Some of you might know the children’s story, The Velveteen Rabbit, by Margery Williams. It’s quite an old story, from a generation before my time, and I first heard about it from a very old husband and wife who were celebrating a milestone in their marriage. They wanted to read a section of the story to their family and friends to say something about what they had discovered in their marriage. It goes like this:
The Skin Horse had lived longer in the nursery than any of the others. He was so old that his brown coat was bald in patches and showed the seams underneath, and most of the hairs in his tail had been pulled out to string bead necklaces. He was wise, for he had seen a long succession of mechanical toys arrive to boast and swagger, and by-and-by break their mainsprings and pass away, and he knew that they were only toys, and would never turn into anything else. For nursery magic is very strange and wonderful, and only those playthings that are old and wise and experienced like the Skin Horse understand all about it.
"What is REAL?" asked the Rabbit one day, when they were lying side by side near the nursery fender, before Nana came to tidy the room. "Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?"
"Real isn't how you are made," said the Skin Horse. "It's a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real."
"Does it hurt?" asked the Rabbit.
"Sometimes," said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. "When you are Real you don't mind being hurt."
"Does it happen all at once, like being wound up," he asked, "or bit by bit?"
"It doesn't happen all at once," said the Skin Horse. "You become. It takes a long time. That's why it doesn't happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don't matter at all, because once you are Real you can't be ugly, except to people who don't understand."
Well, Ing and Hideaki are bright and beautiful, especially today - they are not at all shabby, and they still have all their own teeth and hair – but of course, part of what we pray for them today is that in due course they too will become a very old married couple surrounded by grandchildren and celebrating the long years of their life together. As we rejoice with them we share their hope of the future that lies ahead of them, the home they will make together and the family that we pray will grow up around them.
Ing and Hideaki chose the Bible readings we heard this morning, and being thoughtful people they choose them carefully and well. St Paul, in his letter to the Colossian church, is full of down to earth advice for what it means to live together as Christian men and women who want their own lives and relationships to reflect the fact that they belong to Christ, and in this passage he gives us a list of what have become known as the humane virtues. It’s an old-fashioned sounding word, isn’t it? virtue? but it carries the connotation of something worth having, something worth working for, something that forms us, gradually, over a lifetime – and like the writer of the Velveteen Rabbit, St Paul knows that the only way to become real is to be loved into it. Like the Velveteen Rabbit, St Paul too, it seems to me, knows that the process of being loved into maturity involves hurts as well as joys, but that it makes us beautiful in a way that only lovers fully understand.
Virtues are not like do’s and don’ts – they are less prescriptive, more fluid and graceful, they teach us who we are and they hold out a vision to us of what we might become. It is a vital truth that we are formed by what we pay attention to, and so the wisdom of the ancients suggests that we grow best by reflecting on the qualities that foster loving relationship, build endurance and purpose and restraint.
And so to St Paul’s list of virtues. There are ten of them counting singing, which you might not think a proper virtue, but I do, because when we sing we breathe, our minds and hearts and bodies all work together, we pay more attention to what we are expressing, and when we sing together, then that’s even better because we attend to one another in order to stay in time and in tune. There should be singing in a marriage.
But St Paul starts with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience. I love the word, compassion, the meaning comes from the Latin, to feel and suffer with somebody else. It’s a stronger word than pity or even sympathy, it means to enter into the suffering of somebody else as an act of solidarity, not from afar but up close and personal. When you have compassion for somebody, there is something at stake for you, personally. To be kind means to consider the effect of what you say and do on the one you love, to cushion life’s disappointments and to put aside your own concerns to share your partner’s joy at life’s successes without jealousy. Humility and meekness sound like they belong together, I guess – humility comes from the Latin humus, the earth. It means to be willing to be vulnerable, to put aside that hard shell that most of us wear in our public lives to protect us from getting hurt by others. To be prepared to be in one another’s shadows sometimes, to look for ways of building one another up, rather than seeking after your own gain. Dare to be silly, to let your partner see the not quite grown-up part of yourself that you normally keep hidden.
Patience – I think it means that when you have decided to love somebody, you are prepared to wait and keep believing that they will grow into the best version of themselves. We all fumble, I think, to become who we most truly are, we maybe have some idea of what we should be, but those who love us best have no doubt, and it is your lover’s faith in you that gives you the courage to grow with integrity.
Have you noticed that all St Paul’s virtues are about relationship? There can be no Christian spirituality in isolation, it seems to me, and on entering into marriage today you entrust your growth to one another and you promise to be tender with one another’s hopes and dreams. Bear with one another – be tolerant, in other words, of one another’s frailties – it means to understand your partner, to learn your lover’s strengths and weaknesses –and forgive one another. Constantly.
Forgiveness, it seems to me, is how human beings learn to practice the way of resurrection. Like resurrection, forgiveness creates a new future when selfishness and betrayal destroy the trust we have in one another. Like resurrection, forgiveness transforms death into new life. Forgiveness transforms the ashes of failure, disappointment and disillusionment into the humus that strengthens and reinvigorates your love. Practice forgiveness – inevitably, you will need it, learn to ask for and offer forgiveness, and to receive it with gratitude.
Grow in wisdom, St Pauls suggests, teach and instruct one another. Marriage isn’t just about hearts and bodies, it needs the resilience and perspicacity and imagination of minds that continue to enquire and grow. Be intelligent lovers. Read and reflect on the Scripture together daily, learn together from the world around you, complement and complete one another in wisdom and grace.
And be thankful. As you grow together in love, know that what you are growing into is the very heart of God who is love, and that the love you share is the fundamental dynamic of creation. The love that changes and deepens and forms you through your life together is the love that brings the universe into being, the love that we see made flesh and blood in the life of our Lord Jesus, and which alone has the power to make us – eventually - real.