“Honest Self-Evaluation”: Not So Much

So many women, for so many years. So many instances of use and abuse that happen so frequently they’re considered commonplace, expected, “part of life.”

It’s horrible to see the amount of women who have responded with #metoo: horrible because of the peace, joy, and security that’s been robbed from these lives; horrible because we all know the numbers convey just a fraction of women who’ve experienced this in their lifetime; and horrible because we’re not hearing very much from the other side of the equation. 

Women are strong and resilient. I am filled with admiration and love for every woman who’s spoken out on this issue, as well as for the ones who have kept it close to their heart. But I am afraid of this being shrugged off as just another “women’s issue”: an ultimately innocuous fad that the patriarchal culture will reverently espouse for a time, only to let it fuzz out into radio noise beneath the crosshairs of a porn-ravaged collective brain. A collective brain that just a couple of weeks ago was singing the praises of Hugh Hefner and all the ways he brought “freedom” into our puritanical culture. 

There’s been a disturbing lack of response from men, here. My inkling tells me that this likely has something to do with the fact that most men are consuming entertainment that conveys every abusive thing Weinstein did to these women – and worse, much, much worse. (I won’t even go into the stats regarding the percentage of porn scenes that depict rape, violence, and abuse against women: look into it for yourself.) In the interests of “honest self-evaluation,” these men are reticent due to one (or all) of the following reasons:

a) they don’t want to be two-faced;
b)they are secretly accepting of raping-groping-touching women with no regard for the human in front of them;
c)they don’t have any genuine resolve to stop consuming pornography that dehumanizes women. 

That doesn’t sound like honest self-evaluation to me. It sounds like cowardice. And unfortunately, as much as women would like to be able to turn the tide by raising awareness, things aren’t going to change unless men change. Unless men come forward and admit, “I am part of this problem. I have used, abused, and manipulated women for my own selfish ends. I have stood by silently in the face of this evil. I have chosen this evil again and again and have derived pleasure from it.” With admittance comes responsibility: the responsibility to change, to man up, to demand that women be treated as people – independent, complex people who exist apart from you, who do not exist to satisfy your cravings. 

I’m not saying women are expecting a culture of superhuman men who don’t have sexual urges – keep those urges. Just make them healthier, make them more human. Channel them in a way that doesn’t destroy, steal, lie, or wound. 

We need men who are ready to start dealing with their spiritual and emotional impotence – men who have the balls to admit their part (yeah, the word-play was intentional). The common good depends on it.

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To be Loved, To be Free: Mothers & Sons

I am carrying a boy beneath my heart.

In coming to realize more and more that I am responsible for another life – in realizing that I will be his first experience of “love,” for better and for worse – I want to empty my heart and my body of every knot of unforgiveness, resentment, and hatred. Or, at least, I want to want that.

I will be my boy’s first experience of home, of love, of beauty, of woman. His first place of repose and acceptance. My feelings toward every man of significance in my life will some how, some way color my interactions with my son – if not at first, then eventually, in myriad idiosyncratic ways. Now is the time to examine these feelings, conclusions, and convictions; to beg to know what is true in my concept of Man and what is false or harmful.

Surely, sometimes the truth is painful: men hurt women, women hurt men, all of us thrash around like the bull in a china shop. But however painful the truth of Man & Woman may be, the truth is not destructive, stifling, or calculating. It is clear-eyed, expansive, red-blooded, agile. It is not a friend of the fickle subterfuge that sits in a corner, arms crossed possessively over an increasingly frozen heart.

What is more tragic than a mother with a cold, distant heart? What is more monstrous than a mother with an insatiable, possessive heart?

Not one of us can untangle ourselves from our mother, not one of us can fathom her influence as “the starting point.” Of this I am keenly aware. 

Woman! All she has ever wanted is to be loved and set free. What devastating cages we begin to build when we are small, from the first moment we see indifference, lust, or amusement in the eyes of a man. We adhere with devotion to a pattern of gridlock from such a young age, without ever stopping to ask, “But is it true?” We thwart every honest attempt that comes our way, subconsciously accepting the bars (that is, the disappointment) that will surely follow every expression of “love”, to the point of retreating into the cell of our own making: only to then throw ourselves at the four walls surrounding us, wildly seeking release and demanding freedom, accusing everyone standing with out of forcing us in.

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I feel my son moving within me now, as I write. What he knows of me at this point is simply water, warmth, safety, and life. My body knows, better than my mind, how to embrace the reality of “loving and setting free.” My body has quietly and constantly knit and nourished this little boy, cradling him without question. And one day soon, my body will set him free, doing what it is built to do, without pausing to consider “the options.” Without pausing to consider, “But is it true?” My body knows better than to build a fence around love made flesh.

To be loved and set free. Over and over and over again. This is what we all want, men and women alike. This is what we crave throughout life, from the moment we leave the gates of her body to the moment we rest in the earth. To be loved, so as to be set free. And we look to her to show us how, long before we recognize we exist apart from her.

It takes all of my courage to make this prayer to God – but even in offering it, I sense him answering it.

God…Father. Help me to live in the sole conviction that I am loved: that I am set free. Pump the red, hot blood of compassion into all that is frozen in me. Dismantle the pattern, the gridlock, the walls. Let me sway in your love like the green tendrils that sway in the sea – anchored but agile.

Let me teach my son that to be loved is to be set free. Whatever that means, again and again and again: to be loved, to be set free, season by season and age after age, until he is laid to rest in the heart of the world.

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Golly Gee, I’m Glad I Saw That Sex Scene

I admire authors and artists who are able to convey the full, gritty gamut of human experience without falling prey to either gross moralism or gratuitousness. Tolstoy, Greene, Chekov, Leonard Cohen (sans some of his erotic poetry), Andrew Wyeth, John Steinbeck, Flannery O’Connor, etc possessed an incredible talent for maximum expressiveness with the minimum of means. Hemingway, when describing a sexual encounter under the stars between a man and a woman in “For Whom the Bell Tolls”, simply wrote, “and they were both there, time having stopped; and he felt the earth move out and away from under them.” You understand what he’s saying, here. Your mind takes that information in, appreciates the lyricism and frankness of it, and appreciates the role of sex in human experience. There is no need for obscene imagery to convey the weightiness of the encounter; in fact, Hemingway’s self-control and economy of language imply a sense of respect and reverence toward the intellect and imagination of his reader; as well as a true mastery of his craft.

(CRUCIALLY IMPORTANT DEVIATION/RELEVANT ASIDE: This is also part of the reason why Alien is such a freakin great movie: it’s what you don’t see that utterly devastates your nerves and draws you into the story. The subterranean terror of a hidden presence speaks volumes within the viewer without needing much help from gimmicks.)

The human mind flourishes when it is challenged by subtlety, nuance, hiddenness, implication, and suggestion. It deteriorates when it is exposed to sheer vulgarity. Those who say that the explicit sex scenes in GoT serve to tell the story (or are easy to overlook and forgive) are apparently forgetting that the creators of the show are surely shrewd enough to know what kind of culture we live in. This is a culture where having the wrapping violently torn off is celebrated; a culture with a voracious appetite for porn; a culture unfriendly to women. A culture with a palate so over-salted by sex and sensation that it no longer knows how to distinguish true artistry from a peep-show. Shrewd, yes; imaginative, no.

Explicit sex scenes – many of which display disorder – are not necessary to carry a narrative; nor are they neutral. They have an intention – and I doubt that intention is to plunge the viewer into a heightened state of awareness. Though I’m not a fan of Nietzsche’s philosophy, I hear wisdom in his line, “He who fights with monsters should be careful lest he thereby become a monster. And if thou gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will also gaze into thee.” You become what you ingest. No one is invincible to that. The very volume and vehemence of the protestations of those who staunchly defend the “artistry” of pornography – wherever it may show up – belies a myopic attachment that in and of itself might need some attention.

To quote Roger Scruton: “The camera lets the world in. The temptation is to encourage a kind of ‘reality addiction’ in the viewer, to focus on aspects of real life that grip or excite us, regardless of their dramatic meaning. Genuine art also entertains us; but it does so by creating a distance between us and the scenes it portrays: a distance sufficient to engender disinterested sympathy for the characters, rather than the vicarious emotions of our own.”

In Greek tragedies, famous sculptures throughout Europe (think the Rape of Proserpina), and countless paintings and tales, actions are not real but rather represented, and however realistic and unsettling they may be, they avoid becoming the stuff of fantasy. The purpose isn’t to make death, rape, murder, etc less weighty than it is, but to keep it within the realm of our own imaginations. With torture porn and every other sub-genre of porn, the interest shifts from interest in the embodied person to interest in the body itself. Pornography obsesses over a fantasy interest, whereas erotic art addresses an interest of the imagination. Pornographic sex is explicit and depersonalized, while eroticism invites us into the subjectivity of another person, relying on implication and suggestion rather than explicit display.

Now, George R. R. Martin treated these subjects with greater sensitivity in his books, and it goes without saying that the man has created a rich story-line that’s unique and enduring. I’m not out to ridicule anyone or cast aspersions on him as an author. The purpose of this post is to examine the visual medium of television and how it depicts sex and all things related, and why it’s worth examining who we become as consumers of the show.

Erotic art – art that uses veiled terms, creating a distance so as to allow rumination on the person who is the subject of the piece – is a triumph that frustrates the voyeur’s intention to objectify, consume, and dominate the object of his or her fantasy. And honey, we all got that creepy old Peepin’ Tom inside of us, to some degree or another; and caring about other persons as persons is a life-long work that doesn’t come instinctually. Our daily diet either gives that interior Peeping Tom a leg-up to glance through windows that are better left alone, or else it starves him and weakens him. 

Before you get your underwear in a twist, let me say that this isn’t about religion or how such-and-such might “tarnish your soul” – that’s not the conversation I’m looking to start, here, cause that’s just a turn-off. I’m as sick as the rest of you with the snarky, sanctimonious blog-posts about how people who watch GoT are spineless tools with no moral compass, or geeks who ought to be shoved into lockers. This is, rather, about what’s art and what’s not: and from where I stand, porn isn’t art. It lacks value and sneers at our innate need to be challenged and confronted by that which isn’t readily apparent; to be vexed by the possibility of significance beyond nerve-endings.

Sex and sexuality are hugely valuable: I’m a big fan. They ought to be expressed artistically because they play an enormous role in who we are as persons. But I doubt anyone will look back fondly on all the explicit sex scenes they saw during their lifetime as they lay dying (which could be any day) and say, “Gee, that really helped me figure myself out as a person.”

 

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This Fleshly Faith.

You can’t crucify a projection anymore than you can marry one.

There’s nothing like human love – ordinary, corrupt, insatiable, feckless human love – to remind one of the sheer folly and honesty of the Incarnate God. A man born into poverty, available to poverty: and not the poverty described by Dickens’ with removed, romantic flourish, but rather the poverty of the pervert, the adulterer, the atheist, the pornographer, the drunkard, the handicapped, the forgotten, the unremarkable… A man who knows this fragile frame, these tired limbs, that ravaged heart, those beleaguered eyes – and shows no partiality. A man, solid, enfleshed, warm with virile strength – unafraid of what we call grotesque, unafraid of the bloodiness of it all, taking it unto himself as only the most honest of realists could do. There is no escape hatch, no pre-nup agreement, no measuring life out “in teaspoons.”

And as I stand in a dark church, candles sending lapping light against the eerie statues with their sightless eyes, with the familiar form stretched across those cruel beams above the altar, I am unavoidably confronted again with the claims this man made. I look at the lines of the body (a form I have seen and cherished in the way of a wife, a form I have felt), at the brutal nails and the blood, the gently drooping head bound in thorns…and I think, “Wish-fulfillment? What kind of wish would take this form? What kind of dream would find its satiation in this anguish?”

Who, but You, who truly love would affirm the lovability beneath the shadows, the blood, the dying? Who but You who truly love would come in such a bodily way – knowing that this makes such sense to me – in order that I might know what it means to be truly alive? Who but You who truly love would refuse to shy away from our inveterate nakedness by becoming utterly naked Yourself? Who but You who truly love would give us exactly what we ask for: and then call to us through the rubble of our attained desires?

The epiclesis. The bite of wood against my knees. The consecration. Elevation. “Domine meus et Deus meus.” It is too real for me to comprehend, too solid for me to touch: but I believe (help my unbelief).

“I made myself available to those who did not ask for me; I appeared to those who did not look for me. I said, ‘Here I am! Here I am!’ to a nation that did not invoke my name.” Isaiah 65:1

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O Dio, tu sei il mio Dio…

Assisi, March 30, 2015. On the hillside in the olive grove above Santa Chiara.

O Dio, tu sei il mio Dio, all’aurora ti cerco, di te ha sete l’anima mia.

Here I am, God. And here, I know, are you.
Forgive me for my doubt, my fear, my hesitancy.
But what if you do not come through?

You have never abandoned me: ­never, not in moments of joy,
nor in moments of despair and darkness.

Always you follow me. Always you interrupt my self­-satisfaction, my misery.
I could not make you up: yet the world says this is so.

We are all running from you, we are terrified of remembrance.
We do not want to be responsible, to regret, to hang our heads
in shame or guilt. We have to recover from
“the sickness of seeking you.”

How did it come to this?

When we think of you, we feel infinitely wounded.
We grapple with you, wrestle with you, and your hands batter us still more.

“No more God. He is hurting me in the deepest places,
and that is unfair. I have a right to live a life free of pain.”
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When I am hungry, I will eat, so that my stomach does not hurt.
When I am thirsty, I will drink, so that my throat is not parched.
When I am tired, I will sleep, so that my body is not weary.

And when I am alone
when I am alone ­

That is; when my soul is so
thirsty, so hungry, so tired,
so
insatiable:

I will cry out to You.

I will remember you who have never forgotten me.
Even if only for a moment ­
(you are the fullness of every moment)-
­
I will think of you, and I will remember that I am made to drink of you,
to eat of you, to rest in you.

In that moment, I will be aware of creation as a glorious “being with.”
The continual agony of self-­actualization will
fall away because, in that one moment, I am alive in you,
and my soul knows who she is meant to adore.

I will see the stance of life: everything strains upward to you, everything loves itself
because everything belongs to you.
The olive tree, ancient and elegant, stands alive year after year;
the grass sprawling on the hills around it, so tender and green, so sure of itself and its
mission to receive life without ceasing.
The human heart that tries again and again to love and be loved;
the heart always yearning to ascend.

Everything wants to be what it is, which is a live creation; everything wants the fullness of everything:

to be with you.

And then the moment will pass, and I will try to forget you (this takes more effort than remembering, but I tell myself otherwise), and to do that I jostle myself out of silence, recollection, receptivity, and adoration, and back into a state of agitation and noise.

Whenever I remember you,
I start to crave you;

and I sense the uncontrollability that comes with intimacy and belief.

The piercing way You touch me…

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I am forced to encounter a choice. Either I relinquish the god I have made out of control,
distraction, and anger (a god I can predict and manipulate, according to my whims and whatever company I find myself in), and thereby open myself like the rest of creation to you, the God I came from and the God I run from:

or, I can say,

“No. No, it is too risky.”

March 31, 2015. Tomb of St. Francis.

Intimacy requires a sober decision to relinquish control.

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[why i wrote] a song about porn.

Dismantled by Love is one of the heavier songs I’ve written, but it has undoubtedly instigated the greatest volume of response I’ve ever received from friends, fans, and random listeners alike.

I have felt very strongly about pornography for a long time, ever since the first crystallized moment when I myself saw a pornographic poster flash past my eyes at a music shop when I was a little girl. My mom, who was next to me, was browsing through posters, looking for Van Halen (shopping for my brothers), when suddenly – there it was. Mom took in a sharp breath and moved us away immediately: she was shaken, and said nothing.

I remember in that moment feeling incredible sadness, shock, and worry: in my tender mind, I couldn’t understand why the woman in the photo would expose herself that way, couldn’t fathom that someone would have requested her to do so. The thing that bothered me most of all was the anonymity: to all appearances, she had no name. She was no one. She was just lurid eyes, bleached hair, and impossible boobs. And although I had no concept of sex at the time, something innate sensed the fracture between the person and intimacy. I sensed the exploitation and degradation of it; and I will never forget that sorrow. “She was a little girl once, too,” I thought. “Where is her dad? Does he know?…” I never was able to process those thoughts aloud, as sex was taboo in the house, and anyway I wouldn’t have known how to articulate the feeling of dread the image burned into me.

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That was the only time it ever happened, thankfully, the only time I ever saw it; but porn caused wounds in my life down the road, tangentially. It caused disappointment, disillusionment, and most of all – anger. It led to damaged trust in relationships and contributed to my giving men a weary eye. In my hurt, I became quietly self-righteous and untouchable. I wasn’t able to see how much I was acting out of fear, nor was I able to feel compassion toward those who had let me down.

But by the grace of God, my own heart was dismantled and rebuilt through friendship.

Some of the most incredible people I know – the truest, deepest friends, the bravest souls, the most generous hearts – shared with me about their past (or current) struggles with pornography. They trusted me enough to explain the very painful and complex reasons why people become drawn in to pornography. In the first place, the human body is beautiful and good, of course, and it possesses an inherent mystery and attraction. (Just read Love and Responsibility: JP II didn’t shy away from discussing the sexual impulse at length.) We are sexual beings and ought not be ashamed of that.

But when that natural impulse obscures the face of the human person – when arousal becomes the most intense experience – emotional, physical, or otherwise – in a given day, there is something much deeper at play: there is a fundamental lie at work. This lie, as described to me by these courageous friends – which could have been planted anywhere along the line in childhood, could have been reinforced through years – says:

“You are neither loved, nor lovable: in fact, you are loathed. So it makes no difference if you loathe these other people and treat them as mere bodies. They cannot reject you: of course, if they knew you, they would surely hate you. You are immanently leave-able, forgettable… But they do not know you. So there is no harm done. Loathe yourself further: but at least make it indulgent. You are neither loved, nor lovable. But you have nerve-endings, so why the hell not celebrate that, at least.” A hell-hole of pride and fear, self-loathing and loneliness.

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As I came to understand better the broken-heartedness that exists beneath most pornography, I came to identify with that broken-heartedness, too. Shoot, I struggle with wondering if I’m loved and loveable on the daily. That’s an old wound that sometimes feels all mended, and other times bleeds freely. It doesn’t manifest in pornography use, but it does manifest in pride, avoidance, comparison, pettiness, etc: I, too, fail to believe I am loved and loveable, and rather than deal with the terror of that thought, I lash out at those around me, or curl away from them altogether. I fail to take in their faces, to reflect on the beauty of the soul behind their eyes…

Anger is always a secondary emotion, they say. (Stay with me.) It’s the easiest one to give in to, because it makes a person feel big for a moment, big and in control. But it’s really just a cop-out, a defense mechanism to avoid scarier emotions. There is a perverse pleasure in anger & unforgiveness – you feel so damn convicted that you’re RIGHT, and everyone else is a troll and beneath you – you feel some kind of twisted power.

I’m no psychologist, but I get the inkling that lust acts in the same way. Lust is a secondary passion. It’s a cover-up, a momentary escape that makes the brain feel rewarded – read, “liked.” And likewise, there is a perverse pleasure in lust – a person feels, for a moment, powerful. Likeable. Desirable. This is easier than uncovering the lie that informs the passion, the lie that informs the rage: uncovering the lie that impels you to uncover others in disgrace, be that through sharp words or by reducing them to a naked form.

Baby, we all have broken hearts. It ain’t just you. Reach out in faith and speak. Brene Brown put it beautifully when she said,

“Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending out lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love, belonging, and joy – the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of the light.”

I am forever thankful to my friends who spoke up and shared their stories with me: by their illuminated wounds I experienced healing in places I did not even know I needed it.

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Brother, sister, anyone reading this who’s asking if they’re loved or lovable and feeling burdened by the way that that fracture manifests in your life:

you. are. truly.

l o v e d.

And this song is for you.

Edit: In the event that anyone thinks my stance toward those who struggle with porn is a lenient or naive one, I assure you that I detest pornography with every fiber of my being, and my heart breaks for anyone who has been wronged by it. Knowing the root of a disordered behavior does not make the behavior less wrong, nor does it soften the blow of its repercussions. There are some who persist in the degradation and infidelity of pornography without remorse or concern for those who are being harmed, and the only appropriate response to such behavior is alarm, sadness, and – at times – removal from the situation.

But if anyone unreasonably thinks that I ought to be espousing the idea that those who struggle with pornography are messed up perverts, and that they are their actions, and therefore deserve to be detested, I invite you politely to go shit in your hat.

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Why “Being in Love” Isn’t the BEST THING EVER

The phenomenon of being “in love” is an experience nearly every person yearns to have realized in his or her life. As a child, I savored depictions of love in art and music, organized weddings for every possible combination of my stuffed animals, prayed dutifully each night for my future husband, and found an outlet for my inchoate mothering instincts by trussing my cat up in diapers and bonnets, explaining to her that her father (my imaginary beloved) was “off to war”. It was all delightful play, simple and free.

The idea of falling in love seemed to imply a state of heavenly rapture, in which all of one’s heart was shared with another, and likewise the other’s heart became one’s own: all of creation smiled upon you and your beloved, united as you were in a mysterious joy which arose from a single pulsing heart. To be in love, I surmised, was surely a most wondrous thing — the artists, poets, and philosophers have spoken of it, sung of it, and depicted it in various ways for thousands of years as being sheer elysium; an attitude of eternal ardency which vows to never grow dull.

Today, twenty years later, the golden aura which inscribes the thought of “being in love” remains, and this ideal is still relentlessly advertised; though of late it has become more apparent that perhaps the shining image of “inlove-ness” (to borrow a phrase coined by Sheldon VanAuken in his book A Severe Mercy) does not provide us with an accurate glimpse of the reality of what happens in the unfolding of true love. What I mean to say is that, for all the “bells and whistles” that accompany it, this being in love is not the experience of love in the fullest: it is not the fulfillment of, but rather the stepping-stone to, that realm of divine, mutual true love which transcends the ravages of time and the insecurities of the heart. My childhood fancies were what they ought to have been at that tender age: but they have, thankfully, matured and deepened thanks to God’s grace: and thanks to experience. I’m going to attempt to reflect on this in light of married love, and consider the various ways in which a proper understanding of the experience of being in love (Eros) can positively affect a marriage, as well as the negative effects a misunderstanding of this experience can have.

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Love is the fundamental and innate vocation of every human being. All love, no matter how it may be understood or manifested, craves union. One aspect of love’s nature which makes this tendency toward union particularly evident is found in the relationship between men and women: this aspect of love is known as Eros. Eros is “something akin to poetic rapture, and in fact to artistic enthusiasm in general, a state of being carried out of the normality of everyday existence” (So said Josef Pieper, a favorite of mine). It is an attraction which, in the Platonic understanding, draws people to all that is good, true, and beautiful, and it is first and foremost of a sensual and emotional nature. When a man perceives beauty in a woman, he is moved: he is drawn out of himself and awakened to a universe of goodness which he seeks to unite himself to, and, if the woman has been moved in the same way, she makes a mutual response in the direction of attaining said union. They desire to draw closer to each other — not only through getting to know everything about one another, right down to the smallest details, but also with their bodies. Indeed, it is this emotional and sensual experience which most people identify as “being in love.”

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For I am Beatrice who send you on; I come from where I most long to return; Love prompted me; that Love which makes me speak … (Inf. II, 70 – 72)

People in love will insist upon their everlasting fidelity to one another with remarkable ferocity. Question them, even casually, about the longevity of their sentiments and they will look upon one another with a patiently pained expression, obviously mutually lamenting your ignorance on the nature of their devotion to one another, but tickled nonetheless with the mystery their shared phenomenon presents to the average human. You can’t possibly understand the force which sustains their uninterrupted gravitation to one another, and you are unable to comprehend the depth, uniqueness and thrill of their delightful new reality. The old self of each is dead, decidedly dead, and in its stead now stands a selfless, fully awakened human being, freed from every strand of egoism and indolence, and animated with an irrepressible buoyancy…

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But, for all the lingering looks, ardent promises, freakishly similar senses of humor, effusive songs and poems, exchanges of secrets and dreams, and seemingly eternal springtime of this “being in love” — can such an ecstasy persist? Is it really as impervious to human weakness and sinfulness as they say? Can two people remain in a state of self-less libation, bounding about forever in the golden fields of “heaven on earth” for as long as they both shall live? I must be frank at the risk of sounding callous: hardly.

Now, I love marriage, and I recommend it heartily. I also love the varying stages and seasons of falling in love with my husband, and I am anything but a stoic: just ask him! (Or, just consider how often I embolden or italicize phrases in this post. Seneca would be theoretically repulsed by such flagrant displays of emphasis.) It’s crucial to be drawn emotionally and erotically to the person you marry. Marriage is too tough to embrace if you’re not into the person you’re marrying. All I’m saying is – it’s so much more than just that, even though it relies on that and draws enormous grace from that. So before you peg me as one of those embittered kill-joys who refer to marriage as “the old ball-and-chain,” and who insist marriage makes people miserable (a weakly disguised example of transference: misery loves company), hear me out.

People who are blessed enough to experience falling in love with one another often fall prey to the trap of believing that the thrills and enchantments they discover and share with the other person will last forever, even if they’re convinced they’re intellectually impervious to such a thing – such is the nature of Eros, which naturally leads lovers to reject as impossible the thought that their sentiments for one another could be transitory. But no matter how strong and good the emotions and sensations which accompany the experience may be (and indeed they are good, for love for another person cannot exist solely in the intellect but rather insists upon a holistic response), they are, as Karol Wojtyla wrote, just the “raw material” of love: though they provide a good setting for it to take root, they cannot be regarded as its fulfillment — for “love as an emotional experience, even if it is reciprocated, is very far from being the same as love completed by a commitment of the will…transient erotic experiences must not be confused with love.” The idolization of “inloveness” often leads to an incorrect view of what is to be expected in married love, as professed by the vows made therein. Granted, when two people make such vows, they do so sincerely believing they shall live them out in their entirety; the discrepancy here, according to S. Vanauken, is a serious lack of understanding that saying “till death do us part,” means just that, quite literally; it does not mean, “for as long as this high and holy feeling shall remain.”

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It is this mentality, which equates love with a thrilling feeling, which has lead to the unraveling of many a marriage. Feelings, emotions, and sensations come and go. When couples who are unduly attached to the honey-like sweetness that comes along with the initial stages of their love cease to feel these sentiments, they find themselves looking at someone they’ve never known before. This is because, tragically, (as Vanauken goes on to say), “it wasn’t a person qua person they had been in love with, but a person as an evoker of a feeling, a thrill. Their vows had been to the feeling.” Vows on this level — that is, vows to feelings — are easily transferable amongst people; indeed, people who live on their feelings stay devoted and true to these vows — just not to the people who are attached to them, necessarily. Soon enough, when the shattering loveliness of being in love vanishes, the ego reasserts itself in both parties, and “lover snaps at lover.” Each becomes overly ravenous to receive, and immovably set against giving; and jealousy, resentment, estrangement and pettiness enter in. Before either knows it, the same eyes which once gazed dazedly in devotion at the other now glower coldly at “the stranger I married” while settling things in divorce court on the grounds of ‘incompatibility.’

(Emotions spring from the limbic system. They are frequently poor interpersonal leaders, while being dangerously convicting. If I’m being brutally honest, the most intense emotions we experience can send our mind into its most instinctual stance: eat or be eaten. This works if you’re a wolf. Not if you’re someone’s spouse. Know thyself, and the truth will set you free. ‘Specially if you’re a melancholic-choleric. Or a human being whose nature can be transfigured by cooperation with grace.)

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So, then, this is all rather grim, you’re thinking: what can be done to prevent this cycle of the seemingly heavenly gestation of love followed by a heart-hardening stillbirth? I believe that a better understanding of Eros, as well as a deeper seriousness toward the things (or vows) the passions of Eros impel lovers to commit, will allow for a more fecund, stable relationship grounded on true love, which “alters not when it alterations finds.” (Shakespeare, baby. 16th Sonnet.)

One thing we must make ourselves aware of is the fact that, as C.S. Lewis points out, “Eros is driven to promise what Eros himself cannot perform.” As I stated earlier, Eros is a force which moves a person out of himself and awakens him to something that goes infinitely beyond that which is immediately apparent. What happens in erotic love is not a quenching of a desire but rather an opening of the sphere of existence to a limitless satiety which cannot be obtained here and now. Eros, then, is not meant to gratify but rather to “set things into motion”: it is a stepping-stone to Divine Love. It points to something more, something deeper. This deeper reality to which Eros tends can only be revealed through sincere communication with the other on a level which probes courageously into the depths of the beloved’s God-given being. Thus it is of utmost importance that lovers seek to keep the truth about the other person ever in mind, realizing that the emotional-effective responses connatural to Eros can lead to an erroneous perception of the beloved, pinning upon them god-like values which actually have no real substance. A purely emotional love often becomes an equally emotional hatred for the same person. One must never make a god out of Eros, for in so doing, he or she immediately loses sight of the beloved person to whom they seek to be united, and inevitably ends up grappling fecklessly for an increasingly inchoate ideal existing primarily within his or her own isolated ego.

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It is only when Eros is recognized as being inseparable from Divine Love that it is experienced appropriately and is properly integrated into the love-life of married couples, or those with high hopes for marriage. To relegate Eros into a little box labeled “Emotional-Affective-Sensual-Sexual Experience” is to disregard the beauty of this love, which is paradigmatic of the totally committed love of God and also gives substance to the word Charity! Charity, or Agape, is commonly understood as Divine Love — and it can never be completely separated from Eros. The more these two loves find a harmonious unity in the one reality of love, the more the true nature of love is revealed and upheld. Christopher West describes the maturation of Eros in conjunction with the will when he writes of it as being “concerned more and more with the beloved, [bestowing] itself and [desiring] to ‘be there’ for the other. The element of Agape thus enters into this love, for otherwise Eros is impoverished and even loses its own nature.” It is natural, then, that Eros tends to take flight in an ecstasy of sorts, seeking the Divine through the love of another and jolting us out of our muteness of heart; but for this very reason it requires a “path of ascent, renunciation, purification and healing.” (Benedict XVI: God is Love, pgh 5)

This means that two people in love, who have been moved to make vows to one another, must be aware that the ecstasy they experience in the springtime of their love is not the true ecstasy for which they have been made. The true ecstasy comes only after purification through tribulations, perseverance through mediocrities, and uninterrupted efforts at self-renunciation for the sake of the beloved. If love is identified with this Divinely directed ecstasy, which seeks to love for the sake of loving — not for the sake of a feeling — the deepest wish of romantic love will be fulfilled, which is union and endurance.

Of course, this maturation of love is easier said than done, and, as Soren Kierkegaard puts it, requires a “truly heroic soul…[in marriage man is given a chance of discovering that it] requires a great soul to save one’s soul out of the petty.” He continues, saying that romantic love, though a gift, is elusive; and it tragically seeks to go on forever but is caught in the webs of the time. Lacking a factor of the will, it is tossed about in the shallow tide-pool of man’s capricious moods and whims, and is unable to attain the fulfillment it promises. It is this factor of the will, arising from the inner-life of man, which guides Eros from a stage of affection for outer appearances and charms and into those inner depths of true beauty which embody the Divine.

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Love involves a definite decision made by the will: by this love we decisively choose a person, not an “evoker of a feeling.” Love is a deep unity maintained by the will and consciously bolstered by habit. Erotic love cannot stand on its own, and its transience requires that it be submerged in the healing current of Agape in order to be drawn up and into its fullest realization. This requires a conscious effort on the part of the will, and a mutual, reciprocative desire to choose, again and again, to love the other person: not as a god, but as a flawed human being who must be reminded that they are loved and lovable: even if it takes years for that message to get through. This may entail some of the following (get ready, my choleric friends – here is a list full of CONCRETE ITEMS):

1. Identifying destructive patterns or tendencies within the context of individual and couples’ therapy (which, ideally, would be begun in a couples’ individual lives before committing to a long-term relationship, if needed: examining one’s own life before laying it down for another is often one of the best things a person can do for their future marriage. Be responsible and start grappling with your mommy-daddy stuff now);

2.  Striving toward mutual vulnerability and encouragement;

3.  Forgiving one’s spouse even when a situation or behavior appears dire; and

4.  Being willing to change for the good of the other: even at moments when it may appear that they aren’t responding in kind. There will be times when it seems that one spouse is stronger than the other – times when one person is called to abide while the other wrestles beneath the transfiguring grace of proximity: this is love in action, and it can hardly be romanticized.

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Our present-day poets, philosophers, and artists still sing the praises of love. But as any thoughtful observer of our current society will agree, there is a disconcerting conflict between the attractively presented ideal of love and the undeniable erosion of the institution of marriage, the very union in which the love of a man and a woman is meant to be sanctioned and made perfect. This is, I believe, due partially to the fact that the popular idea of love, which idolizes Eros (and reduces it to sensation and sex) as the greatest and highest form of love, is commonly accepted as the truth of love, which it is not; and it is also due to a cowardice of will which, coupled with ignorance, fails to transcend the temporal realm with its multitudinous whims and fancies. Taking these fallacies into a marriage will lead to disillusionment and heartbreak (or at least, much more disillusionment and heartbreak than necessary), for love cannot survive unless it embraces the whole of love — not just one aspect of it; likewise it must embrace the whole person, not just one aspect of them.

Love looks to the eternal. It is indeed an ecstasy — not in the sense of a moment of inebriation, but rather as a pilgrimage out of the closed, inward-looking self towards its emancipation through self-gift, and thus towards true self-discovery and indeed the discovery of God (God is Love, pgh 6).

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photos by Joy Prouty

To truly love another person in marriage is a deed of daring. Those who experience the fullness of “being in love” know that its sweetness is made richer by hardship; that it necessarily includes factors of duty and responsibility which exist far beyond the aesthetic sphere; and that it is an encounter of persons who have been created for an eternal reality. Love is a response of both body and soul: not to any particular charms, gifts, talents or features of the beloved — but to the beloved person himself, in his entirety, for better or for worse. Love involves a deeper understanding of the beloved in their totality – it seeks the innermost person who shines, albeit imperfectly, through many weaknesses and inconsistencies.

Being in love is not infatuation. Rather, it constitutes in itself “the climax of [the] full spiritual realization of the beloved person,” and places man and woman in the “only truly awakened state” (Both quotations from Dietrich VonHildebrande). To be in love is to express, with all of one’s heart, will, mind, and body, the Incarnational call to make love the aim of every action, to choose self-gift over self-preservation. It is far, far more challenging – and infinitely more beautiful! – than the movies, songs, poems, and Instagram feeds make it out to be: and best of all, it isn’t an end in itself. The best thing ever is yet to come.


PS. I originally wrote this post as a philosophy paper in college, during a time when I was being immersed in the writings of Josef Pieper, Karol Wojtyla, Soren Kierkegaard, Martin Buber, Dietrich von Hildebrand, etc. I recently re-read it and was struck by the accuracy of the assessment of married love and its unique challenges, given that I am a married woman now and have learned a great deal since I was a Junior in college. I updated it here and there to make it more personal and relevant. I am thankful for these scholars who have left a legacy of wisdom and truth behind them, and whose years of diligent prayer and study have helped me and countless others draw closer to the mysterious plan of freedom inherent within God’s self-revelation, as expressed through human love. 

 

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