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To be loved and cherished

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Image: SJ Harmon

In Britain the Office of National Statistics (ONS) recently reported that marriage rates in England and Wales had fallen to their lowest levels since records began; the next day we learned that 45% of marriages may end in divorce. There are some who may rejoice at the destruction of marriage, but social research makes clear that children who are poor and neglected mainly come from single-parent homes, so this news is bad news for all of us. That so many people still attempt marriage is the good news. Given how challenging it can be, the wonder is not that fewer people marry, but that anyone dares to marry at all.

Consider that while marriage usually contains romantic elements and may bring us comfort and sexual delight, it is also rooted in jobs and property and bank accounts, and though it is a legal and financial partnership, its success depends on emotional and spiritual elements. With the advent of children the partnership takes on shareholders, and one of its goals becomes the well-being of babies, and the raising of children. It is not a state for the faint of heart.

The Book of Common Prayer describes marriage realistically -

I, M, take thee, N, to my wedded Husband, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part, according to God's holy ordinance; and thereto I plight thee my troth.

Within this portion of the marriage vow, which rose out of the Christian tradition and has been used in the Anglosphere for the last 450 years, are some deeply embedded cultural ideas -

Marriage is viewed as occurring between one man and one woman - not several men and one woman or one man and several women. A sensible decision since just as women do not want to share a man, men do not want to share a woman. Second, man and woman are understood to freely pledge their troth to each other. There is no sentiment for arranged marriages here. Third the vow is made in the name of God, meaning husband and wife have placed their lives and actions before God and God's law and community, and will be governed by the Ten Commandments. And fourth, they pledge to love, and to cherish each other as long as they both shall live.

The vow's phrases mirror the the dark and light of marriage - the worse as well as the better, poverty as well as riches, health as well as sickness, But why, aside from rhetoric, add any other word to the promise to love? Did the English guess that a woman might love a man, but forget to cherish him, or, feelings being what they are, that a man might fall out of love with his wife?

Perhaps the word cherish has been added because to love someone seems to involve feeling love, and sometimes, frankly, we don't feel very loving. Yet we all know what it means to be cherished. To be cherished is to be treated tenderly, patiently, considerately, kindly. Perhaps cherishing comes closest to what Jesus meant when he asked us to love. We can treat another person kindly even when we find it difficult to love, and out of cherishing, love may even be born.

It is not always easy. Especially it may not be easy to be married for a lifetime. Wendell Berry writes, "As the traditional marriage ceremony insists, not everything that we stay to find out will make us happy. The faith, rather, is that by staying, and only by staying, we will learn something of the truth, that the truth is good to know, and that it is always both different and larger than we thought."

Our forbears came to see marriage as the union of two equals who could be for each other friend and lover, an ally in adventure and in adversity, and the parents of happy children. Sometimes, for reasons of choice or misfortune, we cannot enjoy marriage. Still, the possibility of a happy marriage between equals is part of our inheritance, and, I think, contributes more than we can guess to the well-being of all of us.

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