Last week we celebrated Valentine’s Day. The campus store, like many of the nation’s retailers, was doing a hefty business in balloons, roses, and chocolate. I have always had a love-hate relationship to Valentine’s Day.
As a grade schooler, I loved making valentine boxes to receive all the valentines that my classmates would deliver to it. I also enjoyed making valentines for my classmates — which, of course, we were required to do. Those grade school teachers who required valentines for everyone may have meant well, but they were not preparing us for Valentine’s Day in the real world, for in the real world, Valentine’s Day is not for everyone. It explicitly draws attention to what some have and others don’t — and what most want — a loving relationship with that particular someone.
In addition to its exclusivity, some might object to the explicit exaltation of romantic love, certainly one of God’s most adventurous and risky of gifts. It is a gift that appropriately disciplined and wisely linked with commitment and responsibility can contribute to a lifetime of deep joy and rich contentment. But in the hands of fallen, frail people, it is a gift that all too often leads to the tragedies that inspire most novels and movies and serves to justify all manner of unfaithfulness and selfish indulgence of short-term desires.
The holiday is certainly not biblical, though that could be said of many of our holidays. Like several other early Christian holidays, it seems to have been created to channel more productively the energies associated with certain pagan holidays, in this case, the festival of Lupercalia.
So, why keep the holiday, especially at a Christian college?
First, Valentine’s Day calls attention to one kind of love in God’s quiver of loves that He gives to His children. It is the love with the highest stakes in that it makes us feel, at least for the moment, that we are willing to trade in everything for the privilege of “having” that other particular person. It makes us feel that we are willing to invest our total selves exclusively for the sake of another. I like what Diogenes Allen says about romantic love in his book, Love: Christian Romance, Marriage, Friendship. “Rather than rejecting romantic love in the name of Christian love, as does [Anders] Nygren with his rejection of all human loves, I have defended romantic love by connecting it to the institution of marriage and to the recognition of ‘otherness’ which lies at the heart of Christian love/” (page 86).
Second, Valentine’s Day calls attention to one aspect of the way in which God loves us. God loves us in our particularity, which is at the heart of romantic love. Romantic love is not about loving people because they are exercising essential human capacities such as intelligence, or moral agency, or even because they are made in God’s image. Romantic love is focused on what makes an individual unique. Whereas we in our finitude can only bear the pain and emotional investment of a very few particular loves, whether they be friends or family members or a romantic love, God in His infinity can love each of us fully and equally well in our particularity. God loves Susan and Jim and Karen and each of us in all our rich and idiosyncratic particularity. Each of us embodies in some distinct way a part of God’s infinite character, and He wants each of us to be fully all that we are capable of being.
So, how do we honor this complicated cultural holiday? If you are currently in love or in a loving relationship, celebrate and be grateful. Take Valentine’s Day as an opportunity to make sure you are treasuring the particularity of the person you love — not just on this day, but every day.
If you are not in a romantic, loving relationship at this moment — and many are not — celebrate romantic love as an inspiration. Romantic love, of all loves, calls attention to the possibility that we could, willingly, out of desire, actually make someone besides ourselves the center of our world. And practice now, loving the individuals in your life in their particularity. While Valentine’s Day honors the exclusivity and the magic of romantic love, there is much about mature love — the love that ultimately stabilizes and sustains romance—that is similar to what we are called to do every day with those with whom we work, socialize, eat, etc. I am speaking of the disciplines of gratitude, unselfishness, making room for others to be themselves, caring for another’s needs when it was not “on our schedule,” and noticing and valuing what is distinct and valuable in the other person.
If we have not learned to love those whom God has put in our paths in their particularity, we will not suddenly be ready for any serious and lasting venture in romantic love.
So, here’s to Valentine’s Day — that strange and complicated once-a-year toast to romantic love!
I hope yours was a good one.
Shirley A. Mullen, Class of 1976