By Paul Fahey Thursday, November 14
Last weekend my beautiful wife and I were able to go to the theater. We saw Oscar Wilde’s “An Ideal Husband,” very competently performed by Calvin College students. To my own disadvantage, I am almost completely ignorant of Oscar Wilde except for the fact that he also wrote “The Importance of Being Ernest.” But even in my cultural poverty, I still really enjoyed the show. However, this post is not a review or critical analysis of Wilde’s play. Rather, one of the main themes presented in “An Ideal Husband” caused me to reflect upon love – how we fail to give love and how we fail to receive it.
The play centers around the character of Sir Robert Chiltern, a well-respected statesman, and his wife, the Lady Chiltern. Robert, as the audience quickly discovers, while the picture of integrity, has a dark secret in his past, one that threatens to destroy his reputation, career, and, more importantly, his marriage. The Lady Chiltern repeatedly announces to her husband that she loves him because of his honesty and integrity but that if he were like the other corrupt and otherwise flawed statesmen, she would cease to love him. In a word, she loves him only because he is the ideal husband. And for this reason I loathed her character, even more than the very disagreeable villainess. Why? Because she did not only fail to love her husband perfectly, she failed to really love her husband at all.
Although, doesn’t the character of Lady Chiltern perfectly capture the human condition? No matter how much we think we love and care about someone, there is always some condition, always a threshold that our love cannot cross. Any married Christian (including myself), at one point made the promise to love someone, no matter what, until death. And when you think about it, a commitment like this is damn near terrifying. The promise isn’t – I will love him as long as he does the dishes, as long as she cooks dinner, as long as he’s employed, as long as she looks attractive, as long as he lives with me, as long as she’s nice to me, as long as she’s faithful to me, or even as long as he doesn’t hit me. The promise is that I will love this person no matter what, period.
And oh how we fail.
We as a species fail so miserably, and have for so long, that we cannot even comprehend a love that is not contingent upon our behavior. That is why, like Pope Francis says, we turn Christianity into an ideology or moralism, because surely God doesn’t love me unless I’m good (and he sure doesn’t love all those other impious and immoral schmucks). Our inability to grasp God’s non-contingent love for all his creation turns us into Pharisees – religious women and men who take pride in our good deeds, pious prayers, and thorough condemnation of sinners, but who lack even an adolescent faith. We simply cannot understand a God who loves all people (even the unrepentant sinner), a God who loves me when I, on a daily basis, fail to love my wife, play with my kids, respect my coworkers, or even recycle. Yet that is the fundamental message of the Gospel that we as Christians claim to believe in.
In his great Sermon on the Mount, Christ commands us to love our enemies, even when he knows that we can’t even love our friends. It is only by accepting God’s unconditional love for others and ourselves (which itself is a grace and not something we can earn) that we are able to actually love. It is only thorough Christ, with Christ, and in Christ that we are able to fulfill the Lord’s command to “be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect.” By our own strength we can do nothing except open ourselves up to God’s transforming love.
So why did I loathe the Lady Chiltern? Because she so elegantly demonstrated my own weakness, my own ineptitude. And so, like any good piece of art, “An Ideal Husband” expresses the truth. Wilde’s play reflects back to its audience the stark reality of their own depravity, and it is only once we recognize our depravity that we can open ourselves up to the only One who can pull us out.
Paul Fahey is a husband, father, and catechist. He has a BA in Theology with minors in History, and Catholic Studies and is currently studying at the Augustine Institute for a MA in Theology.