The night before I got married I slept uneasily. I kept having strange dreams. When I woke from them I knew what I was nervous about: I was afraid my mom would see me differently. In each increment of restlessness I ruminated on the possibility that she would now view me as another woman, which is not an unprecedented concern.

Consider Persephone, daughter of the harvest goddess Demeter. While gathering flowers one day, the legend goes, Persephone was spirited off by Hades to become his wife, queen of the underworld. While with her seductor in his shadowy kingdom she ate the food of the dead, the seeds of a pomegranate by some accounts. By this magic she was tied to her new station, and could only leave her husband for a couple of seasons at a time: during these months she was with her mother, and spring and summer reigned on earth. When Persephone returned to Hades, autumn and winter descended with her mother’s sorrow.

The phenomenon the myth accounts for is not an insubstantial one, especially for an ancient agrarian culture. That the shift of seasons could be feasibly chalked up to the competition between mother and husband gives some sense of the emotional gravitas of the situation. Most tellings, rendered flatly, depict Hades as a pretty sorry character, but imagine Persephone’s perspective: with her mother, she’s ever the flower-crowned lap-perched darling, cute, you might say, but not alluring. With Hades she’s a queen crowned on her own throne, reigning over shade and shadow with the dark red glimmer of pomegranate seeds close at hand.

It’s a disquieting thought, to maintain such different faces to the only two people on earth who would agree you’re the most beautiful thing they’ve ever seen.

* * *

Hauerwas says love is something you look back on. The butterflies-and-daydreams sensation is another thing, something more capricious. Love, Hauerwas says, is an accomplishment of fidelity:

“When couples come to ministers to talk about their marriage ceremonies, ministers think it’s interesting to ask if they love one another. What a stupid question! How would they know? A Christian marriage isn’t about whether you’re in love. Christian marriage is giving you the practice of fidelity over a lifetime in which you can look back upon the marriage and call it love. It is a hard discipline over many years.”

Becoming one flesh is, then, instantaneous: you are now married, and this signals a fundamental shift in the truth about you. The person you are married to is now your husband or wife, and you are, down to your very existential foundations, sealed to him or her. The rest can change, hobbies and interests and political affiliations and even temperaments, but the thing itself is done. This, Hauerwas says, is why ‘compatibility’ as the grounds for marriage is such a dangerous innovation:

“Destructive to marriage is the self-fulfillment ethic that assumes marriage and the family are primarily institutions of personal fulfillment, necessary for us to become “whole” and happy. The assumption is that there is someone just right for us to marry and that if we look closely enough we will find the right person. This moral assumption overlooks a crucial aspect to marriage. It fails to appreciate the fact that we always marry the wrong person.

We never know whom we marry; we just think we do. Or even if we first marry the right person, just give it a while and he or she will change. For marriage, being [the enormous thing it is] means we are not the same person after we have entered it. The primary challenge of marriage is learning how to love and care for the stranger to whom you find yourself married.”

It’s all a very fine corrective to the divorce-prone culture that posits continued satisfaction as the basis of marriage, thereby implicitly allowing dissatisfaction as de-facto grounds for the ending of marriages. But as much as I agree with the ethical premise, the idea of becoming someone wholly new troubled me the night before my wedding, as I tossed and turned and dreamed fitfully of going back to old places — former dorms and apartments — and finding I no longer had the right keys.

* * *

What I’ve had all these years with my mother isn’t a face, exactly, which is to say I’m not to her a still frieze, and she isn’t to me an emblem of some premise. What we have is a relationship, and the trouble was that I had come under the misapprehension that the relationship constituted by my marriage, transformative as it is, was one that would displace my relationship with her.

But this is a rather pale understanding of the nature of marriage. If the contest between mother and husband is significant enough to bring down the tide of seasons, then the mystery of marriage is all the more extraordinary as the chosen vehicle to depict the relationship of Christ and church. The marriage of Christ and church is the sum of all things, in a sense, the encounter that encompasses all others: all the love we have for one another, all of our charity and the journey we embark upon in the life of the church — all of it unfolds in the context of this ultimate marriage. And the same is true of our marriages themselves, as Matthew Schmitz recounts from a prayer heard at a wedding:

“For those suffering from broken hearts and homes, from loneliness or the dread of it; and for all called to the generosity of the single or celibate; that they might inspire [name of bride and groom] by their conformity to Christ, and always find in them fiercely devoted friends, and in their house a second home…The groom was the primary author of the recent book What Is Marriage? Surely this prayer offers part of the answer. The married are not to forget the unmarried or pity them but instead call on them for help and offer help in turn.”

Hauerwas is right to define marriage as an enormous undertaking, but I would add that it is also an essentially capacious relationship, with strength and vitality enough to nurture a variety of other relationships within it. Wesley Hill explains:

“…when I think about the hospitality that has meant the most to me as a single person, when I think about the kind of hospitality that has actually “worked” to drive away my loneliness, I think of arriving at my friends Jono and Megan’s small apartment after a day of work. Megan had had the kids to herself all day and was usually exhausted. After a chaotic dinner with them and other friends, I started washing their dishes while they put the kids to bed. Then we all, tired and sometimes irritable, would collapse in the messy living room and drink cheap wine that we found on offer at the lowest shelf at Tesco…Point being, this wasn’t posh, big city high life with the clink of champagne glasses and arcane conversation at dinner parties about what was in the latest issue of the New Yorker. This was, rather, me being welcomed into untidiness, both physical, emotional, and spiritual. And that is what made me feel like I belonged.”

Marriage is not, therefore, a relationship with the tendency to isolate; it isn’t best represented by parcels of time, like regular seasons, or by radically altered faces, princess-to-queen, spring-to-winter. This view of marriage construes it as something you periodicaly do rather than someone you are; Christian marriage, with its emphasis on self-gift, obliterates that notion. The very definitiveness of marriage gives it the powerful foundation in self-giving that allows it to sustain and nurture the many relationships married people enjoy: with friends, neighbors, children, family. Just as the marriage of Christ and church breathes life into the many animating features of our sojourn as a church together, the marriage of two has that very same capacity.

It was never the case that I would need to figure out some way to be who I was prior to getting married to maintain the relationship I have with my mom; that would be fruitless striving anyhow. Getting married only means I have more to give: mom gained in Matt a son, and in our marriage the promise of grandkids, an extended network of new family. It’s no small thing, and it all keeps growing.

* * *

After our wedding my mom and I sat side-by-side at a restaurant table in New Orleans. I was exhausted, having missed a few hours of sleep the night before. Matt was engaged in an animated discussion with my dad, and though the restaurant was noisy with ambient conversation and the clink of flatware it felt like the first quiet moment I’d had all day.

“Have you practiced your new signature?” my mom rolled a pen toward my hand, and nudged an irrelevant receipt my way as scratch paper.

“Yeah,” I said, and demonstrated: broad, loopy cursive E, and then a B that resembled its shape. I added my new initials, too, pleased by their harmony. All my life my mom and dad had called me E-B, because of the two halves of my name: Eliza-Beth. E-B.

And there they were, just like that: EB.

“E-B,” my mom read aloud, recognition brightening her tone, “look at that, E-B.”

“EB,” I repeated, nodding, “you always had it right. It’s who I always was.”

A few tears mottled the lenses of her glasses and they rose up on her cheeks as she smiled wider and wider.