is about union, communion, true knowledge of another, and sacrificial love. There is a reason why from the very creation of man, the scriptures speak of marriage, that Christ mentions this teaching, that he is the Bridegroom, that the Theotokos is the unwedded Bride, that the culmination of the Scriptures is the Marriage Feast of the Lamb. Marriage is at the centre of our earthly life because it is a symbol of our heavenly life.
Marriage is on the highest level, but this level includes the other two levels as they refer back to it: marriage incorporates chastity of the body and chastity of the mind; marriage incorporates acting in love for my spouse and loving my spouse in my thoughts; marriage incorporates offering my body and my mind to my spouse in love. Lust has no more place in marriage than it does in monasticism: lust objectifies the other and thereby excludes true communion, working against the ecstasy which is the going out of myself as I give up myself in love for the other. Thus in the fullness of the communion of marriage, chastity is fulfilled in purity – just as in the fullness of the purity of monasticism, love is fulfilled in communion.
Why is marriage suffering so much in our own time? Why so many attacks from so many quarters – all because of our own sin? Because this is the level of the spiritual life that we have almost completely lost. We understand about doing. We understand about thinking. But we do not understand communion. In our understanding, communion really has been devalued from the true mystery of unitive love into something that is just a representation – that is, just thinking about or knowing something.
It’s no good blaming Protestants for this – we all do it: it’s deep in our culture. How do we define ourselves? How do we define others? We ask them what they ‘do’. Who am I? I’m a student. I’m a writer. I’m a man. I’m 35 years old… Where should I start? I’m a creature of God. I’m a husband. I’m a father. Who am I? My identity is that I am one who is known by God and who knows God. In pure prayer, Elder Sophrony tells us, my identity is “outside all earthly categories” – it is in pure prayer in Christ that there is neither slave nor free, Jew nor Greek, male nor female .
If my identity as my work, my nationality and even my sex is taken away , then who am I? I am one who is known by God and who knows God. And what does it mean to know and be known? It means to love and be loved.
There is no true knowledge without love, no real truth without love – only facts , only looking at the outside from the outside. True knowledge requires love: marriage is a union whereby two individuals become one flesh – two persons joined together, facing one another for all eternity. The communion comes through facing each other, loving each other, sacrificing for each other, coming to know each other (not just know about each other, not just do things for each other – though those are included as the lower two levels of the table are always included in the top level, and are only really true insofar as they refer to it).There is no true knowledge without love Click To Tweet
Communion is the mystery of the Church – it is how we become a member of the body of Christ. Communion is the mystery of eschatological re-creation, when all the divisions of creation are overcome through the communion of persons. Communion is when persons and things that are truly and essentially distinct are brought together into union – a true diversity is necessary before union is possible. Communion is the highest level – it is union in love with Christ, it is participation in Christ himself, it is becoming one with God.
Earthly marriage is a symbol of this communion (and the physical love shared in marriage is in turn a symbol of the marriage, and the blessing of a child that may come from this is the very embodiment of the love). The man and the woman are joined together just as Christ and the Church are joined together so closely that we can call the Church the Body of Christ, so close that St Athanasius can describe the resurrection of Christ in terms of the Church alive in the world after the crucifixion. When we are crowned as a married man and woman together, our marriage becomes a symbol of eternity – the eternity of love and communion between God and his creation. I come to know myself through you, my wife or husband. This knowing is taken up in eternity into the all-encompassing communion with God in Christ when Christ is all in all.
And this communion of which marriage is a symbol is not just for those who receive the mystery of earthly marriage. Earthly marriage is not the only symbol of this communion. Every mystery of the Church is a symbol of this communion, every aspect of prayer and of living life in Christ is a symbol of this communion. Christ really is in the midst of us when we gather in communion, be it only two or three of us. Christ really is there when we feed the hungry, visit the sick and so on. Christ really is there when we obey his commandments in love for him and through the power of his love for us.