This week I’ve been reading Love, Marriage and Children by Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen. Although the book was first published in 1954 (I got this copy from the seminary library), the dear man’s words struck me as fresh and insightful. Honestly, the realities of marriage and family life haven’t changed all that much in fifty years. We still have to work at giving ourselves 100% to those we love, and to practice the virtue of self-donation, which is at the heart of every authentic expression of love.
Fifty years ago, Archbishop Sheen was one of the most widely recognized religious figures in the media; today he is still much beloved though perhaps not as widely read. In this book of his, I was struck by his assessment of married love. (This is counterintuitive for some — what would a celibate know about married love? Then again, first-hand experience is not necessarily the most reliable or objectively constructive means of obtaining wisdom.)
The first passage that captured my attention was his description of the Five Loves. I was familiar with the Four Loves of C.S. Lewis, but Sheen takes a slightly different approach that I found every bit as intriguing: while Lewis addresses the four expressions of authentic love, Sheen identifies four types of love that are poor cousins — some would say even “counterfeits” — of authentic Christian love.
- Utilitarian “love”: for those who are useful to us. Once the usefulness passes, so does the affection.
- Romantic “love”: for those who give us pleasure. “One of the reasons why many modern marriages do not endure is because people do not marry a person: they marry an experience.”
- Democratic “love”: is by nature reciprocal. “The reason for contributing to the good of others is the expectation of a return good.”
- Humanitarian “love”: for humanity in the abstract, which cannot be sustained in the particular. “Love at a distance, rather than in immediate service.”
- Christian love — true “agape”– is different, characterized by the words of Christ: “A new commandment I give unto you, that you love one another as I have loved you.” A command, indicating it is centered in the will. Modeled in the self-giving love of Christ.
It is this kind of self-giving (or self-donating) love that sustains a marriage over the course of years. According to Archbishop Sheen, married love reaches its fullest expression only after it has endured great suffering. Sheen observes (p. 63):
The moment of crisis is one in which a true and lasting love is within easy reach, if one but dies to egotism and selfishness. The aridity that one feels is not the defeat of love, but a challenge. … There are two kinds of dryness: the dryness that rots and the dryness that ripens. The dryness that rots is that which cannot be assimilated; the dryness that ripens is that which is taken in by the fruit or the wheat in order to perfect itself. The hour is struck when the couple must realize that the taking of love’s stronghold is dependent on the siege of self; too often it is at this moment that the cowards leave and sink back into mediocrity. …
[And yet, when] love instead of being a circle that closes in on its own egotism, becomes a spiral by which one mounts to a new understanding of the other person, who now begins to be irreplaceable. Sex is replaceable, but love is not – no one can take the place of a mother or a life’s partner. The joy that is now found [in the third moment] is not the same as the joy that is lost; it is deeper and more real. In the first moment, one said, “I love you for myself.” In the second moment, one says, “I love you for God’s sake.” The other person is seen as the mask of God and always a gift, never forgetting that sometimes God’s gifts may be bitter as well as sweet.