Union Differentiates

“It’s just another day, another year,” says my matter-of-fact husband. Well, no, it’s not. When my husband turns 75, I’m “only” turning 64 this month 🙂 and our marriage turns 40 (and my priesthood turns 2) within a matter of days, there is definitely reason to pause and ponder.

On December 1, 1979, we said “I do.” 40 years married. There it is — 40 years. Hard to believe. Where has the time gone? And where have the three adorable little ones gone — off to create their own families. We’re still together Jim and I, as different and as committed to love and unity as we always have been, forged in this crucible we call marriage. Difference and union, separateness and communion, make for wild, stormy seas and the happiest oases both at the same time. Tears of joy and sorrow, tears of frustration and resolution, of anger and reconciliation have watered 40 years of growing in Jim and I, yielding a reasonably healthy centered self (give or take the usual slip-ups) alongside an ever maturing capacity for loving selflessness for the sake of the other.

Strange really, this marriage stuff. Ever witnessed the ritual of the unity candle at weddings? Yes, it is a lovely ritual but it doesn’t really reflect our experience of 40 years when the ritual ends with blowing out the individual candles. In fact, it even smacks of incorrect theology. Every time I see that I have to suppress the urge to rush to the front and relight those individual candles.

Why? Because marriage does not mean that we cease to be our own person, rather the opposite. Married love is intended to create a oneness in the two-ness, yes, but never at the expense of each individual’s personal flourishing. Marital union and loving is not about dissolving one into the other, but rather to press one another into becoming more and more ourselves, to empower one another to grow to our fullest potential and stature. After 40 years of married life with Jim, I dare say that we have learnt a few things, often the hard way. Marriage has invited us to grow in both oneness and two-ness.

In the big scheme of things, ours is a relatively healthy marriage. We have been blessed with good health, not counting the aches and strains of aging creeping in now like thieves in the night. We have been spared trauma and tragedy, so far anyways. But that’s where the good fortune ends, because Jim and I are complete opposites in just about every imaginable way: in background and family history, in character and relational styles, in interests and professional occupations, not even to mention that we grew up on different continents, with different mother tongues and in different cultural contexts.

Jim’s spiritual/emotional roots go down deep in the beloved prairie soil of our family farm. I grew up living above the store of my parents with asphalt both front and back. We carry such family histories our entire lives, consciously and unconsciously. For 25 years we lived at the end of a dirt road with a gigantic garden from which Jim made his living. I worked off the farm, and needed an active social life. Jim’s home was the land and its sacred solitude. My call to ministry grew steadily over many years of Catholic and ecumenical engagement, until I moved into the Anglican tradition, and was ordained to the priesthood, while Jim has remained Roman Catholic.

We’ve spent 40 years dancing with our differences in every respect. We always agreed on the big stuff; it’s the little stuff that creates regular havoc. Jim still puts stuff in the “wrong” place, Jim still defies my second-guessing, Jim still irritates me with habits that just won’t vanish or change. Jim’s intellectual acumen is still superior to mine, and we still read vastly different books. Jim’s sense of order still equals my definition of chaos. I plan the future and look ahead, while Jim lives more fully in the present. I play endlessly with words, while Jim plays endlessly with seeds (and stamps on Sunday). And even after living with this seedy character for 40 years, I still cannot begin to match his love for the land, his commitment to gardening and his genuine wonder and curiosity about seeds. The reason we enjoy home-grown produce all year round is because Jim first lovingly tends the garden before I can preserve our winter supply of veggies. Yes I love him, and he loves me with my own myriad of quirks and irritating behaviours (darn, I just forgot to check his pockets again before washing clothes — soaked papers!!). Fortunate for us, we both like red wine and cribbage (no matter who wins). We are passionate about all things church and Jesus, we share a strong commitment to simple living, we enjoy live concerts by local talent, and we’ve brought three adorable children into the world who have turned into amazing adults.

Each time relational disaster looms, we have learnt to dig deep into our marital vows to find our unity. Thus an intricate web has woven itself slowly, painfully at times but surely, a web of honouring the other in his/her uniqueness as fully as we possibly can, and concretely supporting that uniqueness even at personal cost, while hoping that married love can hold us both. In turn this crucible grew in each of us more patience and respect than frustration and anger, grew a deeper abiding respect than rejection and hatred. But that growing is not automatic or easy and remains costly — at every turn and challenge, we need to freely choose between life and death in our relationship.

The Jesuit paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin calls this relational movement an evolutionary dance present in all living things. He discovered a fascinating paradox, i.e. that union/communion grows deeper and stronger in and through differentiation: “The more closely an entity or group is united, the more differentiated its parts become.” (Together in Christ, page 28) As couples work through the challenges and tensions in their common life, they grow an increasing emotional, spiritual, intellectual capacity for compassion and joy, forgiveness and generosity. When a couple is most fully in love, De Chardin claimed, the partners become most fully themselves. Looking to our 40 years of marriage, I can now see this as true. Even the entire universe itself displays a differentiating thrust in communion: God and the entire cosmos are about two things: differentiation (people and things becoming themselves) and communion (living in supportive coexistence). Physicists and biologists seem to know this better than theologians and clergy.  (Richard Rohr)
The whole universe story has come into being because God is a hidden treasure who longs to be known. And the way—the only way—this knowing can be released is in the dance of unity-in-differentiation which is the native language of love. (Cynthia Bourgault)

Sharing daily ups and downs with someone who’s so totally other as my own Jim the seedman, and who will always remain a mystery, has hollowed out a large space of grace in my heart and spirit where love grows despite differences. While I often fail to afford Jim the grace he deserves, I’m wondering now if growing this large space of grace has nevertheless equipped me in no small measure to embrace an ecumenical vision for the church. This vision embraces the diverse strengths and gifts of the various members in Christ’s ecclesial family, a vision that is as deep and wide and challenging as my love for Jim.

And if that is true, then the analogy of De Chardin’s evolutionary dance also applies to the diverse Christian traditions. We have come a long ways since the hostile exchanges of the 16th century. What began as reasons for parting company, have over time developed as unique strengths in each tradition, making us realize more and more that we truly need one another to embody the fullness of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Can we see our baptismal vows on par with marriage vows, bonding us to one another in the Body of Christ while bowing in reverence before the mystery that enfolds us all?  Do we have the desire and willingness to dig deep into these baptismal vows so that our differences can be held in unity by an ever-deeper abiding love and regard for one another, mirroring the communion of the Trinity itself?

But as Fyodor Dostoevsky said so poignantly: love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams. 40 years of marriage has proven the truth of these words. While we claim to love Jesus and want to be his disciples, all of us fail miserably, and often, at growing this ever deeper love. It seems easier to turn our backs on one another and to see differentiation as insurmountable division, even heresy. It seems easier to part company, to limit Eucharistic hospitality, to feed mutual distrust, and to follow Christ without meaningful engagement with “those others,” even though all of these choices betray the unity Christ won for us.

Just as the unity candle at weddings only makes sense when both individual candles remain burning, the unity of Christ’s Body on earth, the Church, shines most radiantly when each tradition lets its witness shine in concert with all others. The sum is greater than its parts. In order to know Christ, in order to witness to God’s love in our fragmented and hurting world, we do best by uniting our lights into one flame, fed by the flames of our varying traditions.

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While historic barriers between churches are slowly dissolving, healing even, new ones are emerging to the detriment of our common Gospel witness. There is no shortage of conflict and dispute in our diverse church family as there is in most marriages. Yet each painful crisis continues to come with the same choice: grow deeper in love or part ways. Which will it be today?