I blame the pig roast.
When I was 19, a friend invited me to his family’s annual Labor Day Party. I came with two friends and a baguette. I left with a huge crush. I’d already known my friend to be a man of deep faith, teller of cornball jokes, lover of Emma‘s Mr. Knightley, and remarkable cook. Suddenly, in the context of white lights setting the backyard aglow, seeing him with his family, and feasting on things like chocolate chess pie, all those qualities took on some kind of magic.
He left a few weeks later for a semester abroad. By that point, I was convinced I’d found my future husband (spoiler alert: nope). I always hoped the man I’d marry would be a reader, a charmer with an acute sense of wit, a good dancer, and would be from a big family. Plus, he could cook. Best of all, he was a serious Catholic whom I knew any girl would be privileged to entrust her soul and her life to. I considered all the boxes checked.
He sent travelouge emails to a group of us back on campus. I responded to every one. He hinted at childhood embarrassments involving weddings and awkward attention. I clung to hope when he said to me personally, “It’s a story best told in person; I’ll regale you with it sometime.” We had a class together the following semester. I’m pretty sure I bathed myself in perfume before Philosophy 212 on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays.
Then came the Rosary.
At the weekly prayer group we were both a part of, each person would state his or her intentions before we prayed the Rosary together. “I’d like,” he said, “to pray for my girlfriend.”
Slam. There went my heart. Somehow I made it through the next hour, then promptly left in search of a place to empty my dangerously full tear ducts. My college was over 200 years old, founded by a priest and featuring four chapels. All of them were occupied. After half a frustrated hour of trying to find somewhere empty, I settled on the back pew of the main chapel, where a grief group was meeting far away from me, up front (maybe I should have joined them?).
I sobbed for three hours straight, not picking my head up once (if you’re reading this, and you’re the one who left some tissues on the pew for me, thank you). The next six months felt like a breakup, though, of course, there was no relationship to be broken apart in the first place. I cried some more, at least once a day. My iTunes play count for Taylor Swift’s “Teardrops On My Guitar” and Lifehouse’s “Somewhere In Between” surged. I wasn’t hungry often, but I remember trying to make myself eat a lot of Special K.
I like to think my feelings ran deeper than just infatuation. I wanted him to be happy, wanted to see him flourish, felt proud of his gifts. Maybe there was some raw material there for genuine love. Except it wasn’t meant, at the time, nor ever, ultimately, to become that. Heartbreak sucks, big time. And yet looking back, reining in my feelings from the start, being present instead of planning my wedding, could’ve eased the sting. My heart hadn’t just run away from me; it had, like, hopped a bullet train.
We long for love. Ache for it, in fact. And that’s such a good thing. Without prudence, though, without patience, there’s a huge risk, I’ve learned, to being vulnerable at the wrong time. There you are, eating Special K in bed and listening to Taylor Swift.
Conventions in Christian dating often communicate messages of “guard your heart” and “there’s a season for everything,” but I’m actually getting at something a little different.
Karol Wojtyla, the man who’d become John Paul II, and, in my opinion, one of the wisest ever intuiters of love and human nature, wrote in Love and Responsibility that an idealized beloved “often becomes merely the occasion for an eruption in the subject’s emotional consciousness of the values which he or she longs with all his heart to find in another person.”
Yikes. Is that what I’d been doing? I knew, down to my soul, that this boy was incredibly worthy of love. Yet I’d idealized him nonetheless, desperately hoping (and actually believing) he was The One and elevating all his goodnesss to a level that would be impossible for anyone to match in real life. The Pope explains that an excess of sentimentality “leads to a variety of values…bestowed upon the object of love which he or she does not necessarily possess in reality. These are ideal values, not real ones.” Of course, this can lead to disillusionment upon discovering one’s beloved isn’t perfect, or, in my case, some long-term emotional brokenness.
So often, chastity is associated with the physical. True; that’s so valuable and worth it, but I’ve realized it’s important not to overlook the role of emotions, too. If chastity is about cultivating freedom from desire, in the sense that one recognizes its good without being enslaved to it, then I can wholeheartedly say from experience that chastity is more than just physical; it involves tempering one’s emotions as much as tempering the body.
There’s hope, though: simply being aware that the tendency to idealize exists in the human heart can offer a glimpse of clarity, I think, in heavy crush mode and even in a relationship. With open eyes, there’s the potential to love another person through his or her faults and to let yourselves be perfected, slowly and humbly, by Love Himself. It puts emotions in a proper context. Edward Sri says, so rightly, “sentimentality can be a beautiful, enriching part of love, but it must be integrated with other essential ingredients.”
Five years later, blissfully, exultantly married, I am slightly wiser, though still so in need of education in love. My husband is all kinds of things I never even knew I wanted. Never once have I compared him to anyone I used to think I’d marry. But we both understand the other is far from perfect. My tendency to laziness means I wait until our underwear and sock situation gets dire before even touching the laundry. His impatience once turned a 15-minute bake time for brownies into an hour. But by grace, we aren’t disillusioned; instead, we’ve somehow been given a clear vision of who we are and how to be better.
No. You know what? I don’t blame the pig roast after all. I blame my beating heart; not because it’s bad, but because that’s how my heart is made. Should it be pure; should it be emotionally chaste? Absolutely. But knowing my heart can be pierced with the wound of love isn’t, to me, a fault at all. It’s a mercy and beauty. One to be governed with virtue, yes, but one that is so wholly, amazingly human.
This post originally appeared on Arleen Spenceley’s blog.