In these letters to a young bride, excerpted from her book By Love Refined, Dr. Alice von Hidebrand (Lily) addresses some of the common problems faced by young couples trying to live the Christian ideal of marriage.
“Love is a great thing!”
At last, your deep longing is fulfilled: to love a man, to be loved by him, and to be freely bound to him in marriage “until death do you part.”
Now your great mission begins. Together, you and Michael must weave into the tapestry of your life the many themes we discussed during your engagement: the beauty of marriage – its tasks, its joys – and love’s power to lighten its burdens and sorrows.
I know how deeply you’ve understood the words of Thomas Kempis, “Love is a great thing.” Marriage is also a great thing: the most complete, the most intense, and the most beautiful relationship possible between two human beings.
But like all great things in life, marriage is a risk – a “deed of daring” (as Kierkegaard said). That’s why a happy marriage is impossible for people who never take any step that might threaten their security. You and Michael now have in your hands the power to create an earthly heaven or hell. It’s no secret that marriage can quickly become a hell for spouses. But remember that humanly speaking, a great love between husband and wife can also be the deepest source of happiness this side of heaven.
How awe-inspiring to see the beauty of another soul, to love him, and then to be permitted to share in his intimacy, actually to become one with him! There’s no earthly experience that is greater than this unity of souls, minds, hearts, and bodies in marriage, which is why my husband always called it a “remnant of earthly paradise.”
Such sublime spousal love is a gift, but a gift that must be nurtured and sheltered. Because of human imperfections, difficulties crop up in marriage, even between people (like you and Michael) who love each other deeply. I think you’ll soon find that for this reason, although love is a gift, it must also be learned, especially as you try to relate it to your daily life which isn’t lived in a fairy tale castle but in the midst of everyday pressures, problems, and trials.
No outsider or institution can guarantee that you and Michael will achieve joy in your marriage. You’ll have to face the problems of marriage yourselves. Your success won’t depend on exterior circumstances, but on your own inner attitudes: are you both willing to fight the good fight for your marriage, trusting that your mutual love, strengthened by grace, will achieve victory in spite of the tempests that threaten every human undertaking?
I know that you’ve already begun to experience the hopes and delights of marriage, and that you’ll continue to do so in the coming months. My heart is filled with joy for you!
Your devoted friend,
“Lovers can’t be concerned with little things.”
I’m grateful for your frankness. It makes my duties as your godmother easier to fulfill.
You say that although the analogy of the stained-glass windows is very moving, nonetheless true lovers are concerned with “great things, beautiful things” and should not let themselves be troubled by small things.
Roy wouldn’t agree.
He and my friend Evelyn have been married thirty-five years. She’s sloppy and he’s meticulous. During their honeymoon, Roy noticed that she always left the toothpaste tube open. He asked Evelyn to put the cap on, but she laughed at him, claiming he had the habits of an old maid. Time and again, Roy has asked her to change. Nothing doing! After thirty-five years, the cap still remains off and Roy has resigned himself to it.
Compare this to my own husband’s attitude. Early in our marriage, I noticed he would always leave the soap swimming in a small pool of water. It would slowly disintegrate into an unattractive, slimy goo – something I found unappealing. I drew it to his attention. From that day on, he made a point of drying the soap after each use – to such an extent that I couldn’t tell from the “soap testimony” whether he had washed himself or not. (Moreover – and this is typical of him – he too developed a strong dislike for sticky soap.) I was so moved by this, that to this day I feel a wave of loving gratitude for this small but significant gesture of love.
My husband was a great lover. And because he was one, he managed to relate the smallest things to love and was willing to change to please his beloved in all legitimate things. This characteristic is typical of great love.
I’m sure that as your love grows deeper, you, too, will come to see how the greater the love, the more it permeates even the smallest aspects of life.
“Yes, he’s the right man for me.”
I’m glad to hear your love for Michael has deepened in the four weeks you’ve known him as husband (rather than as fianc). It’s clear that you’ve truly been granted “the eyes of love.”
Usually, we encounter in others only a caricature of their being; we are only able to discern what they’ve made of themselves rather than what they’re meant to be.
In other cases, we see only what others allow us to see, for they hide their true selves because they’ve been wounded so often or they’re shy or they fear they’ll be misunderstood.
Yet, even though we don’t often see it, all people are created in God’s image and likeness; each one in some mysterious way reflects Him and has within himself an incredible beauty, which is mostly covered by the dust and dirt of sin.
When you fell in love with Michael, you were given a great gift: your love took you past appearances and granted you a perception of his true self, who he’s meant to be in the deepest sense of the word. You discovered his “secret name.”
Those who love have been granted the special privilege of seeing with incredible intensity the beauty of the one they love – while others see primarily his exterior acts, and particularly his failings. At this moment, you see Michael more clearly than does any other living human being.
I can illustrate this best with a story from the Gospel (which is so illuminating that even an unbeliever can profit from it). Do you recall the Gospel story of the Transfiguration? The apostles went with Jesus to the top of Mount Tabor, and suddenly Jesus became radiant and his garments a dazzling white. For the first time, the apostles were allowed to see Jesus directly, clothed in His glory as God. He was transfigured before them.
Similarly, when you fell in love with Michael, you saw his true face, his unique beauty: with the eyes of love, you were granted a “Tabor vision” of Michael.
Trust this bright Tabor vision you’ve been given. Daily rekindle it in your heart and let it nurture your love. If you let it form the cornerstone of your faithfulness to Michael, your marriage will be rich, indeed.
With all my love,
“Why do they say ‘love is blind’?”
Don’t allow yourself to be upset by the remarks you overheard at the Fourth of July picnic. It’s not surprising that your co-workers can’t understand why you fell in love with Michael.
Keep in mind that the person who sees is qualified to pass judgment on the thing he sees; but he who doesn’t see is by his own admission blind. You perceive Michael’s goodness and beauty; they don’t. Trust your sight, not their lack of sight.
They can only perceive neutral facts about Michael (such as how tall he is, the color of his eyes, how he laughs, and the kinds of activities he generally engages in). This information is available to everyone. But you can see more, including Michael’s nobility and goodness.
As I suggested in my last letter, even on a merely factual level your vision of Michael is more complete, for it includes things others can’t know just by looking at him. They must ask to gain this information: where and when he was born, whether he has brothers and sisters, what sort of persons his father and mother are. The closer someone gets to Michael, the more such information he’ll gather, but a friend has to be very close – and he must be trusted very deeply – before Michael will reveal his private life, his disillusionments, his joys and hopes, the wounds he’s received, his inner self.
Things such as these belong to the intimate sphere in Michael’s life, which includes much of his spiritual, psychological, and even physical being. Many things in these areas are so deeply personal that they call for veiling in front of strangers; they’re simply private by their nature and should be revealed only in an environment of love, where they’ll be treated with reverence and awe.
The closer we get to another person and the more we trust him, the more we desire to know about him, to penetrate his intimate self, and to have him know us in this way as well.
When you fell in love with Michael, you were granted a vision of his true self, the self which he usually hides from others, both because it is his secret and also because he doesn’t want to make himself vulnerable to persons who fail to approach him with reverence and love.
It’s right to hide oneself from an indiscreet and unloving gaze, but it’s also right to reveal oneself to a person whom we trust and love. This is happening between you and Michael. You now know him better than any other person because he has trusted you enough to reveal himself to you in ways that he’s revealed himself to no other human person.
This mutual self-donation is the ideal of marriage and the reason why your love for Michael isn’t blind, but is the opposite: it’s based on a deeper knowledge and a clearer vision of him than any other person has. Only those who love see; and those who see most clearly, love most deeply.
Your special vision of Michael allows you to love him profoundly. Trust this love and nurture it. It will bring you profound joy.
“Baseball bores me and Michael doesn’t like art.”
That you found the idea of a spiritual treasure chest helpful makes me very happy, but I rejoice even more over your renewed readiness to sacrifice to perfect your love for Michael – even as you’re discovering how many sacrifices are called for in marriage.
Sometimes the possibilities for disagreement seem endless. Close as you are to each other, a cause of enjoyment for one of you may be boring or even unpleasant for the other. This is part of the deep drama of marriage: the constant call to “die to yourself” for the sake of your loved one.
You and I love Italian cuisine and, given a choice, we always prefer spaghetti all’italiana to hamburgers and french fries. Yet now you often cook American-style food just because Michael loves it. I know you take long walks with Michael when you’d prefer to stay home. I’m sure that to please you, he, too, often gives up a wish, such as going out with his male friends.
I’ve often found that when I adopt a loving attitude, I can discover in previously boring things the fascination that others find in them. You and Michael might try to learn from each other in this way so that you can come to share more interests.
When you fail, however, the only solution is sacrifice, which doesn’t at first seem appealing. Yet it’s strange how even seemingly trivial sacrifices can give unexpected joy and nurture love between two people. “God loves a cheerful giver,” says St. Paul, so when you do make a sacrifice like going to a baseball game with Michael (Is it such a sacrifice to be with the person you love most?), do it cheerfully so that no one will notice. Advertising sacrifices is a poor way to make them.
The sacrifices I’ve mentioned so far cause neither of you real harm. It doesn’t hurt you to watch baseball, just as it doesn’t hurt Michael to go to an art museum with you. There are, however, situations in which one person enjoys something that actually causes harm to another. A case in point is smoking. Suppose Michael smoked, and you (like me) were allergic to smoke: his behavior would hurt you. In such a case, he should give up his pleasure to avoid hurting you, because that must take absolute precedence over any purely subjective enjoyment he might receive from smoking (which is, of course, hurting him, too -but I won’t speak of that now).
Sometimes sacrifices come from spouses being together; sometimes they come from spouses having to be apart. I know very happy marriages in which husbands go fishing while their wives stay home or visit friends. I also know marriages in which the husband, because of his ardent love for his wife, doesn’t enjoy anything, if she isn’t present and would gladly renounce his favorite activities to be with her. You and Michael will have to use trial-and-error to find out how sacrifices can best serve love in your marriage.
You’ve already taken the most difficult step by realizing that every love calls for sacrifice. And I imagine you’ve discovered what a joy it is to sacrifice for the one you love!
I keep you in my prayers constantly,