Chapter 7

The Sanctity of Relationships

"You shall not commit adultery" (Exodus 2o.14).

Of all the Ten Commandments this one seems the most outmoded. Sexual intercourse is freely available to all who desire it, and the advent of medical knowledge has reduced considerably the dangers of sexually transmitted disease and unwanted pregnancy. The use of contraceptives is now widely canvassed as an obligatory precaution to reduce the rapidly increasing population throughout the world. No child should be born who is not wanted, is the general view of contemporary society; few of us would argue against this principle, but does it not justify promiscuous sexual relations once birth-control measures have been carefully applied? In other words, does the most intimate physical relationship that can take place between two people have no other purpose nowadays than mutual enjoyment? Does sensual pleasure, with procreation when it is specifically desired, define the whole purpose of sexual relations between people? If this is the case, it is reasonable, to say the least, to exchange partners as soon as the pleasure begins to pall; with someone else the delight may sparkle once more, and a new series of rewarding experiences may be initiated.

This essentially animal view of sex develops as our intuition about the sanctity of intimate human relationships wanes. Even couples who have a strong bond of affection often choose to remain unmarried so as not to be trapped by any ties of commitment. The threat of responsibility assumes the grimness of a mental prison which might impede that openness which is a prerequisite of fulfilled sexual intercourse. One-parent families, at one time a disgrace, are now an accepted part of our social environment. In a world that balances precariously on a cliff-edge of nuclear destruction on the one hand, and mass unemployment on the other, this looseness of personal relationships seems scarcely avoidable. As St Paul would parody the situation in relation to doubts about the resurrection of the dead, "Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die" (1 Corinthians 15.32). If indeed there are no higher, more durable values, the most sensible way of life is immediate gratification of the senses: the end is adultery, lying, theft, murder and all the other degraded actions that together destroy society as certainly as does nuclear power wrongly used.

In the more traditional family life of the past it was the custom for couples to come to know each other during a period of engagement which culminated in a marriage that heralded the first sexual experience together in the relaxed atmosphere of a honeymoon. The snag about this arrangement was the not infrequent sexual ignorance of the partners with a clumsiness that sometimes marred the early period of married life. This might harden into an habitually unsatisfactory physical relationship, though more often adaptability was attained through patience as well as the exploration of other areas of shared delight - areas of the mind and spirit. Nowadays children are given information early about the biology of sex, so that few young adults should be ignorant of the facts of sexual life. All this is to the good so long as sexual intercourse is not reduced to a merely physical act. It is only when its full implication as the total giving of the one person to the other is realized that its depth and significance in the growth of the personality of each of them is understood.

How do we come to know a fellow human being? We can find out much about him by asking him questions concerning himself, his age, work, past history and his personal preferences. In the end we may acquire a plausible pen portrait of him. And yet we are as far as ever from a true knowledge of him. We begin to know him as we live in close communication with him; when we have gained his confidence and can start to open ourselves up to him, the barriers lift and he ventures likewise to reveal himself more intimately to us. Then we may see a very different type of person from the one we would have deduced from mere facts about him. It takes a long time to know another person well, even in a state of marital union. Indeed, we can hardly expect a fellow human to trust us until we are inwardly trustworthy, until we will respect him and guard his inner life as jealously as our own.

As we face our own inner being with greater equanimity, so we can accept another person more fully. As we learn to accept our own shortcomings with humour and honesty, so we can begin to love the foibles of those near us. We like what appeals to us, but life in fellowship is here to teach us to love all things, even when they irritate or frighten us. This is the love of God for us as mirrored in the love of Christ, who, as we have already noted, taught us to love our enemies and pray for our persecutors. Our subtlest enemies are the shadow complexes within our own unconscious; these are involuntarily projected on to people who irritate or threaten us because of their racial origin, religious views or social background. Possibly the greatest work of our life is the recognition of the varied content of the unconscious, coming to terms with the complexes and, through God's grace and our own fortitude, integrating them into a vibrant personality. In the instance of the great majority of people this painful adventure of psychological integration takes place in and through the company of a complementary individual, either husband or wife. Only a few can achieve this integration on their own, and they are the natural celibates of the race. Their task is to bring that integration to others which has been achieved in their own life, as indeed it is also the work of married couples who have attained inner fulfilment through their union.

The relationship of husband and wife is ideally the closest of all human bonds, since there should be a total giving of self, one to the other. No secrets are withheld for they are now one body, and life together brings to the surface the deepest fears and highest aspirations of each. The conjugal relationship, as we have already noted in connection with the love we owe our parents, is one of mystical depth. The holiness of the married state is beautifully described in Genesis 2.24 45: a man leaves his mother and father and is united to his wife and the two become one flesh. In this way there is a complete nakedness of soul as well as body, and there is no feeling of shame towards one another. It is evident that the marriage relationship is so intimate that it underlines the reverence between husband and wife as opposed to the tinsel of the outside world. It is a fellowship of truth, and in its perfection it can never be rent asunder, even by death. "For love is stronger than death", as we read in the Song of Songs. "Many waters cannot quench love, no flood can sweep it away. If a man were to offer for love the whole wealth of his house, it would be utterly scorned" (8.6-7).

We can, in respect of married love, contrast a truly loving relationship with one of mere usage. A loving relationship is one in which we give wholly of ourselves in child-like trust to another person. It is very different from the thoughtless, selfish contacts we so often make in everyday existence; in these we simply use another person as a means of discharging ourselves of our lust, anger, anxiety or prejudices without any concern for his welfare. Indeed, this lack of consideration for others, except in so far as it can appease his own selfish cravings, is typical of the life of the unredeemed person. Such an individual pursues an egoistical existence, living only for the satisfaction of his senses a moment at a time, without giving any thought to the long-term consequences of his way of life. To use another person selfishly is the betrayal of a relationship, whereas to give of oneself without reserve is the essence of a relationship that finds its end in the supreme relationship of man and God.

God's nature is always to have love, to be available for fellowship, indeed waiting in patient forbearance until we, his creatures, have had our fill of earthly delights and still find ourselves empty of substantial food. Then we can invite him in who stands at the door of the soul, knocking courteously for us to admit him into our life. He is always there but we are so seldom at home in our own being. When the excitement of the world's clamour has died away and we are at last at home in the silence of inner dereliction, we can begin to listen, hear, respond and enter joyfully into a relationship that has no end inasmuch as it grows in intensity until no one is excluded from its range and its welcoming embrace. This is the supreme I-Thou relationship in which we cease to be mere isolated units in a vast, impersonal world and become fully ourselves in the fellowship of all those around us. The mystery of identity is that we are most fully ourselves when we have lost concern for, even awareness of, ourselves as separate individuals in the greater concern for all our brothers; as we sacrifice ourselves for them so they too become more fully themselves. To be fully ourself is to live in the mode that God has prepared for us, a mode shown definitively in the incarnation of his Son. In St Paul's words, "I have been crucified with Christ: the life I now live is not my life but the life which Christ lives in me" (Galatians 2.19).

What is necessary above all else for a deep personal relationship is faithfulness. This pledges a respect for the unique character of the person with whom we are in fellowship, and it shows itself in a concern that evokes complete trust. As a consequence of this growing trust, the one can lay his soul bare before the other, knowing that his most intimate secrets lie inviolate. The qualities within each of them that are less worthy are accepted and healed in the restoring embrace of love. In that fidelity my brother's secrets are mine also, I share his pain and humiliation, bearing his burdens while rejoicing in his triumphs. In this way, I become one with him in a deep awareness, as Christ is one with us in our personal pain and distress, no less than he was one with the common people whom he joined in festal celebration and later more poignantly on the cross of suffering. He had the capacity to relate without reservation to anyone who would receive him, and he gave that person the means to be fully himself. In the marvellous words of the prologue of the fourth Gospel, "He was in the world, but the world, though it owed its being to him, did not recognize him. But to all who did receive him, to those who have yielded him their allegiance, he gave the right to become children of God" (John 1.10-12). This is the fruit of a relationship with God kept faithfully in prayer, and is seen most perfectly in the life and ministry of Jesus.

A relationship of trust does not consist simply in being able to confide the most intimate details of our private life to the one we love. There is also a constant exchange of psychic energy between us. The exchange of life from soul to soul finds its apotheosis in the action of Christ bestowing the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost on those who had kept faith with him, however inadequately, at the time of greatest testing. In the life of self-giving service and transparent honesty we become truly one body with those we love; in this unity the sacred mystery of each person's life is shared and exchanged. In our mutual giving we share each other's burdens, at the same time being filled with the renewing power that comes from the Holy Spirit. The principle involved in this transaction is fundamental to the spiritual life: the more we give of ourselves in devotion to others, the more available are we to God and the more open to his grace; the hungry he has satisfied with good things, the rich sent empty away (Luke 1.53).

Each intimate relationship is sacred; its holiness is due to God's presence uniting the two people into a single organism animated by love. But it is also necessary in the development of a loving relationship for there to be the human contribution of fidelity and perseverance based on mutual respect. The end of such a relationship is so complete a personal sacrifice that the other person may fulfil his destiny according to God's purpose. And yet as we traverse this path of self-giving, so we discover a deeper source of identity within ourself, an identity that becomes more vibrant with experience and is destined to withstand the inroads of death itself. This true identity is at once the spiritual self and the point of greatest authenticity within ourself that we have with all who will receive us. It is indeed the point of the soul where God is known, and through God, all his creatures become one with us. This point of God-consciousness is traditionally called the spirit; when we know this central focus within us and can work emotionally and intellectually from it, we shall never again be unfaithful in any personal relationship. At the same time we become fully open to the strength as well as the weakness of the other person. We share and rejoice in the strength while we give support in the weakness that prevents him from attaining a knowledge of God and of his fellow creatures and therefore becoming a complete person.

The reason why an attainment of spiritual knowledge, which is in essence a direct apprehension of the depth of one's own being where the Spirit of God is to be encountered, prevents us from becoming unfaithful to anyone is because in that knowledge we are in union with God and therefore do not cling to other support. At last our basic spiritual life is whole, and we can radiate joy and service to all who will receive us. Whatever relationship we make will be wholesome in quality and chaste in content: we give, not in order to receive but to shower blessings on all the world. In the service of God and our fellow creatures there is such a freedom from personal striving that we can live from our own being without self-consciousness, no matter what we are doing. Our very life is our gift to the world, in return for God's gift of himself to us.

This relationship of growing intimacy is the fruit of a marriage between two faithful people. Each has personal problems to face both alone and in the company of the other, but charity working in concert with honesty leads to the acceptance of differences, their confrontation, and eventually their integration in the life of the couple. The end is a relationship of union in God, which can be bestowed on the many people the couple encounter in their life's work together. Working faithfully together, they bring integration to all they do and to all the people they meet. God is with them at the beginning, albeit unrecognized amid the busy turmoil of daily life; at the end the divine presence is a very real support which can be called upon at all times by the practice of prayer. The paradox of a fulfilled married life is that although the fidelity of husband and wife is absolute on a physical level, their capacity to flow out in love to an ever-widening circle of friends steadily increases. In the same way, when we are punctiliously faithful to God in personal spiritual devotion, the charity that flows from us to the world around us is like a fountain whose waters are never stilled. The love we offer to God, either directly in prayer or in faithful devotion to our neighbour, flows back to us as an unceasing stream of spiritual power that brings new life to whomsoever we encounter. "Bring the tithes into the treasury, all of them; let there be food in my house. Put me to the proof, says the Lord of Hosts, and see if I do not open windows in the sky and pour a blessing on you as long as there is need" (Malachi 3.10).

How different is an adulterous relationship! Here something coarse and unwholesome infiltrates insidiously into a fragile marriage relationship, which was gradually being established and fulfilled by the growth into reality of both partners through the vicissitudes of everyday life. The vows of marriage serve to consecrate the wills of both husband and wife to a lifelong union, and now the adulterous act seduces one of them away from the path of fidelity that leads to a life of abundance if followed diligently. Visions of private self-satisfaction are conjured up, and these can be enjoyed without regard for the other person. There is now set in motion the betrayal of someone to whom allegiance had been vowed. The soul of the trusting partner is violated, its secrets are betrayed and its mystery exposed to the common gaze. When the Israelites went after other gods they insulted the name of the one God who had made a special covenant with them. In so doing they betrayed the dedication they had previously sworn to the Deity, at the same time reducing him to the status of one among many gods. In the same way a betrayed spouse becomes merely one among an infinite number of people, an article of no special merit. That which is adulterated is falsified by a mixture of baser ingredients. This is exactly what happens to a marriage that has been invaded by an adulterer; it loses its spiritual character and becomes merely one transient sexual encounter among many.

Returning once more to the creation story, the great adulterer is the serpent who seduces Eve from her relationship with God by evoking desires of personal glory apart from the Deity. In this way she and Adam may become the arbiters of life's values without reference to the Creator. When they fall, they betray their precious relationship with God, thereby separating themselves from him. Their physical nakedness, once a symbol of their close relationship with God, now becomes a thing of shame that has to be covered before they feel fit to confront him. Their alienation from God and eternal life has become so complete that God gives them a finite span of earthly existence with death at the end. This is not so much a punishment as an act of mercy; to remain in conscious alienation indefinitely would be a far greater source of pain than the advent of death. Fortunately the hope of forgiveness and the prospect of growth into a new creative relationship of trust lies before them: the history of salvation, growing in intensity throughout the Old Testament, is brought to a triumphant fulfilment in the life of Christ. He alone can bear the full burden of alienation, bringing it to the Father at the time of his passion and death. In this way the sin of the world is accepted, healed and transfigured. But we have to proceed in the way shown us by Christ, a way that leads to a crucifixion of the ego self and a resurrection of the entire personality to the life of the spiritual self. However, Christ is with us on this precarious journey and the Holy Spirit strengthens us, so that what on the surface seems a doomed venture becomes instead our noblest experience. It affirms our full humanity, at the same time pointing the way to our coming to share in the very being of God, as glimpsed so magnificently in 2 Peter 1.4.

When the commonplace sin of adultery is seen in this cosmic context, its evil lies in its capacity to shatter a deep relationship of trust between husband and wife. The intimacy between them is invaded and destroyed and the growth of a precious organism is thwarted. Admittedly adultery cannot thrive in an atmosphere of marital intimacy, but where there is an unacknowledged weakness, the temptation to adulterous associations can be very subtle. The adulterer not only separates the unhappy couple by dividing the marital bed but also undermines the corporate unity of the entire family. The children are split by conflicting loyalties, sometimes being especially estranged from the defective parent whose attention is diverted increasingly outside the home. Parental strife casts a shadow of ominous insecurity over the happiness of the children, while the married couple drift further apart to become hostile strangers in a shared home. In other words, the act of adultery destroys the cohesion of the family unit, affecting the happiness and well-being not only of the injured spouse but also of the helpless children. The firm basis of a happy family life is removed from the children who become increasingly insecure in their own identity. Their sense of trust in their parents is undermined, and this uncertainty can be carried into their adult life. They may find it increasingly difficult to trust anyone with their inner welfare. Therefore an adulterous association defiles a beautiful human relationship, the state of marital union.

It would, however, be complacent and misleading to end the matter on this high note of principle. Many marriages are in fact doomed to dissolution, and year by year the statistics for marital breakdown increase alarmingly. Adultery is nearly always a symptom of serious marital disharmony; relatively few adulterers are morbidly hypersexed individuals who cannot keep their hands off other people's husbands or wives. Such adulterers are in need of psychotherapy no less than their hyposexed counterparts who are impotent or frigid. The problem of sexual relationships is one of human immaturity, or rather, of asynchronous maturation. We are physically mature at the age of twenty, by which time sexual potency is at its peak. Intellectual maturity is also often remarkably well established in early adult life. Emotional maturity takes much longer to develop, often being rudimentary in scintillatingly successful people in the worlds of commerce, learning and religion. In most people a degree of emotional maturity shows itself in the later years of life when retirement sets its seal on the personal achievements of earlier active existence. We know an emotionally mature person by his calmness and his tendency to bring reconciliation wherever he goes. He has learned to control his inner feelings without repressing them, and he can deflect them into useful outer activity. He does not cast his emotional burdens on those around him by displays of sulking when he does not get his own way and anger when he is crossed. On the contrary, he is able to lift the emotional burdens of other people. If only marriages could take place among emotionally mature people there would be neither adultery nor divorce! In fact, however, the deeper purpose of marriage is to bring the couple into a state of emotional maturity.

Marriages may be made in heaven but they have to be worked out in quiet perseverance while we are on earth. The immediate delights of physical intimacy are brought into a more durable context with the rearing of a family. But if the edifice is to stand the test of time, remembering the greatly increased life-expectancy in the developed countries of the West nowadays, there must be a foundation of emotional stability, so that husband and wife can stay rock-like in their own integrity. While there must be a total sharing on one level, each must also learn to live a separate, independent life, both developing their own particular gifts and cultivating their own interests and friendships. Not only is this individual development essential for the emotional growth of each of them, but it also gives the one an emotional independence in preparation for the death of the other. Only in an atmosphere of complete trust can this individual self-actualization occur within the sanctity of the marriage relationship. Furthermore, this essentially adult growth of personality can thrive only in an environment of deep spiritual understanding.

At the end of the Sermon on the Mount Jesus asks, "What then of the man who hears these words of mine and acts upon them? He is like a man who had the sense to build his house on rock" (Matthew 7.24). It is the movement towards spiritual maturity that alone can preserve a marriage from the temptations of the world. Adultery starts in the mind. Jesus said, "You have learned that they were told, Do not "commit adultery". But what I tell you is this: If a man looks upon a woman with a lustful eye he has already committed adultery with her in his heart" (Matthew 5.27-8). The way to prevent this lustful gaze is to direct the inner eye of the soul heavenward in prayer. This prayer is one of contemplation of the divine reality, not of petition to God to deliver us from all earthly temptations. When our priorities are spiritual we can encounter and transcend the temptations of common life, for they cannot be permanently evaded unless we abdicate our presence from the world. And worldly life is essential for our spiritual growth. The way was shown by Jesus, who after his baptism was led by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness to confront worldly vanity and master it by his humility and obedience to God. "The lamp of the body is the eye. If your eyes are sound, you will have light for your whole body; if your eyes are bad, your whole body will be in darkness. If then the only light you have is darkness, the darkness is doubly dark" (Matthew 6.22-3). Just as healthy, well-focused eyes take in the light of the sun, so the soul turned to God in prayer is filled by his uncreated light, which illuminates the whole personality, drawing the person closer to the divine presence. As he lives this new life in God, so the divine light emanating from him initiates dramatic changes in the people close to him, bringing them closer to God also.

The wise person delays marriage until he has attained sufficient intellectual and emotional balance to judge clearly how he wishes to order his life. The practice of self-control, which is the last fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5.z2), should govern all physical explorations of sex until there is a deep love for the other person. This love is something more than a feeling of warm affection, which will all too probably prove fleeting and insubstantial when another attractive individual arrives on the scene. Love brings with it a sense of deep responsibility for that person's welfare. Love is the supreme act of the human will, and self-control is one side of the coin of love; it is centred on the striving for harmlessness. The reverse side of the coin of love is total self-giving - physical, emotional and spiritual - after vows of permanent loyalty have been made in marriage. The practice of continence outside marriage is not a reversion to the radical repression of pleasure-seeking instincts that characterizes religious puritanism. It is an act of will that leads the human being past his animal ancestry to a full participation in his spiritual heritage. The will, when freed from the domination of the prince of this world, is the authentic action of the soul. To act from a centre of free will is one of God's greatest gifts to the human being. When we align that will to God in prayer, our will and the divine will act in collaboration. Then at last we begin to live from a centre of spirituality which governs and enlightens the animal part of our inheritance. Our response to the deep sexual longings within us determines whether we live truly human lives of responsibility or merely animal lives of irrepressible desire. The first is arduous, but it brings us up to that full humanity shown definitively in the life of Jesus. The second is pleasurable, but its end is a debasement of human personality, betrayed relationships, and a dissipation of potentialities into futility as age and incapacity claim their part in our lives.

"Enter by the narrow gate. The gate is wide that leads to perdition, there is plenty of room on the road, and many go that way; but the gate that leads to life is small and the road is narrow, and those who find it are few" (Matthew 7.13-14). The gate that leads to life is narrow because it will accommodate the person alone; those laden with the luggage of worldly desires are barred from entrance. Only the spiritually poor, those who know their need of God, have the Kingdom of Heaven (Matthew 5.3). Once one knows one's need of God, one can put all worldly desires into proper perspective by an act of will. Well attested is the psychological observation that when the will and the imagination come into conflict, it is the imagination that triumphs. When the imagination is filled with God's presence, worldly desires cease to impinge on it, and the will can act unimpeded. When sexual intercourse is recognized as a sacrament of God's love for all his creatures, it will have ascended from its customary place as a physical activity of pleasure and emotional release to the way of growth of the human to full emotional maturity and spiritual knowledge.

Chapter 8
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