In Alice von Hildebrand’s By Love Refined, a series of letters from an older married woman (Lily) to a new bride on the great adventure of love that lies before her, she mentions an episode that appears seemingly insignificant and trivial. She had asked her distinguished husband, the eminent philosopher Dietrich von Hildebrand and author of Transformation in Christ, to do her a small personal favor: not to put a wet bar of soap in a soap dish filled with water.
It was not a grave moral issue or a matter of utmost importance but merely a request to please her and respect her aesthetic sensibility. The fact that the erudite professor in love with great ideas and serious moral questions considered his wife’s simple wish important enough to honor testifies to a husband’s deep love for his wife. As the title of the book suggests, love “refines,” that is, sensitizes persons to do little things for the pure joy of pleasing the beloved.
…No Matter How Small
How easy it is to neglect these amenities of manners that consist of attention to seemingly minor things of no consequence: a thank you note, a compliment, a visit. How convenient it is to use the excuse of busyness with important affairs to avoid attention to small details.
Great love does not limit its expression to deeds of martyrdom, heroic sacrifices, or generous gifts but attends to the humble tasks and common favors that also reveal the loving heart. How thoughtful it is to bring a bottle of wine as a guest to a dinner party but how kind it is to help clean the kitchen and wash the pots and pans. The great proofs of love are not always the visible deeds that shine on festive days like birthdays, anniversaries, and Christmas but the invisible actions in the course of each day and each week that are hardly noticed.
Love gladly deigns to stoop to do any favor, no matter how menial, inconsequential, or inconvenient because to love is to please.
Without the refinement of love a person learns only to please himself first and foremost. The home and family act as schools of love because they teach the art of pleasing in small matters and attending to the smallest needs of other members of the family. This refinement of love does not wait to be asked or implored for help but anticipates the need and responds to it without any demands or pleas. It is an absolute proof of love that surpasses many other tokens of affection and many verbal or written expressions.
This art of pleasing in small matters of deference and thoughtfulness resembles “the little way” of love that Saint Therese of Lisieux practiced. As she writes in The Story of a Soul, as a child of God she cannot prove her love by great works. She cannot preach the Gospel or shed her blood, but she can “strew flowers” and “perfume the royal throne with their sweet scents.” The thoughtfulness of pleasing in little things beautifies life in the way small flowers or innocent children adorn the world.
Strewing Flowers, Transfiguring the World
One can also prove his love for another person by strewing flowers in the same way St.Therese expressed her love of God in this simple, humble, childlike way: “I have no other means of proving my love for you than that of strewing flowers, that is, not allowing one little sacrifice to escape, not one look, one word, profiting by all the smallest things and doing them through love.”
The proofs of love do not have to be dramatic or spectacular but sensitive, tender, delicate, and pure. Love’s way is to strew sweet-smelling flowers whose mysterious, invisible fragrance fills the heart with gratitude and transfigures the world with a heavenly perfume that expresses the essence of love’s beauty, touch, and tone.
As the Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins writes of the tiny bluebell, “I know the beauty of the Lord by it.” The smallest things capture the most universal truths. The simplest of wild flowers declares the glory of the azure heavens. A kind deed expresses a pure heart, the blessed pure heart that will see God as the Beatitude teaches. The life of love and the language of love cannot express its feelings without these strewings of flowers in the form of kind favors, acts of thoughtfulness, gracious manners, and surprising gifts.
When Mary of Bethany anointed the feet of Jesus with expensive spikenard and wiped his feet with her hair, she too was strewing flowers before the one she loved: “and the house was filled with the fragrance of the ointment” (John12: 3). Like Saint Therese, Mary too perfumes the royal throne with sweet scents that touch the heart of Christ and move him to reprimand Judas (“Let her alone”) when he murmurs, “Why was this ointment not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?”
It was just a bar of soap that should not have been placed in water. It was just a few flowers that were scattered. It was just an ordinary bluebell seen in the field. It was just some ointment that was poured.
But it was the language of love refined that resounded with the message of love’s purity and truth.