The prominent theme in "Marriage the Mystery of Faithful Love" by Dietrich von Hildebrand is that Christian matrimony demands the highest, the best, and the noblest for both man and woman.
In the wake of the sexual revolution the divine institution of marriage has been deconstructed by no-fault divorce laws and the scandal of increasing numbers of annulments. It has been trivialized by the prevalence of cohabitation or living together as a substitute for matrimony. It has been poisoned by the widespread practice of contraception which, as Pope Paul VI warned in Humanae Vitae, leads a man to regard his wife as a mere instrument of selfish enjoyment, and no longer his respected and beloved companion (#17).
It has been attacked by radical feminists as an obsolete, oppressive patriarchal institution which has enslaved women and reduced their roles to menial work. It has been perverted and neutered by the advocates of same-sex marriages who reject the traditional meaning of matrimony as the union of a man and a woman. And it has been marginalized by the careerists and professionals who delay and postpone marriage and children for a higher standard of living and a more affluent lifestyle. In short, the sexual revolution has eviscerated the meaning and purpose of marriage and cheapened holy matrimony.
Dietrich von Hildebrand's book, Marriage the Mystery of Faithful Love, first published in English in 1942, addresses a number of contemporary issues as it illuminates Catholic teaching on the meaning and purpose of the sacrament of marriage. For example, honoring the greatness, grandeur, and sublimity of marriage, exalting matrimony as the highest and noblest earthly happiness, and ranking the nuptial bond as an image of the love between Christ and the Church — as a human community which surpasses the state and the nation and which glorifies God more than all other associations, von Hildebrand equates the greatness of marriage with the nobility of heroism:
All great things on earth are connected with risk, and therefore marriage is not a bourgeois affair, a kind of insurance for happiness, providing a kind of escape from every eventual cross. The risk which accompanies all great adventures is not for the fainthearted or the cowardly who will not exercise a holy boldness, an heroic spirit of unconditional abandon which never looks back.
In other words, von Hildebrand does not dumb down marriage to the level of using persons for sensual gratification, entering a temporary union or convenient relationship, or seeking a life of comfortable security or social respectability. Marriage in contemporary culture has lost this dimension of heroism, risk, and sacrifice, reducing love to self-gratification, contraceptive lovemaking, and safe sex. Von Hildebrand clarifies the total, unreserved gift of self that makes Christian marriage noble and chivalric:
He whose life is dominated by the intention of avoiding any possible cross excludes everything that gives human life grandeur and depth. He will never know real abandon never know real, deep happiness. Remaining in a mediocre self-centeredness, he will never be able to do anything without a certain reserve; he will always provide for a possibility of retreat.
This illuminating statement perfectly characterizes the heresies which inform the sexual revolution of our time. No-fault divorce laws and easy annulments renounce the cross, the symbol of Christian sacrifice which signifies the imitation of Christ. Contraceptive lovemaking rejects the meaning of abandonment to Divine Providence. The refusal to be generous with life follows from a cautious reserve based on selfishness and diffidence, a foolish preoccupation with a high standard of living and a fretful anxiety about the future. Marriage after the sexual revolution is always looking for a possibility of retreat — for an instant technique of reversing consequences and undoing natural results. Divorce is a retreat from marriage, contraception a retreat from the fruitfulness of marriage, abortion a retreat from the reality of conception. In all of these unnatural and immoral practices man loses his dignity and nobility because he refuses to honor vows and make total commitments. Too timid and calculating to assume the risks which all great things require — the chances which place a complete trust in God's eternal Providence modern man presumes to govern his life according to fashionable moderate opinions, safe contemporary practices, and invasive medical techniques that control fertility.
The prominent theme in Marriage the Mystery of Faithful Love is that Christian matrimony demands the highest, the best, and the noblest for both man and woman — not the lowest common denominator. For example, it requires fighting against selfishness and achieving a victory over self. Love is a daily task and constant duty requiring perseverance lest spouses in their dullness and indifference take each other for granted and fail to keep before them in all its same clarity and splendor the image of the other person so wonderfully revealed by love. Marriage needs vigilance lest obsession with work, absorption in other interests, and social obligations distract attention from the beloved person and destroy the inner concentration which is implied in love.
Marriage views the spouse as an image of God, a vessel of grace, and a precious gift which God has given in the form of the soul of the beloved. Conjugal love always seeks the happiness of the beloved and has concern for the spiritual perfection and eternal salvation of the other. No other human relationship redounds more to the glory of God, for the most perfect state or nation cannot glorify God as much as a perfect marriage an image of Christs eternal love for the Church. Christian marriage, a form of consecration to God which is similar to religious vows, represents something so great, so ultimate, so vitally enveloping the whole person, that its depth can be taken as the measure of the depth and greatness of the whole man. Thus as a form of heroism, vocation, and consecration Christian marriage opens the heart and enables it to love more and more as it progresses in the love of Christ. Thus von Hildebrands book rescues marriage from the banality and mediocrity that demean the Christian sacrament of matrimony in the wake of the sexual revolution.
Dietrich von Hildebrand's book, then, tells the whole story of the book of love called Christian marriage which the sexual revolution has suppressed. Conjugal love begins, not in sensual desire, but in the revelation of the beloved as a gift from God. It progresses by way of generosity and fruitfulness not only in the blessings of many children but also in spiritual benefits as husband and wife elevate and ennoble each other. It persists by the acceptance of crosses and the inevitable suffering and sacrifices which are inherent in every marriage.
It fights against egotism and willfulness, and it combats apathy and indifference toward the beloved. It practices heroic virtues, taking bold risks and demonstrating an abandonment to God refusing to be ruled by fear, by a preoccupation with security, or by a love of comfort. It consecrates itself to God by honoring vows for life. It models itself upon Christ's love for the Church. These sublime truths are carefully censored by a profane popular culture of death which is intent on destroying the family by undermining the meaning and purpose of marriage. When a society equates the profound mystery of sexuality with recreational pleasure for the unmarried, legalizes contraception and abortion by the highest court of the land, and ignores the destructive effects of divorce, it fails to grasp the basic truth about love which inspires this book:
MAGNA RES EST AMOR (A great thing is love).
Kalpakgian, Mitchell. The Magnificence of Marriage. The Catholic Faith 4, no. 2 (March/April 1998): 56-57.
Reprinted by permission of The Catholic Faith.
The AuthorMitchell A. Kalpakgian was Professor of English at Simpson College (Iowa) for 31 years. During his academic career, Dr. Kalpakgian received many academic honors, among them the National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Seminar Fellowship (Brown University, 1981); the Andrew W. Mellon Fellowship (University of Kansas, 1985); and an award from the National Endowment for the Humanities Institute on Children's Literature. He is the author of The Marvelous in Fielding's Novels and The Mysteries of Life in Children's Literature. His favorite activities include writing, long distance running, and coaching soccer.Copyright © 1998 TheCatholicFaith
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