The Spiritual Journey of the Nuclear Family

JUDEO-CHRISTIAN faith has always been thought of as a journey. The earliest biblical creeds sum up Israelite faith not in terms of a list of doctrines, not in ten commandments, but in the form of a journey. “I brought your father Abraham from the region beyond the River and led him through the entire land of Canaan . . . . Afterward I led you out of Egypt . . . . I brought you into the land of the Amorites” (Josh. 24:3, 6, 8). Exodus, exile, return form the leitmotif of Old Testament salvation history. And Yahweh is the Lord of all history. “Did I not bring the Israelites from the land of Egypt as I brought the Philistines from Caphtor and the Aramenians from Kir?” (Amos 9:7). In and through the history of Israel, and not apart from it, the Lord was disclosed to the chosen people. By a faith-informed meditation on its national story, Israel came to understand who God is and what the destiny of Israel was meant to be.

Many classics of the spiritual life, from St. Augustine’s Confessions to Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain, were conceived in the form of a journey. St. Bonaventure’s The Soul’s Journey into God, St. Teresa of Avila’s Way of Perfection, Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, and many other spiritual masterpieces are worked out along the lines of a journey. In fact, for medieval theology life here on earth was essentially in via — “on the way.” Vatican II, echoing the words of St. Augustine, says “the church, ‘like a pilgrim in a foreign land, presses forward amid the persecutions of the world and the consolations of God,’ announcing the cross and death of the Lord until He comes.”  The Christian family too, the “domestic church,” shares in its own ways in the great journey of faith, God’s people marching toward the kingdom of God. All Christian life is a participation in the great passover of the Son who came out from God, proclaimed the kingdom of God, suffered and died, and then was raised up by the Father.

happy-familyIn the following pages I would like to meditate on four themes from biblical tradition that illuminate the special spiritual journey of Christian marriage and family life. I will begin with the ideal suggested in the very first pages of Genesis, then move to the more prosaic Israelite reality of marriage as evidenced in Proverbs. Next, I will take the ecstatic dimensions of married love alluded to in the prophets and celebrated in the Song of Songs. Finally, I will point out how Christian marriage participates in the eschatological vision of Christian faith.

The first of these themes relates to the creation of the first couple recounted in Genesis, chapter 2. After the author has set out the delightful story of the formation of Eve from Adam’s side, and after Adam has recognized in her “bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh,” the text concludes: “That is why a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, and the two of them become one body’ (Gen. 2:23-24).

Several things about this passage are striking. First of all, there is the fact that the man is said to leave his father and mother, whereas in actual fact, just the reverse is what usually happened. That is, normally, the woman left her father’s household and joined that of her husband. The Old Testament world was very patriarchal, not to say male chauvinist. The woman passed from being part of the property, admittedly of a very special sort, of her father or guardian and became part of the possessions (almost) of her husband and his clan. But the text here says that the man leaves his parents, as presumably the woman does as well, and together they form a new “body.” In terms of the economic and social facts of ancient Israel, there is no question here of the new couple’s literally moving out of the patriarchal household and settling into an apartment in the Jerusalem suburbs. The leaving involved is metaphorical. Husband and wife do leave the dominant sphere of their parents and create their own new center of life.


This image speaks to the first stage in the spiritual journey of every new family, every marriage. Spouses must leave behind large aspects of their past lives. To some degree they have to get out from under mothers’ skirts; they must stand up on their own apart from fathers’ security. Young couples imagine this is easy. They think nothing more attractive than to get out from under the burden of parental authority. But it is not very long before they begin to realize that they have brought a great deal of their parents along with them. It is the classic story of “but my mother used to make Sunday breakfast this way” and “my father used to do jobs like this as a matter of course.” Naturally not all of this is bad. If every couple had to invent the wheel all over again, marriage would be a hopeless proposition. We learn from our parents and our family’s traditions and experience. We grow out of the nurture we have all received. Good families lead to good families, and shaky families do not readily produce strong new ones.

Still, it remains true that spouses have to make a serious journey when they get married. They have to go out of something comfortable in a thousand ways that they never really noticed and start building another world. This surrender demands a level of self-abnegation that challenges all couples in the first few years of marriage. When novices enter religious life, it is made very clear to them that they are leaving “the world” behind. They give up their possessions to a degree, they put on new clothes, they assume a wholly different discipline. Marriage too has its novitiate, its period of testing and surrender of worlds now past. As a Christian couple enters a new life together, as they take on a new Christian vocation, they are called to go out of other houses and into a new one. They are addressed as Abraham was: “Go forth from the land of your kinsfolk and from your fathers house to a land that I will show you” (Gen. 12:1).

Another aspect of the Genesis account that evokes the spiritual journey of marriage is the writer’s saying that the man and woman “become one body.” The one body, the unity of marriage and of family love, is not something achieved in an instant. As the Genesis story is set up, Eve is indeed created for Adam, but the Bible does not just leave it at that. Adam and Eve are suited to each other in a large sense, but they do not constitute some sort of automatic, mechanical “fit.” A popular theory assumes that marital happiness depends on finding the right mate. It is as if one were going to a hardware store, looking for the right size fixture to go with what one already has. “We are right for each other.” Across the crowded ballroom of the world one catches sight of the perfect match for oneself, a person who just fits one’s personality. Or there is the tabloid write-up on the movie star’s marrying for the umpteenth time and remarking, “I think it’s the right one this time.” Surely there has to be a certain basic commonality for a realistic marriage; but in the final analysis, marriage and family unity is something the couple creates, not something it discovers. Spouses have to become one body. Of course, this growing together is something that should have started during courtship. There should be a great deal of oneness before the wedding. But unity does not just sit there. When it comes to interpersonal relations generally, and certainly when it comes to families with children, change is the rule, not the exception. Unity is something that has to be constantly nurtured. Becoming one is a lifelong task.

Finally, Adam and Eve become one body. This phrase touches on the fundamental antinomy of married life. Adam is still Adam, Eve is still Eve — they are even more fully themselves through this relationship — but at the same time they are also one. Many young people are afraid of marriage because they fear losing part of their autonomy, part even of their authentic selves. In many ways spouses do surrender things. Each takes a vow of obedience not altogether different from that of religious. There is a sense in which both consent to “obey” the other. Love, honor, and obey are reciprocal. Each agrees to be led by his or her spouse, to be open to the other’s needs and aspirations and to make them part of their common life project. Of course, no one can or should cease t be a unique self. No one should enter marriage abandoning that personal spiritual journey each person begins at birth and Christian baptism. Each spouse has a unique voice to contribute to the chorus of creation. Marriage simply means that each spouse undertakes to carry out that personal project, develop that unique melody, in concert with this special other. One’s own tastes, one’s own preferences, must be modulated to harmonize with those of one’s spouse. This adjusting at times means surrendering private preference to integrate family values into a greater whole. A husband tailors his career, his use of free-time, the way he spends the family purse in cooperation with, after discussion with, and sometimes in a difficult process of give-and-take with his wife. She too structures her own evolution, her own projects, her fulfillment of her own needs in relationship to, and in dialogue with, those of her husband. And both husband and wife constantly adjust their lives to cultivate the growing needs of their whole family. So being “one body” is not an easy task. It demands a level of generosity, of sympathetic insight, of sacrificial love that challenges the best of Christian spouses.


Another part of Old Testament tradition that helps us work out some of the dynamics of Christian family spirituality is the Book of Proverbs. This book is a part of a biblical wisdom that grew out of people’s practical experience. A good deal of it touches on aspects of marriage and family life. There are many passages, for example, that talk about the importance of marriage fidelity, though not always in terms we would today find wholly adequate. Adultery is bad, not because it goes against God’s law or is a violation of the marriage covenant, but rather because it leads to trouble and more trouble. Besides, adultery is an offense against the other husband’s property. Still, according to Proverbs, a happy marriage is one of the greatest goods of life. “A worthy wife is the crown of her husband,” and we would add, “A worthy husband is the crown of his wife.” There are also many passages in Proverbs about the proper formation of children, and this too is a great part of the journey of the Christian family. The famous advice, “He who spares his rod hates his son,” comes from Proverbs (13:24).

But I would particularly like to reflect on the concluding chapter of Proverbs with its picture of the ideal wife (31:10-31). We generally get a rather one-sided picture of the role of women from a quick reading of the Old Testament. It seems that men do all the legislating, all the ruling, most of the prophesying. Of course, there are important figures like Miriam, Moses’ sister, who was actually far more significant historically than the present state of the Bible lets on. There is Deborah, the heroine of the Book of judges; there are powerful queen-mothers, fleeting glimpses of soothsayers and the like, brave Esther in the court of Ahasuerus, and the marvelous if rather bloody story about Judith who chopped off the head of evil Holofernes. So, given a suppressed tradition of female heroism in biblical history, pretty generally the Old Testament is a male dominated book. The fact that it was written exclusively by men (the Holy Spirit had to work with what the culture provided) is probably not incidental to this fact.

Proverbs_ideal_wifeBut when we look at this picture of the ideal wife in Proverbs, we see something else. Here is a woman who is no abject wallflower, no mere appendage of her husband. She feeds and clothes her household with great skill and industry; she negotiates real estate deals, plants vineyards, engages in trade and generally runs a fairly complicated outfit. Furthermore, she is no fool: “She opens her mouth in wisdom, and on her tongue is kindly counsel” (31:26). So she is obviously a very competent person and charged with substantial family responsibilities. She is no harem slave nor does she merely derive her identity from her husband. Of course, in our view, she seems to work like a demon, while her husband is pictured “prominent at the city gates as he sits with the elders of the land” (31:23). Finally, she is presented, not as some sexy Ms. Israel, but as a religious person with dignity deriving from inner values and not from standard sexist conventions. “Charm is deceptive and beauty fleeting; the woman who fears the Lord is to be praised” (31:30).

The point is that, when we look at the Book of Proverbs as a whole, there is a certain tension in the way the wife-husband relationship is presented. On the one hand, the woman is said to be either a worthy crown of her husband or as “rot in his bones” (12:4). Frequently woman is presented as temptress: “The lips of an adulteress drip with honey, and her mouth is smoother than oil” (5:3). In any case, in these passages woman is presented as deriving meaning from her relationship with men. The ideal wife of Proverbs’ thirty-first chapter, however, though doubtless a blessing to her husband, is riot — simply his profitable servant and compliant flatterer. She has dignity because she is a creative person in her own right. And her ultimate meaning comes from her relationship with God, not from her service to a husband.

Now an important part of the spiritual journey of Christian families today is connected with the women’s movement. To the consternation of some men, women are more and more insisting on growing up. They are not content with being a “total woman” when that means being a sycophant and toady to an egocentric husband. Though it is not a wholly new phenomenon, women more often today are striving to discover their own collective and individual personhoods, aside from their relationships with men, whether husbands or fathers. Becoming one body, as Genesis recommends, today demands something different from a woman’s becoming submerged in the personality and career of her husband. This evolution in contemporary culture demands growth in women, requires them to assume responsibility for their lives, but it also calls for at least as great growth on the part of men. Of course, there are those passages in Paul and the Pastoral Letters where wives are urged to “be submissive to their husbands as if to the Lord” (Eph. 5:22). But it is also Paul who insists that “there does not exist among you Jew or Greek, slave or freeman, male or female. All are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28). Whatever may have been true in the patriarchal world of ancient Judaism, Paul insists: “If anyone is in Christ, he [or she] is a new creation. The old order has passed away; now all is new!” (2 Cor. 5:17). That change ought to include the end of wives considered as family chattel.

But if in Christ all has been made new in principle, the fact is we have not worked that all out in the realities of our daily lives yet. There is a work of redemption within the structure of the family unit that still needs to be accomplished. Christian wives must be able to affirm all that is positive in the women’s movement today, without having to fight an antiquated world view dolled up in Christian slogans about “God’s chain of command” and the like. Here in another form we have the theme already touched on earlier — the need for spouses to develop as individual persons and their need to do that growing in union with each other. This process of growing together, when women are more and more assuming their rightful places in the worlds of work, politics, church, and family life, is a call to mutual growth that earlier generations of Christian spouses did not have to face quite as starkly. How to give women and men their Christian liberty without jeopardizing the “one body” of family unity is a journey of faith too.


The Song of Songs is surely one of the most astonishing parts of the Bible. Here is a whole book without a single mention of God, Moses, covenant, law, or any other typically biblical theme. In fact, to all intents and purposes, the whole thing is florid love poetry. Many scholars think the Song of Songs is a gathering of traditional marriage feast songs. When the rabbis of the early Christian era determined the canon of Jewish sacred scripture, the Song of Songs is said to have posed serious problems. Then, the story goes, Rabbi Akiba, after many days and nights of pious meditation, concluded that this love story was in fact a celebration of the love relationship between Yahweh and Israel. There can be little doubt that some such understanding is at the bottom of the Israelite will to include this text in the Bible. In fact, long before the composition of the Song of Songs in late biblical times, beginning with the prophet Hosea, it was considered especially apt to compare God’s love for Israel with that of a faithful spouse. Yahweh says to Israel: “I will espouse you to me forever: I will espouse you in right and in justice, in love and in mercy; I will espouse you in fidelity, and you shall know the Lord” (Hos. 2:21-22).

The point is, if we want to know something about what God is, we should reflect on the nature and meaning of a good marriage. The more we come to really know, to experience in our bones, as it were, what human love really is, to that degree we can come to understand what God’s inner meaning is as the great lover of humanity. As the First Letter of John puts it: “Everyone who loves is begotten of God and has knowledge of God . . . for God is love” (4:7-8). When Christian spouses, in fact when all members of a Christian family, grow in love, make love a tangible reality in their lives, they are growing in their knowledge of, their experience of, what God really is deep down within. The journey of love in family life is at the same time a journey of faith.

But it works both way Just as our knowledge of human love tells us something special about what God is, so our reflection on God’s love gives us some notion of what human married love ought to be. Spouses should have the same faithful, forgiving, constant, creative, intimate, selfless, patient, everlasting love for each other as the history of God’s dealings with Israel displays. God’s love in biblical tradition, culminating in the sending of his Son, is the supreme model and goal of all Christian family love.

There is another dimension to the biblical notion of married love and its religious implications here. The Song of Songs is a very sensual book. It begins, “Let him kiss me with kisses of his mouth” (1:1), and goes on from there. One of my favorite passages is: “Your navel is a round bowl that should never lack for mixed wine” (7:3). A contemporary novelist might have some difficulty beating that. What I mean is that the love which constitutes married love and which mirrors God for us is not just some sort of ethereal, spiritual love. It includes a very earthy, sensual, even erotic, sexual love. Human married love becomes fully human, flowers as an earthly reality, when it vibrates in every fiber of the spouses’ selves. One of the tasks of the journey of married love is to make Christian married love reverberate in the very fleshly life of marriage too. Ever since St. Augustine at least, there has been a tendency to look on sexual love with suspicion in Christian circles. St. Augustine connected original sin with concupiscence, which included the all-absorbing tendencies of human sexuality. He thought that if it had not been for original sin, sexual intercourse would have transpired with the same calm indifference with which a farmer sows seed in a field.

Still, there is no gainsaying the chaotic tendencies of human sexuality. Perhaps these tendencies as well as Canaanite fertility rites lie behind the sexual overtones of the story of the fall in the third chapter of Genesis — the business about nakedness and the serpent symbol. Paul, too, inveighs against pagan sexual excess and warns Christians against slipping into that world. Certainly there is no need for proof that sexuality in our contemporary world is often deliriously out of kilter. Integrating sexuality into a truly Christian life is not an automatic or easy task. Orchestrating sexuality into married love, making erotic love an authentic extension of the spiritual communion of the spouses, is a considerable achievement. It is not just suppressing animal instincts; it is a matter of humanizing them, training them to dance to the music of human love.

He that finds a wifeToday there is a whole, mostly wrong-headed technology of sexual love which labors under the illusion that good sex depends on good technique. Reality is otherwise. The quality of sexual love in marriage depends directly on the quality of the love relationship overall. Though I do not know how reliable they are, some statistics seem to show that religious couples tend to have markedly more satisfactory sexual relations than nonreligious ones. I would not claim this universal, but it does stand to reason. Mature, religious spouses see their marriage relationship as an aspect of, or an implementation of, their total vocation to married love. The better that love is, the more highly motivated, the more satisfactory sexual expression of that love is likely to be. Several years ago journalists had a field day when Pope John Paul II suggested that Jesus’ saying from the Sermon on the Mount, “Anyone who looks lustfully at a woman has already committed adultery with her in his thoughts” (Matt. 6:28), applied to married couples as well. Big joke — the celibate pope is against erotic love even in marriage. The fact is that the pope was defending a good feminist position. Women (and men for that matter) should not be treated as sexual objects in any circumstances. Even in marriage, sexual love ought to be a celebration of the unity of the married couple. Sexual love ought to echo the inner meaning of God’s own self. Egotistical, self-centered, exploitative love will not do.

But here too there is a marriage journey. No one has it all together in an instant. Lower life, insects and the like, have their whole sexual identity at the moment of maturity, but human beings have to grow into sexual integration over a long period of time. In fact, this too is a journey never totally complete. Sexual experience sometimes radiates divine love in the texture of Christian marriage; at other times it seems much less. Here too marriages are always on the way to becoming all they should be.


Finally, Christian marriage has an eschatological dimension. It points toward the final reconciliation of all creation in the kingdom of God. In the Book Revelation, heaven is pictured as one grand wedding feast: “Let us rejoice and be glad, and give him glory! For this is the wedding day of the Lamb” (12:7). Jesus too defends his frequenting banquets by picturing himself as a bridegroom at whose feast all should celebrate: “How can wedding guests go in mourning so long as the groom is with them?” (Matt. 9:15). Jesus in his parables speaks of the kingdom of God in terms of a wedding feast to which all are invited, at which all should be wearing their wedding garments, and the like. Marriage, a good marriage I hasten to add, is a fitting image of the kingdom of God. The joy, intimacy, and ecstasy of human hearts in marriage will be universal characteristics of the end-time. Authentic married love is for Christians a foretaste, a proleptic sign, of the eschaton.

It is, of course, frequently said that consecrated virginity is an eschatological sign too. Jesus himself says that in heaven people “neither marry nor are given in marriage” (Matt 22:30). Those who have chosen celibacy as a life-style “for the sake of God’s reign” (Matt. 12:12) show forth in the world the absolute universality of God’s love. Celibates try to share their love with all as equally as possible. In this way they anticipate the community of paradise where each will be tied to all others without excluding any. But both celibacy and Christian marriage mirror differing aspects of the end-time. Celibacy shows the selflessness, universality, and fidelity of God’s love. Married love, on the other hand, celebrates the intimacy and intensity of the love that will bind the universe together when “Christ is everything in all” (Col. 3:11).

Here on earth we can only gradually realize all that we will be. But Christian families, each in its own unique way, are traveling along that journey to the kingdom of God, becoming ever more and more one, radiating the inner reality of God in human flesh, and anticipating here below the final state of all creation, “beautiful as a bride prepared to meet her husband” (Rev. 21:2).

The article above was written by Dr. Francis, W. Nichols, Associate Professor of Systematic Theology at St. Louis University.  It was published in the Spring 1984 issue of SPIRITUALITY TODAY, Vol. 36, No. 1, pp. 4-14.