1 Corinthians 13:4–8a
(English Standard Version)
Ten years ago yesterday the warm light of a flawless late summer New England afternoon streamed into a little white church in Warren, Vermont. I, like all self-respecting brides on the day before the wedding, was an anxious wreck. I wasn't yet Bridezilla, though I'd come close that afternoon when one of my bridesmaids called insouciantly to let me know she'd be late for the rehearsal. She'd since made it in time, and now the wedding party and a few odd friends and family were gathered, listening to instructions from Father R. We'd gotten to the readings, and A's aunt began reading 1 Corinthians 13 in French. "L'amour est patient," she recited solemnly from a piece of paper she'd brought with her from France.
Father R jumped in and stopped her. It wouldn't do. It wouldn't do at all. Although our wedding ceremony would be in English -- co-officiated by the local pastor in Warren and Father R, priest from my church back in Seattle and a dear family friend -- we had planned to do one of the readings in French. Now Father R was objecting, politely but firmly, to the word "amour." To him apparently amour was primarily about physical love; it was also, I supposed, about cabarets and Edith Piaf and a mountain of American stereotypes about the French. To him, the proper translation of 1 Corinthians 13 used the more chaste "charité."
A flurry of simultaneous translation followed, between Father R, who only spoke English, A's aunt, who only spoke French, and my husband, who barely understood at first what the problem could possibly be. Once the objection was duly translated and explained, A's aunt looked confused and a bit embarrassed. The very idea that this kind, serious, respectable woman in her seventies could be introducing anything improper to our wedding ceremony was absurd. And I was a bit taken aback that Father R, from our laid-back, accepting, diverse church in Seattle, held such a prudish view on a linguistic detail.
By now the issue was making its way around the room, and the previously bored French bystanders were whispering amongst themselves and laughing discreetly. Meanwhile I was growing more and more upset. I disliked the word "charité." It sounded rational, just, kind, measured, but devoid of passion. To my still less-than-fluent ear it sounded nothing like what I felt for A. We'd looked specifically for a translation that didn't use it. I had no idea how I'd stand up to Father R's well-meaning pastoral authority, however, or how if necessary I'd find another translation in time for the ceremony the next day.
A close friend from high school stepped up and started calmly explaining the French etymology, as he understood it, and the subtleties of the multiple Greek translations of the word "love". He'd studied French, he was raised in the Greek Orthodox church, and his parents were librarians; this was the kind of argument he could have had at the dinner table. Meanwhile, one of A's groomsmen smirked indulgently at the textbook case of American puritanism. I can't remember exactly how, but we eventually reassured Father R that the reading even with amour did address all the facets of love.
Father R poked fun at the incident in the homily the next day. With his customary warm eloquence, he wished us plenty of both amour and charité, as I recall.
I haven't thought much about 1 Corinthians since, and I'll admit that except for the misunderstanding during the rehearsal, I hadn't thought much about it back then. It was simply the reading everyone chose for a wedding. Yes to patience and kindness. No to arrogance and envy. It sounded a bit obvious taken out of context, as if it could be a biblical version of 'Marriage for Dummies.' But sweet, still, and the lesson clear enough, with a neat little "Love never ends" to tie it all up reassuringly. A and I squeezed each other's hand as we sat and listened attentively next to the altar.
We've been married now for ten years, and in the last week I have been less than patient and certainly less than kind on more than one occasion. I have also, I'm afraid, insisted heavily on having my way more than once. I am sometimes (ahem) a bit irritable and resentful when I wake up for Mademoiselle's third night feeding, or when my husband heads out the door for a run as I sweep the breakfast crumbs from under the table. But here's the strange thing. We now have two kids. Days are short, nights are even shorter (!), our apartment is smaller, and the logistics of life are more challenging than I ever would have guessed at age 24, back when we got married. Lord knows I gripe -- c.f. my previous post -- and my husband, of course, has his own grievances I'm sure, but that is not what defines our love. The irritation, the arrogance, the frustration, just as much as the sleepless nights with crying infants, the long discussions about job and hearth, shopping lists, tantrums, meal planning, scattered Legos, the picking up mummified avocado off the living room floor... are like waves. That's it, I guess. Waves against stone, smoothing the rough, fragile bits and wearing the strong part smooth.
It feels easier to be in love now than at age 24. I've slowly shed much of what was then so defensive in my nature. I no longer need it. My husband and I know each other well enough now to sometimes finish each other's sentences, while at the same time we're both better at stopping and actually listening to what the other one is saying. Nothing motivates me more to finish something, like the dishes, than knowing that A would do it for me unasked. We still wind up taking collateral damage when we stumble unexpectedly into the minefield of each other's childhood crap. Everyone's got baggage and in every marriage you occasionally drop it on the other's toes. But when that happens, we both see it, admit it (after screaming and stomping a bit, perhaps), problem solve as polite adults, and manage to poke fun at ourselves.
I suspect that's the charité that Father R was getting at. But it's also, I maintain firmly, most of what you need to know about amour.