Andy Hawes is Warden of Edenham Regional Retreat House
As a parish priest I have had my fair share of people who self-diagnose that the problem in their relationship (often marriage) is that they are ‘falling out of love’. Sometimes this sense of ‘something missing’ in a relationship crops up in a very long-established relationship causing deep distress to all parties. There can be many causes for this self-perceived ‘change of heart’. It can be related to physical fatigue or mental and emotional turmoil in other areas of life. In the case of someone who is aware of their spiritual life and actively seeks to live in the light of the Spirit as a Christian, other factors can come into play.
Seeking help to revive a ‘cooling’ relationship from the perspective of Christian spirituality can often provide direction. There is much wisdom to draw on. As C.S. Lewis pointed out, individuals always prefer the ‘experience’ of romantic love. The erotic has its power and place in the cementing of relationships, but if a relationship is based solely on the ‘feel good factor’ it will be bound to fail. The corollary of this is the well-documented ‘falling away’ of Christians who are dependent on Charismatic ‘experience’ in worship. God is not found in the thrill of the moment, although that moment might open up the consciousness to other possibilities and a new awareness of oneself and of others. There are strong parallels to mystical experience and the erotic relationship. This is seen in the Song of Songs in the Old Testament and developed in the medieval mystical tradition by Bernard of Clairvaux, John of the Cross and others. The romantic and the erotic are not excluded from Christian spirituality, but they will not feed the proverbial baby or put bread on the table. It is notable that New Testament teaching about marriage has nothing in it to excite the romantic. It is rather an encouragement to mutual service and sacrifice in which is to be found peace and freedom. Our formative relationships in marriage, family and friendships are the frame on which a life of loving service and faithfulness in small things is stretched out to become a glorious image of God’s love.
The love that is revealed in Christ and in which we partake by grace is not very interested in answering the question ‘how do you feel?’ It certainly mocks the assumption there ‘should be something in this for me’. In Christian spirituality the exercise of faithfulness outdoes the search for happiness (whatever that is) every time. Often when relationships are saddened by a coldness of heart and deadened by routine, the way to renewal is a relearning of what love means. In our rather shallow materialist culture where pleasure has been substituted for joy, it is no wonder that we forget the Love who is God who showed his love for us while we were still enemies by dying for us.
Part of the power of the romantic is its emphasis on the object of love as ‘perfect’ and on the experience of the relationship as ‘heavenly’. I simply remind people that we don’t yet live in a heavenly place and that to look for perfection is a waste of time!