The Personalist Project

Accessed on September 26, 2023 - 11:56:25

Bonhoeffer stresses the role of human will in conjugal love

Katie van Schaijik, Dec 17, 2011

Jules is currently reading a magisterial biography of the great German Lutheran pastor, theologian and martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  Knowing that I'm ever on the lookout for illuminating quotations about love and marriage, this morning he sent me a link to Bonhoeffer's Wedding Sermon, written for a young couple from a prison cell in 1943.

Its personalist emphases are striking and powerful. Note how the following passage identifies freedom, responsibility and self-determination (lived out in a dynamic moral sphere of possibilities and risks) as hallmarks of human dignity:

With the ‘Yes’ that they have said to each other, they have by their free choice given a new direction to their lives; they have cheerfully and confidently defied all the uncertainties and hesitations with which, as they know, a lifelong partnership between two people is faced; and by their own free and responsible action they have conquered a new land to live in. . 

The next line deepens the emphasis:

Every wedding must be an occasion of joy that human beings can do such great things, that they have been given such immense freedom and power to take the helm in their life’s journey.  

That image of taking the helm in our own life's journey reminds me of Wojtyla's well-known metaphor for human life: each of us must realize that we are "the protagonist in the drama of our lives," and Oscar Wilde's lament that somewhere along the low and debauching path he had chosen for himself, he had "ceased to be captain of [his] own soul."

These are typically modern and personalistic conceptions, very different from the ancient notion of our being bound by a destiny determined by the gods, or the medieval sense of human nature as unfolding by a natural process toward its given end. (I oversimplify drastically to make the point.)

Bonhoeffer goes on to offer the bride and groom a caution against over-spiritualizing their union.

We ought not to be in too much of a hurry here to speak piously of God’s will and guidance. It is obvious, and it should not be ignored, that it is your own very human wills that are at work here, celebrating their triumph; the course that you are taking at the outset is one that you have chosen for yourselves; 

Young men and women who had the privilege of having Fr. Wojtyla for a spiritual directior testify how sessions with him usually ended not with his telling them what he thought they should do, but rather with his urging them firmly: "You must decide." He understood deeply, and sought to convey to those under his guidance, that this power of self-determination is at the very heart of our dignity and vocation as persons.  We must learn to take it fully seriously.

In Dr. Peter's talk on marriage a few weeks ago (you can listen to it by becoming a member and clicking the link to the right), he spoke of a common, negative psychological dynamic in marriage.  When we fall in love, we are filled with elation and confidence that we have found the right person: the one designed by God for me to love and by loved by, always and forever. But then comes a frightening moment when the love no longer flows so effortlessly, and—especially if we went into marriage with that overly pious view of its being "God's will"—we may be tempted to think we have made a mistake.  We have married the wrong person.  God somehow misled us,  or else we misunderstood Him.  This is the moment when that awareness of personal responsibility stressed by Bonhoeffer is so particularly right and necessary. As Dr. Peter puts it: Before we marry, we should take care to choose the right person.  After we marry—once we have said that momentous "I do"—our whole aim and focus should be on becoming the right person for the other.  

By doing so, we achieve a new level of self-transcendence and moral maturity.  We begin to recognize and experience that spousal love, in its fullness, is not only a gift, but a task, and, lived faithfully, a high and admirable human achievement.

I'll be posting more about conjugal love and marriage in the coming weeks, as I prepare to teach my courtship course that begins in January.