The significant role that mystery plays in marriage.
Today is mine & Analee’s 4 year wedding anniversary. It’s been an incredible start, full of all kinds of life. She is certainly one of the brighter choices I’ve made. So, in honor of beginning year 5 and all the development it promises, I wanted to share a recent conversation with a good friend, Jonathan Jackson.
Jono is an actor (Avery on Nashville), musician & songwriter, writer, poet, husband, father, and a close friend. He also happens to be an Orthodox Christian with some refreshing perspective on life – all of which I often pull from him over a cigar.
Here’s the context. Today, we tend to bring a destination mentality into marriage. We fall ‘in love’ while dating and then celebrate our arrival into this love on our wedding day. Unfortunately, our marital life then becomes little more than trying to maintain this state, doing everything we can to not ‘fall out of’ this love.
I think this destination mentality kills marriages. And in attempt to change my own mind and see love with my wife as a journey of continual exploration, I landed in a conversation with Jono about the Orthodox belief of “Apophatic” theology.
(For those less interested in theology or details, read the bold text only)
Jono, you’ve mentioned how healthy it is to never think you FULLY know someone and/or to keep a level of mystery in any relationship. Does this thread of thought come from anywhere in particular?
It does, but I’ll have to give you a quick history lesson to explain.
Over the centuries and particularly after the Great Schism in 1054, Western Christianity became more and more scholastic in nature. It embraced systematic theology and rationalism and slowly but dramatically wandered away from what many call ‘the mystery of faith.’ The Orthodox Church (historically identified as Eastern Christianity), on the other hand, maintained the theology of the early Church and more specifically, one of it’s main foundations known as ‘Apophatic Theology.’
This essentially means that man cannot ever fully know God and especially not through rationalism or abstract study alone. But by humbly professing what we cannot know about God, it places the human heart in an atmosphere capable of encountering God experientially, as opposed to intellectually or theoretically. In essence, man and woman will spend eternity growing closer to God, but never exhausting the mystery.
So, does this belief that we can never fully know God have any relevance in relation to another human, or more specifically, to our spouse?
Of course. Every human is created in the image of God. The mystery of God is within each one of us.
The Kingdom of heaven is within you. | Luke 17
To them God has chosen to make known among the Gentiles the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. | Colossians 1
For you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God. | Colossians 3
For the Spirit searches all things, even the depths of God. For who among men knows the thoughts of a man except the spirit of the man which is in him? Even so the thoughts of God no one knows except the Spirit of God. | 1 Corinthians 1
Orthodox thought supports that the fullness of another person’s identity is a secret between them and God. This means that no matter how close I get to someone—I will still only “see through a glass, darkly.” In the Book of Revelation we read that Christ will give each person a white stone with a secret name written on it, which only the recipient and God can know. This reveals the intimacy each person possesses with God. It is an intimacy that someone on the outside can only partially know.
More so, in order for marriage to truly reflect the Kingdom of Heaven, it must be infused with this mystery. Salvation, in Orthodox theology, is an ongoing participation in the divine nature. We do not arrive—we continue. In the same way, becoming one in marriage is an ongoing journey marked by one of the strongest ingredients of an eternal romance - mystery.
So, how does this play out practically in your marriage?
Mostly, it keeps romance alive and my pride in check. When I begin to think I’ve got her pegged and I can predict her answers or thought process, I step back and remember the mystery of this woman. Her life is hidden in Christ and even though we are becoming one, there is an inexhaustible mystery to her being.
Also, people are constantly changing and growing. Rather than fearing this, the Orthodox Church teaches us to embrace growth and transformation. This helps me embrace the mystery of myself as well. Only God fully knows me. Repentance means that I am letting go of my illusions about myself—and embracing the image and likeness of Christ within me. It helps me receive grace for myself, which in turn helps me give grace to my beautiful wife.
What would you say to a psychologist that thinks that complete emotional intimacy or “fully knowing” your spouse is of utmost importance to a healthy & long lasting marriage? Does this conflict with a relational-apophatic-theory?
Yes and no. If Christ and the mystery of the “other” are not present then complete emotional intimacy becomes a kind of idolatry and leads to death—this is the suicide of Romeo and Juliet. It is a counterfeit image of love, romance and marriage; where the bride and groom seek salvation through each other alone (through eros alone) and end up annihilating themselves. When the married couple embraces Christ (Trinitarian Agape Love) they enter into eternal life and romance. Christ is the substance and the fullness of their love. Therefore, their love cannot be exhausted because it is in Christ. A husband and wife in Christ will grow miraculously close to each other—but this intimacy will remain pure and mysterious because Christ is the substance and the reality of their union.
I know for me, this mystery Jono points at makes the journey of marriage practical. It’s not as much about new tactics to keep things fresh (though they can be important), as it is about changing my mindset towards my wife and my marriage. Analee and I are in a long and beautiful process of learning each another, becoming one and developing true love. This in itself, has a way of invalidating any sense of stagnation or monotony that can be easy to feel in marriage.
So, whether we’re 4 years in, 20 years in, or haven’t started yet, let’s change our minds about love. It’s not something we arrive at and spend our marriages maintaining. As Jono alludes, it’s a journey marked by mystery and the continual intention to learn one another.