From Water to Wine

            Isn’t it amazing how many jokes there are about the hardships of married life?  We’ve all heard them.  Here, for example, are only four:

  • I never knew what bliss was until I got married, and now it’s too late.

  • My wife and I were perfectly happy for thirty years.  Then we met.[1]

  • Marriage means three rings:  the engagement RING, the wedding RING, and the suffeRING,

  • My marriage is like one long vacation—a last resort![2]

There is, to be sure, a certain amount of truth in humor.  Ask any couple that has celebrated a fiftieth wedding anniversary.  Married life, despite the naïve affirmation of Gilbert & Sullivan’s Nanki-Poo, is not “a summer of roses and wine.”[3]  Or, at least, if there are roses, they all come with a great many thorns.  If there is wine, well, more about that later.

            Why is marriage fraught with difficulties?  After all, it is God’s idea, isn’t it?  There are many possible answers.  The successful union of husband and wife certainly requires a kind of ego death as the adjective “my” slowly gives way to “our.”  A husband and wife, as Father Ronald Rolheiser rightly points out, need continually to forgive one another for not measuring up to each other’s expectations.[4]  Resisting the all-too-prevalent temptations to infidelity requires, not only grace, but also superhuman resolve.  Then again, raising children has never been easy.  For better or worse, married life inevitably involves a good deal of the worse.  Shakespeare was right when he wrote, “The course of true love never did run smooth.”[5]  This too, I think, is precisely what Our Lord meant to teach at the wedding feast of Cana (John 2:1-10).

            Years ago, I heard a nuptial homily on Jesus’ first public miracle.  The priest told the happy young couple that God would transform the water of their natural affections into the wine of supernatural love.  At the time, I dismissed this statement as little more than Hallmark homiletics.  However, the more I pondered it, the more I came to realize that Father’s words were very profound.  The maturing of marital love is indeed very much like the making of good wine.

Consider this:  The normal process whereby water is changed into wine is anything but all sweetness and light.  It necessarily demands darkness.  The darkness begins at the very outset.  Before water can ascend into the stem and branches of the grapevine, it must first abandon the light of day and descend into the depths of the earth.  Here it abides with worms and voles, with slugs and centipedes, before it is captured by thirsty roots.  Sun and vine next transform the water into sweet grape juice.  Yet before this juice finds its way into glass or goblet, it must spend months or even years hidden away in casks and in cool wine cellars.  Only after this second period of prolonged darkness and fermentation can the grape juice rightly be called wine.  Thus, in order for water to be turned into grape juice, it must spend time in the dark depths of the earth.  In order for grape juice to be transformed into wine, it must be secreted away in dark cellars.  The darkness is unavoidable.

So it is with marriage.  Show me a mature married couple that has never faced darkness and difficulties, and I’ll show you a man from Mars and a woman from Venus!  It follows that a married couple that is facing marital hardships might not be doing anything wrong.  Nor is it necessarily true that God is punishing the spouses.  On the contrary, darkness is simply part of the process, just as darkness is required in the transformation of water into wine.

            Now what is true of marital life is also true of the spiritual life.  I mean that our relationship with Jesus is very much like a marriage.  When Our Lord says (Matthew 11:29), “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me,” He is literally asking us to be conjugal (or yoked together) with Him.  In other words, the intimacy of married life is the closest approximation to the intimacy that Christ would have with each of us.  The mystics have always affirmed this.  It should therefore come as no surprise that darkness is a normal part of spiritual growth.  This is what the saints mean when they speak of dryness, the dark night of sense, and the dark night of the soul.

            If darkness is involved in the natural process whereby water is transformed into wine, if darkness is part of the journey a couple takes from natural affection to marital love, how much more is darkness an indispensible element in the soul’s deepening intimacy with Jesus!  Here on earth, the spiritual life is indeed “a summer of roses and wine.”  The roses are full of thorns.  The wine is the product of darkness.

            If your spiritual life is characterized by darkness, if God seems distant, if your relationship with Him is one of dryness, pain, and even anger, it does not necessarily follow that you are doing anything wrong.  Neither can you conclude that God is punishing you.  The difficulties may simply be a part of the process.  Spiritual darkness, in fact, is very often the prelude to insight.  If your path does lead through the darkness, it may very well be for you the shortest and safest way home.

            My advice is not to take yourself too seriously.  After all, as G. K. Chesterton says, “Satan fell through the force of gravity.”[6]  Do your best to have a laugh at your own expense.  Wise couples find humor in marriage.  Why not do the same when it comes to your relationship with Jesus?  Perhaps you can come up with a few jokes of your own.  How about these?

  • Our Lord has me on a strict curfew.  He wants me home after dark.

  • Jesus may be the vine; but I provide the whine.

[1] Rodney Dangerfield.

[2] Ibid.

[3] The Mikado.

[4] Holy Longing.

[5] A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

[6] Orthodoxy.