We Are Made By What We Love — and Whom We Love

Only through Jesus Christ can we say, ‘I choose to love you now and in every moment thereafter.’

Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, “The Marriage Feast at Cana,” ca. 1672
Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, “The Marriage Feast at Cana,” ca. 1672 (photo: Public Domain)

Of all the maxims I’ve seen ascribed to Mother Teresa, my absolute favorite is the one which, were it only to be applied everywhere, would at once free us from all the busybodies telling us what to think and how to behave:

If You Want to Change the World,
Go Home and Love Your Family.

The problem with that, of course, which any half-wit can see, is that most of the world’s busybodies haven’t got families. Or, if they do, they’re so dysfunctional that it hardly matters what they do when they go there. This may explain why the world is in such a mess. Without families, which are foundational to the maintenance of healthy human life, chaos ensues. Existence becomes a Hobbesian nightmare, a state of savagery in which all is “nasty, brutish, solitary, and short.”

I’ve been thinking a good deal about families lately, the result I suppose of having recently found myself snowbound in Colorado, where, surrounded by a great many small children of whom I happen to be their grandfather, I was forced to discover, all over again, the joys of family life. And the terrors — one of which involved my being strapped onto an indoor Ferris Wheel in the company of a 4-year squealing with undisguised delight. The ride was less than 10 minutes, but not since the Vietnam War have I prayed so hard for it to be over.

What really impressed me, however, was the renewed sense I got from witnessing ordinary parents in action, not leaving their post, remaining cheerfully and resolutely on duty all the time. Like steadfast soldiers, they managed to keep the chaos at bay. Not banishing it altogether, mind you, which is not possible in a fallen world, but redirecting the energies of the young in such a way that the proverbial worm in the apple pretty much stayed in the fruit.

That’s the trick, isn’t it? Not just keeping the kids from killing one another, but doing it in such a way that it looks as if you’re actually having a good time en route. Now that takes real skill. And no little heroism, either. Which can only happen, of course, when the exercise is repeated so often that it becomes what the moralists call an entitative habit.

Like changing a child’s diaper at three in the morning so your spouse can sleep through the night. It’s no fun, of course, but what has that got to do with anything? I mean, at that point it hardly matters that you’re faking it so long as your spouse and/or child remain satisfied by the performance. Not so very different, actually, from the performance Churchill gave while winning the war and consuming large quantities of whiskey along the way. “How do you do it, Winston?” he was asked. “Practice,” he said. 

Like any endeavor, large or small, it all comes down to the will. Two imperfect people refusing to give up on one another, or on the children they are each equally responsible for raising. They have got to be all in, you see, both of them, all the time. “Love is my gravitation,” St. Augustine tells us. Which means that wherever it goes, we too must go. We are made not only by what we love but, more importantly, by whom we love. Which, again, is always a matter of the will, of choosing to live and to love rightly in every instance. Being AWOL is never an option.

Above the bed in the guestroom where my wife and I stayed, our daughter and son-in-law had hung a sign that certainly drove the point home:

I Choose You. And I’ll Choose You, Over and Over
And Over and Over. Without Pause, Without Doubt,
In a Heartbeat. I’ll Keep Choosing You.

Now, to be sure, none of this is possible in the absence of grace, which is the stuff that sanctifies the love between husbands and wives. If sex, to paraphrase a line from Chesterton, is the instinct that brings about an institution, then grace is what keeps it from imploding. It is the fuel that keeps the engine alive, allowing a life of sacrifice to take root in the choices we are constrained by habit and right reason to make. And without it, our lives are less than zero. In fact, without God, and the grace he sends coursing through the soul, we are barely human. 

Here, if you’ll pardon the digression, one thinks of Evelyn Waugh, a man whose irascibility would rival that of St. Jerome, who, when reproached for his want of Christian charity, replied that if it weren’t for the supernatural gift of faith, he should scarcely even be human. He understood that, for all the limits of a fallen nature, grace is yet able to seize upon that nature and move it along the path of greater virtue. But it may take time. Not forgetting that, at the hour of death, we may still time, which is why God gave us Purgatory.

As for marriage, of course, what we believe owing to the communication of the grace of the sacrament — which Christ himself instituted in order to impart that grace — two very disparate people will suddenly find themselves joined to one another, united forever in Christ. Thereby empowering them to say each day, in every way, I choose to love you now and in every moment thereafter.

But only from within an ambit infinitely more than any mere human love can produce. In other words, if they do not find Christ in the relationship, if they do not move in tandem toward him, rooting their lives in the promise of an indestructible love that only he can give — because it is a love resistant even to death — no human love, however ardently felt or expressed, can survive.

“If you do not love Christ,” warns Father Julian Carron in a wonderful book called DISARMING BEAUTY, “who is Beauty made flesh, more than the person you love, the latter relationship withers, because Christ is the truth of this relationship, the fullness to which both partners point, and in whom their relationship is fulfilled.

Only by letting him in is it possible for the most beautiful relationship that can happen in life not to be corrupted and die in time. This is the audacity of Christ’s claim. 

The perfect word, I’d say, for what makes family life, not only tenable in times like these, but positively triumphant.