In marriage, the joy of love needs to be cultivated. When the search for pleasure becomes obsessive, it holds us in thrall and keeps us from experiencing other satisfactions. Joy, on the other hand, increases our pleasure and helps us find fulfilment in any number of things, even at those times of life when physical pleasure has ebbed. Saint Thomas Aquinas said that the word ‘joy’ refers to an expansion of the heart.22

Marital joy can be experienced even amid sorrow; it involves accepting that marriage is an inevitable mixture of

  • enjoyment and struggles,
  • tensions and repose,
  • pain and relief,
  • satisfactions and longings,
  • annoyances and pleasures,

but always on the path of friendship, which inspires married couples to care for one another: ‘they help and serve each other’.23 The love of friendship is called “charity” when it perceives and esteems the ‘great worth’ of another person.24

Beauty – that ‘great worth’ which is other than physical or psychological appeal – enables us to appreciate the sacredness of a person, without feeling the need to possess it. In a consumerist society, the sense of beauty is impoverished and so joy fades. Everything is there to be purchased, possessed or consumed, including people.

Tenderness, on the other hand, is a sign of a love free of selfish possessiveness. It makes us approach a person with immense respect and a certain dread of causing them harm or taking away their freedom.

Loving another person involves the joy of contemplating and appreciating their innate beauty and sacredness, which is greater than my needs. This enables me to seek their good even when they cannot belong to me, or when they are no longer physically appealing but intrusive and annoying. For ‘the love by which one person is pleasing to another depends on his or her giving something freely’.25

The aesthetic experience of love is expressed in that ‘gaze’ which contemplates other persons as ends in themselves, even if they are infirm, elderly or physically unattractive. A look of appreciation has enormous importance, and to begrudge it is usually hurtful. How many things do spouses and children sometimes do in order to be noticed! Much hurt and many problems result when we stop looking at one another. This lies behind the complaints and grievances we often hear in families:

‘My husband does not look at me; he acts as if I were invisible’. 

‘Please look at me when I am talking to you!’. 

‘My wife no longer looks at me, she only has eyes for our children’. 

‘In my own home nobody cares about me; they do not even see me; it is as if I did not exist’. 

Love opens our eyes and enables us to see, beyond all else, the great worth of a human being.

The joy of this contemplative love needs to be cultivated. Since we were made for love, we know that there is no greater joy than that of sharing good things: ‘Give, take, and treat yourself well’ (Sir 14:16).

The most intense joys in life arise when we are able to elicit joy in others, as a foretaste of heaven. We can think of the lovely scene in the film Babette’s Feast, when the generous cook receives a grateful hug and praise: ‘Ah, how you will delight the angels!’ It is a joy and a great consolation to bring delight to others, to see them enjoying themselves. This joy, the fruit of fraternal love, is not that of the vain and self-centred, but of lovers who delight in the good of those whom they love, who give freely to them and thus bear good fruit.

On the other hand, joy also grows through pain and sorrow. In the words of Saint Augustine, ‘the greater the danger in battle the greater is the joy of victory’.26 After suffering and struggling together, spouses are able to experience that it was worth it, because they achieved some good, learned something as a couple, or came to appreciate what they have.

Few human joys are as deep and thrilling as those experienced by two people who love one another and have achieved something as the result of a great, shared effort.

 

Extracted and Adapted from Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia paragraphs 126 to 130.
22 Cf. Summa Theologiae I-II, q. 31, art. 3., ad 3.
23 Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World Gaudium et Spes, 48.
24 Cf. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae I-II, q. 26, art. 3.96
25 Ibid., q. 110, art. 1. 97
26 131 Augustine, Confessions, VIII, III, 7: PL 32, 752.98

This article can be found in Mirror 0616.