This Tuesday, the Catholic Church celebrates the feast day of the martyr St. Valentine. As Valentine’s Day has been overwhelmed by a secular observance of romantic love, it might surprise some people to learn that Valentine was a real person, a Catholic saint, and someone who shed his blood in refusing to renounce his faith in Jesus Christ.
The holy day highlights some observations and raises some pressing questions.
It seems that many people in contemporary Western society are lost in their desire and search for love. As several things falsely promise and incompletely assure us of love, where can we turn for real love? What is even meant by “love”?
On Valentine’s Day, both believers and people of good will celebrate an emotional love. The day is set aside for heartfelt sharing, hugs and kisses, chocolates and candlelight dinners. The human person shows her love through various romantic sacramentals. The soul’s emotions are expressed in such personal ways, which build up both the one loving and the one who is loved.
These are important and needed acts of love in a relationship. But is this the end of love? Is love only the euphoria of emotion or the sense of self-satisfaction?
When sincere, the affection of love calls out and empowers a deeper, sacrificial love. The difficulties of life and the struggles caused by a person’s fallenness, demonstrate the need for discipline within the order of love.
Love is refined and deepened by self-abnegation. It becomes a desire to seek the good of the other, even to our own discomfort and suffering. The one who loves says in her heart, “I love you. I seek your good before my own.”
In this resolution, the person affirms her own weakness. She promises to work and order any disorders within her own soul, to reform any narcissism within herself, and to align lower desires to higher virtues in her effort to love with a clean heart.
In loving others, therefore, the person realizes that her own dignity is heightened and her own sense of authentic self is clarified and enriched. In seeking the good of another, she sees herself becoming a better person.
Some would perhaps place romantic love and sacrificial love as opposites. They would argue for one of them, to the discredit of the other. But as human beings, with a vocation to love and be loved, we have a nature which seeks both.
On one hand, it has become too fashionable in many circles to dismiss romantic love or the emotions as unimportant. It’s argued that this is not “real” love; meanwhile the person’s soul and her emotions swell and demand attention.
On the other hand, sacrificial love is set aside and seen as detrimental to personal growth. The person is encouraged to give in to selfish and fallen desires.
To choose only one of these movements of love to the exclusion of the other, however, would do violence to the integrity of who we are as human persons and cause a serious division within our very selves. Each of us needs to give and receive both expressions of love.
The extremes of being a stoic without any emotions on one side or of being a flower child without any foundation on the other are real and can disrupt our very capacity to fully love and live as human beings. To experience life in all its fullness, we need to both give and receive a love from emotion and a love born of sacrifice.
And so, we can turn and look to Valentine and to the God he worshiped for an example of love, lessons on loving, and the grace to live and enjoy the great adventure of love: euphoria and endurance, self-possession and self-donation, the grotesque and the glory.
Love desires our good and the good of another because it’s real, because it survives, and because it doesn’t lie and disappoint. Love always works to edify the person and her talents and gifts. Nothing is lost by true love. As St. Paul would teach the early Christians: “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails.”
As St. Valentine knew, it is love which sustains and carries us through life. Our love, through both emotion and sacrifice, brings out the best in ourselves, in others, and in the world around us.
The reality of love, therefore, cannot be contained in only one expression of the human person. It extends into the many dimensions of our lives and depends upon both our will and our emotions in order to display itself adequately and beautifully.
In loving this way, we imitate St. Valentine and strengthen ourselves to both nobly and joyfully celebrate his great feast day.