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Companionship and space

30 November, 1999

Paul Andrews SJ looks at two aspects of our lives both of which are important for emotional security and mental health – whether in marriage or religious life: they are companionship and space.

By the time you read this in the September Messenger, I may have moved. The job I’ve had for six years, as rector of Manresa, ends this July, and I may well have said goodbye, sadly, to this house, to the view of green lawn as I breakfast, and the company of the diverse brethren: the mystic, the carpenter, the historian, the gardener, the media man, the manager and so on. ‘Sadly’, because I like them, and we give each other space.

Introduction to silence
Space was not something I thought about when I took my first vows as a Jesuit. Yet it was somehow built into the way we lived. We slept six or more to a room, with only enough space between the beds for a curtain and chair. We were silent. They called it Major Silence.

For lonely young men who had left their families, and sometimes wept into their pillows, that silence could be a protection, a not unfriendly space which helped them live with their feelings. During the day, as we toiled outside with shovels, wheelbarrows, pickaxes and hoes, we came to know each other with the assurance of people who have chosen to follow the same dream.

It was an introduction to religious life, with its curious mix of close companionship and space. Whatever about the stresses of the celibate life when you are in the prime of your manhood, I’d have to witness that, as you grow older, the companionship of good and long-tested friends is a blessing and a joy. You learn to relish them, while respecting the limits and avoiding nosiness or unwanted intrusions.

To judge from the number of nuns who move out of community in order to live on their own, I suspect that men religious respect one another’s space more effectively than women.

Space in marriage
Space is needed in the community life of religious, and it has an equally vital place in marriage. Kahlil Gibran mentions it in his poetical piece about marriage: ‘You shall be together even in the silent memory of God. But let there be spaces in your togetherness, and let the winds of the heavens dance between you. Sing and dance and be joyous, but let each of you be alone.’

As you look at the couples you know best – your parents, children, sisters and brothers that question can be revealing. What is the mixture of intimacy and space in the marriage? Of course it changes with time.

A couple’s first delightful intimacy may give way to feeling crowded, especially after a disagreement. If the disagreement is serious, it makes every contact difficult and painful.

Ups and downs
A recent meeting pushed me to think hard about space. I’ve known the family for many years, a talented couple with bright, affectionate children. As in many marriages, things were not as good as they looked; and they have gone through strange ups and downs.

Both Jean and Fergus – fictional names, obviously – had interesting jobs before they married in their thirties. They worked hard, and prospered. But as the years passed and crises arose, fierce arguments between them left a deep wound on the family. Fergus in particular would become explosive when faced with the sort of crises and arguments that are the stuff of family living. There was a period when I thought the marriage was doomed.

When the children had grown and left home, the parents, retired now from their work, felt on top of one another in the empty house. Both of them were good problem-solvers, and once they had worked out what was wrong, they found a solution. They divided the house in two. Now, for the most part, they live separate lives. It works. They respect one another’s space. They have interests in common, not merely in the children and grandchildren, but in projects that involve them both. So they are often together both inside the house and outside. If one is sick or indisposed, the other will automatically step in to help. The bond that brought them together in the first place has had a chance to strengthen again. It is not the marriage of the love songs, but it has brought a measure of happiness to both Fergus and Jean.

Separate lives
What was it that worked in this case? Partly that they really are capable of living separate lives. They have separate sources of income, so are not quarrelling about money. Both of them can cook for themselves. They love their children and share their delights and worries. Both of them have a sense of God as the third person in their marriage.

In books about marriage, you will rarely find sections on how to divide the house in two. That might seem to be an admission of failure. But marriages come in all sorts and shapes.

Fergus and Jean were embarrassed at first about their new arrangement, and I watched it with intense curiosity: it seemed to offer a new shape to an old institution. It is not something you would recommend to a young couple; but it takes account of the need for space, which is deep in all of us.

We know how animals mark out and defend their territory, birds by their song, mammals by their smells. Children have an animal feel for their little patch: they do not like others invading their bed (or their side of the bed), their drawer or cupboard or chair, or, if they are lucky, their room. That need persists even in the intimacy of marriage. Even loving adults need room to stretch and be themselves.

So it is important to keep some space for yourself. After a day with the crowds, Jesus would head for a mountainside to spend the night alone with his Father. Many Messenger readers follow him in prayer from their computers, by seeking out the Jesuit website, Sacred Space www.sacredspace.ie – which has offered many millions of workers an oasis of quiet and prayer in the middle of their daily routines. If you sense the desire to be alone, don’t feel guilty. Make space for yourself.

This article first appeared in The Messenger (September 2006), a magazine of the Irish Jesuits.


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