A woman I know tells this story:
She married a man she loved but, early on in the marriage, she was too immature to responsibly carry her part of the relationship. One night she went to a party with her husband, drank too much, and left the party with another man. Eventually she sobered up and repentantly found her way home, fully expecting the marital skies to be ripped asunder with anger. But her husband though hurt and shaken by what had happened was calm, philosophical, direct.
When she walked sheepishly into the room he demanded neither an explanation nor an apology. Ultimately, what is there to say? He simply said to her: “I’m going away for a few days so that you can be alone because you need to decide who you are: are you a married woman or are you something else?” He took a three-day sabbatical from her, she cried, sorted out the question he had put to her, and now, years beyond this painful incident, she is inside a solid marriage and infinitely more aware that the pearl of great price comes precisely at a great price.
Every choice is a renunciation. Thomas Aquinas said that, and it helps explain why we struggle so painfully to make clear choices. We want the right things, but we want other things too. Yet every choice is a series of renunciations.
If I marry one person, I cannot marry anyone else; if I live in one place, I cannot live anywhere else; if I choose a certain career, that excludes many other careers; if I have this, then I cannot have that. The list could go on indefinitely. To choose one thing is to renounce others. That’s the nature of choice.
In most areas of our lives we do not feel this so painfully. We choose and there isn’t a lot of sting to the loss. But the area of love is more sensitive. Here we feel the sting of loss more strongly and here we often find it hard to accept the real limits of life. What are those limits? They are the limits that come with being an infinite spirit in a finite world.
We are fired into this world with a madness that comes from the gods and has us believe that we are destined to embrace the cosmos itself. We don’t want just something, we want everything. That’s a simple way, though a good one, of saying something that Christianity has always said, namely, that in body and soul we are meant to embrace everyone and we already hunger for that. Perhaps we experience it most clearly in our sexuality, but the hunger is everywhere present in us. Our yearning is wide, our longing is infinite, our urge to embrace is promiscuous. We are infinite in yearning, but, in this life, we only get to meet the finite.
That’s what makes love difficult. We are over-charged in our own lives. We have divine fire inside us, want everything, yearn for the whole world, and yet, at a point, have to commit to one particular person, at one particular place, and in one very particular life, with all the limits that imposes. Infinite desire limited by a finite choice, such is the nature of real life and love.
Life and love, beyond the abstract and beyond the grandiosity of our own daydreams, involve hard, painful renunciation. But it is precisely that very renunciation that helps us grow up and makes our lives real in a way that our daydreams don’t.
In trying to explain some of the deeper secrets of life, Jesus gives us this parable: the kingdom of God is like a merchant in search of fine pearls. When he finds a single one of great value, he goes and sells all that he owns and buys that pearl. That, the pearl of great price, the value of love and its cost, is in essence the challenge which the young husband put to his wife when he told her to sort out the question, “are you a married woman or are you something else?”
For what are you willing to renounce other things?
What is our own pearl of great price? Are we willing to give up everything in exchange for it? Are we willing to live with its limits? Until we are clear on these questions there is forever the danger that, like the wife who left the party without her husband, we will act out in dangerous and hurtful ways.
Thoreau once said: “The youth gets together materials to build a bridge to the moon or perhaps a palace or a temple; … at length the middle-aged man decides to build a woodshed with such materials.”
So too in love and life: the child sets out to make love to the whole world and the adult eventually determines to marry a single person, in essence, to build a woodshed. But it’s only in that shed where life and love are real in this world.