July 09, 2017
In North by Northwest, Alfred Hitchcock arranges for young and lovely Eva Marie Saint to explain to ever charming Cary Grant how a girl like her could have fallen into the handsome but treasonous embrace of James Mason, now found to be a Russian spy. This is the tender I–love–you–at–last-I’ve–found–you scene, when the lovers meet in a glade of evergreens near Mount Rushmore. The problem for women like me, coos Evan Marie, is men like you. “Men like me?” Cary coos back, not much protesting… “Men like you.” “What’s wrong with men like me?” “They don’t believe in marriage.” “Why I’ve been married twice.”
A tad naughty, that seemed, to Hitchcock’s audience in 1959. Then, as far as I knew, everyone in my town believed in marriage and it was a rare bird had been married twice. What might surprise a movie crowd today, however, is that Hitchcock does bring the couple to the altar at the end. We last meet the bride and groom climbing into their sleeping berth as their honeymoon train disappears into a tunnel—a Freudian zinger as curtain falls and lights come up.
Two generations have come and gone, and almost everything has changed. Few directors anymore are moved to offer marriage to bring that summer movie romance to its lawful happy ending. The audience can certainly leave content without it.
Even so (wonder of wonders, miracle of miracles, considering all that’s changed) most of us believe in marriage.
A few years back a couples counselor and I decided to offer a class on marriage. We had young couples planning their big church wedding particularly in mind. But when the doors were opened, the rookies were almost overrun by a motley crowd of veterans of every shape and stripe: Long married pairs figuring it couldn’t hurt to get a communications tune up… younger sufferers from the seven-year itch (which sets in closer to four than seven, it seems to me). Like that. Some couples arrived obviously in trauma. You can pretty much guess the causes. Lots and lots who came were casualties of marriage… once, twice bitten… twice, three times shy. These arrived with looks that seemed to say “We believe in marriage, help us in our unbelief.”
They did still want it to be sure. They wanted God to bless it. They wanted to stand before that altar and take those vows.
“Into this holy union Eve Smith and Adam Jones now come to be joined.”
Tolstoy opens Anna Karenina with his famous proverb “Every happy family is alike. But each unhappy family is unhappy after its own fashion.”
Do you suppose that’s true? “Every happy family is alike.” How about “every happy marriage is alike.” Notice he does not claim that “every happy person is alike.” You and I know full well that some people seek their happiness quite outside of happy marriage and, for all I know, and for whatever it may be worth, they find some. But I believe I’ll go with Tolstoy at least insofar as he means to say that happy marriages are built on certain qualities in common.
I think I won’t try to name them all. I will name two: Time (that’s one) and “Something in and out of time” (that’s the other one.)
“Time.” Eve and Adam, take this down. Happiness in marriage takes time. I mean it plain and simple: time together, children not invited. This will not be as easy as now may seem. If you want time together you will have to schedule it, then you will have to guard it. Learn this phrase. “Sorry, we’d love to come but we have a previous commitment.” The commitment? The one you made just now and in no uncertain terms.
Each of you now professes willingness to forsake all others in deference to each other. “Forsake” is a word with sharp teeth. Let it work for you. It’s in the book because someone sometime way back then noticed that the universe of “others” will—consciously or not—crowd your promise to each other. I have in mind not only the attractive coworker who will cross your path five years from now (gulp), but just folks in general. Parents: could be. Friends, sometimes. Employers, certainly. Employees. Golf. Ducks. The usual suspects. Not a devil in the bunch, but together they constitute a crowd. And you can write this down: the crowd’s interest in your marriage has reached its peak today. From here on out, the question of priority falls to the two of you.
Balance is the goal, of course. Wider family friends, work, golf, ducks, all–that warrant attention in their season, and will need your time. Just mind that in the balancing you don’t cancel one another out. Are we clear on time? Then we’ll move on.
Something “in and out of time.” The phrase belongs to T.S. Eliot: “the flash of winter lightning… the moment in and out of time.”
How again did this get started? Was it some enchanted New York evening? Moon glowing above the city lights? And suddenly you catch one another in the briefest glance—a flash of winter lightning—and glance leads to words, words arrange for coffee, coffee makes way for dinner, dinner leads to… church? Is that how it was? Now it comes down to this: rings, vows before the altar… a moment in and out of time.
This moment lifts us from the ordinary into mystery. That happiness in marriage rests in mystery I can professionally and personally attest. And, by “mystery,” I mean… what? I mean Spirit. I mean God, in whom we find the moment in and out of time.
Here, I note, is a mystery left largely unexplored by Alfred Hitchcock. The Bible labels it with a variety of names, evokes it with a range of symbols. Jesus is a rich source of these. One of his symbols I like best is “Living Water,” as in “Those who ask me, I will give them Living Water…:”
Eve and Adam: you've known each other, what? Three years? Five? More than long enough already for each of you to realize the other neither is, nor will become, an angel (however it may have seemed when Cupid struck you silly.) You don’t need to be an angel. You certainly shouldn’t want to marry one. Congratulations: you are not. You are getting flesh and blood.
And soul. You are getting soul. And because you are getting soul—grade A human soul— (baptized, let’s remember, signed, sealed, delivered human soul) something perfect lives within you. There truly is a spring of living water within you. It is in here and it is real and is more active than you are probably inclined to think because we live in a time that goes from dumb to dumber as far as mystery is concerned—so pay attention.
Pay attention. See how this spring of living water surfaces, routinely, through one another’s only too imperfect, too conflicted, hearts. Notice how it seeps upwards through the clay, out through the normal greenery of human life. Realize that it wants to be expressed in graceful gestures, tender expressions, instances of kindness, authentic acts of mercy, all of which are evidence of the Spirit on the rise, springs of living water replenishing your garden… moments in and out of time.
Watered thus, your marriage becomes what it intends: a signal of eternity, a passage into mystery, wherein lie secrets to happiness in marriage and the whole wide world of life.
Let’s get to it.