July 25, 2008 marks the 40th anniversary of one of the most eloquent and (in some circles) controversial of encyclicals, Humanae Vitae. Penned by Pope Paul VI shortly after the convocation of the Second Vatican Council, this letter examined the Church’s ongoing teaching on the purpose of marriage within the natural order of God’s design. Specifically, it upheld the dignity of both men and women, especially within the vocation of marriage, and elevated marital love to nothing less than a sacred act. I wish to reflect upon one of my favorite passages from this important document, which you may read in its entirety by clicking here:
Men rightly observe that a conjugal act imposed on one’s partner without regard to his or her condition or personal and reasonable wishes in the matter, is no true act of love, and therefore offends the moral order in its particular application to the intimate relationship of husband and wife — Humane Vitae #13.
The other day as I was watching Shadowlands, the love story of C.S. Lewis and his wife Joy Davidson, I was struck by the hospital scene in which Lewis marries Joy, who was fast losing her battle with cancer.
Sitting together on the bed, Joy promises to “love, honor, and obey…” and Lewis vows, “With this ring, I thee wed; with my body, I thee worship…”
Perhaps at no other time have I been so struck by the fact that the sacrament of matrimony in a very real way mirrors — was always intended to reflect, in fact — the union of love that is the very nature of God, as well as the love of Christ and His Bride, the Church.
At that moment in the movie, the meaning of “worship” is distilled with uncommon clarity. “With my body, I thee worship” does not mean, “I will give myself to you because it feels good.” It does not even mean, “I will make you feel as good as can, for as long as I can.”
No, it goes much deeper than that. At the moment he professed his vows, Lewis must have understood that chances were excellent that (due to his wife’s rapidly deteriorating health) they would never consummate their union. Rather, he was consigning himself to a lifetime of suffering alongside his wife, taking her burden as his own. He would take her into his home. Raise her son. And when the time came, he would entrust her back to God having loved her courageously, knowing from the start that it would likely hurt like hell.
And yet, he chose to love … knowing that love is the only thing in this world stronger than death, stronger than hell itself. And in making that choice, C.S. Lewis discovered what it was to be fully human, and learned through experience what up to that time he had known only in theory: the endlessly compassionate and inscrutible love of God. It is a love that does not spare us suffering, but walks alongside us all the way.
What Is Worship?
For many Christians, this image of worship as sacrificial self-giving too often stops at the church door. Too often “worship” is comprised of songs I like, people I want to be with (most of whom are a lot like me), and the particular spin on the Scriptures that makes me feel good (or at least doesn’t demand too much from me). To worship is to go away “feeling fed.” And if I don’t “experience God” in one church, I’ll either move on to the next church or stop going altogether.
And so they walk away from the sacraments because they don’t “feel” anything, feeding their passions rather than their souls. And the angels weep.
We see it in marriages, too. “With my body, I thee worship” is taken to mean “I’ll make you feel good as long as you appeal to me, and as long as it makes me feel good, too.” No wonder the divorce rates are so high! Women can no longer bring themselves to “submit” … and men have forgotten what it is to “worship.”
I do not say these things lightly. Right now I am struggling to know how to help a friend whose husband is clearly mentally ill. He is hurting her, and hurting their children as well. She was never far from my thoughts as I watched Shadowlands, and saw with fresh clarity the pain that is the “shadow” of love. She is suffering … just as my friend’s grieving husband is suffering. Love does not always feel good … and yet, we are called to love nevertheless. Called to give. Called to hope.
We are called to worship.