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The Husband’s Surrender

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“Love your neighbor as you love yourself.” It’s a good bet that includes the neighbor you married

My wife is going on a women’s retreat at the end of the month, “Christ Renews His Parish.” I am to have a role in this, according to a letter I received from the retreat leader. I am asked to write a letter to my wife. It will be shared with her privately during the retreat. She is not supposed to know about it even if Aleteia readers see some of it first. I am to communicate my “encouragement and support” for her “continued growth in Catholic Christian life.”

I was suspicious of the envelope that carried the letter. There was only a return address and the address revealed it was sent from someone living in the same subdivision as ours, where I am president of the homeowner’s association this year. I anticipated a letter from another disappointed HOA member. Hardly anybody ever writes nice letters to their HOA’s board members. I naturally feared the worst.

I was right, but for the wrong reason. I don’t do well, not well at all, talking about faith and growth, the inner spiritual life, and I do not pepper my conversations with “praise the Lord” or “thank you, Jesus” or intrusive directions to “offer it up.” My religion is not on my sleeve. It is part of me, sure, but often gets expressed intellectually, academically. Ask me how I feel and I’ll have to make an appointment and get back to you next week. That’s an introvert, don’t you know.

The retreat leader fortunately appears to know this already. Her letter said, “Even the words ‘I love you’ on a crumpled piece of paper will make an impact.” Crumpled paper? She’s talking my language. The retreat leader somehow knows me too well.

My wife would understand a crumpled piece of paper with a scribbled sentiment. My gift wrapping repertoire has included a grocery store paper bag. It was the right size, it folded well, and it was sturdy; what can I say? The plan was to have a grandchild draw a picture on it, but I never once had a convenient grandchild at hand. Whoever first came up with the idea of a decorated gift bag with handles, that guy deserves a merit badge. I assume it was a guy like me, only smarter.

But my part in my wife’s retreat is what got me got me wondering: Do I play a role in her life of faith as source of encouragement? I need to think this through.

Start here. Perhaps the first step is an acknowledgement: God loves us both and displays his love through Christ to us each.

As a Christian in marriage, demonstrating that love is what I am called to do as a husband: That in my love for her she might find some hint of Christ’s love in her life. “Husbands,” said St. Paul, “love your wives,” and adds “as Christ loved the Church …”

“Love” gets tricky. We think of feeling when we think “love.” Our notion is pretty limited. But the Greek word Paul used, ἀγαπᾶτε, translates “to show love to.” Paul talks about doing love as a verb, an action. Thomas Aquinas put it “to will the good of another.”

Greek has other words for “love.” Eros for courtship, by example, is what got you to “willing the good of another” as a husband. Eros is feeling, and wow, it starts with a bang, doesn’t it. But where feeling can abrade over time, “willing the good of another” is timeless and strengthens a marital attachment. If love will keep you together, as the song has it, it will be that sort and hardly any other.

When Jesus answered a question on love in St. Mark he replied in part, “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.” It’s a good bet the neighbor includes the neighbor you married. “You-shall-be-doing-love,” ἀγαπήσεις, is the word Mark uses for love of neighbor.

How you love yourself? You take care to see you have enough to eat, shelter to live under, clothing on your back, right? You are probably good at cutting yourself some slack, time to time, yes? You know how to encourage yourself when facing a challenge, don’t you? Do you respect yourself? When you screw up I’d guess you react as calmly to yourself as possible. That’s how “you-shall-be-doing-love” works for the neighbor who is wife.

All this imitates “as Christ loved the Church,” with the kicker, “and gave himself for it.” That adds something unexpected. “To show love to” the wife, “to will the good of another” is a tender husband’s attentive surrender of self to an even larger love, which, turns out, is that of Christ.

 

Russell E. Saltzman is a web columnist at First Things magazine and lives in Kansas City, Missouri. His latest book is Speaking of the Dead. He can be reached on Twitter: @RESaltzman.

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