Why Marriage Isn’t the Culmination of Love
What does it take to sustain a happy and successful relationship or marriage?
On July 5, 1997, high in a mountain meadow above Telluride, Colorado, my oldest daughter, Gwen Bourgeault, and Rod Rehnborg exchanged their marriage vows. I was honored when they asked me to be their wedding preacher and even more honored when the words I spoke seemed to move many people gathered there that day. The talk was later published as the epilogue to my book, Love Is Stronger than Death. We are reprinting it here in goop because it seems so appropriate to the question under discussion. And Happy 12th Anniversary, Gwen and Rod!
A Wedding Sermon
It is a privilege to have two roles at this wedding: Mother of the bride and wedding preacher.
It’s easy to look at marriage as the culmination of love the end point of the journey that begins with “falling in love.” But as all of you who have ever been married know, and as you yourselves, Gwen and Rod, are beginning to discover—marriage is not the culmination of love, but only the beginning.
Love remains and deepens, but its form changes. Or, more accurately, it renews itself in a different way. Less and less does it draw its water from the old springs of romance, and you should not worry if over time these dimensions fade or are seen less frequently. More and more, love draws its replenishment from love itself: From the practice of conscious love, expressed in your mutual servant-hood to one another.
In making these vows of marriage, you become disciples on the path of love. It is a powerful spiritual path and if you live it and practice it well, it will transform your lives and through its power in your own lives will reach out to touch the world. What you really do today is put your own selves—your hopes and fears, irritations and shadows, your intimate jostling up against each other—and become the friction that polishes you both to pure diamonds.
But how to stay in touch with that power? At those times when stress mounts and romance seems far away, how do you practice that conscious love that will renew itself and renew your relationship? After all, if you are disciples, there must be a discipline….
Here is the one that works for me. And while its particularly appropriate for married couples, it can be practiced by all of you, in all circumstances of your lives, if you wish to deepen your own practice of conscious love.
It’s contained in one sentence—four little phrases—in that great hymn of love so often read at weddings, I Corinthians 13:
“Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”
If you understand and recognize what each of these four phrases means and entails, you will be able to practice conscious love in all circumstances of your life.
“Love bears all things…” But this does not mean a dreary sort of “putting up with” or victimization. There are two meanings of the word bear, and they both apply. The first means “to hold up, to sustain”—like a bearing wall, which carries the weight of the house. Love “holds up and sustains.” You might say this is its masculine meaning. Its feminine meaning is this: to bear means “to give birth, to be fruitful.” So love is that which in any situation is the most life-giving and fruitful.
“Love believes all things…” This is the most difficult of the four instructions to understand. I know a very devout Christian lady back in Maine whose husband was philandering and everyone on the island knew it, but she refused to see it because “love believes all things.” But this is not what the words mean. “To believe all things” does not mean to be gullible, to refuse to face up to the truth. Rather, it means that in every possible circumstance of life, there is a higher and lower way of perceiving and acting. There is a way of perceiving that leads to cynicism and divisiveness, a closing off of possibility; and there is a way that leads to higher faith and love, to a higher and more fruitful outcome. To “believe all things” means always orient yourselves toward the highest possible outcome in any situation and strive for its actualization.
“Love hopes all things…” Generally, we think of hope as related to outcome; it is a happy feeling that comes from achieving the desired outcome, as in, “I hope I win the lottery.” But in the practice of conscious love you begin to discover a different kind of hope, a hope that is related not to outcome but to a wellspring…a source of strength, which wells up from deep within you, independent of all outcomes. It is the kind of hope that the prophet Habakkuk speaks of when he says, “Though the fig tree does not blossom and the vines bear no fruit, yet I will rejoice in the Lord.” It is a hope that can never be taken away from you because it is love itself working in you, conferring the strength to stay present to that “highest possible outcome” that can be believed and aspired to.
Finally, “Love endures all things.” But there is only one way to endure. Everything that is tough and brittle shatters; everything that is cynical rots. The only way to endure is to forgive, over and over; to give back that openness and possibility for new beginning, which is the very essence of love itself. And in such a way love comes full circle and can fully “sustain and make fruitful,” and the cycle begins again, at a deeper place. And conscious love deepens and becomes more and more rooted in your marriage.
It is not an easy path. But if you practice it faithfully and well, as disciples of love itself, the love which first brought you together will gradually knit you together in that one abler soul, which from all along, even before you were formed in the womb, God has been calling you to become: true man and wife.
– Cynthia Bourgeault is an Episcopal priest, writer and retreat leader. She is founding director of the Aspen Wisdom School in Colorado and principal visiting teacher for the Contemplative Society in Victoria, BC, Canada.