Our church has been working our way, once or twice a month, through Robert Farrar Capon’s wonderful little book, Bed and Board: Plain Talk About Marriage. Fr. Capon’s main theme throughout is that roles define us and that this reality is good. This week’s chapter is “Bed,” and in it Capon applies this view of roles and definition to the way that sexual boundaries give us true freedom. To get us to this point, though, he first lays out an important explanation of the relationship between limitation and freedom in general. Capon writes:
It is precisely the confines of the stage that render the dancer’s freedom effective: The ballet is saved from enslavement to limitless idea by the lights in front and the drops in back. The graceful flight up the curving staircase, the pursuit, the capture, the embrace, are delivered from being mere concepts, delivered into the real world—delivered as a child is delivered—by the very solidity of the stairs, by the precise height of the risers and the depth of the treads. Geography snatches them from the edge of the boundless void and defines them into freedom. And so the marriage is delivered by the bed. The untamability of romance, the endlessness of the vision of the beloved, threaten constantly to send us off in successive limitless expeditions after something that grows successively harder to define. The movie star on her fifth marriage seems always to be less clear about what she wants and less free to make her wanting serve her well. For under it all lies the endlessly expansive pride of a being who cannot add a cubit to her stature or a minute to her life. That is our dilemma: desire is endless; we are not. (Bed and Board, Simon and Schuster 1965, 68-69)
Part of what makes Capon’s writing special is his ability to take classical philosophy and Christian theology and make it seem like just plain common sense. He’s something like a cross between C.S. Lewis and Garrison Keillor in that way. There’s a lot of St. Paul, Augustine, Dante, and even Lewis himself inspiring this chapter, and we can see that the “problem” is that man has an innate desire for something larger than himself. The finite pursues the infinite but can never catch up, and even if it did, the finite could never contain the infinite. When we add sin into the mix, mankind’s immediate danger is always in being destroyed by his desire. This is as true for sex as it is for business or empire, and so God gives us a means of deliverance through specific ordinances, duties, and laws.
Marriage was instituted in the time of man’s innocency, but it has operated ever since under the shadow of the fall. Therefore its materialities, along with all our other materialities, become the means of our cure. He who perished by a tree is saved by a tree. He who died by an apple is restored by eating the flesh of his Savior. Our lust is to be healed by being brought down to one bed, our savagery tamed by the exchanges around a lifelong table. Bed, Board, rooftree and doorway become the choice places of our healing, the delimitations of our freedom. By setting us boundaries, they hold us in; but they trammel the void as well. By confining, they keep track of us – they leave us free to be found, and to find ourselves. The vow of lifelong fidelity to one bed, one woman, becomes the wall at the edge of the cliff that leaves the children free to play a little, rather than be lost at large. Marriage gives us somewhere to be. (69-70)
Marriage is both a restraint and an enabler. It allows us to actual realize our desire by limiting our desire to one specific person and making promises which bind us to that person. We find “love” by finding someone to love, and we continue to possess that love by keeping our word. And in this restriction and limitation we are truly free.
Think of the horror of an absolute lack of limits. It might seem like an appealing tower of Babel, but the reality is more like being formless and void. Imagine the full and complete “freedom” of outer space. Once the astronaut breaks his tether from the ship, he is without any limit and all. But he isn’t free in any meaningful sense because his context is too great for him. He can never move towards or away from a goal because he is simply at sea in what seems limitless. Instead of finding freedom, he is in a new form of slavery.
This becomes immediately practical when we consider people who cannot satisfy their desires with the callings God gives them. We’ve all known those people. Perhaps we have been those people for a while. Men and women with wanderlust, the talented who can never set their sights on just one thing, those people who constantly jump from job to job or keep moving to new locations, the constant searcher– these people are all trapped by their freedom. They cannot put down true roots, and they end up suffering rather than flourishing. They have so much potential, but it stays right there, as potential.
Capon ties this into pride, and it is true that there is a pride here. But pride and insecurity are two sides of the same coin. Often rootless people are already afraid. What if this isn’t the best? What if this person isn’t right for me? What if my kids don’t turn out the way I want? What if this isn’t what I was looking for after all? What if I mess up? I’d better keep moving.
This is where we need Jesus. Yes, there are doubts. Yes, you might mess up. Yes, freedom is scary. But take heart, it’s not up to you. Accept the calling that God gives you, find yourself in your role– your time and your place, and remember the gospel. Jesus sets us right with God and Jesus alone. Jesus gives us the power to be holy and to be righteous, and Jesus gives us the power to persevere through all sorts of trial, tribulation, affliction, and disappointment. You can do all things through Christ Jesus.
So believe and live. Live your life. Be yourself. “Be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10).
It takes courage to believe. That’s true. But we are helped by the knowledge that our trust is in God, the maker of heaven and earth. We believe that He can do all things because we know that He can do all things. And we can believe that He knows what He’s doing when He gives us our lives. Because of this we can be ourselves.