Words of wisdom when pondering marriage secrets

Sunday, March 18, 2012

"Never presume to know the secrets of a marriage."

More than 60 years ago, Sir Michael Redgrave uttered the aforementioned in the 1951 movie "The Browning Version." Redgrave was playing the role of Andrew Crocker-Harris, an unpopular teacher of classical literature at a British school. In fairly short order, we learn that Crocker-Harris' troubles extend from his classroom to his home. Apparently, one of his teaching colleagues has been having an affair with Mrs. Crocker-Harris. The adulterous suitor then presumes to tell the forlorn and cuckolded classics professor that his wife is not good enough for him. That advice prompted the language from Crocker-Harris that you see at the top of this column.

I thought of that old black-and-white film while watching the reality-TV show "The Bachelor" last week. My usual course is to flee from such programs; they rarely hold my interest. But my wife was so upset with bachelor Ben's choice of a spouse (Courtney) in Monday night's climactic show that my attention was nearly commanded.

Lois nearly threw the remote at the screen. (All right, that's an exaggeration. Sorry, honey.) "She's bad news," my wife said. "Bad, bad, news." As it happens, Monday's show was taped long ago and -- true to my wife's fears, Ben and Courtney are having real trouble before ever approaching the altar.

After having been part of weddings for more than two decades in an official capacity, I can tell you that there is no crystal ball for predicting success in marriage. Some couples for whom I privately nursed grave doubts are still together; by all appearances, they're doing well. Others for whom I had great confidence for long and enduring partnerships have foundered, divorced and remarried. Redgrave's long-ago words, "Never presume ," are poignant.

I would add a line to Crocker-Harris' words. Not only shouldn't anyone presume to know the secrets of a marriage, we should also remind ourselves that the only people who know what's happening in a marital union are the people in it. And even then, confusion may reign.

Paul the apostle, church teaching has long implied, was a lifelong bachelor. This made him unique among first-century Jews. Having land and having descendants were the two best-understood marks of achievement for men of his time and ethnicity.

Paul was married, in the truest sense, to the Gospel message. The Gospel was the first-century evangelist's significant other; he had neither time nor any passion to bring to other attachments. In 2 Corinthians 7:7, Paul writes: "I wish that all of you were as I am." (unmarried) In verses eight and nine, Paul gets to the heart of it: "Now to the unmarried and the widows I say: 'It is good for them to stay unmarried,' as I do. But if they cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion."

Paul's hesitation about getting hitched is based on his conviction that marriage is a virtually unbreakable union. If we might presume (there's that word, again) to add to Paul's words, it's conceivable that he could tell us to not walk down the aisle until you've prayed, pondered and agonized over whether a potential spouse is -- to use Ben's words on the show, "my forever." Even then, you can't really know if marriage will work. Time and circumstance often tell the tale.

For Ben and Courtney of "The Bachelor," I would offer Paul's caution but also this beautiful language penned in the year 1393: "I believe when two good and honorable people are wed, all [other] loves are put off, save only for the love of each for the other. And all their special pleasure, their chief desire and perfect joy, is to do pleasure or obedience one to the other."

Maybe those two young people will incarnate those words. It'll be my prayer.

The Rev. Dr. Jeff Long is senior pastor of Centenary United Methodist Church in Cape Girardeau.

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