The Differences Between Sex and Love

As part of our courtship, my fiancée and I are reading a book called Three to Get Married by the theologian Fulton J. Sheen.  It’s absolutely fascinating!  The best way we’ve found to digest it is in one-paragraph-a-day chunks, because like G.K. Chesterton, every sentence of Sheen’s writing is jam-packed with thought, best savored slowly to aid comprehension and understanding.

Three to Get Married

We read each paragraph aloud to each other, then talk about our favorite parts.  Anything we’re having trouble understanding is discussed and worked out aloud.  (As an aside, we also use a variant of this technique when arguing, writing down the other’s points and reading them back to each other, to help ensure we’ve fully listened to and understood the other person.)

A three-paragraph excerpt from the first chapter, “The Differences Between Sex and Love”:

 Sex is one of the means God has instituted for the enrichment of personality.  It is a basic principle of philosophy that there is nothing in the mind that was not previously in the senses.  All of our knowledge comes from the body.  We have a body, St. Thomas tells us, because of the weakness of our intellect.  Just as the enrichment of the mind comes from the body and its senses, so the enrichment of love comes through the body and its sex.  As one can see a universe mirrored in a tear on a cheek, so in sex can be seen mirrored that wider world of love.  Loving monogamous marriage includes sex; but sex, in the contemporary use of the term, does not imply either marriage or monogamy.

Every woman instinctively recognizes the difference between the two, but man comes to understand it more slowly through reason and prayer.  Man is driven by pleasure; woman by the meaning of pleasure.  She sees pleasure more as a means to an end, namely, the prolongation of love both in herself and in her child.  Like Mary at the Annunciation, she accepts the love that is presented to her by marriage, it comes indirectly from God through a man.  But in both instances, there is an acceptance, a surrender, a Fiat: “Let it be unto me according to they word” (Luke 1:28).  The pagan woman who has not consciously thought of God is actually half woman and half dream; the woman who sees love as a reflection of the Trinity is half woman and half Spirit, and she waits upon the creative work of God within her body.  Patience thus becomes bound up with her acceptance.  Woman accepts the exigencies of love, as the farmer accepts the exigencies of nature, and waits, after the sowing of the seed, the harvest of autumn.

But when sex is divorced from love there is a feeling that one has been stopped at the vestibule of the castle of pleasure; that the heart has been denied the city after crossing the bridge.  Sadness and melancholy result from such a frustration of destiny, for it is the nature of man to be sad when he is pulled outside himself, or exteriorized, without getting any nearer his goal.  There is a closer correlation between mental instability and the animal view of sex than many suspect.  Happiness consists in interiority of the spirit, namely, the development of personality in relationship to a heavenly destiny.  He who has no purpose in life is unhappy; he who exteriorizes his life and is dominated, or subjugated, by what is outside himself, or spends his energy on the external without understanding its mystery, is unhappy to the point of melancholy.  There is the feeling of being hungry after having eaten or of being disgusted with food, because it has nourished not the body, in the case of an individual, or another body, in the case of marriage.  In the woman, this sadness is due to the humiliation of realizing that, where marriage is only sex, her role could be fulfilled by any other woman; there is nothing personal, incommunicable, and therefore nothing dignified.  Summoned by her God-implanted nature to be ushered into the mysteries of life, which have their source in God, she is condemned to remain on the threshold as a tool or an instrument of pleasure alone and not as a companion of love.  Two glasses that are empty cannot fill up one another.  There must be a fountain of water outside the glasses, in order that they may have communion with one another.  It takes three to make love.


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