Saturday, March 2, 2013

The Structure of Love

Now this graphic and quotation from Ignatius Press has been making the rounds on Facebook, and even some of my secular anti-Christian friends have "liked" it.

It goes to the heart of what this stuff is all about.

Because once one gets over the worst of our objections to the Faith, and places even a minimal amount of trust in God and in the Body of Christ, His Church, one sees that the whole thing - all of Scripture, all of Salvation History, all of "secular" history, the Law, the Prophets, the Incarnation, the Passion, the Resurrection - all of it is about one main thing: love.

As I've said before, God's Law (which has been written in our hearts) is part of who God is, and God is love.  The moral precepts - for which the Church is so hated - are not arbitrary rules, but indications of the structure of love.

Love has a structure.  It is not nebulous or blurry or fuzzy or shape-shifting.  Neither is God.

Paul Stilwell, commenting here, uses an analogy from art, saying

 People today are out-and-out impressionists and they don't pay attention to structure.

Elsewhere, G. K. Chesterton criticizes impressionism for the same thing, saying that, for example, an artistic rendering of a ship that does not show its "ship-ish-ness", but instead opts to convey various impressions of things associated with a ship, is an inferior form of art.  (I go into that in detail regarding Chesterton and Shakespeare).  But, in fairness, impressionism works because the series of separate impressions conveyed by the artist do indeed reveal a form - otherwise the artwork would be meaningless.

But we live in an age that denies form.  We live in an era of nominalism, a kind of extreme nominalism that becomes atomistic.  We see no connections between things, no underlying structure, no form, just a blur of shape-shifting images - like our suburban God, whom we have made to please ourselves.  The Great Amoeba.

And this is why a good friend of mine (a homeschooled daughter of "devout Catholics") can say to me, "I believe sex can express love even outside of marriage."  Why?  "Because more than half of all marriages end in divorce, for one thing," she replied, "and also because sex can be a way that a couple can express their love, whether married or not."

No, this was not Christopher West saying this (though it's the message his followers are, for whatever reason, picking up from him).  And although this young lady prides herself for her above average intelligence, this was, I told her, a very stupid thing to say.

For one thing,
ex abusu non arguitur in usum (from the abuse of a thing there is no arguing against its use)

and for another - and for a reason that's far more difficult to swallow -

  • LOVE means an entire gift of self for the good of another; 
  • MARRIAGE entails this entire lifelong gift of self, a great sacrifice; 
  • THE MARITAL ACT is the sacramental expression of self-giving, for it is a union of love between two spouses in which nothing is held back - not the procreative power of sex, not the lifelong commitment that sex implies and that love entails, not anything.  

That's love, and everything else, when it comes to sexual activity outside of the marital act, is a lie.

I know a young lady who is shacking up with a man who she says loves her "unconditionally".  But there is a condition and a big one.  The slacker she's sleeping with has a huge proviso - a major condition - and it is this ...

I will love you on the condition that I not be required to make any sacrifices for you, including the ultimate sacrifice of living with you until one of us dies.  Likewise I will love you on the condition that our sex be sterile and that we hold back from one another the creative power of my seed and your egg.  I will love you on the condition that either one of us can pick up and move on as soon as the thrill is gone.

This, today, is what passes for "unconditional love".

And yet violate these conditions and see how soon you're sent packing.


But am I saying I'm perfect?  That I so much understand the Structure of Love that I always get it right?  That I love my wife "as Christ loved the Church, and gave Himself up for her"?  That I practice even immature purity as opposed to the much-vaunted Westian "mature purity"?   Am I saying that I don't lust in my heart after other women, or that I've learned to love according the the Structure of Love which God has given us?  Am I saying that I'm the Super-Catholic and that I practice what I preach?

No.  I flounder and fall as much as the rest of you.

But when I do, I try not to say,
In sinning I was just seeking to get what I want, and there's love in that.
Instead, I try to say
This is not how God shows us to love; the very structure of existence will not support this.   It is coloring outside this lines, and there are definite lines, and not just impressions of things.  The longer I stay outside the lines and violate the structure and the form, the further I get from love.


Anonymous said...


I follow your blog because of your insight and wisdom, although on this topic I think you are missing an important aspect of love in terms of marriage. Although the intention of marriage is to commit yourself to your partner for life without any exit strategies, today there does not seem to be that mentality. Divorce is rising and turning marriage into more of a "serious" relationship than a lifelong commitment. Although this is not the meaning of marriage in the church,it is almost as easy to get an annullment as an actual divorce.
Love has no bounds and usually no reason and is expressed in so many ways that are meaningful with sex as just one aspect. I believe you are right on the mark in terms of the intention of marriage and importance of the marital expression of unconditional love. But I believe that unconditional love can be expressed outside of the confines of marriage and still be as meaningful,because saying "I Do" in this day and age is more like saying "For Now".

Amarillo, TX

Kevin O'Brien said...

Very well put, Beatrice, but even if "I Do" has come to mean "for now", the abuse of a thing does not argue against its proper use.

Can unconditional love be expressed outside of marriage? Of course it can. But not by means of sex, for any use of sex outside of the "marital act" is a way of lying to one another with our bodies and our souls. Love and lying can never co-exist.

Kevin O'Brien said...

And that's not the Big Bad Man talking. That's not Church rules. That's the nature of sex, and the structure of love.

Kevin O'Brien said...

The Church just points out to us the nature of sex and the structure of love, and we sinners hate the Church for doing that.

Kevin O'Brien said...

Beatrice above says, "Love has no bounds". But it does, and that's the point of my post. Its bounds are sacrifice, the family, and children, among other things. Leaving love unbounded is a way of binding ourselves to a parody of love.

Anonymous said...

Hi Kevin!

Seems like the huge problem is, as always, the huge misunderstanding that "love" is something abstract that you feel, or have, not something actual that you do. God willing, the shacking-up slackers do feel or have something between them that will cause them to pull themselves together someday and actually prove the quality of their love through action. For now, they feel that since they already "have" the love, all those boring old actions that prove love aren't necessary. They are blind to the fact that the proving is the real love part--and that they are choosing a whole separate series of actions that could harm what they have.

I was in that boat not so long ago myself. I look back on my husband's and my behavior for the first years after we got together and it's like I'm seeing us blithely walking through a minefield (not always that blithe actually). I thank God that we made it through to marriage (and later to Catholicism). God help me, we were actually sort of "waiting till it was decent" to get married. I thought living together first was the sensible, responsible thing to do--everyone knows that nowadays, right? Looking back with the deeper knowledge I've gained from Catholicism, I can see clearly how we put our relationship in danger and all the ways our sins made me miserable. I remember being surprised about how different and relieved I felt after being married (even though "nothing had changed," we were coming back to the same apartment and all).

So, I agree with you, but I kind of know what she means. I still feel like my husband and I "had" a "great love" that protected us through that minefield. What we felt for each other did open us to the grace of God, spur us to act in self-sacrificing ways for each other and finally to fully commit. I give thanks for that every day.

E. W.

Paul Stilwell said...

"Our commandments are not written in stone. They're written in jello. The kind of jello that hasn't set yet; that's still kind of, you know, flowy and liquidy. That's the way the way we've written our commandments at our church."

Sage words from the profound Standford Nutting.

Tom Leith said...

This article has been picked up by Tito Edwards' Best in Catholic Blogging column for the National Catholic Register.