Tuesday, February 14, 2023

The Plan for Love


There is a most beautiful, perfect, and exquisite plan for love, specifically the life-giving love between a husband and wife. Celebrating St. Valentine’s Day, a day all about love, is a good opportunity for us to reflect on the free, total, fruitful, and faithful love of God—and what it means for us, especially those called to married life.

What is love?

If you had to draw a picture of love, what would you draw? 

Perhaps the best image of love is the crucifix. Afterall, the Bible tells us that God is love. Jesus’s sacrifice on the cross teaches us the four marks of true love. First, love must be free. No one forced Jesus to die for us; He freely lay down His life out of love. Second, love must be total. Jesus didn’t hold anything back, but gave all of Himself. Third, love must be fruitful: it produces life. Jesus’s love on the cross opened the gates of heaven—eternal life—for us. Fourth, love must be faithful. Jesus stayed true to us to the end. His love is constant. 

We can even better understand God’s plan for love by considering the Catholic Mass. Mass is a sacrament of love! Jesus (the Bridegroom) gives Himself totally to His bride (the Church). The book of Genesis describes that a man leaves his father and mother, cleaves to his wife in total commitment, and the two become one flesh. These steps of marriage happen between Jesus and His bride, the Church. Jesus left His heavenly Father and earthly Mother. On the cross, He gives Himself totally to His bride. Then the two become one flesh in the Eucharist

There is a good reason why the Bible describes heaven as a wedding feast! Jesus is so madly in love with us that He isn’t content to be with us from afar. He wants to be in us. In the Eucharist Jesus plants the seeds of eternal life within our souls. 

Body Language

God created us body and soul. Our bodies are holy and precious, temples of the Holy Spirit. Pope Saint John Paul II talked about a theology of the body: that our bodies reveal God’s purpose for our lives. It is true that we have body language! Our bodies reflect what is happening inside of us. 

By looking at the body that God gave me, I understand my purpose, which is that I am made for others. I have told a toddler many times, “God didn’t give you hands to hit someone. God gave you hands to help others and to love them.” Our bodies are meant to give, to serve, to love others. A woman’s body, taken on its own, doesn’t make sense without a man’s body—and vice-versa. They are different but complementary. They are for each other.

The Church shows the importance of our bodies. Every sacrament has matter and form: matter is the “stuff” of the sacrament (like water in baptism) while form is the words spoken. In the sacrament of matrimony, what is the matter? The bodies of the bride and groom. The bride and groom are not officially married until they have done what is properly called the “marital act.” They must consummate, or complete, their vows.

Now, the terminology we use is important. For example, consider the difference between the words “relationship” and “courtship.” Many people use the word “relationship” to describe being boyfriend and girlfriend. Yet, when you think about it, relationship is an ambiguous term. Siblings, friends, or coworkers all have a “relationship.” The term “courtship” makes a clearer delineation that this is a commitment between a man and woman who are discerning marriage. 

So when we speak about this sacred action between a husband and wife, the term “marital act” (as opposed to “sex” or “making love”) feels more appropriate. It is a special, sacred, holy, and beautiful act between a husband and wife. It is their bodies saying: I belong completely to you. I give myself totally to you. I love you so much, I want to be one with you.

Through the marital act, the two become one. This is how God designed their bodies. In their wedding vows, a bride and groom expressed their lifelong commitment to love each other. In the marital act, their bodies speak this total gift of self. 

Purposes of Spousal Love

So why did God give husbands and wives this incredible gift? First, the marital act is unitive: it unites the spouses. Every time they express their love through the marital act, a husband and wife are renewing their wedding vows. Their bodies are saying, “I do.” God designed the marital act to be something that physically feels good. It bonds the husband and wife, strengthening their love.

The second purpose is procreative: the marital act produces new life. Every marital act should be open to the blessing of children. God designed it so that a baby is literally conceived during an act of self-giving love. The powerful love between a husband and wife, through the grace of God, produces new life. 

The marital act is for “babies and bonding” and these cannot be separated. A baby needs a mother and father who are in a committed, lifelong marriage: this is best for children. That is why the marital act is only for marriage. 

Some people don’t realize this is God’s design for love. Sometimes people fall into temptation and sin. We must always remember that, no matter what, God’s mercy is always greater than any sins we could commit. This is why, however, it is always important to pray for purity of heart and for chastity, since the devil tempts many people away from God’s loving plan.

If we return to the four marks of true love, we see that the marital act between a husband and wife fulfills every point. Is it free? Yes! One of the questions posed to a couple about to exchange wedding vows is, “Have you come here to enter into marriage without coercion, freely and wholeheartedly?” Is it total? Yes! In the marital act, a husband and wife hold nothing back. They give every part of themselves to each other in an act of total self-gift. Is it fruitful? Yes! The marital act is open to new life in the blessing of children. Is it faithful? Yes! A husband and wife only give of themselves in this way to each other. 

Giving Love

How am I using my body to love others? As we celebrate Valentine’s Day this month, let’s magnify our love by imitating the free, total, fruitful, and faithful love God showers upon us, especially through the Eucharist. God has a perfect plan for love: how do you live it out in your life?

Saturday, February 4, 2023

Lessons from The King's Achievement

 The assault was not going to stop at matters of discipline; it was dogma that was aimed at, and, worse even than that, the foundation on which dogma rested. It was not an affair of Religious Houses, or even of morality; there was concerned the very Rock itself on which Christendom based all faith and morals.

To whom are you faithful? 

This was perhaps one of the most critical questions facing the English people in the years of King Henry VIII’s reign—the period of the English Reformation. When remaining faithful to the Catholic Church could cost you your head, should you pledge your allegiance to the King’s new church? 

In 1904 Father Robert Hugh Benson wrote The King’s Achievement, a historical novel that follows the lives of the Torridon family. Two brothers, Ralph and Chris, represent two contrasting paths. Ralph—of the world—works for Lord Cromwell. Meanwhile, Chris—of the spirit—enters a monastery and becomes a priest. As the persecution against the Catholic Church heightens and monasteries are attacked, Ralph becomes the antagonist who leads an attack against Chris’s monastery.

A family grieves the brother whose soul seems lost. Ralph pursues worldly success while courting the lovely Beatrice, who is a fervent Catholic, but will devotion to Lord Cromwell sabotage his burgeoning love? Can Ralph continue to justify his actions, even as he befriends and comes to respect the great Thomas More? Chris’s turbulent emotions toward his wayward brother threaten his own spiritual peace—can he learn to be in the world but not of it? And can he save his brother even while Chris’s resistance to the King’s orders places his own life in danger? 

Benson does a remarkable job of bringing this era of English history to life, especially in illuminating the horrific, completely destructive persecution against the Catholic monasteries. Many monks gave their lives as martyrs. Many monasteries were looted, robbed, and destroyed. Peaceable religious men and women who had quietly carried on valuable spiritual work within the walls of these monasteries and convents suddenly found themselves on the street, nearly penniless and, objectively speaking, vocationless. 

Peterborough Abbey, Benedictine monastery dissolved November 29, 1539

The methodical tearing apart of the Catholic Church in England is concerning in its familiarity to some of the tendencies one could observe in our own world today. The Catholic faithful of the 1530s, many of whom were not fully catechized, did not know what to believe. King Henry and his clergy expressed persuasive arguments that quickly led people astray. Then these same men criticized, condemned, and silenced those who dared defend the truth of the Catholic Church. 

King Henry VIII by Hans Holbein the Younger

There are so many excellent aspects to this historical novel. Benson brings alive the personalities of St. Thomas More, King Henry VIII, and Lord Cromwell. Also, I truly enjoyed the family dynamics of the Torridon family. It’s sobering how two brothers, raised by the same parents in the same household, could veer along such completely opposite paths. At one point in the novel, Benson describes Ralph and Chris walking along with their father, just feet apart from each other, but an impassable gulf exists between them. Anyone who has experienced conflict within one’s familial relationships can relate to that sensation of heartbreaking distance among people of shared blood. 

Chris’s spiritual journey is very fulfilling, especially as he overcomes his inner struggles. Within his monastery, Chris detaches himself from everything and everyone in the outside world. As the plot progresses though, Chris begins to realize that, while leaving the world behind, he still needs to be mystically one with that same world. 

“Neither a life in the world would have done it, nor one in the peace of the cloister; but an alternation of the two. He had been melted by the fire of the inner life, and braced by the external bitterness of adversity.”

I will say that there are a few aspects of the plot that I found disappointing. While Benson does a superb job creating suspenseful scenes, sometimes those moments lose their punch: in two specific instances, when Chris finds himself in particularly dangerous circumstances and the stakes are high, the resolution to the conflict is quite anticlimactic. As for the romantic plot of the book, I questioned why the highly intelligent and deeply faithful Beatrice would be attracted to Ralph. However, I became most concerned by one of the major take-aways of the novel, namely that one should practice loyalty for loyalty’s sake. Faithfulness to something—or someone—bad is not a virtue and I cannot understand why it was lauded as such. 

Where does your loyalty lie? Are you a faithful son or daughter to the King of Kings? The King’s Achievement reminds us that sometimes faithfulness carries a steep price. Yet, Benson depicts Saint Thomas More reminding the other characters—and us—that we are all God’s prisoners. May we serve Him loyally every day of our lives.