The 40 Day Challenge: Are You Ready?

This week I’ve been reading Servant of God Archbishop Fulton Sheen’s Love, Marriage and Children, and was struck by how much this man – a celibate who died more than thirty years ago – understood about contemporary married life.  (His profound understanding of the human condition is undoubtedly the reason his nationally syndicated radio and television programs, which aired from 1951-1968, drew more than 30 million people each week.)

As we prepare to enter the penitential season of Lent, the forty days of preparation for Easter, many people think about what to “give up” during this time. For some it’s chocolate or alcohol – for others it might be television or (*gasp!*) computer time.  After reading some of the good archbishop’s observations, however, I was inspired to take another approach. 

In his essay the “Laws of Marriage,” Sheen describes the three “moments” of marriage that each of us must encounter. 

The first moment is characterized by the sheer joy and ecstatic happiness of early marriage. “Though neither party may realize it,” writes Sheen, “the love at this moment is a kind of self-love or self-idolatry after the fashion of Narcissus, who fell in love with his own image. … What is actually loved is the projection of self into the other person.”

This idyllic time of mutual joy, however, is often short-lived. Invariably reality sets in, which Sheen describes as the second moment,  “crisis.” Although it may indeed take the form of a sudden trauma or challenge – a lost job, an illness or moral failure – it may simply come in a series of gradual realizations that your partner is not the man (or woman) of your dreams, after all. “Suddenly there is an awakening that the marriage is something like luggage; one finds in it only what was packed. … During this hour of crisis many marriages collapse because the partners do not know the law of life and do not stay together long enough to know one another…. Sometimes the partners begin to live apart or else are alone together: ‘I take my solitude with me; you take your solitude with you.’”

Ironically, it is this “wake-up call” that, according to Sheen, is the gateway to lasting marital happiness “if one but dies to egotism and selfishness. The aridity that one feels is not the defeat of love, but a challenge. … The hour is struck when the couple must realize that the taking of love’s stronghold is dependent on the siege of self; too often it is at this moment that the cowards leave and sink back into mediocrity.”

On the other hand, those who “work through the pain” and persevere in love find that their love enters a third “moment,” with renew life.  “A new kind of beauty comes in this third moment. One of the elements of beauty is surprise, and with the unfolding of the years there comes the new surprises through the deepening of the mind and heart, for it is love that makes anything beautiful.”

Would you like to experience renewed beauty and love in your home? Do you believe God wants that for you and your spouse?  Consider joining me on a “40 Day Challenge.” Let’s pray together, asking God to bless our marriages and our families as we seek to live out more faithfully our own vocations. 

For forty days, how many ways can we say “no” to self, and “yes” to our life’s partner – without pious subtext or martyred airs? In how many ways can we, joyfully and prayerfully, offer our love back to God, that He might infuse it with the newfound hope of resurrected love?

For the forty days of Lent (which begin this Wednesday), I will be posting here and linking to this “40 Day Challenge” Facebook Page.  Feel free to chime in as you are inspired, with your intentions or thoughts of your own on that day’s topic. If you’d like to have me post your thoughts anonymously, drop me a line at Heidi.hess.saxton@gmail.com, with “40 Day Challenge” in the subject line.)

Let’s pray for one another!

The Five Loves of Marriage and Family Life

This week I’ve been reading Love, Marriage and Children by Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen. Although the book was first published in 1954 (I got this copy from the seminary library), the dear man’s words struck me as fresh and insightful. Honestly, the realities of marriage and family life haven’t changed all that much in fifty years. We still have to work at giving ourselves 100% to those we love, and to practice the virtue of self-donation, which is at the heart of every authentic expression of love.

Fifty years ago, Archbishop Sheen was one of the most widely recognized religious figures in the media; today he is still much beloved though perhaps not as widely read.  In this book of his, I was struck by his assessment of married love. (This is counterintuitive for some — what would a celibate know about married love? Then again, first-hand experience is not necessarily the most reliable or objectively constructive means of obtaining wisdom.)

The first passage that captured my attention was his description of the Five Loves. I was familiar with the Four Loves of C.S. Lewis, but Sheen takes a slightly different approach that I found every bit as intriguing: while Lewis addresses the four expressions of authentic love, Sheen identifies four types of love that are poor cousins — some would say even “counterfeits” — of authentic Christian love.

  1. Utilitarian “love”:  for those who are useful to us. Once the usefulness passes, so does the affection.
  2. Romantic “love”:  for those who give us pleasure. “One of the reasons why many modern marriages do not endure is because people do not marry a person: they marry an experience.”
  3. Democratic “love”:  is by nature reciprocal.  “The reason for contributing to the good of others is the expectation of a return good.”
  4. Humanitarian “love”:  for humanity in the abstract, which cannot be sustained in the particular. “Love at a distance, rather than in immediate service.”
  5. Christian love — true “agape”– is different, characterized by the words of Christ:  “A new commandment I give unto you, that you love one another as I have loved you.”  A command, indicating it is centered in the will. Modeled in the self-giving love of Christ.

It is this kind of self-giving (or self-donating) love that sustains a marriage over the course of years. According to Archbishop Sheen, married love reaches its fullest expression only after it has endured great suffering. Sheen observes (p. 63):

The moment of crisis is one in which a true and lasting love is within easy reach, if one but dies to egotism and selfishness. The aridity that one feels is not the defeat of love, but a challenge.  …  There are two kinds of dryness: the dryness that rots and the dryness that ripens. The dryness that rots is that which cannot be assimilated; the dryness that ripens is that which is taken in by the fruit or the wheat in order to perfect itself. The hour is struck when the couple must realize that the taking of love’s stronghold is dependent on the siege of self; too often it is at this moment that the cowards leave and sink back into mediocrity. …

[And yet, when] love instead of being a circle that closes in on its own egotism, becomes a spiral by which one mounts to a new understanding of the other person, who now begins to be irreplaceable. Sex is replaceable, but love is not – no one can take the place of a mother or a life’s partner. The joy that is now found [in the third moment] is not the same as the joy that is lost; it is deeper and more real. In the first moment, one said, “I love you for myself.” In the second moment, one says, “I love you for God’s sake.” The other person is seen as the mask of God and always a gift, never forgetting that sometimes God’s gifts may be bitter as well as sweet.