Finding Angels in Boulders: Marriage, Imagination and Agnosticism

The story is told of the sculptor Michelangelo. One day, a neighbor observed him rolling a large, ugly stone up the hill to his front porch. After pausing a moment to catch his breath, the sculptor got out his hammer and chisel and began to pound on the boulder.  Observing this strange behavior, the neighbor was overcome with curiosity, walked across the street, and inquired, “What are you doing pounding on that boulder?” To which, Michelangelo replied, “There’s an angel inside and I’m trying to let it out!”

I find this a good image for life in general, and marriage in particular. I believe that this is what Gary Thomas has in mind in his text, Sacred Search: What If It’s Not about Who You Marry, But Why? (David C. Cook) Both Thomas and I want to approach marriage in terms of preventing problems before they emerge, by making first things first. For Thomas’ more transcendent approach, it is putting God’s kingdom first in your dating and relationships; for me, taking a more concrete approach, it involves seeing the holiness in others and making a commitment to bless our relationships regardless of life’s circumstances. Still, I recommend Thomas’ book for more conservative Christian couples.

Perhaps the difference in our approaches comes from our different theologies, both of which are legitimate options within Christianity.  Thomas comes from a conservative, strict constructionist approach to scripture and doctrine, and tends to be rule orientated. I come from a flexible, dynamic, and constantly evolving approach to scripture and doctrine, and tend to open the door to a variety of loving relationships, including same sex and positive marriages among persons of different faith traditions. In Thomas’ case, a biblical-transcendent approach is essential to a good marriage; in my approach, while I don’t assume I fully know the meaning of a good marriage, I see successful marriages as emerging from shared values, deep listening, and openness to holy otherness. That’s what seeing angels in boulders is all about!

Life is full of jagged boulders, unhelpful moments, challenging encounters, and unfixable situations.  Our friends and loved ones often surprise us with their pain, anger, and insensitivity.  Like jagged boulders, they gouge us with words and omissions. Some relational issues seem utterly intractable and we just have to find ways to live with them, if we can muster the patience, persistence, and love to do so.

Of course, the people we love – our spouses and partners – are some of the most boulder-like individuals we will ever meet.  The fact of their “otherness,” the reality that they have hurts, dreams, agendas, interpretations, and idiosyncrasies of their own, without any regard to us and our actions, is baffling and sometimes infuriating.  We can protest with Billy Joel that we are “innocent men” or “innocent women,” but love demands a response even for problems we did not create, but still sully and complicate our relationships with those we love. Now, of course, we often forget that to others our idiosyncrasies, pain, agenda, dreams, and interpretations are also baffling and sometimes infuriating!  As we notice the boulders of others’ lives, we often overlook our own.  Our loved ones must invoke the Serenity Prayer in their dealings with us, just as we must invoke it in reaching out to them.

With this preamble, let me simply say that one characteristic of a healthy and loving marriage is “seeing angels in boulders.”  It involves looking past the obvious issues that trouble us to see the angelic – the presence of God –within those whom we love.  This is not about being a doormat or accepting bad behavior.  Sometimes we have to say “stop” or “ouch” or  “be still” or “that hurt” or “back off” while still making a commitment to see the angel peeking forth from life’s boulders.  This takes imagination, but this imaginative approach – dare I say spiritual approach – enables us to transform “irritating otherness” into “holy otherness.”  We are able to glimpse the subjectivity; the humanity and holiness beneath the pain.

Love takes a great deal of imagination and with it, humility.  In the famous passage from I Corinthians 13, the apostle Paul says, “We see in a mirror dimly….we see in part.”  This is one of the foundations for seeing angels in the boulders of life – the admission of our own limitations, interpretations of reality, finitude, and possibility of being wrong.  Paul’s insight reminds us that our partner is always “more” than we can imagine.  We can never fully “know” or “figure out” another, nor is the other a finished product.  We are all “works in process,” capable of growth and transformation.

One of my rabbi friends invokes the words of Martin Buber, “reality is not always understandable, but it is embraceable.” A growing marriage is about increasing in stature spiritually and relationally.  It is about embracing the unique otherness of one’s partner without judgment.  It is about accepting your own pain and hurt, and the pain and hurt others inflict upon you, and remembering that you cannot truly change another, you only have the power to change yourself – to grow – and in your growth, create an environment for others to grow.

On January 13, my wife and I celebrate our thirty fourth wedding anniversary.  It has not always been easy, but it has been worth it every step of the way.  While I don’t necessary feel at home with Gary Thomas’ “focus on the family” conservatism and prudishness and believe some of his interpretations mirror his biases and not flesh and blood realities of relationship (sadly, he does not positively include same sex couples in his counsel), we share one thing – the belief that marriage is above all a spiritual partnership.  I am grateful to be married to my wife Kate for a variety of obvious reasons – intelligence, beauty, companionship, history together, support, mutuality, and love (she is still the “love of my life” after all these years) – and I am grateful for some other subtle reasons – our current calling to be faithfully present for our two grandsons, our care for Kate’s 95 year old mother-in-law who lives with us, the ability to be a team during our son’s cancer and in responding to the needs of friends and the larger community, our concern for planetary well-being and social justice issues. Marriage is about partnership and this partnership is a spiral that embraces others.  I cannot imagine going through the joys and crises we have shared if we had not been partners, but rather estranged adversaries.  There have been plenty of “boulder” moments as we tried to navigate our unique gifts and approaches to reality, our own very differing needs and personality types and ways of approaching conflict and possibility, but more often than not there have been angels and these have burst forth, when we took the time to look beyond our feelings to embrace the other.

There are angels in boulders and holiness in otherness. Look deeper, see the divinity in the other, and open to God’s guidance in creating an environment for bringing it forth.

This post is sponsored by the Patheos Book Club on The Sacred Search: What If It’s Not About Who You Marry, But Why? by Gary Thomas. 

About Bruce Epperly

Bruce Epperly is a theologian, spiritual guide, and Pastor of South Congregational United Church of Christ, Centerville (Cape Cod), Massachusetts. He is the author of twenty five books, including Process Theology: A Guide to the Perplexed, Philippians: An Interactive Bible Study,The Center is Everywhere: Celtic Spirituality for the Postmodern Age, and Emerging Process: Adventurous Theology for a Missional Church. He also writes regularly for the Process and Faith lectionary. He has served as chaplain, professor, and administrator at Georgetown University, Lancaster Theological Seminary, Wesley School of Theology, and Claremont School of Theology. He may be reached at drbruceepperly@aol.com for lectures, workshops, and retreats. His latest book is Healing Marks: Healing and Spirituality in Mark’s Gospel (Energion).

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