The Beauty of Marital Love
by Regis Martin
Forty years ago it was widely regarded as morally wrong, and socially ruinous, for a man to walk out on his wife and children. In 1961, for example, Nelson Rockefeller, who was then governor of New York, decided to divorce his wife of more than 20 years for a younger woman (who then proceeded to divorce her husband, leaving him custody of their four children). The result? Despite every prediction that Rockefeller would easily become the Republican Party’s nominee for president in 1964, the scandal of divorce wrecked his chances at the convention. In addition to political suicide, Rockefeller’s defiance of society’s mores earned him the criticism of most Americans.
It was also true in that quaint and faraway time that aberrations like abortion, pornography, and homosexual activity were, if not entirely unknown, nevertheless pretty nearly condemned by everyone. Had anyone suggested, back then, the permissibility of, say, partial-birth abortion or same-sex marriage, not only would people find that person’s ideas incomprehensible, but his or her morals reprehensible. How far we have come in 40 years!
But this is not an argument for going back to the world before history hit us with a freight train (besides, there was much that was already rotten in that seemingly golden age). Still, it is not necessary to have specialized in social pathology to predict the demise of a civilization. And certainly the one we are living in now is showing signs of galloping senility. Can the disease be arrested, I wonder, or must the patient die? Only God knows, and I don’t presume to be His prophet.
At Home in a Family
But I will venture this—that if our civilization is about to go under, there is one very good and undeniable reason for it, and that is the crisis of marriage and family life which threatens to destroy the one institution chiefly responsible for shaping men and women for civilization. For the way of the world’s happiness finally and decisively depends on the maintenance of the family unit. And the thing that most precisely distinguishes the family, is that here is a safe and reassuring place in the midst of a harsh and pitiless world: a place where a person is loved, not for anything they might do, but simply for being who they are. Without that protective shell of warmth and welcoming love, one is left alone and bereft in a world trembling in the cold.
“A man is an uncivilized barbarian, in the degree in which he does not take others into account. Barbarism is the tendency to disassociation.” So pronounced the philosopher Ortega y Gasset more than 70 years ago in his great work, The Revolt of the Masses, a book which, in the light of all that has happened since, looks positively prophetic. For here is a text that seems uncannily accurate in putting its finger on what really goes on between two people and the life that, with the grace of God, springs from the loins of their love. What else does it mean to marry and have babies than to take others into account? Indeed, to live so entirely for another that the two become one flesh?
“God was in love,” Archbishop Sheen used to say, “but He could not keep the secret. The telling of it became creation.” So how does God go about telling us how much He loves us? The answer is simple: by instituting the Sacrament of Marriage. It is the way God chose to enable the world to experience the wonder and majesty of His love. This is true, of course, right from the beginning when, as the first chapter of Genesis makes clear, God created Adam and Eve (not Adam and Steve), whom He thereupon enjoined to be fruitful and multiply. What could be more foundational? It is a revelational event, no less, in the history of the world. Here was God’s way of telling us exactly how He intended children to come into being: through the mysterious coupling of two people, the very bond of whose union (in Christ: the unseen member of every marriage) is so sacred not even governments can sever it.
And the fruit of so blessed and intimate a union? Lasting membership in a family. Was it Robert Frost who said, “Home is the place where, when you go there, they have to take you in”? Well, he was right but perhaps also in a way in which he may not have been aware. Since home is also the place where, when you do get there, it suddenly becomes what it was always meant to be, that is, a family. It was, you see, your very birth that made it so. And all of us begin our lives in one kind of family or another. Does it surprise us then that God, who is Himself a family (“It is not well,” warns Chesterton, “for God to be alone.”), should take an interest in our own families? Are these not replications of His own, i.e., little domestic churches? After all, when He fashioned for Himself a body with which to redeem us, He chose a family to be the place where it would all begin. Joseph and Mary and Jesus. It is the family after whose perfection we are to model our own efforts to become saints.
That the world will be saved by beauty is something I long to believe is true. But only as a manifestation of that beauty which, in Cardinal Danielou’s lovely and expressive phrase, “cascades down from the Trinity.” Only in the revelation of the love of Jesus Christ, who is the incarnate beauty of God, will the world find salvation. And marriage, what is this but a participation in that love between two very different people, strangely brought together in a common enterprise, in order that they might monstrate before the world something of the face of God Himself. “Who speaks the things that love Him shows,” writes Coventry Patmore, “shall say things deeper than He knows.”
When a man and a woman fall in love, a terrible beauty is born. But more beautiful still is the beauty illumined by the grace of God, which we marvel to watch in its surprising yet rhythmic descent, cascading all the way down to include the smiles and the laughter of little children.
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