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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 of consolation.
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 people together.
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 woman.
Excerpted from The mystery of marriage by mike mason Copyright © 2005 by Mike Mason. Excerpted by permission.
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