Magazine article The Christian Century

The Mystery of Marriage: Secrets of Joined Lives

Magazine article The Christian Century

The Mystery of Marriage: Secrets of Joined Lives

Article excerpt

ALL THE WORLD'S SORROWS descend upon the souls of the Lamed Vovniks, the 36 righteous ones, says an old Jewish legend. Before they get that far, a goodly share of all those griefs, regrets, and torments begin as love stories whose players have somehow lost their way, and confessors of every kind receive them as broken shards of narrative poured out in search of meaning, mercy, or absolution. Healing comes through the graces of time and unburdening, but even as a child growing up in a pastor's home I sensed that many of those tangled stories never went away. They lived in the memory and in the prayers and behind the preoccupied gaze of one who knew and kept the community's secrets.

Rarely did my siblings or I ever learn the specifics of any but the most public stories that silently haunted my childhood home. Once, however, long after my parents had retired, I happened to be with them when they received a letter from someone in a congregation they had served many years earlier. Mom read the note and handed it to Dad without comment. After a few moments he looked up, met Mom's eyes, and said quietly, "Thank God that's over." Both seemed near tears.

Later that day I heard a story that has haunted me ever since, partly because my parents censored out the names, so it could have explained the lives of any number of people I thought I knew but really did not. A young man had gone off to fight in World War II and then returned to the girlfriend who had written him frequently all through that dark time. They took up where they had left off, but the reunion didn't last. The man who survived the war wasn't the same one who had left his youth behind to become a warrior. He ended the relationship and a short time later took up with another young woman in town. Very soon those two planned to marry.

"I am pregnant," said the woman who had waited so faithfully for the soldier who jilted her. The man "did the right thing," as folks said then. He broke his engagement and married the old girlfriend. After a short time, it became obvious she carried no child. She admitted her desperate lie.

From that day on, the two of them never again slept in the same room, although they remained married for more than 50 years. Divorce was only a whispered word back then, something too shameful to discuss, much less perpetrate. So they lived in the same house like estranged sib lings, while everyone else in town saw them as generous pillars of the community, unusual only because they remained childless.

The husband made occasional, tearful visits to the pastor's office, in which he confided, among other things, the weekly heartbreak of watching the woman he'd wanted to marry and still loved walk up the aisle in church with her husband and children, every time thinking, "That should be me by her side."

Neither my heart nor my mind can fathom the depth and expanse of loneliness and heartache in this story that ended, at least in some ways, with the note that announced that strangely faithful husband's death. Nor can I ponder that eerie narrative without comparing it to the story of another childless couple whose nearly 70-year marriage ended on my watch during the brief time I spent in ministry before becoming an academic.

They were 16 and 18 when they'd married in 1902, and they'd spent their lives eking out a living, sometimes just barely, on a small farm outside the city. They no longer came to church because neither could see well enough to keep a driver's license. They had little savings and no pension, so they still raised a few pigs, working that tiny farm as best they could with their wizened old bodies, and every month, without fail, they mailed a small contribution to the church.

One morning in the year I arrived, the wife didn't wake up at her usual time. The husband tried to rouse her, but her body was cold. This pair had outlived all their kinfolk and the few friends they'd made over the years, so only a handful attended the funeral a few days later. …

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