Just as we consume the Eucharist at Mass, recognizing the holiness of the act, so some marriages become profound examples and witnesses of holiness. By habit and faith, Charles Williams contended, the serious Christian begins to see all meals as a shadow of the Eucharist and all love as a shadow of Holy Matrimony.

A strong sacramental marriage is as rare as the appearance of a saint, Inkling Charles Williams argued. They appear infrequently and only by the grace of God. Even more infrequently, however, have Christians recognized this fundamental truth of the faith.

Drawing upon his vivid and wild imagination, his longing for sanctification, and even his reading of G.K. Chesterton, Charles Williams attempted to correct this oversight in the church by developing what he called “Romantic Theology” in the mid 1920s.

Theology, which is the science of God, is generally divided into various classes: Dogmatic, Moral, Pastoral, Ascetic, Mystical. But there is a side of it which is concerned with so definite an experience and such exact intellectual deductions that it may be convenient to regard it as a class in itself; more especially as it has, on the whole, been rather neglected by experts in the other divisions, and left to the poets and artists. The name given to this side of the science might well be Romantic Theology. This term does not imply, as will inevitably at first be thought, a theology based merely on fantasy and dream, and concerning itself only with illogical sentimentalities. It is a theology as exact as any other kind, but having for cause and subject those experiences of man which, anyhow in discussions of art, are generally termed “Romantic”. The chief of these is romantic love; that is, sexual love between a man and a woman, freely given, freely accepted, and appearing to its partakers one of the most important experiences in life — a love which demands the attention of the intellect and the spirit for its understanding and its service.[1]

As Williams understood it—claiming himself to be “an orthodox Christian”—the Incarnation made all such things not merely possible, but actual and tangible. “The principles of Romantic Theology can be reduced to a single formula: which is, the identification of love with Jesus Christ, and of marriage with His life,” Williams explained. “This again may be reduced to a single word — Immanuel. Everything else is modification and illustration of this. Romantic Theology, like the rest, is therefore first of all a Christology.”[2]

One also sees the divine love made manifest and tangible in the Blessed Virgin Mary. “We begin then with the Birth and with the Mother of God,” he wrote. “And it is with her that the parallel becomes first apparent. It is wiser here to say parallel, for the Blessed Virgin was but one human soul, and is not therefore to be identified with any other, although Christ who is Man is (in the end) to be identified with all.”[3] In its vast and sometimes unfathomable wisdom, the Church proclaims this truth in its many titles of Mary: seat of wisdom, house of gold, healthy of the sick, mystical Rose, etc. Mary is, after all, not just the “Mother of God,” the Theotokos, but also the “Mother of Man,” the Anthropotokos.[4] For at least nine months within the history of this realm and this reality, Mary served not just as the Church but as the entirety of the New Testament.

What Mary and Jesus make obvious, however, does not immediately translate into the obvious for us. Just as we consume the Eucharist at Mass, recognizing the holiness of the act, whether we “feel” it or not, so some marriages become profound examples and witnesses of holiness, whether the couple involved “feels” it or not. By habit and faith, Williams continued, the serious Christian begins to see all meals as a shadow of the Eucharist and all love as a shadow of Holy Matrimony. For many of us—if not nearly all of us—such mysteries elude our ability to understand or to explain, and we must accept them as is. Really, only the mystics and poets can come close to an explanation. “For the exactest statements of the birth of love and the beginning of marriage we have to go to the poets; it is they who have most truly expressed a general experience.”[5]

Within even the strongest Christian marriage, Williams noted, one finds the entire divine comedy. “But all have not forsaken him and fled; the Divine Mother, the elect John, were found by the cross,” Williams wrote. “And the Christian lovers, who have considered within themselves the nature of Love, will have known from the beginning that there is another side to the early delight. To them it is a place of purgation as well as joy; it is in truth a little universe of place and time, of earth, of purgatory, of heaven or hell.”[6] Within marriage, there is love, sacrifice, trials, and redemption. Even the very cycles of marriage—from initial meeting, to courtship, to sexual union, to children, to aging—follow the life cycles of the liturgy and of the human person. Far from being supernatural or tran-natural, marriage is, according to Williams, the grandest expression of nature itself, a fulfilment rather than an overturning. The married couple remains faithful to one another—through whatever difficulties—as Jesus remained faithful to us, through the Cross. “Morality is to him (as perhaps it should be to all of us in its widest applications) a matter of courtesy, and sullenness over such a breakfast may be a worse sin than adultery. But all these sins were foreseen and endured and purged. Love has undergone all rebuffs and all persecutions; and behold, he is not there, he is risen.”[7]

Yet, Williams cautioned, there are always dangers, even in the best of marriages. A marriage might be taken for granted, a marriage might fall into mere sentimentality, or a proper love might be deflected and become an infidelity. Divorce, he claimed, is the human attempt to suspend “a sacrament actually in operation.”[8] Still, God offers us devotion, as His example to us for and toward fidelity, in marriage with Church and with spouse.

In all things—the Mass, personhood, and marriage—Williams believed, one should submit to the “work of Love” and allow it to be “fully accomplished in him.”[9] Again, far from being unnatural or supernatural, such manifestations of Love are among the highest and greatest things of Nature herself, which is everywhere an expression of God’s desire for our holiness.

If we need inspiration, as found in the western and Christian canon, Williams suggested, we should look to the works of Dante, John Donne, Coventry Patmore, as well as to the Arthurian legends. Equally important, we must trust our instincts towards that which we love. True, all loves can be perverted, but God implants them in our hearts to lead us toward the good, the true, and the beautiful. “Any occupation exercising itself with passion, with self-oblivion, with devotion, towards an end other than itself, is a gateway to divine things.”[10]

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[1] Charles Williams, Outlines of Romantic Theology (Berkeley, CA: Apocryphile Press, 2005), 7.

[2] Williams, Outlines of Romantic Theology, 14.

[3] Williams, Outlines of Romantic Theology, 15.

[4] Williams, The Image of the City (Berkeley, CA: Aprocryphile Press, 2007), 111.

[5] Williams, Outlines of Romantic Theology, 15.

[6] Williams, Outlines of Romantic Theology, 23.

[7] Williams, Outlines of Romantic Theology, 35.

[8] Williams, Outlines of Romantic Theology, 47.

[9] Williams, Outlines of Romantic Theology, 45.

[10] Williams, Outlines of Romantic Theology, 70.

The featured image is “Passionate Encounter” by Frederick Goodall (1822-1904), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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