And now we present an excerpt from the most recent addition to our Robert Farrar Capon series, his greatly esteemed work Bed and Board: Plain Talk About Marriage. An essential book for any Capon-lover, this was Robert’s first bestseller, and you’ll see why in this introductory chapter, reproduced below.

“Bed and Board is necessary and offensive in the best possible way.” – Sarah Condon

“…sage wisdom, biting humor, uncomfortable truths…never a page that must be forgiven for pedantic, sawdusty prose.” – Chad Bird

I.

ABSURDITY

The author celebrates the Holy Estate of Matrimony, professes disillusionment with the usual advices about it, and gives an all but disqualifying list of his qualifications for discussing it.

Marriage is honorable in all, and the bed undefiled. It is a very great sacrament indeed, and for all its troubles, its stock shows not the least sign of going down. And the family. Who can praise it as he should? Children like arrows in the hand of a giant; happy is the man whose quiver is full, whose wife is like the fruitful vine upon the walls of his house, whose children are like the olive branches round about his table. With sons like young plants and daughters like polished corners, he beholds how good and joyful a thing it is for brethren to dwell together in unity.

But be honest. The precious oil on Aaron’s beard doesn’t often reach the skirts of our clothing. It is hard to make a home. It is hard for one man and one woman to live together under one roof for as long as God wills. It is hard to raise a family—hard to manage the intractable results of bed and board without doing irreparable damage to somebody. And since it is nearly impossible to write about it without becoming clinical, pompous or gloomy, most of the published accounts of the matter are either depressing or dishonest—gray truth or rosy lie, but nothing very lifelike. It is hard to identify one’s self with most marriage literature. Among the stern realities of religion, amid the triumphs of togetherness and the successes of sexual engineering, poor common garden humanity goes dumbly like a little lost peasant among grand personages. The clumsiness of his bed and the gibbering idiocy of his board bear little resemblance to these gray eminences and disgustingly healthy specimens. And so he wanders off back to his house convinced, not that he is unique (which he is) but that he is different (which he is not), and that he has somehow missed the boat, or the party, or whatever it was (he can’t quite recall now) that it was supposed to be all about. All he remembers is that it seemed like a good idea at the time.

That peasant—Adam or Eve or you or me—needs a marriage book. But the ones he usually gets spend most of their time trying to put him at ease in the presence of the grands seigneurs: “Religion teaches…,” they say; “Psychology tells us…,” “Medicine indicates….” “All these noble subjects are your friends—they are here to help you.” But what these books don’t understand is that the peasant in us is not about to make friends with such beings just because somebody tells him they’re nice people. Deep down inside he has an inescapable feeling that somehow he is not their dish; that, while they may well be the friends of everyone else in the world, they are not about to invite him to their house party. He is not proud of being thus a misfit—if anything he is a little ashamed. But he is a misfit and he knows it. Perhaps someday a book will be written that will reconcile him and them. Perhaps the definitive volume is on its way now, flowing serenely from the pen of the still-undiscovered great white hope of religious letters. Perhaps. But this book is not it. This is just something for him to read while he waits.

Its purpose is only to entertain him a while—and possibly to make him feel a little less unsure. It wants to tell him that he isn’t the only one whose absurd life makes him feel like the exception to the rules. It has only one conceit to sell, and that is, that if he will take hold of Absurdity with both hands, he will be wiser than all the books that try to resolve it. Because life is absurd. It is like the square root of -1: You can do a lot with it, but you can’t do much about it. And everything that is central in life is absurd in proportion to the degree of its centrality. Saving one’s money, not very; Stamp collecting, a little; Music, quite; Love and Marriage, tremendously; and Birth, Death and Faith, absolutely. Our peasant has his hand on a very large truth, and no slick reconciler should ever be allowed to talk him out of it.

Accordingly, this book is not about those giants who tower over him: Psychology, Education, Maturity, Sexual Adjustment—not even Religion. They can take care of themselves. This is about him—that is, about me (for we are all unique, and practically identical). This is, to be honest, not a book at all. It is only a monologue, and not an entirely sober one at that. It is one peasant swapping stories with another in the cold backyard of the House of Important Subjects, while the grands seigneurs hold their solemn consultations within. The author’s qualifications therefore almost cease to matter. Indeed, he has arranged things so that only one is really necessary: He must be an expert in absurdity. And that is the only one that will be offered. An absurd Baedeker for an absurd journey; no apologies, no explanations.

Ideally, I suppose, the best method would be something more scholarly: select quotes from reliable authors, careful synthesis, and a string of definite conclusions. But out here in the courtyard around the fire that procedure is hardly realistic. The pressure of our paradoxes has a way of rendering us all impatient of neat lectures. So instead of doing it the right way and handing the reader neatly arranged snippets from the old masters, I am going to do it the wrong way and give him my own precooked, prechewed and predigested version of a few items. I propose to regale him with some random opinions on Husbandhood, Wifeliness, Bed and Board—with a few personal comments, not on the Important Subjects which haunt us, but on those vastly more important subjects: ourselves, our roles and our places. We were created not to draw intellectual arabesques about life, but to live; our roles matter more than our rules. We are the subjects, not they. The method is probably questionable, and it is certainly personal. But at least the reader won’t get eyestrain.

To begin, then: I am a priest of the Episcopal Church. This is the first of my absurdities. Absurd in all seriousness, because the Incarnation of God, his Cross, his Resurrection, his high-priestly Intercession, his Church, his grace, and his choosing of men—of me—are all roaringly, marvelously absurd; all lavish, fantastic gifts, receivable only by lavish, fantastic givers. But it is my first paradox in a less serious sense, too, for to be an Episcopalian is to pile paradox upon itself. The Episcopal Church is the absurdest version of a supremely absurd religion. (I have been her son all my life—I am reveling in my mother’s foibles, not being disrespectful.) Catholic and Protestant, authoritarian and individualistic; believing in bishops but not giving them power, believing in priests but not letting on; stylish in some places and dowdy in others, capable of real prophecy and of double-talk out of both sides of her mouth, she is indeed all things to all men, a measure stretched far out of shape, partly by carelessness but partly by her gallant attempt to encompass the boundless grace of God.

But beyond being a priest of the Episcopal Church, I have a further absurdity. I am married, and happily at that, though little of it is my doing. (Congratulatory telegrams should properly be sent to God, Mother Nature and the many others near and dear who have so kindly picked up after me.) For marriage is a paradox second only to life itself. That at the age of twenty or so, with little knowledge of each other and a dangerous overdose of self-confidence, two human beings should undertake to commit themselves for life—and that church and state should receive their vows with a straight face—all this is absurd indeed. And it is tolerable only if it is reveled in as such. A pox on all the neat little explanations as to why it is reasonable that two teenagers should be bound to each other until death. It is not reasonable. It happens to true life, but it remains absurd. Down with the books that moralize reasonably on the subject of why divorce is wrong. Divorce is not a wrong; it is a metaphysical impossibility. It is an attempt to do something about life rather than with it—to work out the square root of -1 rather than to use it.

Up with the absurdity of marriage then. Let the peasant rejoice. He is a very odd ball on a very odd pool table, and his marriage is one of the few things left to him that will roll properly in this game. And up with the marriage service. Let the peasant go back and read it while he rejoices—preferably in the old unbowdlerized version still used by the Church of England. It is full of death and cast iron. And it is one of the great remaining sanity markers. The world is going mad because it has too many reasonable little options, and not enough interest or nerve to choose anything for good. In such a world, the marriage service is not reasonable, but it is sane; which is quite another matter.  The lunatic lives in a world of reason, and he goes mad with making sense; it is precisely paradox that keeps the rest of us sane. To be born, to love a woman, to cry at music, to catch a cold, to die—these are not excursions on the narrow road of logic; they are blind launchings on a trackless sea. They are not bargains, they are commitments, and for ordinary people, marriage is the very keel of their commitment, the largest piece of ballast in their small and storm-tossed boat. Its unqualified hurling of two people into their deathbed is absurd, but so is the rest of that welter of unqualified hurlings we call life. You cannot contract out of being born, out of crying, out of loving, out of dying; you cannot contract out of marriage. It may be uncomfortable, it certainly is absurd; but it is not abnormal.

My final qualifying absurdity is the full equal of my others. I have six children. The number is not the point, though for the record, they are two boys and four girls in the sequence BGBGGG. The point is that nothing is more absurd than begetting. Having fits is more reasonable than having children. First, because they are absurd—and impossible, and unmanageable besides. There are days—lots of days—when, if I could, I would mail them all back to Dr. Spock. Second, because it is absurd to give them houseroom. I manage badly enough keeping my own ship afloat.  What am I doing cluttering this already crowded anchorage with more ships and more masters? For that is the secret, you know. They are not members of my crew; they are the masters of their own vessels. Their presence with me is that of a not entirely peaceable boarding party; and they will leave when they please, not I. Down, then, with Gesell and Ilg. The peasant knows what we all suspect. It’s them or us, and eventually it’s going to be them. And we have the short end of the stick, for with all the power of our absurd hearts we love them, and are hopelessly caught.

And that will do for preliminary qualification. I have some other absurdities which will appear in due course. I will simply list them here. I live in a very large house. I teach dogmatic theology and Greek, keep a decent cellar, and know something about wines, cooking, music, praying and living (in approximately that order). We get too soon old and too late smart, but with a loving God and forgiving friends, I am grateful and glad. It is cold out here in the yard, but we have a few more sticks and lot more time, so poke the fire again, Billy; we’ll sup before we go.

You can purchase the new edition of Bed and Board here!