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A Book Review . . . Moral Truths On Marriage

August 8, 2017 Featured Today No Comments


Three to Get Married, by Bishop Fulton J. Sheen (Scepter Publishers, Inc., New York: 2007), 216 pp. Available from at or by calling 1-800-322-8773.

A 2007 reprint of the Venerable Bishop Sheen’s 1951 edition of the book, this modern spiritual classic presents the Church’s timeless wisdom on the meaning of Christian marriage. Because of its luminous clarification of all the Church’s unchangeable teachings on holy matrimony, Three to Get Married offers special insight into the contemporary crisis of marriage and reveals with profound depth the moral truths that address these controversial issues.
In a modern world that blurs the distinction between sex and love and endorses no-fault divorces, cohabiting relationships, and same-sex unions, Sheen writes, “The nobler our loves, the nobler our character,” adding that sex without love offers “nothing personal, incommunicable, and therefore nothing dignified.”
In true love the union that begins in physical attraction also engages two unique personalities — not “egos” — where “the attraction of human to human is physiological, psychological, and spiritual.” In other words, true love unites two persons in mind, body, and soul, “the totality of the person loved.”
In an age ruled by the contraceptive mentality that regards human beings as mere instruments of selfish pleasure, the Church’s teaching ennobles human love by raising it to the highest standard: “Love is so strong it surpasses narrowness by devotedness and forgetfulness of self.”
Sheen observes that while sex always concentrates on self or ego, “love is directed to someone else for the sake of the other’s perfection.” Love is personal and generous, never manipulative or self-serving.
Acknowledging the division in man of body and soul as an effect of original sin, Sheen clarifies that man’s natural instinct for self-preservation, self-respect, and self-love easily degenerates into egotism, concupiscence, and license when it blurs the distinction between sex and love and ignores the fallen condition of human nature.
Again he exalts the Christian ideal of love as “a summons to share in creation, and because man and woman are God’s co-workers, there is an awesomeness about the act” — a truth the population controllers, fanatical about preventing human fertility, subvert by their attack on procreation.
This mystery of sex in its life-giving power gives it a profound religious dimension that is veiled in modesty and secrecy — the sense of the holy, Sheen observes, symbolized by the screen in the Eastern Rite of the consecration. Instead of this sense of awe the popular culture purveyed in the media reduces and cheapens human love to pleasure, devoid of any spiritual content. Pornography especially perverts the inherent sense of “awesomeness” that accompanies the wonder of marital love.
Sheen explicates the special relationship between love and knowledge that informs Christian marriage. A woman cannot love a man she does not know because “the unknown is the unloved.” The book of love depends on an increase of knowledge of the beloved, “a kind of intuitional perception of what is in the mind and the heart of the other.”
Despite the popular saying about the attraction of opposites, true love seeks similarity and unity. Sheen writes: “It is not unlikeness but likeness that attracts,” and he cites St. Thomas’ treatise on the effects of love as the marks that exalt human love beyond biological instincts: unity, mutual indwelling, ecstasy, and zeal — effects of love absent in all illicit relationships.
This bond of oneness in the indissolubility of marriage conveys the mystery of “assimilation” because it perfects the fundamental incompleteness of man and woman and satisfies the great desire of the human heart for unity. The lover does not wish merely to possess but to abide and inhere in the other that the effect of “mutual indwelling” conveys.
This is the holy oneness that God has established because “love never takes back that which it gives” in imitation of God who provides the model of this unconditional giving.
Because the physical unity of man and woman as “bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh” deepens into the oneness of mind, heart, and soul, this depth of knowledge and intimacy allows for the never-ending growth in love in the course of a lifetime:
“Mutual inherence is much more than a sharing of interest and an exchange of properties: rather these are the effects of a deeper fellowship which reaches into the core of their being.”
In a culture that condones divorce and cohabitation, this miracle of love’s growth, assimilation, and indwelling cannot occur because it depends on the promise of lifelong fidelity.
Sheen explores the mystery of love as a great spiritual good, an abundant outpouring that expresses itself in boundless generosity not regulated by limits or moderation. In Christian love husbands and wives experience “one of the most beautiful effects of love”: its zeal, which makes them “fools” for one another in the words of St. Paul: “We are fools for Christ’s sake.”
The divine plan orders marital love to rise from passionate desire to divine charity in which “the erotic love diminishes and the religious love increases” as husbands and wives continue to love God more without loving each other less. In Christian love a transfiguration occurs when “something lower dies and something nobler is born” as Eros transforms into Agape and love ascends.
Without this understanding of love’s growth in marriage — “the elevation of love from one stage to another” that conquers selfishness — men and women suffer frustration, disappointment, and resentment when they fail to act as sources of grace in each other’s lives but instead imagine the spouse as the agent of infinite happiness.
Because only God can satisfy the deepest desires of the heart for everlasting joy and the human being is only “lovable,” not Absolute Love, no fallible human being can ever perfectly fulfill the other’s desire for perfect, unchanging happiness. The illusion of divorce — “the assumption that some other human being can supply what only God can give” — ignores the truth about man’s creaturely limitations and fails to see “the vestibule of married love as the vestibule to the divine.”
Human love never approximates divine love any more than a spark from a great fire contains the heat and light of its source. For this reason the pretext of incompatibility as the justification for divorce denies a self-evident truth of human nature, “for what two persons in the world are perfectly and at all times compatible?” Thus husbands and wives are called to receive one another as “gifts” from God, not as gods, and grow in patience and humility.
This union is transformative because love is knowledge that changes the soul: “…love does something to us; it affects us so profoundly that the only way we have of expressing it is by the lover’s sigh, which is expressed in the Latin word spiritus!” — the release of the soul.
To love, then, is to give one’s breath, spirit, or soul as in the act of a kiss and to unite in a spiritual bond that resembles the mutual giving and receiving of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. This union of husband and wife modeled on the Trinity illuminates another one of love’s mysteries:
“To be one without ceasing to be distinct, that is the paradox of love!”
Just as the Father and the Son generate the Holy Spirit, a father and a mother are also fruitful in their love as they “breathe forth” the spirit of the family by “the reciprocity of their affection.” For Sheen the best image of love is the pyramid, not the cellar, because “from this Triune Love there floods down from the sides…the richness of this Love in Creation” that flows into marriage as a special grace from above.
Because of love’s mutual self-giving, it culminates in “self-recovery” rather than depletion. In the mystery of the Trinity “nothing is lost” because “love circles back upon itself in an eternal consummation.” Because holy matrimony is both “life-giving love” and “love-giving life,” it imitates the Trinity, for “perfect love is triune” as seen both in the generation of the Holy Spirit and in the birth of the child.
In other words, love does not simply expend its energy and then die or dissipate. Instead, in giving it receives in some form: “the recovery in the flesh, or in the soul, or in heaven, of all that was given and surrendered. In love no fragment is lost.”
The wonder, adventure, and romance of love, Sheen explains, transcend human experiences that fade into dullness and satiety. In the book of love a new chapter is always beginning, “a door that is yet unopened, a veil that has not yet been lifted, a note that has yet been struck.”
Without this sense of the mystery of love’s newness, marriage becomes inane and banal. As fathers and mothers age, the fruits of marriage that culminate in the new generation renew the heart, revive the flame of love, and “bind the parents together in the chains of a sweet slavery of love.”
Love, then, is always fresh and surprising. The birth of a child is not a statistic in the population but a resurrection.

Four Mysteries

Four mysteries unfold in the course of love’s unveiling of its secrets: the mystery of the other person’s body and soul, the mystery of motherhood in which “the husband sees something in the wife he never before knew existed,” the mystery of fatherhood in which a wife views her husband in a new light of manhood, and the mystery of the family that contributes profoundly to the nation and affirms the dignity and worth of all children loved for who they are, not for their talents or accomplishments.
This reverence for life founded in the family provides the first principles of all good government: “The State exists for the person, not the person for the State.”
These are some of the great mysteries of marital love that the Church’s magisterial teaching dispenses from its treasury of human and divine wisdom. As the title illustrates, Three To Be Married means that God’s plan and design require that all husbands and wives view love as a great heavenly gift, grow in the spiritual depths of love’s oneness to perfect one another, imitate the self-giving love of the Trinity, and await with hope and joy the unveiling of the next mystery.
Love of God and love of neighbor interpenetrate and grow side by side when man and woman embrace and live holy matrimony as God teaches and the Church affirms throughout the ages.
In an illuminating metaphor Sheen captures perfectly the essence of man, woman, and God’s special triune relationship in communicating the gospel of love in a way that modernity altogether misses:
“Imagine a large circle and in the center of it rays of light that spread out to its circumference. The light in the center is God; each of us is a ray. The closer the rays are to the center, the closer the rays are to one another. The closer we are to God, the closer we are bound to our neighbor. The more each ray departs from the center, the weaker it becomes; and the closer it gets to the center, the stronger it becomes.”

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