I grew up amid flights of fancy. I was born in California within driving distance of Disneyland and came of age within driving distance of Disneyworld. As the daughter of a naval-turned-corporate pilot, I’ve logged a few air miles over the years. It’s fitting that in recent months, the analogy of autopilot has crept into my discussions on dating.
I’ve written previously on my perspectives on marriage and materialism and the role of beauty in love. But the topic of courtship is a new frontier for me as both a lover and a writer. In recent weeks—in light of finding myself single once again—I’ve set out on a mission to uncover the mystery of Christian courtship explored in the works of Leon and Amy Kass. Having discovered that the term “courtship” commands different meanings depending upon the community in which it is used, I will speak of it in the way that Leon Kass does in his brilliant essay on “The End of Courtship”: it is the overture of wooing made by a man in order to persuade a woman to marry him. Courtship is an arena in which a woman chastely allows suitors to court her. Courtship is a dance of dating, distance, and desire that all contribute to a proper development of a relationship, in which the mutual end goal between man and woman is marriage. In this movement to restore courtship culture, Leon and Amy Kass have written various proposals for courtship in addition to the definitive guidebook for courtship in their anthology of readings on courtship and marriage. Even Roger Scruton, who is no stranger to the sexual revolution, provides insight into this invaluable sense of proper courtship in an excerpt from his brilliant essay, “Becoming a Family,” in City Journal back in 2001:
Formality does not freeze emotion but heightens it. And emotions that take ritual shape lead of their own accord to that supreme ritual, which is marriage. By amplifying the distance between you, courtship intensifies the magnetic force when finally you join. Indeed, in our tradition ... marriage ought to be seen as the culmination of a process that begins in bashfulness and proceeds by stages to an intimacy both resisted and desired.
While the example of Scruton’s amorous experiences do not paint a picture of the courtship beau ideal—he admits to having lived with his wife in the sixties and having divorced her in the seventies—his experiences do provide a strong and beautiful testimony to the power of ritual and tradition in our approach to marriage. Twenty years after his divorce, Scruton wrote of his first encounter with the woman who would become his second wife, that it was “as though I had carried her portrait within me during 20 years of penitence and had suddenly happened upon her incarnation.” Having realized that this encounter with Sophie was the gift of a second chance at love, he made the decision to proceed with courtly caution:
We were introduced in the hunting field, constrained by the meticulous courtesies of which fox hunting is, in England, one of the few remaining preserves ... If romantic feelings arise in such a context, they come imbued with courtly hesitation. So it was with us, and it is part of what made us serious. We began an old-fashioned courtship that lasted through many months of restraint.
This testimony should serve as a clarion call to young people everywhere who yearn for a deeper dating life and a chaste courtship to seek out the writings of Leon and Amy Kass and to start curating their own courtship today. We are not helpless victims of the hook-up culture—we have the ability, each and every day, to make the choice to live virtuously and to enter into a courageous, counter-cultural courtship.
In aviation terminology, “automatic pilot” or “autopilot” is a system that controls the trajectory of an airplane sans constant hands-on control of human operators. While autopilot doesn’t entirely replace the human element of flight, it does provide control over the path of the plane while pilots can focus on monitoring other aspects of flight. While autopilot works well in the cockpit, it doesn’t work well in courtship. We need more than mere amorous feelings, more than mere erotic attraction. We need to nurture the virtues of chastity, humility, and reverence, bolstered by a willing and open heart. We need emotional chastity as well as physical chastity. But we also need community. Love does not exist in a vacuum—it exists in space and time, between two embodied persons existing in the community of family, friendships, and church life. In courtship, we don't operate well on autopilot. In my college years, as I attempted to navigate my relationships on autopilot, I've been notorious for initiating awkward DTR's (Define the Relationship talks). One of my highlights was this conversation:
Say we're a choo-choo train: Are we going uphill or downhill? Are we moving forward or just traveling in circles? I need to know where the train is going.
Too shy and risk-averse to initiate a straightforward discussion about my feelings, I avoided being direct in my request for a DTR. An awkwardly worded analogy to a locomotive sufficed. After a year and a half of an uphill journey, our locomotive reached a plateau, and the relationship ended. If God were the conductor, I would have exited the train a few stops earlier.
If we allow ourselves to pursue a relationship flight path on autopilot, we run the risk of a fatal crash. Only with a prayerful relationship with God as the foundation of our dating life and only within a courtship-affirming and marriage-minded community can we remain on the right trajectory in our dating lives. As we pursue courtship, we must be continually open for evaluation and inquiry, and not afraid to ask ourselves and our suitors the questions both existential and essential that ought to be asked before entering into marriage:
The existential: Who am I? Who are we? Where are we going? Where are we called to be?
The essential: What sort of family do you want? How many children do you want? What are your career aspirations? Your religious aspirations? Your relationship with money? Your views on roles of man and woman in marriage? What does your family think about the union?
It's fine to compromise a little in relationships before marriage. Differences of taste—from meals to music—can be inconsequential points of concern. But when the little compromises add up, and begin to betray who you truly are as a person, perhaps you're compromising for the wrong reasons. Several small compromises can develop into large life decisions. Life is too short to risk compromising who you truly are for the wrong person. Serious compromises—like where you're living and who your friends are—should not be considered until you are married. Every successfully married person has repeated to me these words of advice: It’s better to remain single than to marry the wrong person. Waiting is better than settling.
So many young women (myself included) have the propensity to try to fit each beaux into the husband mold. It's like playing that game from childhood in which you have to place an array of uniquely shaped blocks—circles, triangles, squares, and stars—into the appropriate slot in the empty box. Time and time again, I would find myself forcing certain shapes of man into the husband slot. Reading “marriageable” into a man or imposing the category of “husband” onto him is surely no way to discern friends from boyfriends or boyfriends from husband material. We need to let the circles and triangles be as they are, and wait for an encounter with the right shape.
It is fine to always have the husband question on the front burner while dating, but it's how one approaches the husband factor that is crucial to dating success stories. We can't put the blinders on. We can't turn on full autopilot and autonomously craft our own ending to each relationship story. We have to be open and prayerful in our dating life. If you are called to the vocation of marriage, there will be a person or two who is also called to discern the vocation with you. As my grandmother always says, God doesn't deal us what we weren't meant to handle.
Reflecting on my past relationship of over a year, I realized that I had compromised myself. I no longer attended the cathedral that I had visited daily before our first date. I no longer hung out with the same friend group or went to Latin masses with them on weekends. I no longer spent my free time with the books and the short stories and the articles that I so longed to spend time reading and writing. Instead, I began attending an Episcopal church every Sunday, more concerned with finding a beautiful hat to wear in church than finding a beautiful place to pray.
It wasn't until the relationship ended that I realized how much of myself I had sacrificed. Any one sacrifice made would not have necessarily impacted the trajectory of my life at the time, but each little sacrifice adds up to a lifestyle overhaul. As we enter relationships with the intent of marriage, we need to be especially mindful of how each relationship impacts our relationship with God. Is your suitor calling you to be more prayerful? Is he reinforcing your desire to live a chaste life? Is he ultimately challenging you spiritually? If you have doubts about these issues, it's best not to sweep them under the rug and hope for the best. Relationship issues, as a wise deacon's wife once said after church, start out as a pebble in your shoe. It may not bother you at first, but after a walking a few miles, you may end up with a bloody foot.
Courtship as a Christian is a discernment process in which we seek the one to whom we eventually offer a full sacrifice of self. This sacrifice of the self must first be rooted in a spiritual sacrifice for God. We should never lower our ego-boundaries entirely before we make the ultimate commitment to love another in front of the eyes of God. In keeping both eyes wide open during the courtship phase, with a vision transfigured by the Holy Spirit, we will be able to discern the spouse from the friend. When you are living life on autopilot, you run the risk of having vast and varied layovers or getting stranded in countries you were never meant to visit. When God is our autopilot, we'll arrive on time, exactly where we were meant to be.