Let’s say you are driving a kid somewhere in the car, or you are teaching Sunday school, or you find yourself in a late-night conversation with a young relative, and you get hit between the eyes with this question – what exactly IS conjugial love? If a teenager asked you this question, what would you say? I would love to hear other people’s thoughts. Here’s what I have come up with so far.
As I have thought about this question, I keep coming back to the idea that we are spiritual people inhabiting physical bodies. So I might begin by saying that it’s a love the Lord can give that unites a man and woman at the most inner level of their real selves, the selves that will last forever, as well as their outward level that they show to the world. I might say, I think you can start by considering the truth that you are a spiritual person, temporarily inhabiting a physical body while you live in the physical world. If you aren’t sure what you think about that idea, try asking yourself whether there’s more to you than your physical body and its workings. I expect most people instinctively realize that there is more. After all, you started life in a baby’s body, and your body has changed drastically, but you are still you. When your body starts to wear out as you age, you will still be yourself. Old people are sometimes surprised when they look in the mirror, because they have forgotten for a moment that their body is old – they don’t feel different inside from the person they have always been. And when your body dies, you will still be yourself. You yourself are something much more alive and more enduring than a physical body.
Your next question might be, So what makes you who you really are? What defines you? If you don’t count your physical body, for purposes of argument, what does that leave? You might say that it leaves whatever it is that is animating your body. You might reflect on the experience of Viktor Frankl, the Jewish psychiatrist who survived the Holocaust and wrote Man’s Search for Meaning. The Nazis stripped him and those around him in the camp of everything personal. They took people’s homes, families, friends, wedding rings, clothes, and hair. All that was left was a body with no home, no loved ones, no identity. Frankl wrote: “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” So you might argue that your choices are what make you yourself, different from anyone else. And what is behind your choices?
So far as I understand it, the New Church teaches that a physical human body is like an outermost or lowest layer of a person. Within and above is the spirit, the real you. The outer you is driven by the inner you, what you are really like inside. And what you are really like is probably a combination of how the Lord created you and what you choose to receive. What do you choose to love? What do you think about? What do you put into action? Of course, in this world, we can’t always tell by looking at someone what they truly think and love, because people have the ability to make their physical bodies appear differently from what is really going on inside them. Good thing, or when you get angry at your friend, you would have no choice but to blast them. As it is, you can stop and evaluate what you want your physical body to do. Obviously, some people decide to use this ability to appear like angels of light only because they think that doing so will get them ahead of everybody else. But the hope is that as you grow into a better person inside, the real you can shine through your physical body more and more. You become the same on the outside as you are on the inside, a person of integrity, the same all through, trustworthy.
So I think the real you depends on how the Lord created you and on what you choose to receive and hold onto. If you watch your own mind for even a short time, you will likely notice that loves for good things and loves for bad things flow into you all the time. Good ideas and bad ideas flow in. Which ones do you ignore or dismiss? Which ones do you hang onto and make your own? How do you use your freedom of choice in any situation? What you choose to love, what you choose to think, and what you choose to do – ultimately these are what make you yourself, different from anyone else. And this is how we get to the concept that comes up so often in New Church teaching: “love, wisdom and use.” Love is your innermost life, what makes you alive, what drives you and motivates what you choose to think about and what you choose to do. You might sum that up as your heart. Wisdom involves thinking and understanding. When you are motivated by love, you learn what you need to know and think out how to do something. And you reflect on what are the best guides for your actions, evaluating as you go. People often sum up this part of themselves as their “head,” as opposed to their “heart.” And then, once you get your heart and your head to agree on a course of action, you create a result or “use.” You speak. You act. You make something happen. Heart, head and results – that’s you. You are the only one who will ever go about that process in just that way. The real you is unique in the universe.
What Happens When “The Real You” Gets Married?
So we seem to have strayed pretty far from understanding conjugial love, but actually we are getting close. When two people choose to get married, what is actually happening? Well, it depends on what you think marriage is. Some people think marriage is a legal arrangement that gives you a license on a piece of paper. Some people think it means a union of two physical bodies. But when you think about it, here are two human beings who are really two spiritual people temporarily inhabiting physical bodies. Whatever they do with their physical bodies is actually the end result of the choices they make. It’s the outward expression of what’s going on inside. Each of them has a heart that loves, a mind that thinks, and a body that speaks and acts. To say that a marriage is only a joining of the two physical bodies would only make sense if you think that a physical body is all that you are. As soon as you realize that the body is a tool for expressing the real person, then your idea of marriage changes. (Actually, so does your idea of all your relationships with other people, but it is particularly obvious and important in marriage.)
So the idea of conjugial love is that two human beings with the Lord’s leading can build a marriage between their spirits, their “real selves,” and that then their physical speech and action can show outwardly the union they are building on the inside. At least, that’s my understanding.
Approaching marriage this way opens up a limitless world of wonderful possibilities, if you are willing to keep trying to follow the process the Lord lays out for getting there. Now it becomes possible that each spouse can learn to love the other for who the other really is. (Who does not want to be understood and loved for who they really are inside, and to love someone else in that way?) Now it becomes possible that you can build a relationship that can outlast the death of the physical body. Now it becomes possible to have a relationship that grows sweeter and better forever as you each grow spiritually and become capable of higher and more exquisite love. Now it becomes possible to walk the road spiritually together, helping each other in your efforts to follow the Lord’s leading and become better human beings. Now it becomes possible to trust the other person more and more as you get to know each other on deeper and more intimate levels, and in that growing trust there is contentment, peace, and a wonderful sense of freedom in the other person’s company.
So what is conjugial love?
I think I would start by saying that it’s true love that can grow between the spirits or real selves of a married man and woman, and then their speech and actions can show outwardly the marriage the Lord is building inside them as they open themselves to Him. “Love belonging to the spirit, and to the body as a result of the spirit, is in the souls and minds of married partners, together with friendship and mutual trust.” Married Love 162
I feel as if this explanation I have written here might be one place to start. It doesn’t fully satisfy me, and I think there is more to think through and more questions to ask. But at least it’s a beginning. I’d love to know how other people would approach this question.