The Marriage Covenant
by N. Bruce Rogers
The Hope in Marriage
Love truly conjugial, with the promise of its achievement, is an ideal that has inspired the hearts and minds of New Church men and women for generations. Young and old have been deeply affected by the concept, and they have thrilled to the hope of the possibility of its fulfillment in their own lives. And it is well that it should be so, for the conjugial relationship of a husband and wife is described in the Doctrine of the New Church as "the precious jewel of human life and the repository of Christian religion" (CL 457, 458). "In and from that union are celestial blessings, spiritual happiness and thence natural delights" (CL 457, 335). More celestial, more spiritual, more holy, pure and clean than any other love that the Lord can bestow, conjugial love - when genuine - is the fundamental love of all good and heavenly loves, and into it are gathered all joys and delights from their first to their last (CL 64, 65-67, 68, 69).
In such language is the ideal state of marriage described; and, given the innate inclination to conjunction implanted in the sexes from creation (CL 157, 37), it is no wonder then that hearts touched by romance open with eager expectation for what is most fervently hoped and believed to be, with marriage, an entrance quite literally into heaven on earth. This is true outside of the Church as well, but most especially within the Church because of the doctrine. Practicalities are often forgotten, hardships easily endured, discordant and dissentient ideas and feelings either suppressed or ignored. All is given and devoted to love for the sake of love; all is given and forgiven for the sake of conjugial love.
And with some the hoped-for happens. Perhaps not as soon as expected, perhaps not quite in the way expected, but still it happens. Love ripens into an inmost conjunction of minds. An interior, spiritual friendship descends into their marriage, bringing with it a mutual desire to do the other every possible good. Periodic states of coolness and coldness decrease both in frequency and in intensity, and in their stead come states of increasing warmth and effort to union in all things of life. Happiness, contentment, delight and spontaneous pleasure - these become the testimony to their inward and genuine marriage, and as the delight of their dwelling together increases, they look forward more and more to a continuance of their life together, not only to old age in this world, but to eternity in the world to come. (CL 162, 179, 180, 213-216)
With others, however, the case is not so, and with some it can even be the opposite. As the glow of their first romantic love passes, as the dreams of their courtship and wedding give way to the reality of everyday living, and he no longer seems the wonderful man he once was or promised to be, and she no longer the loveliest woman in the world, then ardor cools and eventually grows cold. (Cf. CL 236) Disagreements become more frequent and more intense, whether they break into active strife, or are harbored within in states of unhappiness and frustration. Their lives begin to separate, in fact if not in appearance, and each begins to pursue his own goals, to accomplish his own work, to find his own pleasure, spiritually alone and emotionally insulated in the inmost recesses of his heart. (Cf. CL 215) At first a disappointment, and then a burden, if the disjunction becomes severe enough, the marriage can even come to seem a trap, and then thoughts of separation almost inevitably follow, and with thoughts of separation, contemplation of divorce, especially in a time when it is made legally possible and perhaps even relatively easy, and when it may even be encouraged by the misexamples of others. (Cf. CL 213, 214)
The reasons for such failures of love are various, and often not obvious. In general, however, they come down to this, that in the world marriages are too often contracted because of an attraction of external affections, and not at the same time from an attraction of internal affections - when yet it is internal affections that can conjoin two people in love truly conjugial, and not external affections apart from the internal (CL 274, 275).
In this, New Church men and women have no special inborn immunity. Romantic love is an intoxicating experience, and clear reason quite easily succumbs to the persuasive blandishments and enticements of merely natural delights. Even earnestly sincere people are susceptible to the siren call, because earnest sincerity is no substitute for sound judgment. Physical qualities become more important than personal qualities. Social standing is given higher consideration than spiritual dedication. The need for emotional and perhaps even worldly security overshadows the need for moral and spiritual virtues, virtues from which nevertheless real security can come because they can be trusted. And even when real values are consulted, when choice is based on prudent reflection, so that it is not just external affections which transport the mind, still the internal affections of the proposed partner may not be accurately seen - not necessarily because of any deliberate concealment or deceit, though that can happen too, but simply because this is the natural world, where internal affections do not come readily forth but can be known, if at all, only with time and long experience (CL 227,272).
And so it is that marriages fail. Romantic love, with all of its delights, grows feeble and passes away. The truth is discovered that, as the Doctrine teaches, the first heat of marriage does not really conjoin if that is all there is (CL 162, 214). A real, interior spiritual friendship is needed - it is the key to the development of love truly conjugial (CL 55, 162, 214, cf. 180), a friendship based on the moral and spiritual virtues of husband and wife that stem from their own special qualities of love and wisdom, between which there is an internal agreement and likeness (CL 159, 161, 189, 191, 195, 227, 228) - and where that friendship is missing, marriages contracted before family and friends cannot help but be interiorly sundered in the home (CL 275).
Marriages are Nevertheless to Continue
And yet, despite all of this, we are told that marriages once contracted in the world are to continue to the end of life (CL 276). In this, the Doctrine of the New Church stands squarely with the teaching concerning marriage given by the Lord with His own mouth in His first advent, and it confirms that it is a teaching that accurately presents the Divine law and will. "Is it lawful," the Pharisees once asked, "for a man to put away his wife for any reason?" To this the Lord answered and said, "Have you not read that He who made them at the beginning made them male and female, and said, 'For this reason shall a man leave father and mother and shall cleave to his wife, and they two shall be one flesh.' Wherefore they are no more two, but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder." (Matt. 19:3-6; also Mark 10:2, 6-9)
Still, the Pharisees, according to the account given in Matthew, were not satisfied. "Why then did Moses command," they said, "to give a writing of divorcement and so put her away?" And we might ask, Why then has it been permitted in civil law for divorce to be made legally possible for a variety of reasons, and in some places, in some countries, for almost any reason at all? But the Lord said unto them, "Because of the hardness of your hearts Moses suffered you to put away your wives; but from the beginning it was not so." (Matt. 19:7, 8; Mark 10: 4, 5) And He added, "And I say unto you, Whosoever shall put away his wife, except for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery; and whoso marrieth her who is put away doth commit adultery." (Matt. 19:9, also Luke 16:18) Or, as it is said in the Gospel of Mark, "Whosoever shall put away his wife and marry another, committeth adultery against her. And if a woman shall put away her husband, and be married to another, she committeth adultery." (Mark 10:11,12)
Now this can appear to be a hard teaching, and even the Lord's disciples on hearing it replied, "if the case of the man be so with a wife, it is not good to marry" (Matt. 19:10). Nevertheless, the teaching was not withdrawn by the Lord, nor is it one reinterpreted in the Heavenly Doctrines. Rather it is quite clearly affirmed, several times specifically (CL 255, 276, 332, 339, 340:3, 468, 482), and in spirit, throughout the doctrine of conjugial love. Save for the cause of adultery, committed deliberately and so purposely by one's spouse, to which are added as related causes open and manifest approaches to adultery to the point of utter scortatory shamelessness, and also malicious desertion for no just cause when it then leads to the deserting partner's commission of adultery, whether from set purpose or not - save for these three causes, which in essence are one, there are no other legitimate grounds for divorce given in the Divine law (CL 234, 255, 468). Despite the interior dissolution of marriages in the home, despite the entrance of states of spiritual cold, despite even indifference, discord, contempt, loathing, aversion, and a host of other evils, both physical and spiritual, apart from the legitimate grounds for divorce, marriages are to continue to the end of life (CL 236-255 & ff., 275, 276).
Dealing with the Failure of Marital Love
What then is one supposed to do when faced with a marriage that has become insufferable, when yet there are no grounds for legitimate divorce? In the first place, one is not to try to get around the Divine law and by reasonings explain it away (cf. CL 332). The denial of sin is itself the beginning of sin (cf. TCR 523, CL 528). Rather one should seek to understand the law and to find means by which to live according to it.
This is not to say that there are not times when some marriages do become simply insufferable. And in this regard the law is tempered with mercy. Separations both physical and legal may be permitted for a variety of reasons, and even concubinage, provided that the reasons are just and truly compelling (CL 251, 467, 471, 474). The two chapters in the work Conjugial Love on "Colds, Separations, and Divorces" and "Concubinage" list a number of examples of such reasons, which may become grounds for legitimate separation (CL 252254, 470, 472, 473). No one is compelled to live with a partner who may have become dangerous, truly irresponsible, or genuinely odious (ibid.). That this does not contravene the Lord's teaching against divorce is because in separation the marriage covenant is not entirely abolished, nor is a new marriage contracted (cf. CL 468). If bound only by a legal relationship, the husband remains nevertheless the husband, and the wife, the wife, and there is kept ever open the possibility of reconciliation (cf. CL 289, also 475).
When internal love has failed, however, a better course recommended in the Writings, if it can be effected, is a marriage of apparent love, friendship and favor (CL 279). It is necessary, useful and true, the Doctrine teaches, that where conjugial love is not genuine, it is yet to be affected, even so that it appears as if it were genuine (CL 276). Especially is this true when legitimate grounds for separation do not actually exist, or when they may not be truly compelling. To those in the grip of spiritual cold, attempts to effect such a marriage no doubt seem difficult, even impossible, and of course it takes the cooperation of both partners. But the truth is, as the Doctrine also teaches, and as almost anyone can see who considers the matter objectively, that in this natural world, almost all can be conjoined as to external affections, if not as to their internal affections (CL 272, 277).
What this means is that almost all marriages, once contracted, can continue to the end of life, even to a degree happily, and perhaps even to every perception quite happily, if a proper mutual effort is made (CL 277, 278, 281:2, 290). Worldly interests, worldly uses, even worldly delights - if spiritual ones are lacking - from the common care of children and the rendering of mutual help to the sharing of domestic and other tasks and the pursuit of joint hobbies and pleasures, even the sharing of a joint social life - all these and more can become means of at least an external conjunction, if an effort is made to make them so, and provided that a fundamental courtesy and civility can be maintained (CL 277-284 & ff.).
The Honorableness of Conjugial Simulations
To those who think only naturally, it may be that such conjugial simulations will seem hypocritical and to be merely pretenses. Yet, provided that they are maintained within the home for the sake of the preservation of the marriage, and are not simply theatrical shows put on outside of the home for the sake of others, they are not hypocritical, neither are they merely pretenses (CL 282e, 279). Rather they are praiseworthy appearances, as the Doctrine calls them, assumed because they are seen to be both useful and necessary (CL 279); and that which is done for the sake of use and from a prudent sight of what is properly required is never hypocritical nor a matter of mere pretense. To quote the Doctrine itself:
Especially with a spiritual man, that is, with one who lives a life of religion, are these simulations not merely pretenses. "The reason is that a spiritual man does what he does from justice and judgment. Therefore he does not view the simulations as alien to his internal affections but as coupled with them, for he acts in earnest and looks to amendment as the purpose" (CL 280). Indeed,
"He is led to these conjugial simulations from justice, and he carries them into effect from judgment" (CL 280); for all that he does and says, he does and says from justice and with judgment, and in so doing he acts sincerely, in humility before what he knows to be right and good. And besides, he desires to believe, if he does not know from doctrine, which is the truth, that conjugial love may exist where it does not appear (CL 531); and he desires to believe, and may inwardly even perceive, if he does not know from doctrine, that by a show of love and reconciliation friendship may return, in which conjugial love lies hidden, on his part if not on the part of his partner (CL 271).
Who is Spiritually Guilty?
Now in actual fact, mistakes in regard to marriages are made. Not only are initial choices not always made wisely, but separations may at times take place where accommodations might have been found, and divorces and remarriages may take place where legitimate grounds are lacking. To those who would judge others' spiritual worth in this regard, the Doctrine replies, "Judge not that ye be not condemned." "Conclusions about another, as to whether he has conjugial love or not, are not to be drawn from appearances of marriages, nor from appearances of scortation." (CL 531) Did not the Lord in His advent say to the accusers of the woman taken in adultery, "He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her" (John 8:7). The truth is that in this regard, as in everything else, "everyone is judged after death according to the intentions of his will and the consequent intentions of his understanding, and according to the confirmations of his understanding and the consequent confirmations of his will" (CL 485). And these cannot be known with any degree of certainty on earth. One who therefore may appear guilty in this world may very well be absolved in the next (TCR 523, CL 453, 527).
And to those who may find themselves burdened with guilt in this regard on account of past transgressions - not those who make no account of such transgressions, but those who feel a sense of guilt over them, and still more who accuse themselves on account of them, and who cannot for one reason or another undo what has been done - to them the Doctrines offer the counsel that as in the world there are various circumstances which aggravate offenses and make them more blameworthy, so there are circumstances which mitigate and in the other world excuse them (CL 530). Even cases of adultery are not all of equal severity, and some may even be described as relatively mild, according to the degree of knowledge and intent present at the time (CL 485-494, 530). Immaturity, ignorance, stupidity, and other like things, may be advanced as legitimate considerations that may soften the offense (ibid.). And besides, by sincere and genuine repentance, a person can change his entire character (AR 224:9, et al.), and from being in a state of hell may come into a state of heaven which will continue after death (CL 530, et al.), an option that remains open throughout life on this earth. Therefore the Lord in His advent said to the woman taken in adultery, "Go, and sin no more" (John 8:11). And so the Doctrines in this connection cite as an accurate representation of Divine law these verses from Ezekiel: "If the wicked will turn from all his sins that he hath committed ... and do that which is lawful and right, he shall surely live, he shall not die. All his transgressions that he hath committed, they shall not be mentioned unto him" (Ezek. 18:21,22; CL 487). For "deeds follow the body into the tomb; but the mind rises again" (CL 530e).
Conclusion: The Christian Commandment
Still, the ideal in marriage is a state of love truly conjugial, and failing that, a marriage of apparent love and friendship, with the hope of an eventual reconciliation in which conjugial love may at some time descend, however long it may take, until death
may put an end to what man may not otherwise legitimately put asunder. Separations may at times be necessary, and thus also in order, without blame to him who separates for cause. But separations for reasons that are not truly just and compelling are not heavenly, still less divorces on grounds not justified by Divine law, and still less remarriages that follow divorces that are not so justified. Indeed, the latter are in themselves all infernal (cf. CL 251, 255, 474, et al.), and they are infernal in the doer according to the knowledge and will with which he does them. They are infernal because they are against the Divine law, that in the world marriages are to continue to the end of life (CL 276); and they are evils, because they are against the Divine will, that those made by God in His image and likeness should love one another (cf. Gen. 1, 2).
As the Lord said at the Last Supper, when He established the Christian Church, "A new commandment I give unto you, that ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another" (John 13:34). And in so saying, He did not exclude or exempt husbands and wives (cf. CL 62ff., 125, 131, et al.). They, too, are to love one another, with a love that imitates His love, with a love that indeed derives from His love (CL 131, et al.).
If there cannot be love truly conjugial, let there be at least charity, a charity that knows the meaning of mercy and kindness, a charity that unites and does not divide, a charity in which there can be at least a little bit of heaven on earth, derived from the Lord in fidelity to His Word. For as the Lord Himself added, and as He said truly, "By this shall all men know that ye are My disciples, if ye have love one to another" (John 13:35).
-Rev. N. Bruce Rogers, Marriage Covenant (General Church Publication Committee, 1978)