Fidelity, faithfulness, constancy—these words imply an entire worldview or personal orientation toward reality. In classical times, such words also implied strength and virtue, something to be celebrated. In modern times, unfortunately, fidelity is sometimes ridiculed, as if fruitlessly binding me to a reality which is no more, e.g., in Engelbert Humperdinck’s ‘60’s pop hit Release Me, wherein the crooner, pining for a divorce, sings “to waste our lives would be a sin, so release me and let me love again.”
However, Gabriel Marcel, in his chapter on “Obedience and Fidelity” in Homo Viator, as well is in a separate article on “Creative Fidelity” from the book of the same name, points out that by the time you’ve reached the stage in a relationship where you feel it merely as a burden, as being dragged down by a ball and chain, you have already failed in faithfulness. You wouldn’t have had such thoughts on the day you were married, so how did you let your loving response shrivel and dry up in such a way? Further, you must take responsibility for your deteriorated spiritual state—not just blame it on the other in resentment over disappointments, unfulfilled dreams, or even betrayals. You have to be true to yourself, to your call and vocation, and true to the commitments you have made, even if the other changes. Not to do so is to betray, and lose, your deepest self, contained in those solemn commitments.
Thus fidelity requires mature, conscious decision which is creatively renewed again and again over time. It is not just “hanging onto,” or “feeling bound by” a past decision and as a result perhaps feeling stifled by it. It involves being true to oneself in a way which is both humble and bold. As Marcel says:
Is it not true that the most faithful hearts are generally the most humble? Fidelity cannot be separated from the idea of an oath; this means that it implies the consciousness of something sacred….
It is as though my oath were accompanied by this prayer: “May heaven grant that I shall not be led into temptation, that is to say that no event shall cause me to think myself authorized to deny my promise on the pretext that the implicit conditions on which it rests have been changed in a way I could not foresee when I made it.”
Such fidelity is essential to love. As Dietrich von Hildebrand says in his chapter on “Faithfulness” in The Art of Living,
Faithfulness is so essentially one with love, that everyone, at least as long as he loves, must consider his devotion an undying devotion. This holds good for every love…. The deeper a love, the more it is pervaded by fidelity. It is precisely in this faithfulness that we find the specific moral splendor, the chaste beauty of love.
Moreover, note that fidelity as described by these authors involves not only the will, as is evident, but also the heart, the affections. So Marcel in “Creative Fidelity,” says the attitude here described requires on-going personal “presence” to the other in addition to constancy over time, and “presence” implies an affective element. Mere constancy over time is not enough because “a fulfillment of on obligation contre-coeur is devoid of love and cannot be identified with fidelity.”
Von Hildebrand, of course, has stressed the positive role of the emotions in love and in human relationships in many of his books and publications (e.g., The Heart, The Nature of Love). This means that it is not the case, for example, that marriage begins in powerful emotions (Johnny Cash/June Carter, from the country song Jackson: “We got married in a fever, hotter than pepper sprout”) and settles or ends in a dry or dying commitment of the will (“We been talkin’ ‘bout Jackson ever since the fire went out”—Jackson being the “big city” where anything goes). Rather, both at its inception and in its continuance, romantic love—and every other kind of love—involves both the will and the heart, each completing, fulfilling, and being informed by the other. So the heart still speaks in love, even after 35 year of marriage, though informed by experience and maturity. But, fidelity can never be just a dry commitment of the will.
As Sheldon Vanauken says in his article “The (False) Sanction of Eros,” from his book Under the Mercy:
The shattering loveliness of being in love will not—cannot—despite the radiant promises of the deceiving god [eros] go on at every moment for ever…. Inlovenesss is only a foretaste of [heavenly] bliss, and we cannot live permanently in those bright highlands yet. [But] with wisdom (a little) and charity (a lot), love deepens and becomes whole, including the humanness and the faults. It is charity (agape) that sustains love; inloveness cannot do it alone. But if inloveness is, so to speak, taken up into charity, then—and only then—inloveness returns as a frequent sudden joy through all the years. [My brackets]
This means that marriage, even over 35 years, continues to fulfill the deepest wishes of romantic love. Thus, as Soren Kierkegaard wittily states in the Or of Either/Or: “It is, therefore, not true that marriage is a highly respectable person, but a tiresome one, while love is poetry.” Yet, Kierkegaard also acknowledges, “…it is not the earthly heaven which arches over marriage, but the heaven of the spirit.” Thus, Elvis is wrong when he sings, in the song of the same name, “This is my heaven, being here with you.” (from the movie Paradise, Hawaiian Style). Rather, turning to Kierkegaard again, marriage makes of “…love an obligation which the lovers impose upon themselves before the face of a higher power.”(my italics) It is a witness to and a representation of the faithful Trinitarian love of God, and draws its strength from the same.
However, clearly it is one thing to be given some vision of the ideal here (already a great gift compared to the prevailing ideas of modern culture, as can be seen from the pop lyrics quoted) and another thing to live up to it. As in all aspects of the spiritual life, we often fail. But to be patient with ourselves and to continue to strive for the ideal is our call. When we fail, as St. Francis de Sales often advises in Introduction to the Devout Life, we should reprove our hearts reasonably and with compassion as follows:
Well, my poor heart, here we are fallen again into that ditch we had resolved so firmly to avoid. Let us get up once more and leave it forever, imploring God's mercy and trusting that he will help us to be more steadfast for the future. Let us return to the path of humiliy, have confidence, and from now on let us be more on our guard; God will help us and we will do better.