Cords of Adam, by Venerable Fulton Sheen, 19 February 1933

1952 photograph of Venerable Fulton John Sheen produced as promotional material for the television show 'Life is Worth Living'Marriage is meant to be a bond breakable only by death, because love, by its nature, cannot be measured either by space or time. Yet despite the ideal of marriage, the hard actualities of life make it end sometimes in dismal ruin and failure. A moment comes when the bonds, once meant to be as firm as steel, now seem as frail as a silken cord, and affection, which once was delicate, now begins to take things for granted. It is at this stage that love needs a tonic, and loyalty needs re-enforcement. Something must be done to keep husband and wife together in order to fulfill their mutual social mission. The Church teaches that this tonic and re-enforcement is supplied by three things: first, by greater emphasis on love and less on sex; secondly, by loyalty to a vow; and thirdly, by love of children.

We are now living in what might be called the era of carnality. The Victorian pretended sex did not exist; our age says that it is the only thing which exists. This one organic reaction has been so insanely magnified, boomed, popularized, vulgarized and propagandized, that it is no longer kept in its own place, like enjoying a meal, or laughing at a joke. Undoubtedly, sex has its particular part to play in life, but it is beautiful only when it is part of the whole, that is, part of that human nature given to us by Almighty God, which is not only biological, but also intellectual, moral and religious. Its isolation from, the whole nature of man, and its con- sequent exaggeration has resulted in a wild orgy of frenzied filth, which has destroyed the sense of chivalry in men and the sense of delicacy in women.

The Church has been dealing with marriage for twenty centuries, and yet nowhere in her marriage ceremony does she speak of sex- but she does speak of love. There is an important difference between the two.

Sex is like a lightning flash between two drifting clouds, a momentary brilliance followed by the dread rumblings of thunder. Love is less like a spark than a light, which goes out from the great white throne of God, permeating, infusing and indwelling in hearts and attuning them to the vibrations of the Great Heart of God. Sex is a mutual conflict in which two hearts pursuing, fall satiated and cry out at the goal, “Enough!” But love has no such word as “enough,” but only the word “always.” Sex takes life and ends in mutual slaughter; love, craving to give life, discovers itself in the other and thus becomes immortal. Sex is the blind wolf that lives by hunting, and after its feast of blood it wearies of the chase and sleeps; love gives its flesh and blood and lives in what it feeds – its eucharist of love. Sex is a wild boar wallowing among the lilies and yet always thirsty, for in vain do hands think to snare the music who break the lute; love is as the flight of a bird suffering the loss of earth to purchase those higher and more rarified levels where the spirit moves with the glorious liberty of the sons of God. Sex belongs to the animal; love belongs to God. Hence if any of the depersonalized and unsouled men and women of our day would recover the happiness of their married life they must seek it not in sex which is selfishness, but in love which reached its highest peak and its sublimest expression in the sacrifice of the Cross where a God-man gave his life that we might live it in abundance.

The second remedy for the tedium of marriage is loyalty to a vow, even from the psychological point of view. A marriage vow is the one thing which keeps couples together during the period of disillusionment, and thus enables them to recover their happiness. It is a psychological fact that great pleasures are purchased only by surviving a moment of tedium and great joys can be kept only on condition of enduring a moment of pain. It is only after the shock of the first cold plunge that we can enjoy the swim; it is only after long, weary hours of practice that we can enjoy rendering a sonata of Chopin; it is only after surviving the exercises of Latin grammar that we can enjoy the wisdom of Thomas Aquinas; it is only after the exhaustion of the first mile’s walk that we get our “second wind,” and enjoy the thrill of exercise.

In like manner, it is only after the disillusionment which follows the first quarrel, or the irritation of the first extended visit of an unwelcome relative, that the couple get their second wind and begin to enjoy their union and their togetherness. It is only after the pain of the novitiate of self-wounding falls, which seem to be the dark night of the soul, that they discover the joy in lifting up one another to God; it is only after the tedium of killing their individual selfishness in mutual concession that they come to the pleasure of communion one with another; it is only from the ashes of self-love that they, Phoenix-like, rise to that permanent pleasure of mutual love which we call Christian marriage.

Having survived the Good Friday of disillusionment, thanks to their loyalty to a vow, the couple enter into the Easter of peace and joy. The rivers of rapture deepen and broaden in the blended channel of love, and their mutual current flows on stronger, with the eddies of passion in the shallows. Then the insatiate rock and strain of physical emotion relaxes, and they begin to taste without fever the beautiful happiness of being together. Love, then, becomes more conscious of its Messiahship, busies itself more with the Father’s business, and the couple’s final reward for being faithful to the vow, for surviving the moment of monotony, is the pleasure of married life and the gift of a child from heaven, which makes them an earthly trinity, and proclaims that God has not yet despaired of men.

The third way to avoid the tedium of marriage is by making it fruitful. The love of husband for wife and wife for husband has its seasons of transports and ecstasies, but it also has its winter of disillusionment. The husband, after a few years of married* life, makes the startling discovery that the wife is no longer a daughter of the gods, and the wife in her turn soon realizes that he is no longer her strong Apollo. The day soon comes when under the magic but corroding touch of time, she loses the rose in her cheeks, which not even art can restore, and he forfeits the strong resolve to sacrifice all for his beloved, now even forgetting to send flowers on her birthday. Her childish prattle, which once made him laugh, now begins to get on his nerves, and his repetition of old wise-cracks becomes as intolerable to her as his habit of spilling ashes on the carpet.

Her mother, who once seemed sweet during the days of courtship, now overstays her visit, and his elder sister, who once seemed so jovial, is now a bore at the evening bridge table. She, who was once a joy to behold, is now commonplace, and he, who once was her pride, is now the routine companion of the breakfast table.

It is at this time, when beauty and strength have fled, that modern marriages flounder and are broken on the rocks of misunderstanding. But it should not be so. Her beauty and his strength were not meant to be permanent possessions. Beauty and strength serve only the function of allurement. When beauty has allured, it passes away with pathetic dispatch; when strength has allured, it takes wing and flies. It is not in the nature of these things to continue.

But what can atone for their disappearance? What can save the couple from the prolonged tedium of their union? At this time, when defects begin to appear, when others seem younger and fairer, stronger and sturdier, when love has lost its delicacy and the touch of the hand no longer thrills, then there is nothing to counteract love’s sad satiety, to crush mutual repulsion, to obliterate disillusionment, to draw husband and wife out of themselves and make them rejoice in their mutual creation as a pair of baby arms which, encircling them, with greater force than chains, makes them prisoners of love.

As the daughters are born, she begins to live again for him, and all her beauty is seen blooming once more in the second springtime of the little girls, who are nothing less than children of the gods; as the sons are born, he begips to live again for her, and all his strength and courage is seen flowering in the little boys who are nothing less than young Apollos. All that was fair and then grew old is young again; all that was strong and then grew weak is strong again. Childish prattle no longer gets on his nerves, and though little Johnny would divest himself of the same wise-crack daily, she insists on having it repeated for each new visitor. His mother now is not quite the crank she thought she was, as she nurses the sick baby, and his sister is not the bore she thought, as she supplies the play-things. The breakfast table now becomes peopled with happy faces, even though they sometimes do smile through tears and make human rainbows. When Mary and John make their First Communion, hands clasp which had almost forgotten to clasp, and when Johnny serves his first Mass, lips meet which had not met since the scene over the visit of the mother-in-law; and when Joe learns to say the “Hail Mary,” a new purpose of life possesses both: hopes for the future are reborn; the patter of little feet is like the song of birds announcing the spring-time; affection becomes fresh; the allurements of beauty and strength return; and each new child which is born becomes another bead in the great rosary of love, uniting them in the imprisoning arms of God’s little ones.

Eyes once bent earthward, after the manner of the beast which has missed its proper luminary, become, after the arrival of little children, eyes that look back to a home of long, long ago, in the little mountain town of Nazareth. There, under a flickering lamp, they see the strong and reverend stewardship of Blessed Joseph, the selfless love of the sweetest of all mothers, Mary, and the loving subject obedience of the Child, Who makes earth an outpost of heaven. There the father learns that true greatness depends, not in earthly success and garnered wealth, for Joseph, the guardian of Him to Whom the earth and its fulness belonged, stood at a bench and handled the tools of a carpenter. There children learn lessons of obedience from the Divine Child Whom the winds and seas obeyed, and yet Who was subject for thirty years to a village tradesman and a Virgin. There the mother learns that men are prepared for great missions by noble women, and that of all women there is no model like the woman who was pure enough and beautiful enough to be the Mother of God, and from her, as the Mother of true Motherhood, there comes to parents these sweet reminders:

“Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.

“You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.
The Archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite, and
He bends you with His might that His arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the Archer’s hand be for gladness;
For even as He loves the arrow that flies, so He loves also the bow that is stable.”
– from ‘Of Children’, by Kahil Gibran