Thursday, February 17, 2011
On the Nature of Love
Who can truly give their mind, soul, and body when pressured or forced? A gift of the self must be one that is freely and selflessly given. It cannot be coerced or manipulated, strangled or cajoled. The heart and body of a person given are gifted in ecstasy, not in sorrow or pain. (Granted, however, that love in it's life between two people undergoes its share of pain and turmoil.) Freedom is essential to the fullness of a gift of self, it is what makes the gift truly a gift. What we find then within the giving of one person to another in freedom is love.
Now, we can certainly begin to talk about persons who are "free" yet under the constraints of psychological or physical oppressions-- like drug, sex, or alcohol addictions-- which are in themselves constraints to a complete self giving. However, these are not barring in the way that being under the marriage bond already or in priestly orders are. The sense of freedom that enables one to give one's self completely must be present in order for love itself to be there. God accepts our service and faith most ardently when they are freely given, for then they are given by the whole person.
Since there first needs to be freedom, it means that love is then an act of the will: informing our choices and moving us constantly in the direction of the object desired, the beloved. When I make a cognisant act of the will and choose to love someone, I choose out of my freedom-- to love therefore must be not only something willed, it must be constantly chosen, constantly fought for, constantly born.
Now is when I run the risk of turning this essay into a dramatically poetic excursion, but I'll keep that for the letters that I write to my future bride.
There is a point, however, when turning to the experience of love, coming to grips with what must be sacrificed and offered, and acknowledging how love ought to grow in its proper way, is the primary starting point in understanding it. The life of romantic love is such a multi-faceted experience and act that it requires so much in order to come to terms with it and to live it out fully as it should be.
Perhaps a clarification is necessary when I say "romantic love". Romantic love is a law, a gift, and a right that can only fully exist between one man and one woman. The complementarity of man to woman is the crux here, as each was made in God's image to reflect an aspect of being that aims toward substantial unity both one in the other and in the God who created them for one another. The late Pontiff John Paul II did much to aid the Church's people in understanding the nature of this complementarity, but that is not the point here. Romantic love, being that act and experience that exists between a man and a woman lives and breathes completely and fully in marriage-- as the fulfillment of a vow of exclusivity, fidelity, and fruitfulness.
Romance is more than flowers and delicate champagne, it's the expression of total self-giving in every way: physically, intellectually, and emotionally at every moment. It is ever striving to put the other first for their own sake, with no expectation of return, though met with exuberant bliss and gratefulness at its occurrence. Romance in my mind exists as a way for me to give myself unceasingly to her whom God has given to me. It's obvious that this notion of gift is spread deeply in the perception of love played out here... and rightly so. Not only did Pope John Paul II express love as a gift of self, but in my own experience it remains ever clear that the only way to make love grow is to put the other first. Her wants and her needs must be those ever present on my mind-- if they aren't then I must find a way to put her first. She comes to me from God as not only a goddess and an angel, but as God's presence in my life: a theophany if you will. Our love is then an encounter with God, and how can such an encounter be sullied by my selfishness? She, as God, must come first in my life. It is the essential gift of self that makes it possible for romance to grow and become the full love that is expressed in body and soul.
The picture at the beginning of this essay is a depiction of the wedding night of Tobias and Sarah. I offer it as a window into how love ought to be in the life of married people who are deeply in love. In the account from the book of Tobit, Tobias sets out to find his future wife, Sarah. Sarah, however, has been married seven times before. Each time, the husband was found the morning after the wedding, dead. They had married Sarah out of lust, and so God allowed them to be taken by a demon before they could taint the body and soul of Sarah with their selfish passions. Tobias, upon meeting Sarah and proposing marriage to her father, did not seek the marriage for the sake of his passions, but rather out of goodness and love. As such, he made the first three nights of marriage ones dedicated to prayer in order to sanctify their love and wedding bed. The morning after the wedding, all were surprised and shocked to see Tobias come out of the wedding chamber alive... God had kept him alive for his love for Sarah was pure and selfless. It put Sarah and a love for her first.
In the painting above, by Dutch Golden Age painter Jan Steen, Tobias and Sarah pray at the foot of their wedding bed, but off to the right, the Archangel Raphael slays a dragon. The dragon can either represent the demon Asmodeus who had killed Sarah's other husbands, but I think rather that it is the representation of lust. St. Raphael conquers lust, preventing it from perverting the love that dwells between Tobias and Sarah, keeping it pure and selfless. (On a side note... purity is not to be confused with prudery. The two are actually opposites. Purity rather, is selflessness and an understanding of the dignity of the human person.)
The painting helps us to visualize what ought to be the norm for love between man and wife... that it is constant giving of one to the other. The gift of one's self is something that is for all eternity; it is exclusive, never to be given to another; it is fruitful-- it is as love itself is: diffusive and without selfishness.
As we pass out of the week that is marked by the secular world's celebration of Valentine's Day, let us remember that it is actually St. Valentine's Day. It should be an occasion for us to remember the depth of selflessness that is required to completely love someone. I will, for my part, make it a time to not only send some chocolates and beautiful flowers, but also move to more truly love the one who is God's presence in my life. It will also be the chance to be a better man for her who was given to me, that I might more perfectly give myself to her.