Bishop Sheen’s Spiritual Classic on Marriage: Three to Get Married

As the crisis of the family in the twenty-first century persists, it validates the words of Sister Lucia dos Santos, the oldest of the witnesses to the apparitions of the Holy Mother in Fatima in 1917. She wrote in a letter to Carlo Cardinal Caffara in 1983 that “the decisive battle between the kingdom of Christ and Satan will be over marriage and the family.” Three to Get Married, one of the great spiritual classics of the twentieth century, offers luminous insight into the modern attack on marriage and the family and explains with profound depth the Church’s moral truths that address this clash between good and evil. Bishop Sheen addresses the problems of family and marriage with timely answers based on the wisdom of the Magisterium and the teaching of the saints.

While popular culture and political ideology purvey the experience of human love as a brief encounter, transitory pleasure, and purely physical sensation without spiritual or moral content or lifelong fidelity—an isolated event with no future consequences or serious responsibilities—the Church’s teaching unfolds the entire book of love and captures the beautiful story designed by God for the happiness of men and women, for the education, health, and security of children, and for the common good of society. Sheen’s book elucidates the surprising adventures, great deeds, and noble accomplishments that the journey of Christian love achieves—a story that, outside the Church, hardly receives the recognition and honor it deserves. Three to Get Married offers great light to guide a darkened world devoid of a moral center.

While the proliferation of divorce and cohabitation undermines the permanence and stability of marriage and reduces it to a state of transitory, fleeting love subject to constant change with no commitments of fidelity for the course of a lifetime, Sheen teaches the lesson of love’s growth in which “something lower dies and something nobler is born” as the erotic love of attraction and desire matures in marriage to divine charity. This “elevation of love from one stage to another” conquers selfishness and inspires greater devotion, sacrifice, and oneness in couples. Because human beings are persons with souls, these depths unveil themselves in the course of love’s stages. True love does not die or diminish from familiarity, age, or repetition but infuses fresh energy and new revelation to such a degree that, in St. Paul’s expression, husbands and wives become “fools for Christ’s sake” by virtue of their increasing generosity and charity, an effect of love that St. Thomas defines as “zeal”—the recognition that the expression “too much” does not exist for love. This sense of love’s magnificence is not common knowledge in modernity. Instead of a sense of the lofty and great nature of love’s mysteries, the prevalence of divorce and cohabitation reduces it to an uncommitted, tenuous relationship for the pleasures and benefits ruled by self-interest. However, as Sheen affirms, love has the potential to bring out the best in a man and woman: “The nobler our love, the nobler our character.” True love embraces “the totality of the person loved, i.e., as a creature composed of body and soul and made to the image and likeness of God.” This is not the image of love purveyed in much of contemporary society where marriage denotes inconvenience, burdens, responsibilities, drudgery, and loss of freedom.

Without the promise of fidelity and an understanding of the indissolubility of marriage, all the various effects of love explained by St. Thomas do not come to fruition: unity, mutual indwelling, ecstasy, and zeal. The unity of one flesh overcomes the problem of isolation and loneliness endemic to contemporary society. This mutual inherence or indwelling of man and woman in the oneness of marriage that Sheen calls “the mystery of assimilation” effects profound changes: “Sex love creates a completeness between man and woman that goes far beyond any other unities of the social or political order!” This physical bond develops and deepens so that “unity of the flesh now becomes unity of the mind and heart.” In an atomized, fragmented society where many men and women feel alienated, lost, or confused and regard marriage as an outdated, obsolete institution or, at best, one of many options instead of the center of life, this truth about love’s fulfillment and enrichment needs recovery. Citing Elizabeth Barret Browning’s words, “Two human loves make one divine,” Sheen adds that for lovers “there is no peace without complete inherence of the one in the other.”

In the pursuit of romance and love men and women often imagine the spouse as the source of absolute, infinite, perfect happiness and let these unrealistic expectations cloud their experience of marriage. As Sheen argues, no man or woman or any human being can possibly provide for the other the complete fulfillment and ultimate joy that only God can give: “Too many married people expect their partner to give that which only God can give, namely, an eternal ecstasy.” Human love can never compare to divine love any more than the spark from a great fire contains the heat and light of its source. Because a human being is “lovable,” not Absolute Love, it follows that no fallen, fallible human being can ever fully satisfy the deepest desires of another person’s heart. The illusion of divorce, however, misleads many into the assumption that a new spouse “can supply what only God can give.” The common justification for divorce on the basis of incompatibility Sheen exposes as a weak and “stupid” argument: “for what two persons in the world are perfectly and at all times compatible?” Whereas modern society regards divorce as the solution to incompatibility and all the conflicts of marriage, Sheen recalls the meaning of the cross in Christian love that always requires patience, perseverance, and sacrifice: “No love ever mounts to a higher level without a touch of the Cross.”

Although the wonder of human love produces an ecstasy that Sheen identifies as a hint of heaven, it degenerates to mere carnal pleasure in a culture accustomed to a contraceptive mentality. Man uses woman “as a mere instrument of selfish enjoyment” to quote from Paul VI’s Humane Vitae. Separating love from procreation, couples do not experience the depths of love’s four mysteries unveiled in marriage which go unknown. Sheen calls them the mystery of the other person’s body and soul, the mystery of motherhood in which “the husband sees something in the wife he never knew existed,” the mystery of fatherhood in which a wife discovers her husband in a new light of manhood, and the mystery of the family that renews the couple’s love for one another and for the newborn children—the mystery of married love that imitates the Trinitarian love of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit that circulates as “life-giving love” and “love-giving life.”

In short, the mystery of love communicates the wonder that love does not die, fade into dullness, or glut with satiety. Always a new chapter begins and another surprise waits like “a door that is yet unopened, a veil that has not yet been lifted, a note that has not yet been struck.” This constant rebirth and renewal defines the course of marital love in which giving is receiving and growing old is growing young. All that has been offered and sacrificed comes back in some form in “the recovery in the flesh, or in the soul, or in heaven, of all that was given and surrendered. In love no fragment is lost.” The birth of a child, Sheen reflects, is not a population statistic but a resurrection. He argues that love is neither static nor reminiscent but “progressive”, a series of stepping stones on which a person continually mounts to a higher level as the first love is purified, transfigured, and elevated, undergoing “a rebirth of sacrifice, a fresh taming of the ego; a disciplining of the flesh; more fasting, almsgiving, and more self-denial for the sake of one’s neighbor.”

The culmination of this love story is the ultimate expression of the magnificence of marriage that leads man from the flesh through the soul to God. As love becomes more selfless and the young bride grows into “the partner of the soul,” the heart moves in an ever “upward spiral” that illustrates the fundamental law of love taught by Christ: “Unless the seed fall to the ground and die, it will not spring forth into life.” In this progressive movement of love through its various levels, a miracle of transformation occurs in which the old is clothed as the new and the human is vested in the divine:

Once purified, love returns. The partner is loved beyond all sensation, all desire, all concupiscence. The husband who began by loving the other for his own sake, and then for her sake, now begins to love for God’s sake. He has touched the depths of a body, but now he discovers the soul of another person. This is the new infinite taking the place of the body; this is the new “always” . . . . The other person ceases to be opaque and begins to be transparent, the glass through which God and His purposes are revealed.

These are some of the inspirational chapters in the book of holy love that the Church’s teachings and its great teachers like Bishop Sheen offer to a muddled world that has twisted the meaning of marriage, family, and love into hideous and grotesque shapes that have no resemblance to the design of God the Father and the plan of Mother Nature. Contracepting to frustrate the purpose of love, aborting to reject the gift of human life, reinventing marriage to violate the meaning of male and female, and deconstructing marriage as if it were a mere artificial construct rather than a divine institution all proceed from intellects darkened by sin in need of the great light of the Church’s timeless teachings Bishop shines to save marriage and the family from the virulent attacks of Satan in the decisive battle that rages between Satan and Christ in the twenty-first century.   

Mitchell Kalpakgian, Ph.D. has completed fifty years of teaching beginning as a teaching assistant at the University of Kansas, continuing as a professor of English at Simpson College in Iowa for thirty-one years, and recently teaching part-time at various schools and college in New Hampshire. As well as contributing to a number of publications, he has published seven books: The Marvelous in Fielding’s Novels, The Mysteries of Life in Children’s Literature, The Lost Arts of Modern Civilization, An Armenian Family Reunion (a collection of short stories), Modern Manners: The Poetry of Conduct and The Virtue of Civility, and The Virtues We Need Again. He has designed homeschooling literature courses for Seton Home School, and he also teaches online courses for Queen of Heaven Academy and part-time for Northeast Catholic College.
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