The mystery of love is one the great mysteries of creation: what it is, that it exists at all, and why we as humans are so enamoured with it. The best writers, thinkers and mystics in the Catholic tradition intuit that to pursue the mystery of love is to pursue the mystery of human existence, and in doing so open up the mystery of God.

Dietrich and Alice von Hildebrand were two of the twentieth century’s most influential Catholics when it comes to meditations on spousal love and the mystery of man and woman (St Pope John Paul II notwithstanding).

Born and bred in Germany and Belgium respectively, both were refugees from Nazism and both offered profound insights on the nature of the human person in the face of dehumanising regimes. But also, more intimately, their insights on the nature, gift and beauty of love and marriage have shaped Catholic theology for the better. In a world of counterfeit loves, their writings are a rich source for reflection, not only in terms of ideas but also because of their practical relevance.

One beautiful insight they offer is that love, far from blinding us, actually grants us unique insight into the beloved, changing most especially how we see them and their faults.

Alice von Hildebrand: Love knows our ‘secret name’

Alice von Hildebrand (1923–2022), affectionately known as Lily by her friends, wrote a series of letters to her goddaughter, Julie, rich with meditations and practical advice on marriage. It was later published under the title By Love Refined: Letters to a Young Bride (1989).

In these letters, she uses the analogy of the transfiguration of Christ to describe what happens when we fall in love. In the same way that the disciples were granted a unique vision of who Christ was on Mount Tabor, glimpsing his divine beauty, so love unveils the truth about the other person. Speaking to Julie about her husband Michael, she wrote:

When you fell in love with Michael, you were given a great gift: your love took you past appearances and granted you a perception of his true self, who he’s meant to be in the deepest sense of the word. You discovered his ‘secret name’.

One of the challenges of marriage is to never ‘suspend’ this Tabor vision, never to look at the beloved ‘from the outside with the critical, unloving attitude of a stranger,’ she wrote. In love, we see the ‘true face’ and ‘unique beauty’ of the other:

Trust this bright Tabor vision you’ve been given. Daily rekindle it in your heart and let it nurture your love. If you let it form the cornerstone of your faithfulness to Michael, your marriage will be rich, indeed.

Dietrich von Hildebrand: Love knows who we really are

Dietrich von Hildebrand’s book, Man and Woman: Love and the meaning of intimacy (1992), shares similar insights. He contends—despite claims to the contrary—that ‘love is never blind’ but rather allows us to see the true depths of the other person and their calling.

This has particular relevance for how we perceive and respond to the flaws in our spouses, he says. While an ‘objective’ or ‘impartial’ view of the person might give a person’s virtues and vices the same weight in defining who they are, love does not allow this.

He writes:

While looking upon positive traits as genuinely or really there, love considers everything negative as a deviation—which stands in conflict, unfaithfulness, and denial—from what the other truly is. Such is the unique credit which love, and love alone, grants.

The task of love is to respond to God’s image, the imago Dei, in the other person, since in that image is the person’s true self and their vocation. Every flaw, every fault, every vice, therefore, should not be seen as fundamental to who that person is. Rather, ‘love sees them as a betrayal of the noble essence of the imago Dei.’

This does not mean that faults should be treated lightly or ignored, however. Love does not idealise the beloved, he writes. But flaws should be met with generosity and a mutual recognition of our own frailty:

In profound awareness of our own weakness and frailty, mindful of how unfaithful we are to ourselves and to what God desires of us, we lovingly face the faults when they occur, meeting each such instance of weakness with empathy, rejecting them inwardly for him and with him.