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Issue Date:  July 28, 2006

Compiled by Sam and Bethany Torode
Eerdmans, 133 pages, $15
By Albert Cutié
Berkley Books, 370 pages, $23.95
The tough work of building relationships


The popularity of relationship how-to books is hardly surprising. Relationships shape us from the moment of our birth to the day of our death. They yield our greatest joys and deliver our deepest pain. We need them to live. But it’s easy to take them for granted. We often regard relationships of love, especially, as experiences we simply fall into or tumble out of. In fact, relationships require both imagination and hard work. Perhaps this is why marriage in our culture has encountered such trouble -- not enough imagination, not enough hard work.

A quick check on reveals more than 23,000 books about relationships and more than 19,000 about marriage, numbers big enough to suggest something is still missing in the relationships of the book-buying public.

Two recently published volumes in this genre provide some of what’s needed. Aflame: Ancient Wisdom on Marriage, compiled by Sam and Bethany Torode, offers us the chance to reclaim some ancient images of the sacredness of marriage and sexuality. Real Life, Real Love: 7 Paths to a Strong & Lasting Relationship, by Fr. Albert Cutié, focuses on strategies for maintaining healthy relationships -- the hard work of marriage.

Aflame is a small hardcover collection of quotes about marriage and sexuality from early Christian sources, illustrated with black-and-white photographs. The compilers, freelance writers from rural Wisconsin who converted from Protestant to Eastern Orthodox Christianity, have arranged the material in eight chapters along such topic lines as joy, desire and fidelity. The book invites meditative browsing. Its quotes evoke powerful images that capture the holiness of marriage as a vocation: “When husband and wife are united in marriage, they no longer seem like something earthly, but rather like the image of God himself” (John Chrysostom). Just imagine interrupting your next spat over finances or housework with the notion of union with your spouse as an image of God. Even the most successful partners need reminders of the depth and texture of what they have together.

Consider another quote from John Chrysostom, the fourth-century bishop known for his eloquent preaching: “The human family is the primary and essential element of society. Peace in society will be the direct result of peace in the family; order and harmony in the political realm will be a direct result of order and harmony in the home.” If what goes on in one’s family has an impact on peace in the world, it attaches a broader meaning to the struggle to resolve conflict in relationships.

Two dimensions of the book are disappointing. All the quotes are from men, with the exception of a poem from Bridget of Ireland that seems very loosely connected to the topic. To be fair to the Torodes, the missing feminine voice is no doubt largely the result of limited female sources from the book’s ancient time frame. The inclusion of wedding hymns and prayers from other rites does provide some range of form and perspective. This reader also did not find the photos particularly inspirational.

Real Life, Real Love offers a complementary perspective. Fr. Cutié, a priest of the Miami archdiocese, writes a syndicated newspaper advice column and hosts television and radio advice shows. His book details what he regards as the essential ingredients of a good relationship. He speaks in clear language and avoids jargon. He deals with the basics: respect, boundaries, expectations, communication and honesty. He suggests that young couples be clear about their individual needs, for example, and clarify their expectations of themselves, each other and the relationship. He provides good questions for individual reflection and discussion.

While not particularly deep, Fr. Cutié’s book is psychologically sound. It is neither dogmatic nor overbearing. For young people or for couples in problem relationships, its simplicity and concrete advice may prove helpful. The more experienced reader may find less that is useful or provocative.

We all long to love and be loved. Often we don’t know how to accomplish either. Sometimes we lack inspiration; we don’t believe we can do it. Sometimes, we just can’t conjure an image of a good relationship. These two volumes get us partway there. Aflame gives us images; Real Life, Real Love gives us strategies. I’m waiting for a book that integrates the two, one that offers nourishing images to inspire our pursuit of the day-to-day strategies it takes to love, to be loved and to keep it all together.

Carol A. Mitchell is the codirector of programs at the Franciscan Center in Tampa, Fla. She and her husband, Bill, have three children and three grandchildren.

National Catholic Reporter, July 28, 2006

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