This article originally appeared on The Washington Institute for Faith, Vocation & Culture.
What marriage offers — and what fidelity is meant to protect — is the possibility of moments when what we have chosen and what we desire are the same.
—Wendell Berry, “The Body and the Earth”
A few weeks ago I had occasion to celebrate my friend’s long-awaited engagement. And like all things wedding-related I never cease to marvel at what a joy it is to celebrate and endorse this ritual madness of binding ourselves up with one another, pitiful wrecks of humanity that we are. For the betrothed, and the parents, and siblings, and attendants, and everyone implicated in the promises that yoke two lives together year-by-year and ceremony-by-ceremony, the sincere, holy, heartfelt vows of bride and groom — to abide, to remain, to belong, to endure — beckon a special brand of affirmation and hope that there is salve and purpose and pleasure to be had in this life, even as there is no getting around the fact that each one demands us to do some pretty radical, willful hemming in.
The words of promise and covenant in a wedding liturgy are words of faith, or fides in Latin. These vows of fidelity — to keep faith and trust, to remain faithful, to be true — are also words about reality. They govern far more than marriage alone. In fact, our use of “fidelity” or “infidelity” simply to imbue monogamy within the context of marriage betrays our paltry understanding of life as God longs for it to be lived. We are a covenant people, bound up with God in Christ by His promises of faithfulness to us and by our feeble but sincere efforts to remain faithful to Him. And, just as in marriage, fidelity is the mechanism by which we bind ourselves to all of the trust and terms of covenantal life, to all of its responsibilities and limitations, promises and hope.
As such, fidelity is a rife, pregnant, exploding word brimming over with goodness. Fidelity is not a cheap word, and it is not an easy word. Its hunger to consume every morsel of life grudgingly offered it — to yield abundance in return — is insatiable. There is no doubt that fidelity includes our sexual habits and behavior, but at the same time it becomes lost if we confine it only to sexual behavior. Fidelity invites us to better understand our relationship to everyone and everything, to enjoy the blessings of rootedness instead of enduring disorientation, and ultimately allows us a better perch for seeing and engaging reality.
When I got married nearly a decade ago, my husband and I chose to use liturgy from the 1662 Book of Common Prayer. Of all the language and phrases that seemed particularly poetic and poignant from those early Reformation years, I love its use of the King James reading of Mark 10:9, “Those whom God hath joined together let no man put asunder.” On a wholly superficial level, I find “asunder” a more intriguing word than “separate,” the preferred, sterile-sounding modern descriptor. But in reality “asunder” proves much more apt, meaning not only “apart or divided” but also “to break into pieces.” As one who grew up in the wake of a marriage gone asunder, I can attest that “breaking into pieces” feels like the more accurate description.
Here, in the later more declarative stages of the marriage covenant, after every promise has been given and received, is an implicit truth that echoes what all of Scripture pleads with us to understand: a faith worthy of our fidelity imbues connectedness and a deeply abiding sense of belonging, but failure to abide by what is true and real results not only in disconnection, but also fragmentation. Given how fragmented and lonely modern life seems to be, it begs the question of how well we understand what fidelity means and requires of us.
Perhaps the most important thing fidelity teaches us is what it means to be in relationship. It reminds us that relationships will cost us, even as they enrich us. Fidelity asserts that this dynamic governs not just our human relationships, but our relationship to all of God’s created order. Our relations to all things are part of abiding within a covenant life. There are few among us, for example, who do not desire to have a friend, to have a vocation, to have a spouse, children, a home, and so forth. However, fidelity teaches us that it is better still — and a different thing altogether — to belong to friends, our work, our marriages, our church, our neighborhoods. Individual autonomy stands starved at the gates of fidelity.
Fidelity is the simple but hard-to-abide-by principle of “pick and stick.” Whether it be a spouse, a job, a school, a grocery budget, an exercise regimen, there is dignity and liberty in exercising our faculties of mind and heart to choose, to decide, to “pick” those people and things and habits to which we belong. Sustaining the belongings we have chosen, to order life around them in countless practical, ordinary, unglamorous ways requires more work, different work. Fidelity is the measure of how well I “stick” with what I picked knowing full well it may not be all that blissful or romantic to do. Wendell Berry wisely and winsomely writes about this in his profound essay “The Body and the Earth”:
What marriage offers — and what fidelity is meant to protect — is the possibility of moments when what we have chosen and what we desire are the same. Such a convergence obviously cannot be continuous. No relationship can continue very long at its highest emotional pitch. But fidelity prepares us for the return of these moments, which give us the highest joy we can know.
The return of these moments when “what we have chosen and what we desire are the same” is another way of describing the experience of rootedness, identity, knowing and feeling good about our place in the world. In her book Eve’s Revenge, Lilian Calles Barger diagnoses our modern rootlessness, writing, “Today, with much more freedom to choose our own way in the world, we are more likely to lose ourselves in the process.” Why? Because “Even as we have more and more possible identities from which to choose, we do not know who we are, except through fleeting and easily broken associations.” While this rootless, disorienting state defining so much of modern life and experience can be overwhelming, our reliable guide for getting “back on the map” resides in accessible acts of fidelity.
In his 1977 essay “Feminism, the Body, and the Machine,” Wendell Berry diagnosed the “identity crisis” of his own then-modern time in similar terms:
The lost identity would find itself by recognizing physical landmarks, by connecting itself responsibly to practical circumstances; it would learn to stay put in the body to which it belongs and in the place to which preference or history or accident has brought it; it would, in short, find itself in finding its work.
Both Barger and Berry understand that there is no getting out of fidelity. We will be faithful to something. Paul teaches us no differently in Romans chapter 6 by describing humanity as either slaves to sin or slaves to righteousness. Despite how much we long for it, we are never autonomous. Where, and with whom, and to what we affiliate is really the only question set before us and our answer will be the fruit of our identity.
Finally, if fidelity invites us to think of ourselves as rooted in relationship to all of life, it is important to acknowledge that fidelity offers reality — a way to see better the way things really are. In my own life, the things I have sought to be faithful to over many years have proven significantly more formative than any preference or whim or skill set I ever sought autonomously. For me and my husband, choosing to belong to our church has at once complicated and simplified many of our choices even as the belonging itself has frequently required us to change our own expectations and hopes of what church can and ought to be. Likewise, choosing to belong to certain friendships has substantially shaped our lives and habits in countless ways.
These relationships have allowed us to know others and be known, but they have also asked us to sacrifice, to be intentional, to change and maneuver other commitments in order to create time and space for the people we care about most. Insisting on certain habits of marriage and family life, too, like regular date nights and family vacations, are no different. This ordinary hewing of life is what offers a glimpse into abiding reality, abiding truth. It is never different than that.
In “The Body and the Earth,” Wendell Berry reflects on this happy irony of faithfulness:
Fidelity to human order, then, if it is fully responsible, implies fidelity also to natural order. Fidelity to human order makes devotion possible. . . . One who returns home — to one’s marriage and household and place in the world — desiring anew what was previously chosen, is neither the world’s stranger nor its prisoner, but is at once in place and free.
The truth of this observation cannot ever be effectively argued, of course, but it is tested through its resonance with human experience. Hit songs like “Stubborn Love” by The Lumineers resonate with the deepest truths of fidelity, warmly arguing that sticking it out through the messiness and pain of love is the only means of love. Its refrain insists, “I can’t be told, ah, ah it [love] can’t be done.” Mumford and Sons’ "After the Storm" offers a similar insistence:
Night has always pushed up day
You must know life to see decay
But I won’t rot, I won’t rot
Not this mind and not this heart,
I won’t rot.
In fact, there is likely no better synonym to fidelity than the phrase “stubborn love,” and even the stoniest souls are likely to be moved by it. Stubborn insistence, picking and sticking, choosing to be in relationship and unearthing the roots that lie beneath are all part of the task and the promise of fidelity. Fidelity requires that we bring all of the richness and rigor and responsibility of covenantal reality to bear to every commitment and circumstance — to set ourselves in right relationship to them and abide with all of the inherent limitations and disappointments they bring as an act of faith. Indeed, faithfulness in our actual circumstances, not hypothetical scenarios, is the only real means we have to distinguish between having faith, and keeping it.
Kate Harris is a writer, speaker, and consultant in Washington, D. C. She is also wife to a good man and mother of their four young children.