Seven keys to a happy marriage

Since coming to Washington, I’ve become closer to Opus Dei and its focus on the sanctification of daily life, the universal call to holiness. This feature from Opus Dei on “seven keys” to a the happy marriage, written from the perspective of a son, is beautiful:

Tomás and Paquita Alvira, two of the earliest married members of Opus Dei, strove to attain sanctity as a married couple and in their role as parents.

Tomás Alvira was one of a group of young men who crossed the Pyrenees Mountains on foot with Saint Josemaría Escrivá during the Spanish Civil War, fleeing anti-Catholic persecution to escape to a zone where they could practice their faith. In 1939, Tomás married Paquita Dominguez, and together the couple sought to live their vocation to marriage to the full. They had nine children and were held in high esteem by those who knew them for their example of love and generosity. Their cause of canonization was opened in 2009.

In what follows, their son Rafael Alvira describes seven ways his parents cared for their marriage and educated their children through their example. …

1. Eagerness to love. My parents preserved their eagerness to love one another right to the end of their lives. A friend of one of my sisters told her that she was envious of my parents, because she would see them walking in the street and could tell that they still loved each other like when they were dating. As the years went by, my parents had the same eagerness that they had the day they got married, and their love was always increasing.

2. Attentiveness to others. They had a great capacity to be attentive to others. For example, both of them would open the door for me when I arrived. My mother gave each of her children a kiss when we got home. We saw it as a normal thing.

3. Teaching by example. My parents were convinced that the decisive factor in education is the atmosphere in which it takes place, and that the best pedagogy is indirect. The good example they gave us was very influential. This is how they passed on the faith to us. For example, they went to Mass and we saw them taking part with a devotion that left a mark on us. They showed us what God’s love means by winning us over with affection; they sacrificed themselves without saying anything in order to help us. And their spirit was contagious.

4. Teaching the kids to love each other. Both of them encouraged us to love each other a lot as brothers and sisters. This is something that continues being true today. I have one brother and six sisters (my oldest brother died when he was 5 years old).

5. Having a big heart. Both of my parents had a very big heart. Having a heart is not so easy. My father had a hard time correcting any of his children, but he realized that if he didn’t do it, it would cause us harm. He corrected us without offending us. To really love, you have to have a heart. And the same happened with my father’s students. They realized that he loved them; they felt loved and were grateful.

6. Fostering friendship. My parents had many family friends, and we became very much a part of these families. They also invited our friends to our house a lot. They knew all our friends. They brought them into our home and let them experience our family atmosphere. It is not enough for parents to raise their children well: they also need to get to know their children’s friends. Otherwise, the good education they give can be ruined by bad friendships the children make.

7. Respect for freedom. My parents always had a great respect for our freedom. They never pushed us to make a specific decision. For example, at home my parents prayed the rosary every day. But they never forced us to pray it with them. They prayed it attentively, and although they invited us to join them, they never imposed it on us or insisted that we take part.

Nature of a life worth living

“It’s a good thing, a vital thing, to consider what we’re willing to die for. What do we love more than life? To even ask that question is an act of rebellion against a loveless age,” said Archbishop Chaput in remarks at Notre Dame earlier this month. “And to answer it with conviction is to become a revolutionary; the kind of loving revolutionary who will survive and resist—and someday redeem a late modern West that can no longer imagine anything worth dying for, and thus, in the long run, anything worth living for.” Archbishop Chaput spoke to Notre Dame’s Constitutional Studies program:

Family, friends, honor, and integrity: These are natural loves. Throughout history, men and women have been willing to die for these loves. As Christians, though, we claim to be animated—first and foremost—by a supernatural love: love for God as our Creator and Jesus Christ as his Son. St. Polycarp, for all his caution and prudence, eventually did choose martyrdom rather than repudiate his Christian faith.

The issue at hand is this: Are we really willing to do the same; and if so, how must we live in a way that proves it? These aren’t theoretical questions. They’re brutally real. Right now Christians in many countries around the world are facing the choice of Jesus Christ or death. Last year the German novelist Martin Mosebach published an account of the 21 migrant workers in Libya who were kidnapped by Muslim extremists and executed for their faith. Twenty were Coptic Christians from Egypt. One was another African who refused to separate himself from his brothers in the faith.

The murder of those 21 Christians is captured on video. It’s hard to watch—not just because the act is barbaric, but also because, in our hearts, we fear that, faced with the same choice, we might betray our faith in order to save our lives. Put frankly, the martyrs, both ancient and modern, frighten us as much as they inspire us. And maybe this reaction makes perfect sense. Maybe it’s a version of the biblical principle that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. Fear of martyrdom is the beginning of an honest appraisal of our spiritual mediocrity.

So I think we should consider this fear for a moment, rather than repressing it, as we so often do.

The Christian men beheaded on the Libyan beach are not really so remote from us. The worry we naturally feel, that we might fail a similar test, is a concrete and urgent version of the anxiety we rightly feel when we think about coming before the judgment of God. If we’re honest about ourselves, we know that we’re likely to fail that test too. After all, we’re barely able to live up to the basic demands of the Ten Commandments. Many of us have trouble following even the minimal norms of a Catholic life: regular confession and Mass attendance, kindness to others, and a few minutes of daily prayer. If those very simple things are struggles, how can we possibly have the spiritual strength to face martyrdom? Or the judgment of a just God?

The Catholic faith we hold doesn’t deny our failures. It highlights them to help us see that our hope is not in the strength of our own love, but rather in the power of God’s love. As St. Paul says in one of the most moving passages of Scripture, “I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor power, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 8:38-39).

All of us, in all of our strengths and all of our weaknesses, are powerless to defeat God’s purpose in Jesus Christ. Our flaws, our mistakes and inadequacies, our spiritual mediocrity, and our self-sabotage are impotent in the face of God’s love. For this reason, the martyrs do not bear witness to the spiritual athleticism of remarkable men and women. Instead, they point to the relentless love of God in Jesus Christ. As the Preface for Holy Martyrs reads:

For you [God] are glorified when your saints are praised;
their very sufferings are but wonders of your might:
In your mercy you give ardor to their faith,
to their endurance you grant firm resolve,
and in their struggle the victory is yours,
through Christ our Lord.

What that means is this: Those who are faithful to God will in turn have his faithfulness at life’s ending, no matter how extreme the test.

Grace illuminates nature. The supernatural love of God in Jesus Christ that gives courage to the martyrs helps us better understand the natural loves of family, friends, honor, and integrity. The power of these loves—a power that can be so great that we’re willing to live and die to remain true to them—does not come from within the self. The mother does not conjure a love for her child out of her inner emotional resources. The same holds true for friends, honor, and integrity. Love’s power draws us out of ourselves. It comes from what is loved, not the one who loves.

Tolkien on love in marriage

Sam Guzman writes on J.R.R. Tolkien’s love of his wife, and on his letter to his son on true and lasting happiness in marriage:

J.R.R. Tolkien was happily married for 55 years. In contrast, the modern divorce rate is shockingly high, and some are giving up on monogamous marriage altogether, claiming it simply isn’t possible or healthy. What did Tolkien have that many marriages do not? How did he make it work? The answer is simple: He understood that real love involves self-denial.

The modern notion of love is pure sentiment, and it is focused primarily on self. If someone excites you, if they get your pulse racing, if they affirm you and your desires, then you can say you are in love with them according to modern definitions.

While deeply attached to his wife, Tolkien rejected this shallow idea of love. He embraced instead the Catholic understanding of real love as focused on the other—something that requires a sacrifice of natural instincts and a determined act of the will.

To illustrate Tolkien’s profound view of married love, I want to share an excerpt from a letter to his son, Michael Tolkien. It is a different side of Tolkien that many are unfamiliar with. To those with an overly sentimental view of love, his words may be shocking, even offensive. Yet, he articulates truths that, if understood and embraced, bring true and lasting happiness to marriage. Here is a truncated version of his letter:

Men are not [monogamous]. No good pretending. Men just ain’t, not by their animal nature. Monogamy (although it has long been fundamental to our inherited ideas) is for us men a piece of ‘revealed ethic,’ according to faith and not the flesh. The essence of a fallen world is that the best cannot be attained by free enjoyment, or by what is called “self-realization” (usually a nice name for self-indulgence, wholly inimical to the realization of other selves); but by denial, by suffering. Faithfulness in Christian marriages entails that: great mortification.

For a Christian man there is no escape. Marriage may help to sanctify and direct to its proper object his sexual desires; its grace may help him in the struggle; but the struggle remains. It will not satisfy him—as hunger may be kept off by regular meals. It will offer as many difficulties to the purity proper to that state as it provides easements.

No man, however truly he loved his betrothed and bride as a young man, has lived faithful to her as a wife in mind and body without deliberate conscious exercise of the will, without self-denial. Too few are told that—even those brought up in ‘the Church’. Those outside seem seldom to have heard it.

When the glamour wears off, or merely works a bit thin, they think that they have made a mistake, and that the real soul-mate is still to find. The real soul-mate too often proves to be the next sexually attractive person that comes along. Someone whom they might indeed very profitably have married, if only—. Hence divorce, to provide the ‘if only’.

And of course they are as a rule quite right: they did make a mistake. Only a very wise man at the end of his life could make a sound judgementconcerning whom, amongst the total possible chances, he ought most profitably have married! Nearly all marriages, even happy ones, are mistakes: in the sense that almost certainly (in a more perfect world, or even with a little more care in this very imperfect one) both partners might have found more suitable mates. But the ‘real soul-mate’ is the one you are actually married to. In this fallen world, we have as our only guides, prudence, wisdom (rare in youth, too late in age), a clean heart, and fidelity of will…

(Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, pp. 51-52)

I was speaking with a man I trust recently about love. I asked him how a man can properly love his wife. He pointed to a crucifix, and said, “Be prepared to do that, every day.”

What traditional life aims for

Randall Smith distinguishes acts and practices of virtue from often-deficient and generationally-specific norms and attitudes. We think of both the former and the latter as “tradition,” in a sense, but Smith conveys why only the former constitutes a traditional way of life:

Gentlemen, it has become very clear from the responses I’ve heard repeatedly from bright, beautiful, devoted Catholic women that you would be making a big mistake were you to announce you wanted a “traditional Catholic wife.”

What young women hear when you say a “traditional” Catholic wife is that you want a woman who will stay home, cook, clean, and take care of the babies, while you work all day. To put this another way, you want your mother. And the one thing most bright, devoted Catholic women don’t want (especially the ones who want plenty of children) is to be some grown man’s mother.

There is also a nagging historical problem as well. What do you mean by traditional? …

The “traditional Catholic family” where the husband worked all day and the wife stayed home alone with the children only really existed – and not all that successfully – in certain upper-middle class WASPy neighborhoods during the late 1950s and early 1960s. Working in an office all day is not necessarily evil (depending upon how it affects your family). It’s just modern. There’s nothing especially “traditional” about it. …

I don’t think this sort of life [woman and man living their vocation together, both working to raise a family in as intimate a way as possible] would have appealed to young Jane Austen, as it rarely appeals to her modern-day Catholic equivalent. But it has an undeniable beauty and involves a “tradition” in the sense that it is bound up with very definite practices and virtues.

Let me suggest, therefore, that a “traditional” Catholic wife is one whose life is bound up with a tradition constituted by virtues and practices – in this case, let’s say the Catholic intellectual tradition and the life of the intellectual, moral, and theological virtues. That’s the key “tradition” you should care about. It would be foolish to define “traditional” by one particular arrangement at a narrowly circumscribed point in time.

Tough, smart virtuous women want a tough, smart virtuous man, not a boy looking to replace his mother. So man up. Accept it. You’re going to have to raise those kids along with your wife. If you think you can “offshore” that task and dump it on your wife or the teachers at the school, you’re not doing the traditional Catholic thing. You’re just doing the traditional stupid thing.

A tough, smart wife who challenges you will make you a better man.

To cultivate the “intellectual, moral, and theological virtues” is a better way to think of living “the traditional life”, not only because it focuses on the point of life and family but also because it could be instantiated in any number of apparently unconventional places and ways.

Ghosts or ancestors

Andy Weissman writes:

Towards the end of his Broadway show, Bruce Springsteen describes how he’s realized that as parents, we have a choice to make: will we be ghosts or ancestors to our children. As ghosts, we haunt them with our mistakes and burdens; as ancestors, we free them from our flaws and walk alongside (or behind them) and help them find their own way.

In the past few months and without really thinking about it, I’ve started to get my morning coffee set up in place before I go to bed. On the kitchen counter I place the coffee dripper, filter, and scale, and then I weigh the beans. Last night at dinner I realized this was what my mother used to do every evening when we were kids.

Was she now being a ghost to me, or an ancestor with me?

Ghosts v. ancestors. I think I like that distinction as a way to think through the impact of family in your own formation—their influence as it has met your choices, and how one reconciles the bad and the good to live a life.

Austere and lonely offices

Attended mass at St. Denis in Havertown this morning, in Philadelphia now, and interested in seeing whether the Philadelphia Eagles season continues tonight against the New Orleans Saints. Sharing a scene from Market Street in Old City, and pairing it with Robert Hayden’s “Those Winter Sundays:”

Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.

I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he’d call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,

Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love’s austere and lonely offices?

It was something like ten years ago (maybe more) in the mid-winter that I was visiting my great uncle Bruce Shakely in western Pennsylvania. I had driven from State College the night before and arrived late. Gradually, the following morning, I woke to what I realized was the sound of Bruce out back, chopping wood for the living room furnace. Bruce was something like 85 at the time, still fulfilling one of Hayden’s “austere and lonely offices” of daily life and love.

John Singer Sargent and the Great War

I saw John Singer Sargent’s “Death and Victory” for the first time a week or so ago, thanks to a friend sharing it in remembrance of the Great War, World War I. It was created in 1922, when there had been barely enough time for the trauma of that war to have begun to form scar tissue, let alone heal. But in imagining myself seeing this, standing before it the year it was created, I can imagine it bringing some degree of solace.

Philip A. Bruce, my great grandfather, served in the Great War and I think about him and what “Death and Victory” would mean to him. He served in the Army at St. Mihiel and at Meuse-Argonne in 1918, and I think elsewhere. After the war he became a Philadelphia Police Officer, and in November 1929 was killed in the line of duty. He’s memorialized with other Philadelphia Police Officers in Franklin Square. It was my great grandmother who led the family through the Great Depression and provided for her young daughter and many relatives.

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“Happy those who with a glowing faith, in one embrace clasped death and victory.”

Sharing what you love

John Byron Kuhner on parenting and love:

I think most children get a sense pretty clearly of what their parents hate.  Most people are pretty hateful, and pretty public about it  … and children in particular are exposed to parents’ hatred all the time. People dread family gatherings [because of] hatred that is so toxic, and which people feel so entitled to impose on everyone else….

I want to share with my children what I love. I want to model for them how an adult loves: loves his spouse, loves his family, loves his work, loves his home, loves the world, loves people, loves things, loves life, loves God. And I know I can’t love everything equally. Some things I’ll love more than others. But I’d like my kids to know what I love and why, just because they’ve been part of our lives, and we’ve talked about them.

My mother tells me a story about her own father, that he would take her to the Metropolitan Museum of Art frequently, and yet she never knew why he decided to do so. His own wife, my mother’s mother, had no interest and never came. He had only an elementary school education (he was an immigrant from Ireland), and hadn’t even gone to high school, much less college. What did he get out of seeing Canovas and Van Eycks with his daughter on his day off from work? “I never really knew why he wanted to take me there,” my mother confesses. “All I know is that it changed my life.” My mother ended up going to college, and majoring in art history. A father probably doesn’t have to talk about the things he loves, to make a difference in his child’s life: he just has to expose his children to them. But talking about them is useful too.

“I never really knew why he wanted to take me there. … All I know is that it changed my life.”

After many years of teaching, I have to confess that I believe all the more in parenting. For all the very best students I’ve ever had, I’ve been able to say: “I think these children learn things at home.” Their parents may not be teaching them Latin, but they’re teaching them something: their children are learning to cook, they’re learning life wisdom, they’re learning to fix things, they’re learning about books and ideas. In short, almost all of my best students have been people whose first classroom was their home. And one never knows what kind of effect this will have decades later.

At age thirty-seven, when Goethe made his first trip to Italy, he wrote of his arrival as a realization of “all the dreams of my youth,” and he specifically recalls those prints he had seen in his childhood home. Goethe would remain in Italy for nearly two years, and would consider it one of the high points of his life — and a kind of fulfillment of his relationship with his father. I find this one of the most moving images of the tension between the generations resolved by shared love of enduring intellectual beauty.

This is one of my great hopes as a parent: that my children one day will see past my faults, and find me redeemed somehow by the love I had in my heart, a love they have found a way to share somehow. This would be, I think, one of the things that would make me most happy…

What a great witness to the power of little moments of witness to love.

Big, long-term bets

Morgan Housel on betting on things that never change:

Amazon’s focus from day one was as old as it gets. Selection and price. Businesses have pursued the idea for millennia.

Jeff Bezos once explained why this was critical:

“I very frequently get the question: ‘What’s going to change in the next 10 years?’ That’s a very interesting question. I almost never get the question: ‘What’s not going to change in the next 10 years?’ And I submit to you that that second question is actually the more important of the two. You can build a business strategy around the things that are stable in time. In our retail business, we know that customers want low prices, and I know that’s going to be true 10 years from now. They want fast delivery; they want vast selection. It’s impossible to imagine a future 10 years from now where a customer comes up and says, ‘Jeff I love Amazon, I just wish the prices were a little higher.’ Or, ‘I love Amazon, I just wish you’d deliver a little slower.’ Impossible. So we know the energy we put into these things today will still be paying off dividends for our customers 10 years from now. When you have something that you know is true, even over the long term, you can afford to put a lot of energy into it.”

This is one of those important things that’s too basic for most smart people to pay attention to. …

In the last 100 years we’ve gone from horses to jets and mailing letters to Skype. But every sustainable business is accompanied by one of a handful of timeless strategies:

Lower prices. Faster solutions to problems. Greater control over your time. More choices. Added comfort. Entertainment/curiosity. Deeper human interactions. Greater transparency. Less collateral damage. Higher social status. Increased confidence/trust.

You can make big, long-term bets on these things, because there’s no chance people will stop caring about them in the future.

Filing this away.

Atomistic v. domestic family

Allan C. Carlson introduces Carle Zimmerman’s “Family and Civilization,” with two photos from my time at Notre Dame so far:

Carle Zimmerman was the most important American sociologist of the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s. … Zimmerman focused on the family virtues of farm people. “Rural people have greater vital indices than urban people,” he reported. Farm people had earlier and stronger marriages, more children, fewer divorces, and “more unity and mutual attachment and engulfment of the personalit[ies]” of its members than did their urban counterparts.

Zimmerman’s thought ran sharply counter to the primary thrust of American sociology in this era. The so-called Chicago School dominated American social science, led by figures such as William F. Ogburn and Joseph K. Folsom. They focused on the family’s steady loss of functions under industrialization to both governments and corporations. As Ogburn explained, many American homes had already become “merely ‘parking places’ for parents and children who spend their active hours elsewhere.”

Up to this point, Zimmerman would not have disagreed. But the Chicago School went on to argue that such changes were inevitable and that the state should help complete the process. Mothers should be mobilized for full-time employment, small children should be put into collective day care, and other measures should be adopted to effect “the individualization of the members of society.” …

Zimmerman wrote Family and Civilization to recover that “actual, documented, historical truth.” The book stands as an extraordinary feat of research and interpretation. It sweeps across the millennia and burrows into the nature of otherwise disparate civilizations to reveal deeper and universal social traits. To guide his investigation, Zimmerman asks: “Of the total power in [a] society, how much belongs to the family? Of the total amount of control of action in [a] society, how much is left for the family?”

By analyzing these levels of family autonomy, Zimmerman identifies three basic family types:

(1) the trustee family, with extensive power rooted in extended family and clan;

(2) the atomistic family, which has virtually no power and little field of action; and

(3) the domestic family (a variant of Le Play’s “stem” family), in which a balance exists between the power of the family and that of other agencies.

He traces the dynamics as civilizations, or nations, move from one type to another. Zimmerman’s central thesis is that the “domestic family” is the system found in all civilizations at their peak of creativity and progress, for it “possesses a certain amount of mobility and freedom and still keeps up the minimum amount of familism necessary for carrying on the society.”

Where the Chicago School was neo-Marxist in orientation, Zimmerman looked to a different sociological tradition. He drew heavily on the insights of the mid-nineteenth-century French social investigator Frederic Le Play. The Frenchman had used detailed case studies, rather than vast statistical constructs, to explore the “stem family” as the social structure best adapted to insure adequate fertility under modern economic conditions. Le Play had also stressed the value of noncash “home production” to a family’s life and health. Zimmerman’s book from 1935, Family and Society, represented a broad application of Le Play’s techniques to modern America. Zimmerman claimed to find the “stem family” alivand well in America’s heartland: in the Appalachian-Ozark region and among the German- and Scandinavian-Americans in the Wheat Belt. More importantly, Le Play had held to an unapologetically normative view of the family as the necessary center of critical human experiences, an orientation readily embraced by Zimmerman.

This mooring explains his frequent denunciations of American sociology in the pages of Family and Civilization. “Most of family sociology,” he asserts, “is the work of amateurs” who utterly fail to comprehend the “inner meaning of their subject.” Zimmerman mocks the Chicago School’s new definition of the family as “a group of interacting personalities.” …

Zimmerman wrote Family and Civilization to recover that “actual, documented, historical truth.” The book stands as an extraordinary feat of research and interpretation. It sweeps across the millennia and burrows into the nature of otherwise disparate civilizations to reveal deeper and universal social traits. To guide his investigation, Zimmerman asks: “Of the total power in [a] society, how much belongs to the family? Of the total amount of control of action in [a] society, how much is left for the family?”

By analyzing these levels of family autonomy, Zimmerman identifies three basic family types:

  1. the trustee family, with extensive power rooted in extended family and clan;
  2. the atomistic family, which has virtually no power and little field of action; and
  3. the domestic family (a variant of Le Play’s “stem” family), in which a balance exists between the power of the family and that of other agencies.

He traces the dynamics as civilizations, or nations, move from one type to another. Zimmerman’s central thesis is that the “domestic family” is the system found in all civilizations at their peak of creativity and progress, for it “possesses a certain amount of mobility and freedom and still keeps up the minimum amount of familism necessary for carrying on the society.” …

Indeed, the primary theme of Family and Civilization is fertility. Zimmerman underscores the three functions of familism as articulated by historic Christianity: fides, proles, and sacramentum; or “fidelity, childbearing, and indissoluble unity.” While describing at length the social value of premarital chastity, the health-giving effects of marriage, the costs of adultery, and the social devastation of divorce, Zimmerman zeros in on the birth rate. He concludes that “we see [ever] more clearly the role of proles or childbearing as the main stem of the family.” The very act of childbearing, he notes, “creates resistances to the breaking-up of the marriage.” In short, “the basis of familism is the birth rate. Societies that have numerous children have to have familism. Other societies (those with few children) do not have it.” This gives Zimmerman one easy measure of social success or decline: the marital fertility rate. A familistic society, he says, would average at least four children born per household. …

It seems like we’re moving from the “domestic” family of the late 20th century to flirting with the “atomistic” family being more the norm in the early 21st century.