The Paradox of Love

Giving is Getting

“Go to marriage for what you can get, and you are disillusioned; go for what you can give, and you find yourself immeasurably the richer for your gift,” wrote Benedictine Hubert van Zeller in a recently republished collection of meditations. But it seems selfless giving is the last aspect of romantic love that modernity emphasizes.

Looking at contemporary pop songs, we see two currents of thought. On the one hand, a recognition of the universal need for love; on the other, a conception of romantic love as something that isn’t much more than sex. The first insight is present (in some form) in lines like:

Everybody, everybody wants to love
Everybody, everybody wants to be loved.
(from “Everybody,” by Ingrid Michaelson)

The second can be seen in a piece like “Sex and Candy” (by Marcy Playground), where “sex and candy” “surely is a dream” and ultimately “must be my dream.”

Seven Sacrificial Years

In contrast, the traditional ballad “Geordie” places love in the context of sacrifice. The protagonist, pleading for the release of her husband, who had been charged with poaching the king’s deer, speaks to the judge of her love for her husband in terms of the children she bore him:

But six pretty babes I had by him
The seventh one lies in my body
And I would bear them all over again
If you give me the life of my Geordie.

Here we see the fitting measurement of her love in her children; she is certainly thinking of marriage with a “what I can give” mindset.

Returning to van Zeller, he writes, “Love, like life itself, is largely what we bring to it. Bring God to love, and love is what it is meant to be; bring self, and love is dangerously near to lust.”

Another folk-song example of this attitude can be found in “Pretty Fair Maid in the Garden.” A soldier rides up to the maid and asks if she’d be his bride. When she says she has another true love who has been away for seven years, he replies that perhaps her true love is dead in the war, or even has married someone else. The girl replies:

Well, if he's drown, I hope he's happy 
Or if he's on some battlefield slain
And if he's to some fair girl married
I'll love the girl that married him.

This response shows the young woman’s faithfulness and selfless love. The soldier then reveals himself as her true lover who’s been gone for seven years (she had not recognized him at first). She also says that she’d have waited another seven years for her love, even as Jacob worked for seven years, twice, for Rachel.

In both folk songs something is suffered as proof of love, and there’s a willingness to suffer again for love if necessary. One would repeat the seven pregnancies, and the other, seven long years, if love required it. Why? Because “marriage is too big a thing to be stuck together by treacle” (as van Zeller puts it).

The Right Question

According to the classic scholastic definition, love is willing the good of the other. One simple way of explaining sacrificial love, known in the Christian tradition as agape, is that if you truly want the other’s good—and the best goods are difficult or costly—the price of obtaining that good for the other will not hinder you from paying it.

When it comes to romantic love, the question is simple but not easy. From the Christian point of view, the question is not, “How can I get maximum pleasure from my partner and keep children out of the equation?” but, “How can I give my spouse spiritual and temporal security and raise children to be saints?”

More specifically, the man should be thinking (and acting) along the lines of, “How can I protect and provide for her materially? How can I give her the love and security she needs by listening and being sympathetic to her thoughts and feelings? What do I need to do to be morally and mentally strong enough to support her in times of depression, fear, or spiritual dryness? How can I assure her of my love?”

And for the woman: “Where does he need my affirmation? How can I follow his lead while ensuring my own insights will be constructive? What do I need to do to make the home a place where he and the children are refreshed and nurtured? How can I assure him of my trust and respect?”

Joseph Shaw has brilliantly touched upon these themes in his recent book of essays: “It is evidently important to the scriptural authors to maintain in the forefront of our minds, when talking about God, the things associated with the paterfamilias [head of the household]: not only love, but protection, discipline, and authority.”

A Costly and Beautiful Sacrifice

As we are often fighting insecurities and selfish desires, these considerations can be difficult to prioritize. And yet, the more one looks to cultivating the joy of the other, rather than looking to self, the easier it becomes to focus on giving. Ultimately, if the sacrament of Christian marriage participates in some way in the reality of Christ’s love, it should not be surprising that giving becomes receiving. Christ was not looking for what he could “get” when he became man, but for what he could give for the redemption of the human race. Ultimately, as we all know, this was his own life. “The Son of man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mt 20:28).

The predominant theme of our calling, according to St. Paul is loving “as Christ also loved the church, and delivered himself up for it” (Ephesians 5:25). “According to the holy Apostle,” Devin Schadt writes, “love is synonymous with sacrifice, and headship is synonymous with being a savior; and a savior delivers himself up in sacrifice for his wife.”

When a man and a woman conform themselves to God’s way of giving through the sacrament of matrimony, they receive what they would never have gotten another way: the reciprocal selfless quest to give to, rather than take from, their spouse – even if, in fact, both are needy. And both will benefit.

Van Zeller's admonition is:

Go with your eyes open, looking for the beauty which is in marriage and prepared to pay the price. Looking for what love has yet to offer when the early blossom has blown away, and still prepared to pay the price. Costly must be love …. Hopeful, grateful, humble. … believing the best of love, not the worst … as glad of its graces as of its pleasures … ready always to acknowledge unworthiness in the face of a gift so excellent that none but God Himself could have devised its possibility.

is an American musician, writer, and artist. Born in Austria, he divides his life between the Wyoming wilderness and Europe. His writing has appeared in numerous venues including The European Conservative, OnePeterFive, and Crisis Magazine. You can find some of his artwork and music on Etsy and YouTube.

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