Burning Ships and Slaying Dragons

All love takes commitment. As St. Paul famously wrote in 1st Corinthians 13 “Love bears all things . . . endures all things.” So why won’t we take it upon ourselves to endure for love? In his essay A Defense of Rash Vows, G.K. Chesterton provides us with a clue.

The revolt against vows has been carried in our day even to the extent of a revolt against the typical vow of marriage. It is most amusing to listen to the opponents of marriage on this subject. They appear to imagine that the ideal of constancy was a yoke mysteriously imposed on mankind by the devil, instead of being, as it is, a yoke consistently imposed by all lovers on themselves. They have invented a phrase, a phrase that is a black and white contradiction in two words – ‘free-love’ – as if a lover ever had been, or ever could be, free. It is the nature of love to bind itself, and the institution of marriage merely paid the average man the compliment of taking him at his word. Modern sages offer to the lover, with an ill-favoured grin, the largest liberties and the fullest irresponsibility; but they do not respect him as the old Church respected him; they do not write his oath upon the heavens, as the record of his highest moment. They give him every liberty except the liberty to sell his liberty, which is the only one that he wants.

It is exactly this backdoor, this sense of having a retreat behind us, that is, to our minds, the sterilizing spirit in modern pleasure. Everywhere there is the persistent and insane attempt to obtain pleasure without paying for it. Thus, in politics the modern Jingoes practically say, ‘Let us have the pleasure of conquerors without the pains of soldiers: let us sit on sofas and be a hardy race.’ Thus, in religion and morals, the decadent mystics say: ‘Let us have the fragrance of sacred purity without the sorrows of self-restraint; let us sing hymns alternately to the Virgin and Priapus.’ Thus in love the free-lovers say: ‘Let us have the splendour of offering ourselves without the peril of committing ourselves; let us see whether one cannot commit suicide an unlimited number of times.’

Emphatically it will not work. There are thrilling moments, doubtless, for the spectator, the amateur, and the aesthete; but there is one thrill that is known only to the soldier who fights for his own flag, to the aesthetic who starves himself for his own illumination, to the lover who makes finally his own choice. And it is this transfiguring self-discipline that makes the vow a truly sane thing. It must have satisfied even the giant hunger of the soul of a lover or a poet to know that in consequence of some one instant of decision that strange chain would hang for centuries in the Alps among the silences of stars and snows. All around us is the city of small sins, abounding in backways and retreats, but surely, sooner or later, the towering flame will rise from the harbour announcing that the reign of the cowards is over and a man is burning his ships.

To love and to be loved, as it is with all things worth having, takes work. It involves personal responsibility, character and being a person who is as good as his or her word. No wonder so many people today are failing in this regard. When the dragons come…and they will indeed come…too often the solution of modern man (or woman) is to flee. More accurately they yawn, scratch themselves while rolling over on the couch, and change the channel.

Fr. Dwight Longenecker wrote an article for Crisis magazine that further explores the concept of Love and of getting ourselves off the couch and daring to go on The Quest and to slay those dragons.

This most precious gift of love is the greatest treasure, and is worth the most dangerous quest. If earthly love connects us with eternal love, then it connects us with eternal life, and that most precious gift is something that is not only worth a long journey, it is also worth a fight. It is worth a fight because anything so precious must be surrounded by many thieves. Anything so good must be surrounded by much evil, for evil (be definition) wants to destroy what is good, and that is why the hero bears a sword – because love must be fought for, and to win the love of the fair maiden the dragon must first be slain.


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