by Dale Ahlquist
Most of the popular songs from the last hundred years or so are love songs. But in spite of being love songs, most of them are not so much about love as about the loss of love. Or longing for a love that isn’t. Very few of them are actually about actual love.
Love is basic, even if it seems to be basically missing from the world.
So why are all those songs we have to listen to so miserable? What is the problem with modern love? We seem to be aware of the great joy that love brings, which is why we want it, but why can’t we hang on to it?
Well, it has something to do with the place that love naturally takes us. Love wants to take us to the altar. But the altar is a place of sacrifice. The altar is the place where the temporary and the physical touch the eternal and the spiritual. The Catholic Church has a word for it when that happens. It is called a sacrament. G.K. Chesterton describes the nature of a sacrament when he says that great joy has in it the sense of immortality. All lovers think of their love as something that cannot end. He describes this experience as “moments filled with eternity”. He says, “These moments are joyful because they do not seem momentary.”
But the modern world has avoided the sacrament. The modern world has tried an impossible experiment it calls “free love”. But as Chesterton says, there is no such thing as “free love”. It is the very nature of love that it wants to bind itself. it binds itself with a vow. It glories in being put to the test. The result is either the triumph of true love or the tragedy of false love.
“The man who makes a vow”, says Chesterton, “makes an appointment with himself at some distant time or place. The danger of it is that he should not keep the appointment.” For the greater part of human history, the institution of marriage, he says, “merely paid the average man the compliment of taking him at his word.” But in the modern world, we are apparently in terror of ourselves, of our weaknesses and our changeability, so that we have tried to win love without giving the vow. We want this back door, this way of escape always available to us. And this, says Chesterton, is “the sterilizing spirit in modern pleasure. Everywhere there is the persistent and insane attempt to obtain pleasure without paying for it.
The free-lovers say: “Let us have the splendour of offering ourselves without the peril of committing ourselves; let us see whether one cannot commit suicide an unlimited number of times.” Emphatically it will not work.
Chesterton makes it very clear that love involves commitment. Just as the institution of religion helps us survive our moods about divine love, so the institution of marriage is there to get us through our moods about earthly love. And, of course, there is a connection between divine love and earthly love, seen in those “moments filled with eternity”. That connection, as we said, is what is known as a sacrament. True romance has something to do with Rome, as in the Church of Rome. There is nothing more romantic, and nothing more Roman, than the vow. The pledge to be faithful . . . forever.
In everything on this earth that is worth doing, there is a stage when no one would do it, except for necessity or honor. It is then that the Institution upholds a man and helps him on to the firmer ground ahead. This [is a] solid fact of human nature. . . . It is amply sufficient to justify the general human feeling of marriage as a fixed thing. . . . The essential element is not so much duration as security. Two people must be tied together in order to do themselves justice; for twenty minutes at a dance, or for twenty years in a marriage. In both cases the point is, that if a man is bored in the first five minutes he must go on and force himself to be happy. Coercion is a kind of encouragement; and anarchy (or what some call liberty) is essentially oppressive, because it is essentially discouraging. If we all floated in the air like bubbles, free to drift anywhere at any instant, the practical result would be that no one would have the courage to begin a conversation. It would be so embarrassing to start a sentence in a friendly whisper, and then have to shout the last half of it because the other party was floating away into the free and formless ether. The two must hold each other to do justice to each other. If Americans can be divorced for “incompatibility of temper” I cannot conceive why they are not all divorced. I have known many happy marriages, but never a compatible one. The whole aim of marriage is to fight through and survive the instant when incompatibility becomes unquestionable. For a man and a woman, as such, are incompatible.
The fact that marriage brings together these two incompatible beings–man and woman–is another reason it is a sacramental mystery, just as it brings together the physical and the spiritual. Chesterton says that the greatest feat of engineering in human history is the bridge that has been built between man and woman.