The Way of True Romance: Valentines Day 2018

Two robins, under their Maker’s care, find their way within the bleak yet beautiful conditions of mid-winter.

The painting above (Two Robins, 2010, Craig Gallaway) and the song below (Love Is Like, 1994,Craig and Deborah Gallaway) are a poetic introduction to the themes explored in the longer essay below. Both song and painting evoke reflection on our human experience of romantic love. Love, as something deeper and more difficult than we often acknowledge; something that is grounded, moreover, in the Mind of our Maker and in the order of creation itself. We hope you enjoy the song and the painting, and then, if you choose, spend some time with us thinking about the way of true romance.

Love Is Like, 1994, Craig and Deborah Gallaway

Deb and I first met in the fall of 1975 at Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia. A little over a year later, with a strong sense of adventure and romance, we began our journey into the mystery of Christian marriage. From the beginning, we were buoyed up by many things. We were studying together at a great school, surrounded by brilliant teachers and stimulating friends. We took long walks along the shores of English Bay, and watched one night as a family of geese swam through the channel of light reflected from the moon over the top of Hollyburn Mountain. We snowshoed up that mountain, strolled the seawall at Stanley Park, and shared wonderful meals, music, and church services with friends and colleagues. And then we completed our degrees, left Canada, and moved to Texas.

We moved to Dallas to work with some of my old friends in a rundown, inner-city neighborhood. Our first child, Ben, was born in 1979, and we began the long pilgrimage of making a household, keeping jobs, and building our family. Our second son, Chris, came to us in 1983 while I was completing doctoral work at Emory in Atlanta. And then we moved to Nashville to take a job in publishing where our third son, Zach, was born in 1992. Of course, not all of these times were as “romantic” as those early days in Vancouver. We had to face hard times financially, to rediscover our own woundedness while learning to face differences and work through conflicts with each other; and then, later, to wrestle with rearing our sons through adolescence, and even to lose dear Zach in a motorcycle accident in Birmingham in 2013, just when he had nearly made it through those stormy years.

There have been times in this pilgrimage when, as both Deb and I could tell you, we weren’t sure there was much left of the two young romantic people who met in Vancouver. And yet, by a providence not our own, the dark and trying times did not destroy us, or ruin our journey into the mystery of Christian romance and marriage. That mystery, as we see it now, might be summed up in a single phrase from the letter of Paul to the Ephesians (5:21). “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.”

To be sure, this idea of “submission” will raise red flags for some in our era of sexual “liberation” and romantic adventurism (which Deb’s and my 60’s generation sadly helped to launch). The mantra now, as we all know, is that everyone is “free” to explore, or to invent, one’s own sexual identity or romantic style, and then to honor these experiments, so long as they are consensual, with the title of “marriage.” Likewise, the commonplace of “Hollywood” romance (both in the movies and among the stars) is that one “falls in love” under the thrill and ecstasy of romance; but then one is free again, when difficulties arise, or the shine wears off, to fall out of love, and to seek a new partner who will take one’s breath away. The idea of “submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ” sounds archaic and stilted over against these contemporary themes. Is Christian marriage then simply out of touch with what is really romantic?

In 1976, when Deb and I first began to think about marriage, we started discussing a book with a somewhat daunting title, The Theology of Romantic Love. This book, by Mary McDermott Schideler, explores the ideas of Charles Williams concerning how our experiences of human romance, at their best, are grounded in the reality of God’s love for the world in Christ. Williams (a friend of C. S. Lewis) also followed the logic of Ephesians 5, where Paul urges “husbands to love their wives as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.” And “wives to submit to their husbands as the church submits to Christ.” Paul’s conclusion anticipates Williams’s main theme. The gift of marriage is given to us as a sign of an even greater and deeper mystery: God’s sacrificial love for the whole world in his Son, the Bridegroom, Jesus the King. From our first conversations, Deb and I felt that we were touching here on something deep and rich, a key to the full reality and potential of our own romance and marriage. But, of course, we were just starting out, and there was as yet a long way to go.

Charles Williams’s reflections on romantic love are also illuminated with Dante’s poetry about his beautiful and beloved Beatrice. Williams saw in Dante and Beatrice three stages In the romantic journey of lovers, which parallel three stages in the love of Christ for the world. First is the stage of the appearance, or the revelation, of the image of love. For Dante this occurred when he first met Beatrice. She was the very image of love incarnate. Her beauty and grace stunned him. To be addressed by her on the street was to have his whole world set right all at once, to see the color of the sky anew, to hear the sounds of nature as if for the first time. This is what we call “falling in love.” It is echoed, at least dimly, in the scripts of Hollywood. It is what Deb and I experienced along the shores of English Bay, when the whole world seemed to have been remade just for us. And in the life of Christ, it is the period of his first appearance, his birth, and his early, vibrant ministry. He was the image of God’s love made visible. And the response of the people, at least at first, was like that of Dante, or me, or any lover: They were flocking to be near him, to see him, to touch his garment, to be healed and fed, and to hear his words of authority and power. Once they opened their hearts to him, they couldn’t get enough of this wonderful, magical person.

But just as Jesus’ popularity with the people came under strain as he and they met with resistance from various sources–trials, testings, temptations, difficulties, and direct opposition–so the first glories of romance do not last forever, as lovers go on to face the challenges and responsibilities of life together. This leads to the second stage of romantic love, the stage at which the image of love fades and dies. According to Williams, this happens to all lovers. For one reason or another, sooner or later the beloved no longer embodies all of those superlatives that once seemed to set the whole world humming. For Dante, this occurred when Beatrice literally died. For Deb and me, and for many married couples, it comes with the daily grind of living, the trials of being different, with conflicts about important decisions, or poor communication, and eventually with the trials of growing older. It can also come, of course, with abuse, or unfaithfulness. In Jesus’ case, it came with his growing conflict with the religious authorities, and then emphatically with his crucifixion by the state. At this point, lovers (even spouses and disciples) often lose faith and turn away. The really important question, then, is whether lovers will make it through this death to what lies beyond.

Williams expands on this: In the first stage of love, the image of the beloved comes to us and shocks us, almost as if we were a passive observer. As we open our hearts to the other person, despite the dangers and risks involved, we are overwhelmed with life and joy. Likewise, in the second stage, we may feel anxious and helpless as the exhilarations of romance begin to fade. Even Hollywood seems to get these two stages more or less right. In the third stage, however, the stage of Ephesians 5, of “submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ,” we enter a new dynamic. There is to be no more passivity, no more waiting for everything to be given to us. We are called, instead, to make a very conscious and active choice in faith, to become the image of love for our beloved, to lay down our lives in love for our wife or our husband, as Christ laid down his life for the world. And the promise in this is that those who lay down their lives will find them. “The happy old couples,” wrote C. S. Lewis, “have come through a difficult death and re-birth. But far more have missed the re-birth.”

The third stage of romantic love, then, according to Williams, is the stage of resurrection. Had the cross been the end of Jesus, we probably would never have heard anything more about him. He would have been at best another brave revolutionary whose vision and foresight betrayed him. But as the Scriptures attest, and as his presence by the power of his Spirit with his people, the church, has proven to countless believers throughout history, his life did not end with his death on the cross. As Paul says elsewhere, “He humbled himself, even unto death on a cross . . . therefore God has highly exalted him.” And for those of us who face the loss of romance, when it seems that love itself has died, this is our calling in Christ as well. He submitted his life to his Father, and so broke through the fearful power of death that binds the world; just so, “out of reverence for Christ,” and by faith in Him, we are called to serve and to love one another, even when it looks like love has died.

In this way, Deb and I are still seeking to live into the mystery of Christian marriage and romance. We see how the prototype for our love is the deeper reality of God’s love for the world in Christ. We bear witness that Christ’s presence and guidance in our lives has made our love and romance grow richer, finer, fuller–not thinner or duller. And yet we also see that our marriage, on this foundation, is not in itself the goal of everything, even for us. There is, after all, to be no marriage or giving in marriage in the world to come. When Dante encounters Beatrice again, in his vision of Paradise, she is his guide for a while; but then she turns back to the eternal fountain. The kind of love we are learning in marriage, then–including eros, friendship, family, shared decision-making, and sacrificial serving–is not just about us. It pulls us forward and outward, beyond ourselves, to anticipate with justice, beauty, and kindness toward others in this life, the wedding feast of the Lamb of God, when all things shall be made new and we shall “grow up into Christ in all things.” And this also means, even now, the best and richest and most down-to-earth romance as well.



One thought on “The Way of True Romance: Valentines Day 2018

  1. Thank you both for raising a consciousness about this mystery called love. And an even greater mystery in God’s selfless love for us forever. Much to ponder!

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