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A broken mould for plaster saints

The Wesleys, the Tolstoys and the Gandhis all had their problems with marriage. The Rev John Kennedy calls on Christians to approach intimate life as real people.
Two singular stories appeared recently in the Tablet, the Catholic weekly that thinking Christians read for fun. The first piece reported that the Vatican wants to canonise some married couples. The second delivered sensational revelations of the intimate life of Karl Rahner, the German Jesuit who was one of the founders of modern Catholic theology. The stories together expose the confusions that arise when we try to talk about Christian heroism and the realities of intimate life with any kind of honesty.

The Vatican search for suitably saintly couples is explained by a spokesperson, Mgr Helmut Moll:

When marriage and the family are being crushed under the strain of heavy burdens, there is a need for convincing examples. Staying together in good times and in bad . . . shows a heroic degree of virtue.

The central problem here is simply expressed. The language of heroism and intimacy just don't fit together that easily. And for any couple to treat one another in a truly saintly manner sounds positively dangerous - more likely to generate a single martyrdom than a conjugal canonisation. In fact the non-Catholic experience clearly suggests that marriage and sainthood are strange bedfellows. There are the Wesleys. There are the Gandhis. There are the Tolstoys.

The Mahatma stressed his capacity for sexual abstinence by sharing his bed with women other than Mrs Gandhi; so some would argue that it was she who displayed the more distinctive sanctity. Wesley's wife was fiercely but not unreasonably jealous, and dragged him round their bedroom by his hair. Theirs was one of history's great disastrous marriages.

Tolstoy's case is the most instructive. At the age of 92, he fled from a wife whose sanity had cracked, partly under the burden of being Mrs Tolstoy. His family pursued him in a train. The world's press followed by rail and telegraph. His last moments, to the rage and embarrassment of his family and disciples, were recorded by one of M Pathe's movie cameramen.

Sainthood is hardly possible now that the intimate and the heroic are no longer the property of the hero's admirers, but public knowledge. The Tablet's other story suggests just that. It tells of Karl Rahner's platonic love affair with Luise Rinser, a left-wing Catholic intellectual and novelist. They met in 1962, and over 22 years exchanged a thousand letters. Ms Rinser, now 84, has just published them. The liaison seems to have been chaste, for she shared an earthier passion for a Benedictine expert in Orthodox affairs.

Amid the scandalised uproar, one Jesuit has described the story as "the most moving human happening in German Catholicism in the second half of the 20th century". That may be an overstatement. But there was certainly a great deal of pain in all this for Rahner, and it is tempting to read into his theology a more fully lived life. His experience recalls the words of his compatriot Martin Luther, on theology; that it is not got by study and speculation but "by living, dying and being damned".

So Mgr Moll is on a hiding to nothing. His call to heroic virtue gets four inches in the Tablet, whereas the Karl and Luise story rates four columns. Of course it is true that most Christian people enjoy making marriage work. But too many find themselves taking their own walk on the wild side. They take the joy and the grief as they come. They damage their own and other people's lives.

Perhaps all this lies more openly on the surface in the Methodist Church, where divorce and remarriage have been grieved over and celebrated for a generation now. So maybe we have a kind of a start in treating the wilder side of conjugality in a loving and honest way. Wesley's experience helps, of course; it's always good to know that somebody is worse off than yourself. All this is laid out rather prosaically in the recent Anglican report on marriage today, Something To Celebrate. It is very constructive. But it has provoked outrage in showing honestly how the British, including Anglicans, blunder through intimate life.

The problem is that intimate life is not expressed through heroic sacrifice, but through mutual sharing - and sharing is more difficult and demanding than saintly giving. We do not yet know whether a manageable civilisation can be founded on mutuality. But the enterprise is under way, inflicting many casualties and much pain. It is heroic in its own fashion, but it is not acknowledged everywhere as authentically Christian. It can't be doing with pairs of plaster saints; that mould has to be broken. But it can thank God for the real Karl Rahner, whose life turns out to have been as significant as his thought.