Blog Template Theology of the Body: October 2011

Tuesday, October 11, 2011


I have been thinking a lot lately about fidelity. It's not a popular term; there's a reference to the idea in the motto of the United States Marines, "semper fi," and it bears the dull shine of scandal when one speaks of its absence, as in, "there has been an in-fidelity," and then there is an awful sense of wrong doing of some sort that teases the limits of our moral sense. Its root is very simple: Wiki says fidelity is the state of being faithful or loyal. One might think most immediately of vowed monogamy, in the sense of showing up, staying put, avoiding physical or emotional excesses of the wrong kind, looking straight ahead, doggedly avoiding flirtations; a quiet, unchanging custodianship of that which once was desired and prized, now retained in quieter, solidly exclusive bonds.

When I think about fidelity, I tend to make the grim prognosis that our culture doesn't, can't "do it" any longer (be it as it may, as Cole Porter seemed to intimate, that elephants and certain kinds of swans can). Electronic networks and imaging seduce the eyes, the thought, the heart, the imagination, and then the hours away from their rightful possessors. Our quick modes of communication allow for anonymity and nonchalance in intimate exchanges. We women have so infiltrated the workplace and the academy that each and every well-intentioned husband is daily surrounded by females who are more closely aligned than his wife with the professional interests that most immediately exhilarate and motivate him. We don't even cover our shoulders in church. The clever, mercurial spirit of the age knows exactly how to distract and deter us from the kind of fidelity that merely shows up and waits around.

Those who make and keep vows in this context have undertaken an unusual and heroic thing; maybe that's why marriage rates in the Catholic Church have fallen in my lifetime by sixty percent, or whatever it is, while our annulment tribunals increasingly recognize in the Church's members the inability to make valid vows in the first place. Perhaps we are a culture so wounded, so underdeveloped in our hearts, so jaded in our sexuality and sensibilities that we ought not to be held responsible for the promises we speak.

Against this grim little landscape is, of course, the God of Israel, the definitive covenant maker and promise keeper. In the beginning, the great creator and provider dignified His people with a role in the reciprocity which He allowed them; "if you will be faithful to me as your fathers were, do everything I command, and obey my laws...then I will establish I spoke in promise to your fathers." (II Chronicles somewhere) A righteous exchange, for a righteous people. Later, when those righteous people fail to the point of committing a kind of adultery, the divine covenant maker reveals His sorrowful but faithful heart; the bargain is gone, the covenant broken, and there is nothing left for God to say but "I will be faithful to you, and make you mine, and you will know me as the Lord." (Hosea somewhere) And then, at the end, for an uncontrite and uncovenanted people who had not even heard of His offers, the divine covenant maker reveals His very self, clinging to a lashing-post while He is flayed and bled, demonstrating the full extent of divine fidelity, loving them to the end; "herein is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us, and gave His Son to be the propitiation for our sins." (I John)

For God's part, the story of divine fidelity does not merely show up and stand still, containing and maintaining that which was desired. Rather, the story speeds up as it goes, urgently disclosing the full nature of the divine Person who has promised, hastening towards the vowed end, that anticipated bridal banquet. It is to the increasingly needy that He becomes most ardently faithful. It is always in our saddened, weakest state that He will show Himself most strong, in His rushing and passionate and enduring fidelity.

"Look down upon me, good and gentle Jesus, while before your face I humbly kneel and with burning soul, pray and beseech you to fix in my heart lively sentiments of faith, hope, and love, true contrition for my sins, and a firm purpose of amendment, while I contemplate with great love and tender pity your five most precious wounds..."