Happy feast of Sts. Cyril and Methodius.
I’m not a fan of Valentine’s day, and not just because we don’t know who he was. I have some sympathy with the writer who Hulk-smashes candy hearts and more with those, single and coupled, who see Valentine’s Day as a consumerist trap that plays on insecurity and guilt. I enjoy freaking out my students by pointing out the historical and cultural peculiarity of thinking getting married should be about romantic love. I am not a fan of Christopher West.
But just for a moment, and I mean only a moment, I want to say something else.
That surge of myself toward another person, the tenderness, a fresh, newborn, strange chemical-cultural-spiritual thing we call falling in love: it’s a good thing. It is not even close to the best thing. It’s not a necessary thing. It becomes a very dangerous thing if we try to make it either of those. But culture industries are able to make us spend so much time and money trying to capture and replicate that visceral rush of discovery that I somehow do not belong to myself because… it’s a good.
I have a memory: a chilly morning at a bus station, when a man whose every movement took my breath away looked in my eyes and I saw my own longing reflected there. That was a long, long time ago. All of the love I have given and received since then— the long commitments to love family and friends and strangers, the labor to love enemies and to allow myself to be loved even when I preferred to be left alone, prayers and silence and singing and arguing in faithful communities that feed my love of God— hasn’t dulled my memory of that small gift, my astonishment that one person could look at me with that kind of hope, that I could suddenly find myself somehow located midway between his body and mine.
I can now look back at that morning across thirty years, decades of work and talk and frustration and change and boredom and joy. The long work of love is where we become who we will be. But it still shines in my mind sometimes, that instant in which the lie of my individuality was exposed and my bond to another human being rang out like (forgive me; it’s Valentine’s day) a bird song in a wintery February.
Falling in love is only a moment. We want to cling to it, to use it as a guarantee of the future, or to produce it on demand, usually by purchasing the gear some corporation has told us is required for it. In a culture as lonely and anxious and distracted as ours, we are starved for tenderness. We gulp down whatever anodyne versions of it can be mass produced: rom-coms and new outfits, jewelry and alcohol and porn soft and hard. We cannot accept the moment as just a moment, because we fear there may be nothing else good for us. Our despair is the lie that poisons this small gift.
This Valentine’s day, now that I’m getting older, I’m going to give thanks for a few extraordinary moments in my life, not mistaking them for the more difficult, rich good of the whole of it. God is madly, foolishly, absurdly in love with humanity, pouring out mercy from an endless well of new life. Even our unwise, unreliable, unplanned, not-the-real-thing moments of romantic love can, in their own small way, help us to know that.
St. Valentine, whoever you were, pray for us.