It doesn’t take much perception to see that in modern culture, romantic love is considered magic. Not merely “magical”, in the sense of a pleasant poetic attribute of a relationship, but actual magic, in the full sense that any true magician ever used the term. This is never articulated in any structured alchemical framework, but the assumption is there, woven into the romance novels and movies and songs: romantic love is an external force that acts upon parties, affecting them in ways over which they have no control. The phraseology used to describe parties under the influence of romantic love is nearly identical to that once used to describe people affected by spells. People are “smitten”, “entranced”, “overcome”, and “besotted”. This force is seen as irresistible, as something “bigger than both of us”. And, just like a spell or enchantment, this force is considered to have the ability to change people.
Raised as I was in our culture, I once bought into a lot of this, uncritically accepting this outlook because it was the only one presented to me. The stories I read and watched, and the poetry I listened to (mostly set to music), all reinforced the unexamined assumption that the mystical emotional force known as romantic love had the power to imbue existence with meaning and purpose, fulfill life, and actually change people.
The older I’ve grown and the more I’ve seen of life, the more I’ve seen that this outlook is shallow and detached from a realistic comprehension of human nature. But of all the magical powers attributed to romantic love, I’m coming to think that the most dangerous and deceptive is the idea that it will, of its own right, change a person. I’m not denying that romantic emotions like tenderness and affection can be catalysts for change. They can encourage and direct choices, and make it easier for a human will to make necessary changes to accommodate the beloved. But ultimately the decision to change, and the moral effort to effect that change, must rise from the will. No emotional tempest, no matter which direction it pushes us, can override our wills.
It seems to me that the false idea that romantic love can change people is the source of much disillusionment and bitterness. If I’m walking around thinking that I don’t have to put any effort into a relationship because, hey, love will keep us together, then I’m going to resent any suggestion that I should work to change myself for the sake of my beloved. Or if I try to change, under the impression that it’s really not all that difficult, I’m going to be disappointed and frustrated when the emotional wind dies (as it always does), leaving the sails of my will empty and forcing me to row the rest of the way. If things are going well at work and my wife is pleasant and the baby is being cute and happy, it’s easy to turn down the invitation to a night of cards with the guys to stay home. But if there are rumors of layoffs and the baby is teething and my wife is cranky and exhausted, doing the loving thing is going to take an effort of raw will. I will have to choose the proper action, unassisted by and possibly in opposition to how I’m feeling.
It would seem that this simple reality would be so obvious as to be undeniable, but again, the stories we tell ourselves have a powerful ability to shape how we interpret our experiences. Valentine’s Day is approaching, when what was once the feast of a Christian saint has been coopted to do homage to the illusory magic of romantic love. We will again fill our minds with stories of how hardened corporate magnates (or flighty playboys, or professional street gamblers, or whomever), some with a history of perverse and manipulative relationships, are magically transformed into faithful and responsible monogamists by the sheer power of romantic love. When this is the litany which is recited nonstop, how does one deal with the bitter reality that romance, of itself, changes nobody?
One way of dealing with it is to tell ourselves better stories. Love is a powerful thing, indeed the most powerful thing on earth – it just isn’t magic. Understood in the context of an accurate and balanced understanding of human nature and condition, romantic love is beautiful, and serves a powerful purpose. But it needs to be understood as one expression of love among many, and needs to be constrained by the restrictions that selfish, sin-damaged humans need.
I’d submit that our Catholic artistic heritage provides a rich lode of well-told stories that provide this necessary balance. I’m going to mention just a few, some classic and some more recent, but all striving to portray love in a realistic light.
One of the greatest triumphs in this regard is Sigrid Undset’s classic Kristin Lavransdatter. Though some are intimidated by this deep and detailed plunge into life in 14th century Norway, this three-volume tale is especially germane to our times because it hinges on a story which resonates with the modern love-as-magic illusion. The beautiful and willful Kristin, though raised in a pious home, falls in love (in the full modern sense) with the dashing Erlend, despite being betrothed to the prosaic but honorable Simon. Kristin’s actions follow the modern storyline – scorning her parent’s choice of a husband for her, she beds and then weds Erlend in a storm of passion, trusting that love will make him the man she’d like him to be.
But Undset tells the rest of the story in its rich and gritty fullness. Love does not change Erlend. He remains a tempestuous, unreliable man prone to passion and impulse. In stark contrast to Kristin’s steadfast father Lavrans, Erlend makes a poor husband and father, retaining his wild and womanizing ways, and even gets caught up in political intrigues that prove his downfall. Kristin and Erlend’s relationship is fraught with disappointment and heartache, exacerbated by their immaturity. Kristin learns in the end that love is indeed the center of life – but that “love” is much broader than romantic infatuation.
Another short but excellent series is the Pat series by L. M. Montgomery (Pat of Silver Bush and Mistress Pat.) Montgomery is best known for her iconic Anne of Green Gables series. Though she wasn’t Catholic, and I wouldn’t consider her a Catholic author, this little known pair of books deserves mention because it examines romantic love from a very unusual angle.
The two books relate the life of Pat Gardiner, who lives on the family farm, called Silver Bush, on Prince Edward Island in the early 20th century. They tell Pat’s story from when she was a girl of about five until she’s nearly thirty. The stories are classic Montgomery, rich with the adventure of everyday life and full of all manner of love – family love, deep friendships, love of hearth and home. There’s even a romance, but with a distinctive spin. I won’t spoil the story for anyone, but the books are an excellent illustration of how all love needs balance, and when any expression of love is exulted above others, life gets out of kilter.
One story worth mentioning is the tale of the love of Éowyn and Faramir, found in The Return of the King, the third book of The Lord of the Rings. It’s a testimony to Tolkien’s storytelling skill that in the midst of this sweeping epic of sorcery and monsters and dark armies and heroism, he tucks this beautiful romance into a chapter (The Steward and the King). What makes the story so credible is the balance – there’s no possibility of either party throwing over the other important things in their lives “for love”. Both Éowyn and Faramir have proven their love by tremendous personal sacrifice and deeds of towering heroism. And while they do find each other – Faramir even correctly diagnosing and addressing Éowyn’s infatuation with Aragorn – neither one is overwhelmed by passion. They both have responsibilities, she as a princess of Rohan and he as Steward of Gondor, which they discharge before being wedded. The romance they share is properly ordered in relation to the other loves in their lives.
Another excellent story is Tobit’s Dog by Michael Richard. This recently published retelling of the Book of Tobit from the Bible brings to vivid life all the charm and humanity latent in the original tale. There’s a romance and a marriage, of course, but it’s squarely placed in the midst of a broader tale of family love, clan fidelity, and civic responsibility. There are even chilling portrayals of love gone wrong, of tormented families and festering infatuations, all with dire consequences. Love does win, not through any magical properties but by focusing and directing human wills to proper ends. (The portrayal of Tobias courageously standing up to the slander of his family and the lies told about Sarah illustrate this beautifully.)
Hesitant as I am to mention my own work, The Accidental Marriage, especially in such company, I do so because one of the reasons for it was to directly challenge this prevalent romance-as-magic illusion. The story is about love from start to finish – faithful friendship, familial responsibility, and even some neighborly compassion thrown in. Since the main protagonists consider themselves gay, there are no magical romantic transformations. All the growing, all the hard choices, have to rise out of the wills of the characters, impelled by the deep love they gain for each other. They do ultimately learn that love is at the center – but that their definition of love had been far too narrow and truncated.
All around us we have seen the tragic aftermath of the seductive tales whispering to us that love is a magical force, and will obviate the need for proper choices, perseverance, and moral effort. Perhaps part of the reason the lie is so effective is that it skates so close to the truth. Love is powerful, and it does lie at the center of life. But love in a fallen and sin-damaged world is a dicey thing, and it needs to be informed and guided by deeper, more stable things like moral laws, family responsibilities, and cultural traditions. There are stories which understand and respect these factors, and stories which ignore or deprecate them. We need to decide which stories we’re going to allow to inform our minds and imaginations.