Marriage: The Spiritual Dimension by Judyth and Lorin Woolfe

For millennia, society has viewed marriage as a highly spiritual union. Even today, in our modern "secular" times, an overwhelming percentage of marriages are performed by members of the clergy. It seems as if couples still yearn for the spiritual dimension of marriage.

Many couples walk bright-eyed out of the church or synagogue full of the spirit: the spirit of love between them, the spirit of optimism and warmth that a wedding engenders in all the guests, family and non-family. We were married amid many of the spiritual accouterments of the Jewish faith into which we were born-in a synagogue, under a chuppa (Jewish ceremonial wedding canopy). We each broke a glass by squashing it with our shoe (a break from the seemingly sexist tradition of only the man stomping on the glass). Everyone yelled "Mazel Tov!" ("Good luck!") with great verve and spirit.

Most of them were older than we were and some had been married for many years. In our innocence, we didn't realize the many shades of meaning behind that "good luck" wish.

Over the years, we have found out what many in that room intuitively were expressing in their wishes for us: the wedding ceremony may pay great homage to spirituality, but the everyday details of marriage can be extremely material: fixing the car, keeping all the clothes clean, spending 8 hours a day at work and even more hours getting there and back. And then you have kids! They're supposed to be a great boon to the spirit, but childrearing can become bogged down in the material too-keeping growing youngsters in clothes, eyeglasses, dental and medical health, music and dance lessons.

Each of our three daughters have attended religious school or celebrated a Bat Mitzvah, but too often, we found that organized religion offered many rote prayers but ironically lacked spirituality and a personal relationship with the divinely eternal.

We were ready to go beyond organized religion to something truly spiritual and transcendent. We just didn't know what that might look like. And sometimes, you don't know what you're looking for until it comes up and taps you on the shoulder. Then you recognize it instantly: "Where have you been all my life?"

In our case, our next spiritual step came from a most unlikely place: our teenage daughter's desire for a meaningful, fulfilling job. We knew there was a day care center in town called The Seed which had served several generations of youngsters and parents. We knew that it was run by a group of women who appeared to be part of some religious order; they looked like modern nuns but there was a total lack of religious imagery in the school building.

We encouraged our daughter to apply for work at The Seed as a child care assistant. As we came to know her "employers," we began to see that our daughter had led us to a place where our spiritual quest could continue. She worked hard and grew as a person, but she gained even more than she gave. The staff of The Seed gave as much attention to helping her become skillful, calm and centered as they did to her young charges.

Impressed by the blossoming of our daughter, we gradually became aware that The Seed was much more than a day care center. It was no less than an arena for the unfolding of the human spirit-for any human spirit of any age who was open to such growth. Gently and slowly, the staff introduced us to Cafh, and offered to be our spiritual counselors. Gently and slowly, we embraced Cafh as a couple. Although we are still fairly new to the concepts and practices, it is filling the gaping spiritual void we so recently found ourselves in, without the limiting dogmas so often found in organized religion. Instead of a forum for indoctrination, we found Cafh to be a place where individuals unfold along their own paths toward universal truths.

What have we received individually from Cafh and how has it spiritualized our marriage?

Separately we recognized the need to be on a committed path of self-discovery and understanding. Individual partners must be walking a spiritual road towards inner wholeness and holiness before a marriage can characterize itself as whole and holy. This individual commitment to a serious spiritual seeking is a prerequisite for meeting our partner at the deepest level of being. In addition we need grace, love and trust in each other's spiritual development in order to allow space and freedom for the other person to grow on a parallel plane. We never expect to be in an identical place with our partner, because spiritual growth is a unique and individual process. This mutual, dual unfolding requires us to surrender control of the other's interior experience if we are to truly respect his or her separate spiritual journey.

It is true for many couples that before one can begin to discover the deep, spiritual mysteries within the self, one may need to work through and transcend intra-psychic and interpersonal issues. The spiritual author and lecturer Ram Dass speaks about our overuse of "channels one and two": channel one being the superficial, material, pop-culture channel and channel two being the psychological/social role channel. The latter often becomes a sticking point for many couples, although it is a positive step in the direction of growth. Still for many couples the question remains: how can we make the leap forward to channel three, the spiritual channel? We believe that there is tremendous power to be unlocked once we begin making use of this third channel. Our own personal, spiritual quest (separate and conjoint) is a constant reminder that our connection to a broader context goes far beyond material and social roles to the deepest confrontation with the self.

Through our experiences with Cafh we now see marriage as a reflection of our union and inner relationship with the Divine. If we truly stand in awe of the miracles of Creation, then must we not look to our partner with the same awe? As we become aware of the consciousness of God within, we open to the process of enriching and enhancing our entire existence. Once we acknowledge that we are a unique and valued creation of the Divine, we can begin to work with the concept of a sacred relationship with our partner, a mirror of the sacredness from within. Perhaps we should remind ourselves to honor God, honor the self and then honor the "other." Surrendering ourselves to the greater glory of God helps teach us to honor God's holy presence in our marital relationship. Knowing that it is God's will for us to love Him and each other, allows us the possibility of discovering the state of transcendent peace that surpasses all worldly understanding.

Marriage is supposed to call forth the best in each person, but first we must recognize that the ultimate spiritual work must be our own. Our partner can be an active, loving participant during difficult times as well as times of happiness and celebration. But he or she is not the solution and salvation of our earthly or spiritual life: we are. As is suggested in some of the meditation themes we use in Cafh, at times we experience a sense of spiritual wandering and confusion. This is natural if one is to be on a committed spiritual path and the partners need to tolerate each other's confusion. In one meditation practice we have, it is possible to meditate together and out loud, for there is a question and answer part to that exercise. We are finding that meditating together is a useful, fun and interesting technique for surrendering control and letting go of our own individual thought patterns. It allows us to find our own inner voice of wisdom and love, the hidden part that we most want to get to know in the "other" as well as ourselves. By meditating together, we practice allowing someone else to receive our questions and develop it perhaps quite differently than we might have ourselves!

We recently saw a show in Manhattan called "I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change!" which deals with an issue that most married couples grapple with to varying degrees of success. Using the spiritual notion that we can work to overcome our defects, illusions, fears and doubts while, at the same time, realizing that these are universal aspects of the human condition, makes us better able to accept our partner for who that person is, not who we would like him or her to be. As we begin to see ourselves and our partner as beings of sacred worth and value, we are better able to stay centered and close to them in a deeper, more meaningful way.

Is it possible that as we grow along our spiritual path, we find that we need less and less from our partner-less approval, less agreement? We become less dependent because the core of our being begins to rest solidly on our relationship with God's unconditional love for us and goes deeper than any worldly relationship. Ironically, as we find ourselves needing our partner less and less, we appreciate them more and more. Inner freedom, expanded consciousness and our growing relationship with God begets new forms of love. We no longer need to look to the other as our infinite source of strength, although the other can offer us human solace and comfort. More and more we look within as our love matures through God.

So it seems that we must seek the kingdom of God first. In a spiritual sense we are placing God at the center of our relationship and seek marriage with God first. If we do this, holiness becomes the context within which we place our human love relationship. Using God's unconditional love for us as our paradigm, we can then view ourselves and our partner as sacred and worthy of the same unconditional love. The stronger our relationship is to God, the stronger our relationship is to ourselves and our partner. We gradually unfold as greater human and spiritual beings capable of deeper forms of love. We can understand this unfoldment as a reflection of our growing love for God.

As we move along our path of unfolding in our marriages, there will inevitably be moments of difficulty and doubt, times when we find ourselves expecting things from our partner that they cannot give to us. We will need then to look within and seek to discover what we are asking of them that we cannot give to ourselves: love, attention, recognition, being, presence. As we become whole and begin to experience inner peace, we begin to give our partner these same feelings. Spirituality enables us to be more forgiving and tolerant so that we can more easily recognize spiritual specialness in our partner. Perhaps we can envision a state of spiritual maturity in which we will stop expecting proof or evidence of love and instead, fully and lovingly support each other's needs. Ultimately there will be nothing to forgive in each other. We will be living the true level of love. Separately and together, as couples, we can learn to hear the inner voice of love. It will resonate more deeply and strongly as we grow in our knowledge of the Divine within us. We can help each other in our marriages to trust in that voice and be guided by it beyond the boundaries of the self to where God truly resides in the redeeming force of measureless love.