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    Men of Fidelity

    “I’ve won and lost a dozen fortunes, killed many men, and loved only one woman.”

    By Alexi Sargeant

    June 19, 2022
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    • Michael Miller

      Why would you use a man who brags about killing many men and making many fortunes as an example for Christian men to follow? The virtue of fidelity is tainted by association, or the vices of killing and greed are justified.

    • Patty Milazzo

      Yes, a thousand times! I have seen men like these, my father, my uncles, my brother-in-law, men I worked with in corporate America. But these days, even the church harps on men to perform a certain way which usually entails giving lots of time, money, and energy to programs. And they highly praise such men. Dangerous books out there-Wild at Heart-is one that actually tells men to "pull away" from their wives, establish their masculinity separate from relationships except with other men. And just like hard core feminism, none of us can truly grow and flourish without commitment to the other. There is something spiritually powerful about people who do not use each other to fulfill some ideal but are secured to a faithful commitment echoing the faithfulness of God's Hesed love-always faithful, always present, always full of grace and mercy, and eternal.

    • Fr. Joe Dygert

      Alexei, Great words on fidelity. Thank you for your honest exploration of the only path to true exhilaration - your words resonate with me as a priest, as well. Do you have a citation for the Chesterton quote? I really like it, and would like to read further.

    “I’ve won and lost a dozen fortunes, killed many men, and loved only one woman.”

    So boasts Robert Duvall’s character in the 2003 movie Secondhand Lions, a film about two elderly brothers dragged into service as father figures to their fatherless great-nephew (played by Haley Joel Osment). The line is delivered as a brag, a revelation to some young toughs that they’ve picked the wrong old man to mess with. But like so much of what the adventuring pair do in the movie, it’s also a lesson about what it means to be a man. The old man’s vision of masculinity entails not only risk-taking and martial prowess but also fidelity: a singular devotion to one woman. And this faithfulness makes him a worthy father figure to a boy desperately in need of one.

    I am interested in fidelity as a masculine virtue. Now, I believe it is a virtue that everyone should aspire to, regardless of gender. But it is worth examining how men see, understand, and act out fidelity, as well as how our culture portrays and values fidelity in men. In some cases, the culture shows fidelity as a simple, default expectation, unworthy of applause. In other cases, fidelity is decried as a stifling constraint that curbs men’s true virility.

    In Secondhand Lions, romantic fidelity is shown as part of a package of virtues harkening back to a past of honor, derring-do, and rugged living. I found the inclusion of fidelity among these marks of manliness both odd and moving. To other viewers, the boast of loving “only one woman” might seem unsophisticated and over-the-top – yes, commitment is good, but why boast about it? Others may chafe at the apparent lionization of a bygone ideal. The great-uncles are relics of another era, and their moral code may be similarly outdated. Why demand men live up to this past paradigm?

    But I think fidelity is worth remembering and boasting about, and that today’s men need such inspiration and encouragement. American men report high rates of unhappiness, loneliness, and lack of purpose, while fewer and fewer are getting married and having children. While not every person is called to marriage and family, in my own life I have found the opportunity to practice these commitments to be immensely rewarding. Every morning I drive my two-and-a-half-year-old daughter to school, and as she demands I play her favorite Stan Rogers songs over the stereo I am grateful again for the chance to support and teach and love this boisterous young lady. I want my peers to have a fighting chance to live out familial faithfulness in marriage, family, extended family, and community. But before we can live faithful lives, we have to believe fidelity is possible; we also have to believe it is something worthwhile and praiseworthy.

    a young boy fishing with two old men

    A still from Secondhand Lions imdb.com

    Idealized depictions of masculinity do not always provide good examples of fidelity. Exemplars from the classical world are rare: neither Zeus nor Agamemnon could boast of marital constancy, and even Odysseus notches several demigoddess lovers on his way home to Penelope. Male faithfulness came to be reckoned as an important virtue in the Christian world. The boast from Secondhand Lions could be adapted for a pure-hearted paladin or Arthurian knight. Its ideal is a chivalric one – though the skeptical might amend that to a Quixotic one. A dose of that quixotism is sorely needed today: it falls on each generation of men to choose and choose again their family obligations, eschewing the wandering of Odysseus for the domesticity of Ithaca.

    Among the modern champions of constancy is G. K. Chesterton, whose novels turn on protagonists holding fast to impulsive vows in tumultuous circumstances, like the would-be combatants of The Ball and the Cross defying the laws of two nations in order to have their mutually-promised duel. Chesterton, in defiance of the advocates of “free love,” praises vows of marital fidelity with the same exuberance. Those who revolt against vows, he writes,

    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-flavoured 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.

    What does such liberty look like in practice? Sheldon Vanauken’s autobiographical book A Severe Mercy provides something of an example. Vanauken and his wife, Davy, are a couple with poetic sensibilities. They make deliberate choices to build up their marriage to be proof against “creeping separateness,” the insidious force they have seen pull apart marriages of friends. They make a series of commitments that they term “The Shining Barrier.” Some of these are straightforward, like holding regular conversations about the state of their relationship. Others are wilder, like committing to experience every book or work of art that the other likes. They resolve to go out of this life together in a deliberate plane crash if one of them ever gets too old or sick. (That last vow they would come to reevaluate when they convert to Christianity, of course.)

    In contrast to chivalric legend, these commitments are very quotidian. The task of being a couple and running a household is lived in day-to-day work. No amount of dramatic theorizing will cook a dinner or sweep a floor. But the dignity of such daily, undramatic efforts are nowhere more poignantly expressed than in Robert Hayden’s 1962 poem “Those Winter Sundays.” Here, a father’s devotion is only understood in hindsight. The poem’s speaker casts a look back at a long-past childhood. His father gets up early, every day, to light the fires that warm the house. The son reflects ruefully on “speaking indifferently” to his father: “What did I know, what did I know / of love’s austere and lonely offices?”

    This is a moving realization about parental sacrifices. But it tells only a part of the story. One could come away from the poem thinking that living up to one’s vows sounds like a chore, a somber burden, a great round stone to be rolled up the hill of obligation every day.

    Hayden is correct that there is a weight to a life of fidelity. But it need not be experienced as a crushing load. Chesterton and the Vanaukens show that fidelity can be playful, joyful, even boastful. A married man can look back at his wedding vows and think, too, “What did I know of love’s austere and lonely offices?” And then he can add with a smile, “I promised more than I could know, but I have walked the walk, and as God is my witness I’d do it all again!”

    Perhaps it’s better to think of a man’s vows not as a shackle but as an anchor, an anchor that attaches him to something solid so he does not drift off into callow dissolution. Pope John Paul II, drawing on his long experience providing spiritual guidance to married couples, wrote about this weight in his play The Jeweler’s Shop. There the prophetic jeweler counsels a newly engaged couple: “The weight of these golden rings / …is not the weight of metal, / but the proper weight of man.” This enigmatic utterance comes back to mind later in the play, when a woman contemplating leaving her husband tries to sell her ring at the jeweler’s shop. He goes to weigh it, and the scale does not move. The weight of the ring is not in the physical object but in the promise of love and fidelity that it signifies. And when that promise is not kept, man is left weightless and unmoored.

    Perhaps it’s better to think of a man’s vows not as a shackle but as an anchor, an anchor that attaches him to something solid so he does not drift off into callow dissolution.

    The proper use of vows of fidelity is to bind oneself to particular loves: committing to love another person not only with a general charitable disposition but with the specificity of deliberately weaving your lives together. We are finite beings, and there are infinite things in the universe worthy of affection, attention, and care. Instead of trying to embrace, say, every woman in the world (the approach of Zeus and other mythical men on the make), the husband embraces the world in the person of one woman.

    With children, too, we have the opportunity, in loving particular people, to express our orientation towards the broader universe. Abstractions like posterity, legacy, and the future become incarnated in tiny human beings we get to care for and raise. This responsibility requires a deliberate choice on the part of fathers, distinct from the relationship mothers share with their offspring. The father does not begin with a physical connection to the child he has begotten. A man’s connection to his offspring is less immediate and visceral – he can, as a simple matter of biology, walk away without anything needing to be severed. The father must make the choice to not walk away, to be there, to develop a connection with his child that deepens day-by-day. It is the choice to embrace and nurture a future we cannot control.

    A father’s promises to his children are less scripted than a husband’s promises to his wife. They may take the form of a whispered plea in the bleary-eyed wee hours of a maternity ward stay: “It’s okay, little one. No need to yell. I’m here, I’ve got you, you’re safe.” Once again, promising more than can be known. Only as the years unfold will a person understand all those words entail – the late-night vigils kept, the tantrums endured, the first steps cheered for, and the first words treasured.

    One way or another, every father falls short of his promises. Not always in dramatic ways, but attention wanders and ardor cools. Even the happiest marriage requires moments of deliberately recalling and recommitting to vows once made. As for promises to children and assurances to “always be there” and shield from the blows and buffets of the world – the world makes a mockery of that. No father can keep his children safe always.

    As a Christian, I believe that God gives me the chance to be a channel of his grace to my wife and children. When I stumble or suffer setbacks, I need to turn back to him, the eternally faithful one. “When we are faithless, he remains faithful.” My own strength is insufficient, but his grace is enough – enough not only for me but also for my commitments. Every time I receive the Eucharist at Mass, I pray for two things: to be the face of the Bridegroom to my wife, and to show the heart of the Father to my daughters.

    I hope at the end of my life to be able to boast of promises kept in the face of a world awash in distractions and temptations – and in the face, ultimately, of death and loss. Poets turn often to the fiery passion of love that is young or new. Let us seek out where they have instead written of the love that burns steadily throughout the years, an unwavering pilot light in the heart.

    Chesterton speaks sorrowfully of the philandering man: “He is wandering in a hungry search for a certain exhilaration which he can only have when he has the courage to cease from wandering.” The day-to-day and moment-by-moment work of fidelity may not seem to be the stuff of exhilaration. But the truth is, we are committing to an extraordinary thing: to love the infinite during our finite existence by forging a bond we can never break. To help root this reality in the imagination of a new generation of men, it is worth seeking out and praising those with the courage to cease from wandering.

    Contributed By AlexiSargeant Alexi Sargeant

    Alexi Sargeant is a teacher and culture critic who writes from the DC area, where he lives with his wife Leah and their two daughters.

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