September 1991By Elaine Hallett
Elaine Hallett, of New York City, is the co-author of two books on Renaissance drama, The Revenger's Madness and Analyzing Shakespeare's Action. She was an editor at Theatre Arts Books for seven years.
By Love Refined: Letters to a Young Bride. By Alice von Hildebrand. Sophia Institute Press. 216. $14.95.
The young bride of the subtitle is called Julie, and the letters which make up the body of this practical yet profound book come from Lily, an older but dear friend, who has had a long, successful marriage. Julie has a distinct character and evolving attitudes. When we meet her she is filled with expectations that are being dashed as she encounters the strain of adjusting to the personality of Michael, her spouse, and Julie's complaints inspire Lily to share insights she has won over many years. Lily's basic premise is that "absolutely everything you do must be motivated by love and related to the great human purpose of your love -- your marriage to each other."
The special emphasis of By Love Refined is best perceived by contrasting Alice von Hildebrand's title with Aaron Beck's. Beck, a psychologist who has applied cognitive therapy to the marriage situation, calls his book Love Is Never Enough, wherein he claims that the passion of courtship does not last a lifetime. "Although love is a powerful impetus for husbands and wives to help and support each other," says Beck, "it does not in itself create the personal qualities and skills that are crucial to sustain a happy relationship and make it grow: commitment, sensitivity, generosity, consideration, loyalty, responsibility, trustworthiness." In By Love Refined, von Hildebrand assumes a Christian perspective: Love is itself the creative force through which such virtues flourish. True, the spouses must submit to a process of transformation. But one thing alone brings people to the readiness to change: love. "If we're animated by love, even our small deeds grow great with meaning," says Lily. "After all, what is our existence on this earth? A series of small actions and activities.... The art of living consists in finding meaning in these small tasks and relating them to love. This is the secret of marriage (and of sanctity)." The good wife is an artist of love, weaving the precious bits of wool she is given each day into a magic tapestry. Cognitive skills are never enough.
The fact that Michael's faults grate on Julie inspires a series of letters in which Lily develops the idea that "marriage is a school of character." Lily urges her protege to follow two principles as she discovers her husband's faults: (1) Overlook the unimportant ones (never be petty), and (2) be gentle and reverent in commenting upon the serious faults. Julie must learn when to criticize: First, only when the matter is serious; second, when one's motives for criticizing are pure; and third, when the time is right (it is unwise to discuss a point of dispute when either spouse is tired, pressured, or rushed). Differences of opinion can usually be resolved in the same loving way. But if an impasse is reached, Lily writes, remember that the spouse who yields out of love is always the true victor, for "he's achieved the most difficult of all victories: conquering his own self-will." Though "marriage is a school of character," Julie must not appoint herself as Michael's teacher. For Lily "the great teacher in marriage is love." And so Lily urges Julie to concentrate more on her own faults than on Michael's. She wonders, when Julie complains that Michael let her struggle alone with a heavy bundle, why hadn't Julie asked for his help? Did she, by any chance, prefer to suffer rather than to ask? Wives sometimes enjoy playing the martyr -- love teaches one to recognize this "subtle stubbornness." Remember, too, warns Lily on another subject, that many disappointments come "not from what occurred but from measuring the occurrence against our (often unrealistic) expectations about what ought to have occurred." Julie is advised to avoid being rigid, to develop the attitude of a child who "gratefully accepts the gifts placed in its path," and thus to be "surprised by joy," whatever form events may take.
That success in marriage depends not "on exterior circumstances but on your own inner attitudes" is one of Lily's basic tenets, and besides softening Julie's attitudes toward Michael's faults, she also softens Julie's attitudes toward the male gender. Julie has been raised in the climate of feminism; Lily advocates a more universal approach in which allegiance is not to man or woman but to truth. She recognizes, of course, "the perennial tension that exists between men and women," but assumes that such tensions arise because males and females "are beings who have very different structures and viewpoints, and who therefore often attach a different importance to things." Each sex has its particular faults, but these are the results of original sin, a prideful self-centeredness common to both sexes that only love can dislodge. Just as Michael "must struggle against the temptation to let his strength degenerate into brutality, his courage into rashness, and his nobility into haughtiness," so Julie must recognize that her "natural sensitivity threatens to become merely self-centered sentimentalism and her attention to detail can quickly turn into pettiness." Christian marriage is to Lily "the ideal setting for re-establishing the original harmony between man and woman," who were "created as complementary beings, intended to enrich one another."
Love, writes Lily, will always choose not what is easy but what is beautiful. There is great beauty in the central image of this book, what Lily calls the Tabor vision. "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." Just as during the Transfiguration on Mount Tabor the apostles "were allowed to see Jesus directly, clothed in His glory as God," so those who love are "granted the special privilege of seeing with incredible intensity the beauty of the one they love -- while others see primarily his exterior acts.â Julie is to rekindle daily this bright Tabor vision in her heart and let it nurture her love. It is natural that human imperfections and difficult circumstances will dull those first perceptions. But there are ways of keeping it fresh. Lily, for example, keeps "a mental treasure chest of sweet memories" of her dear one, and in difficult moments "tried vividly to recall a word, a gesture, an act of generosity or heroism which has particularly revealed to me his true self, his unique beauty...and to contemplate his deed with gratitude." Any present difficulties recede in importance.
By a successful marriage Lily means both a happy one and a holy one, and the ideal she sets is high, for to her "contentment with a mediocre marriage condemns it to mediocrity." Marriage, though "a risk, a deed of daring," should and can be sublime, the "deepest source of happiness this side of heaven." It is a source of happiness because love is its very seed, its root, its nourishing sap, its blossom, and its fruit. And because the proper end of love is harmony, in marriage two persons, refined by love, become one. The deepest dimension of this union is "the will to do good to one another; the constant concern of each partner will be not just for the temporal but also for the spiritual well-being and happiness of the other." The true lover discerns in the spouse not just "what they've made of themselves but what they're meant to be." To read By Love Refined is to be awakened to what it truly means to love.