By Love Refined: Letters to a Young Bride
by Alice Von Hildebrand
The first months of marriage are marked by changes of varying degrees, from organizing a new home and sharing a bed, settling into a new routine and dividing up chores, to balancing time at home and with friends, all the while learning what it means to love your new spouse in a deeper way. Taking on the new identity of “husband” and “wife” is by no means an easy task! By Love Refined: Letters to a Young Bride by Alice Von Hildebrand embraces the expectations for a perfect marriage, the trials of imperfect couples, and the hope that comes from choosing to love your spouse every day.
The book is a series of fictional letters penned by Lily (essentially Alice herself under a pseudonym), recently widowed, to her goddaughter Julie, newly married to Michael. Each letter is 2-4 pages long, spanning the young couples’ first few years of marriage and addressing various moments in their new life together.
Perhaps the most important part of this book is the “Tabor vision” that runs as a thread through the letters. On Mount Tabor, Jesus’s closest disciples experienced Him glorified in front of them, a revelation of His divinity. We have experiences similar to Peter, James, and John with our own spouses. Your “Tabor vision” is when you first fall in love and see the goodness, strengths, and potential of your beloved, and the love you feel on your wedding day when you see your new bride or groom glowing with beauty. This serves as the lens of love that we ought to embrace in moments of difficulty to remind us of who our spouses really are.
The Tabor vision is the touchstone for Julie and Michael throughout the book. In times of disagreement, annoyance, or communication difficulties, Lily guides Julie to look deeper into her love for Michael. These little practices build faithfulness, patience, and strength ultimately bringing the couple deeper into the mystery of the sacrament of marriage. “Love endows everything with importance.” This is why seemingly inconsequential things seem so big, and why it is all the more important to respond generously to your spouse.
Von Hildebrand weaves both practical and spiritual insights into each letter. Regarding a big fight between the young couple, Lily reminds Julie of the fall and the effects of original sin on the relationship between man and woman. She sees the spiritual “root” and offers advice–praying together as well as practicing patience and understanding with each other–to help the young couple grow more into being one flesh. Lily is perceptive, gentle, and maternal, whether she’s kindly admonishing Julie for her quick, sharp-tongued remarks in a moment of impatience or joyfully celebrating a conversation between the young couple that led to a quick reconciliation.
Marriage is not easy at any stage, but it is the school of love, as Von Hildebrand writes: “although love is a gift, it must also be learned.” As the letters progress, she shows masterfully both the beautiful and the ugly, the divine and the human in married life. The reader walks with Julie as she grows as a wife, from the enthusiastic new bride brimming with expectations and confidence in her own strength, to the young woman who sees clearly her shortcomings. Lily assures Julie that these shortcomings do not make love impossible but rather offer opportunities to die to self and root oneself more deeply in love of God and of spouse. It is here that we clearly see Von Hildebrand’s expression of God’s vision of marriage: the decision to love and to ask for forgiveness when one falls short, a mutual total self-giving that ultimately leads to eternal life in heaven.
Julie’s experience resounds with young wives and husbands alike–whether it’s marveling at the intimacy of sex in marriage, struggling to assume the best of the other in times of conflict, comparing their relationship to the “perfect” marriage of some friends, or communicating successfully through heated conflicts. By Love Refined is a treasured book with timeless advice that is worth revisiting time and time again. If you are looking for a gift for an upcoming bridal shower or wedding, this is the perfect book to give to a young couple embarking on the difficult but beautiful and sanctifying journey of marriage.
About the Reviewer:
Caty Burke holds a Master’s in Theological Studies from the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family. She currently works as the Associate Director for Marriage and Family Life in the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, where she lives with her husband and cat.