Sunday, May 24, 2009
On love and marriage
A few days ago I posted to some friends a short extract from Thomas Merton’s essay, “Love and Need.” a chapter in one of his less widely read books, Love and Living:
“Our philosophy of life is not something we create all by ourselves out of nothing. Our ways of thinking, even our attitudes toward ourselves, are more and more determined from the outside. Even our love tends to fit ready-made forms. We consciously or unconsciously tailor our notions of love according to patterns we are exposed to day after day....
“Love is our true destiny. We do not find the meaning of life by ourselves alone – we find it with another. We do not discover the secret of our lives merely by study and calculation in our own isolated meditations. The meaning of our life is a secret that has to be revealed to us in love, by the one we love.
“[In our society] Love is regarded as a deal. The deal presupposes that we all have needs which have to be fulfilled by means of exchange. In order to make a deal you have to appear in the market with a worthwhile product, or if the product is worthless, you can get by if you dress it up in a good-looking package. We unconsciously think of ourselves as objects for sale on the market. We want to be wanted. We want to attract customers. We want to look like the kind of product that makes money. Hence we waste a great deal of time modeling ourselves on the images presented to us by an affluent marketing society.
“In doing this we come to consider ourselves and others not as persons but as products, as ‘goods,’ or in other words, as packages. We appraise one another commercially. We size each other up and make deals with a view to our own profit. We do not give ourselves in love, we make a deal that will enhance our own product, and therefore no deal is final. Our eye is already on the next deal, and this next deal need not necessarily be with the same customer. Life is more interesting when you make a lot of deals with a lot of new customers.
“This view, which equates lovemaking with salesmanship and love with a glamorous package, is based on the idea of love as a mechanism of instinctive needs. We are biological machines endowed with certain urges that require fulfillment. If we are smart. We can exploit and manipulate in ourselves and in others....
“The trouble with this commercialized idea of love is that it diverts your attention more and more from the essentials to the accessories of love. You are no longer able to really love the other person, for you become obsessed with the effectiveness of your own package, your own product, your own market value.”
The night before last Nancy was reading Merton’s essay and was so struck by this passage (seen in context above) that she paused to read it aloud:
“We do not find the meaning of life by ourselves alone – we find it with another. We do not discover the secret of our lives merely by study and calculation in our own isolated meditations. The meaning of our life is a secret that has to be revealed to us in love, by the one we love.”
Beautiful and true. But how often in marriage husbands and wives fail to see each other but instead see false selves that one or both have created as an adaptation to the other. It’s possible to be married yet never really see one’s partner, or oneself.
I’ve often thought how difficult it is to see oneself – perhaps impossible. The non-seeing of self is one of Walker Percy’s recurrent themes in both his novels and essays. God sees us perfectly and those who know us see us to some imperfect extent, some more clearly, some less or some not at all. It is only with God’s love that we really see another person. Merton mentions this basic truth this in a letter to Dorothy Day: “Persons are not known by intellect alone, not by principles alone, but only by love. It is when we love the other ... that we obtain from God the key to an understanding of who he is, and who we are. It is only this realization that can open to us the real nature of our duty, and of right action.” [Living With Wisdom, pp 170-1]
Ideally in a relationship of love, as fear diminishes, there is the gradual falling away of the costumes we’ve put on out of our own insecurity as a means of self-defense. In a healthy relationship, the true self gradually becomes stronger and more daring – and then a gradual disrobing occurs until the couple find themselves in a state of Eden-like “nakedness” – a state of being without costumes or masks.
But in so many marriages this never happens. We never reach the state of being in communion with each other – rather live in a state of disconnection, where at best we collaborate on practical matters but without the dimension of love.
More on this topic: See Nancy's essay, "Marriage and Hospitality: http://incommunion.org/forest-flier/nancysessays/hospitality/
[The icon is of Saints Anne and Joachim, the parents of Mary, and has the title "The Conception of the Theotokos." As an image of marital love, it is an icon often given to a newly married couple.]