A Heart of Reverence

Watching Shadowlands with my husband one evening, I was struck by a line in the marriage vows of C.S. Lewis and American poet Joy Davidman: “With my body, I thee worship.” It was the declaration of a man and woman, before God, binding themselves together for life.

shadowlands.jpgIf this movie had been pure fiction, in one sense the marriage between this “confirmed old bachelor” and the divorced, critically ill expatriate would seem a bit… convenient. She had young children (only Douglas is mentioned in the movie), and her body was riddled with cancer. For Joy, returning to the States was not an option. But life is often stranger than fiction, and anyone familiar with the writings of Lewis, including both Surprised by Joy and A Grief Observed, can see that this was no “marriage of convenience,” but a true joining of hearts. In the latter work, Lewis observed:

One thing marriage has done for me. I can never again believe that religion is manufactured out of our unconscious, starved desires and is a substitute for sex. For those few years [Joy] and I feasted on love, every mode of it — solemn and merry, romantic and realistic, sometimes as dramatic as a thunderstorm, sometimes as comfortable and unemphatic as putting on your soft slippers. No cranny of heart or body remained unsatisfied. If God were a substitute for love, we ought to have lost all interest in Him… We both knew we wanted something besides one another — quite a different kind of something, a quite different kind of want. You might as well say that when lovers have one another they will never want to read, or eat — or breathe.

Tending to Our Soulish Needs

Though he helped to pave the way for some of the rest of us (myself included), C.S. Lewis never made the final leap “home to Rome”. And yet, this quote — an eloquent tribute to the spiritual intimacy God wants with us — speaks to the heart of the sacramental life, which is also reflected in the second reading from this past week (Philippians 2:1-5):

“…complete my joy by being of the same mind, with the same love, united in heart, thinking one thing. Do nothing out of selfishness or out of vainglory; rather, humbly regard others as more important than yourselves, each looking out not for his own interests, but also for those of others. Have in you the same attitude that is also in Christ Jesus…”

This passage goes on to describe all the things Christ did on our behalf — physical manifestations of a divine love so complete, so overwhelming that it conquered death itself. Not a 50-50 kind of love, not a “keeping up with the Joneses” enterprise. This ultimate self-sacrifice was born of perfect love and calls for a response of equally momentous proportions, a response of true humility and reverence, and of total self-giving, body and soul.

When we approach Our Lord at Mass, especially in the Eucharist, we feast on love with all the gratitude of one who does indeed (in the words of St. Paul) “regard others as more important,” and yet who (in the words of Lewis) wants “something besides one another.” Only when both these conditions are met can our souls be satisfied.

It can be difficult to strike a balance. When we judge harshly the actions and motives of those around us, we fail to tend to our own souls with humility. By the same token, if our choices about where and even whether to worship are determined solely by the “feelings” our surroundings engender, we cannot hear the still, small voice of God. We may kneel deeply, or bow profoundly. But reverent we are not.

As in a good marriage, reverent worship is an exterior expression of an interior commitment, a desire to know and be known — in another word, intimacy. When we approach Our Lord in the Eucharist in this way, “with the same love, united in heart … humbly regarding others as more important,” even the hungriest soul may be satisfied.

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  • Bruce Roeder

    “With my body, I thee worship.”


    Is that an accurate translation of the vows of Holy Matrimony?

    Having just completed teachng RCIA classs on the Communion of Saints and Mary, I am quite sensitive to the misunderstanding of the distinction between praying (petitioning in earnest) and worshipping.

    Is not God alone worthy of worship?

  • gk

    – not God alone worhty of worship?”

    Yes. But, we are made in the image of God and as C.S.L. and his bride showed … they were looking for something more. The intense thing about the vow is saying “thee”. That is another. Someone outside of myself. And the other intense thing is “thee” is also God himself. In marriage, are we not called to worship God through love of our spouse? I love my wife and come closer to God if I love properly. Love God with our whole heart, mind and soul and our neighbors as self. Is this not manifiested most clearly in the love of our spouse. As long as we do not truly “worship” our spouse as an end in his/her self.

  • Loretta

    Yes – only God is to be worshipped.
    Therefore, what does, “With my body, I thee worship” truly mean?
    That each spouse worships God through the other – body and soul.
    Marriage is the greated image of our relationship with God that we have this side of the veil.
    A husband is not to worship his wife. A husband is to worship Christ through his wife. Our communion with God and with others is so great and so true that the above statement is as it ought to be.

    How else can you explain Christ telling Saul, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute ME?” He is so identified with the members of his body that what you do to them, you truly do to him.

  • Catherine

    Dear Mrs. Saxton
    I am puzzled as to why this particular couple (non-Catholic and one of the two is divorced) is held up as a kind of exemplary marriage in a Catholic web-site. And I have some doubts that ‘with my body I thee worship’ would ever be allowed as a marriage vow in a Catholic wedding ceremony. I believe that ‘worship’ is reserved only for the Lord. We do not even ‘worship’ the Blessed Virgin. Although I think I understand what you wanted to say about the measure of compelling commitment, there are many compelling holy couples among the saints whom the Church presents to us as models for us to regard, as examples to follow.

  • The vow is from the “Book of Common Prayer” — of course Lewis was Anglican, so this is understandable. I found this explanation from a commentary dated 1675:

    “The Jews anciently used the same phrase [Godwin Jew. Customs.] Be unto me a wife, and I according to the word of God, will worship, honour and maintain thee, according to the manner of husbands amongst the Iews, who worship, honour and maintain their wives. And that no man quarrel at this harmless phrase, let him take notice, that to worship here signifies, to make worshipful or honourable, as you may see, 1 Sam. 2. 30. For where our last Translation reads it, Him that honours me, I will honour; in the old Translation, which our Common-Prayer book uses, it is, Him that worships me, I will worship; that is, I will make worshipful, for that way only can God be said to worship man.”


    The sacrament of matrimony has always been understood to be a sign of the marriage between Christ and His Church. In “The Church at Prayer” (Martimort, 206), we read, “To reveal the plan of your love, you made the union of husband and wife an image of the covenant between you and your people. In the fulfillment of this sacrament, the marriage of Christian man and woman is a sign of the marriage between Christ and the Church” (Rite of Marriage, no 120).

    And from “Gaudium et spes,”

    “Authentic married love is caught up into divine love and is directed and enriched by the redemptive power of Christ and the salvific action of the Church, with the result that the spouses are effectively led to God and are helped and strengthened in their loft role as fathers and mothers. Spouses, therefore, are fortified and, as it were, consecrated for their duties and dignity of their state by a special sacrament; fulfilling their conjugal and family role by virtue ofthis sacrament, spouses are penetrated with the Spirit of Christ and their whole life is suffused by faith, hope and charity; thus they increasingly further their own perfection and their mutual sanctification; and together they render glory to God.”

    from Jacques Dupuis, “The Christian Faith,” par1836.

    As to why the article mentions C.S. Lewis, despite the fact that his wife was divorced (I know nothing about the Anglican tradition with regard to annulments and/or prior marriages), I first heard the words of this prayer while watching “Shadowlands,” the story of his life. One need not be a saint to reveal by example spiritual truth — at least, I hope not for my children’s sake!

  • This just in … from the book “C.S. Lewis, by Walter Hooper”

    “For whatever reason, the Home Office refused Joy permission to live and work in England. However, as she wanted to stay and Lewis certainly wanted her to stay, the only solution he could think of was that they go through a civil marriage ceremony. Such a “marriage” would give Joy and her sons British nationality. In regarding such a legal form Lewis was following the teaching of the Anglican Church. The church believes — as does the Catholic Church — that in marrying a divorcee one would be committing adultery. The ceremony, then, could not make them man and wife. Lewis would remain in his house, and joy would remain in hers.”

    “C.S. Lewis: A Companion and Guide” by Walter Hooper, pg 76.

    Clearly, “Shadowlands” took some liberties with the facts. On the other hand, through the lens of history (rather than Hollywood) we see by Lewis’ actions the seriousness with which he regarded the Church’s teaching on marriage. In the civil ceremony, he chose to protect in friendship (through a legal recourse) what he could not enter into sacramentally. He could not pledge to “worship” (or honor) as spouse a woman who belonged to another. And yet, he could — and did — commit to her in friendship, taking responsibility for both Joy and her sons from that time forward, knowing that a true marriage would not be possible so long as her husband lived.

    Thanks for encouraging me to dig further!

  • Mary Kochan

    Besides which we aren’t wooden literalists. If a friend tells me that his son has a girlfriend and he “worships the gound she walks on,” I don’t accuse the kid of idolatry.