In Anticipation of St. Valentine’s Day
There’s something beautiful about St. Valentine’s Day. It’s a day on which romantic love is justly celebrated and couples feel inspired to show their affection for each other in extraordinary ways. It’s a day on which young men drop to their knees to propose to young women. It’s a day when workaholics are forced to pause to reflect on what’s more important, spouses are able to rejoice in the gift of each other and rekindle their attractions, and children will unselfishly give the parents permission to have some time alone. It’s also a day of intense prayer on the part of those who long to find that person for whom their heart restlessly searches.
We also have to say, however, that in some places the way in which this day is marked would make St. Valentine, the early Christian martyr for Christian marriage, blush. Some try to turn this feast into an occasion for lust instead of love, for seduction instead of self-gift., for debauchery rather than genuine dedication. Commercial interests have tried to take advantage of the feast to spark a type of lust of the eyes, attempting to convince men to express themselves with jewelry and marked up roses rather than with simple sincerity and undivided attention.
The celebration of Valentine’s Day, for these reasons, needs to be purified and redeemed.
Pope Benedict wrote at length in his first encyclical, “God is Love,” about what this purification entails. He wasn’t writing specifically about Valentine’s Day, but about the true or false understandings of romantic love on which the divergent ways of celebrating Valentine’s Day are based. It came in his extended discussion of “eros,” a part of the letter that caught many readers, who falsely believe that the Church is opposed to romantic love, totally off guard. The Pope was writing to restore “eros,” or the romantic love between a man and a woman, to its real grandeur. These thoughts are worth recalling as we approach February 14.
The Holy Father said that the Church greatly esteems eros but vigorously opposes the “warped and destructive form of it, because this counterfeit divinization of eros actually strips it of its dignity and dehumanizes it.” Some argue that eros is a passionate “intoxication,” a type of “overpowering of reason by a ‘divine madness’ that tears man away from his finite existence and enables him, in the very process of being overwhelmed by divine power, to experience supreme happiness.” Pope Benedict says that such an “intoxicated and undisciplined eros is not an ascent in ‘ecstasy’ toward the Divine, but a fall, a degradation of man.”
For that reason, the Pope continues, “eros needs to be disciplined and purified if it is to provide not just fleeting pleasure, but a certain foretaste of the pinnacle of our existence, of that happiness for which our whole being yearns.” How is eros purified and disciplined? Pope Benedict replies that it is purified by an ethos, by a moral “growth in maturity.” By it we are led on a “path of renunciation” that helps us truly seek the good of the beloved rather than merely our own pleasure through the objectification of the other.
Three Steps to Loving Self-denial
This path of loving self-denial, Benedict describes, has three stages.
The first is to remember that we do not merely have bodies with appetites to be filled, but also souls with the capacity for goodness or evil. When eros is reduced to just “sex,” man himself becomes a commodity to be exploited. He begins to consider his and the other’s body and sexuality as a purely material part of identity to be abused at will. This is not merely a “debasement of the body,” but of the person as a whole. The remedy is to discipline oneself to raise eros from an attraction concentrated exclusively on the other’s body or sexual values, to one focused essentially on the other’s person and personal values.
That leads to the next step on this ascending path of purification: a yearning to truly discover the other as a person, which takes us beyond the selfishness to which eros can sometimes be reduced. “Love now becomes concern and care for the other,” the Pope says. “No longer is it self-seeking; …instead it seeks the good of the beloved: it becomes renunciation and it is ready, and even willing, for sacrifice.”
This willingness to sacrifice one’s own immediate interests and desires for the other’s good is what binds authentic romantic love to marriage. The deformed version of eros today, which lustfully seeks to sever love from responsibility, unsurprisingly tries to rupture the intrinsic connection between love, marriage, sex and children as well. Pope Benedict says what was once clear to almost everyone before the sexual revolution: “Eros directs man towards marriage, to a bond which is unique and definitive; thus, and only thus, does it fulfil its deepest purpose.”
Elaborating on this connection, he says, “It is part of love’s growth towards higher levels and inward purification that it seeks to become definitive, in a twofold sense: both in the sense of exclusivity (this particular person alone) and in the sense of being ‘forever.’ Love embraces the whole of existence in each of its dimensions, including the dimension of time. It could hardly be otherwise, since its promise looks towards its definitive goal: love looks to the eternal.” True love never seeks to “lease” the other for a certain length of time, but leads one to seek to be united definitively with the other, even into eternity. Love, as Benedict says, is a “journey, an ongoing exodus out of the closed inward-looking self towards its liberation through self-giving, and thus towards authentic self-discovery and indeed the discovery of God.” Marriage is a gift given not merely to ensure that we do not have to walk that exodus alone, but a motivation that spurs us on to the promises land for the sake of seeing the other arrive.
Since ethically erotic love helps us to discover God and the reality of his love for us, we come to the third step in the maturation of eros: the introduction of God’s love into the human experience of romantic love. God loves us, Benedict says, with a fundamentally self-sacrificial, “oblative” or agapic, form of love. When we receive his love and begin to love another as he has loved us, our love becomes “grounded in and shaped by faith” and takes on more and more of the characteristics of God’s love.
The more human romantic love and Christ-like love “find a proper unity in the one reality of love,” the Pope states, “the more the true nature of love in general is realized. Even if eros is at first mainly covetous and ascending, a fascination for the great promise of happiness, in drawing near to the other, it is less and less concerned with itself, increasingly seeks the happiness of the other, is concerned more and more with the beloved, bestows itself and wants to ‘be there for’ the other. The element of agape thus enters into this love, for otherwise eros is impoverished and even loses its own nature.” Pope Benedict stresses on the other hand, however, that “man cannot live by oblative, descending love alone. He cannot always give, he must also receive. Anyone who wishes to give love must also receive love as a gift.”
The future of the world depends, to a large extent, on the purification and redemption of eros, by raising human love to the level of the total, integral good of the other. The celebration of Valentine’s Day is an opportunity to put out into the depth of love and begin that ascent.
Father Roger Landry is the pastor of St. Anthony of Padua in New Bedford, MA and Executive Editor of The Anchor, the weekly newspaper of the Diocese of Fall River.
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