Can Catholics celebrate Valentine’s Day this year, considering that Ash Wednesday this year falls on the same date? Is the feast of love compatible with the beginning of Lent? When the obligation to do penance conflicts with the convention of romance, which of the two should give way?
Because of our natural aversion to self-inflicted suffering and the contemporary view of love that equates it with pleasure, many of us may have initially reacted that no, Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday do not mix; that the Church’s regulations on fasting and abstinence would spoil this year’s Valentine’s Day; that this year, we must choose one or the other. Some have proposed, as a practical solution, that Valentine’s Day be celebrated the day before – on what is traditionally known as Mardi Gras – or the day after.
But must it be this way?
It is an age-old tactic of the devil to exaggerate the hardship entailed by our obligations towards God. In the Garden of Eden, the serpent twisted God’s command not to eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, and asked Eve if God prohibited them from eating of any tree in the garden. The devil continues using this tactic to today; thus, for example, we rebel against reasonable guidelines against wearing short skirts and low necklines in church because we perceive these guidelines as requiring us to wrap ourselves in sheets.
The same goes true with the mandatory fasting and abstinence from meat on Ash Wednesday, and warnings against celebrating Valentine’s Day in a sinful fashion. With regard to the former, it is difficult, to be sure, as I can attest from my struggle to practice portion control on ordinary days. But we tend to exaggerate the hardship it entails. We forget that 1) nothing prohibits us from making the allowed full meal for the day a special one, and 2) non-meat dishes can be delicious.
As for the latter, why must we equate celebrating Valentine’s Day with sinful activities? Why must we assume that certain prohibited activities are the only ways we can celebrate our love – especially our romantic love – on Valentine’s Day?
We forget that Valentine’s Day was – and still is – a Catholic feast; that love – including romantic love – is something of God. It is true that this year, liturgically speaking, Ash Wednesday takes precedence over the feast of St. Valentine. There’s nothing wrong, too, with scheduling a Valentine’s Day celebration the day before or the day after Ash Wednesday this year. But neither is there any reason we cannot, within the limits imposed by the mandatory forms of penance, celebrate our love on Valentine’s Day this year.
In fact, this year is a good opportunity for us Catholics to reclaim Valentine’s Day, to use it as an occasion to remind the world what love really is. As we take our allowed full one meal on that day in special seafood grills or sushi bars with our dates, perhaps after going to the church together to have ashes imposed on our foreheads or after having spent time together in a wholesome yet no less wonderful way (which we are supposed to do anyway on any other time of the year), we are showing to the world what we have always known and which the world has forgotten: love is all about joyful sacrifice. As we enter the Lenten season together with our dates, we remind ourselves and others that suffering is the touchstone of love, that the point of penance is not to perform arduous feats of self-denial but to love God and others better, and that with love, suffering is turned into joy.
Ash Wednesday is the beginning of Lent, and Lent culminates in the commemoration of the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Christ. History tells us that in the year AD 136, the Roman emperor Hadrian — in efforts to obliterate Christianity — built a temple to Venus, the pagan goddess of love, on the site of the crucifixion of Christ. It took great efforts two centuries later to uncover the True Cross beneath the ruins of the temple to Venus.
This Valentine’s Day, and hopefully on every Valentine’s Day after, we can bear witness to the true meaning of love after its supplanting for centuries by a perverted understanding of it. Let us show by our example of joyful sacrifice that we know how to truly love.
I’ve never been in a violent or abusive relationship – not physically, emotionally, psychologically, or sexually – and for that I am truly and eternally grateful. But I have been without self-esteem or confidence, I have been desperate, I have been violent towards myself, and, most tragically, I have been an addict.
It has been said many times now (here and here; warning: the second link details the books and the woman’s own past in connection and can be explicit at moments) that 50 Shades of Grey is simply pornographic garbage that sells mostly on its erotic portrayals and lavish fantasy world; a story that portrays two incredibly messed up individuals in a dominant/submissive relationship (all aspects of their relationship are this way) as healthy, good, and even romantic. I haven’t read 50 Shades of Grey and I’m certainly not going to see the movie, but I can still tell you it’s not healthy, good, or romantic. Why? Because I was addicted to erotica and masturbation.
I can’t read 50 Shades of Grey.
I regularly masturbated for twenty years of my life and was addicted for about ten years. When I was very young, masturbation was just a sensation that overcame me and I’d give in. When I was a little older, I found I could start controlling my urges by thinking certain thoughts or reading certain stories – thoughts and stories that would arouse me and lead me to masturbate. I became so addicted to masturbation that I used to make sure I was the last one asleep at sleepovers so that I could masturbate and finally sleep. Erotic fiction became part and parcel to this addiction; it was an easy place for me to turn as I was already a voracious reader. I read erotic stories, sexual how-tos, forums, anything I could get my hands on, with the sole intent of getting off. Sure, some of the stories had decent plot lines, but I didn’t really care. My sole criteria was: are the characters engaging in sexual activity?
Sometimes the erotica made me anxious and nervous. Is this right? Would I be expected to do this in a relationship? Is this what a relationship really looks like? All the sources readily available to me said yes, so I never gave it a second thought. You see, most of the guys and girls around me were being fed the same diet of porn and erotica and they were finding the same yeses I did. But alone at night, I’d lament not having an “other” to love and be loved by. The erotica and masturbation weren’t filling me up, they were wounding me further.
The year I learned that masturbation is a mortal sin, I quit it cold turkey for Lent, but at the end of Lent I fell right back into my addiction. I didn’t feel empowered or accomplished, I only felt exhausted. I was lacking some key tools to successfully overcoming addiction, mainly support and emotional discipline. For support, I stopped lamenting myself, owned up, opened up, and turned to Christ and His Church. Emotional discipline, however, I didn’t start learning until I had my heartbroken…twice. After those breakups I became more deliberate with my emotions, not just falling for anyone that gave me the time of day, and also became more deliberate with who I would and wouldn’t spend my time with. I started building up my self-worth and confidence through good friends (female and male), mentors, and the Church and sacraments. In time, I was able to break free from the bonds of addiction (you can read more about that experience here and here).
I didn’t use to be very different from Anastasia Steele – innocent, naïve, and desperate, I was pulled into a fantasy world of violence and degradation. I’m lucky to have gotten out. I’m lucky that when I hit rock bottom, all I could say was, “Lord, please Jesus, help me!” Because of my relationship with Christ, I became empowered, accomplished, and renewed; Ana’s relationship with Christian, through all three books, only further tears the other down. No 50 Shades of Grey is not just harmless entertainment, it is an open door to a world of addiction, perversion, and violence and no one exits unscathed. 50 Shades of Grey, and its ilk, is a gray fog that encapsulates and blinds the heart to beauty, worth, and love. I don’t want to be blind anymore, I want to see. This Valentine’s Day, don’t let the fog blind you; it is filled with nothing but darkness and sorrow. Instead, learn to love yourself a little bit more and walk into the light.
“The awful thing is that beauty is mysterious as well as terrible. God and the devil are fighting there and the battlefield is the heart of man.” – Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov
I’m sure you’ve heard it. Your Spanish or French or German speaking friends have mentioned that English is just lacking when it comes to “love.”
Maybe you heard in a homily or a talk at a retreat all about the top three Greek words for love (philia, agape, eros), or the seemingly endless list of Latin terms that can all be translated by one of English’s most ambiguous four-letter-words.
But I think English has it right.
You see, some languages distinguish between the love among friends and the love between lovers, the love among boyfriend-girlfriend and between husband-wife, the love among parents and child and the love between siblings. Some languages distinguish between loving a latte and loving a dog, loving a new song you heard on the radio and loving your job, or between loving someone a little bit and loving someone a whole lot.
Some languages use different words for loving an inferior versus a superior. There are specific terms for lust-love, desire-love, respect-love, or comfort-love.
In English, we just have love.
When we say or hear or think that God is Love, we are open to thinking of God’s love-ness in any and all of these aspects of love: the exciting, first-flush new love that you feel in your first-ever kiss; the comfortable, quiet love you feel when petting your dog after a really long day; the laughing, joyous love of sharing a meal with friends; the hard, painful love of forgiving someone who has hurt you; the enormous, difficult, wonderful love of living out your vocation every hour, on good days and on bad days; the love that wants more and more (chocolate or sex or snow-days or whatever); the love that wants nothing but to be.
Love is a feeling, a choice, and a virtue. Love is an indivisible divine reality.
When I tell my husband: “I love you,” there are some days I mean it with all the gushing exuberance I felt when we were dating and it seemed like he could do no wrong. Some days when I tell him “I love you” I mean, today I do not like you very much, but I choose to love you because I have been strengthened by the Sacrament of Marriage to stand by you even in bad times.
When I tell my infant son: “I love you,” I mean something that cannot be captured by any words but those three.
I like that English provides an ambiguity to this whole love-thing. I imagine it would be cold comfort for my husband if on those days when I don’t like him very much I might choose to say, “I obligation-love you” or, “I only-sorta-love you.”
God is in every kind of love, and every kind of love is related, because all of them point back to God: the fun, exuberant, warm-and-fuzzy feelings kind of love is just as much about God as the hard, painful, choosing-to-suffer kind of love.
English reminds us that all love, the difficult and the easy, the fun and the painful, is possible through God and ordered to the glory of God.
We English-speakers can (and should!) say every day, no matter what, “God, I love you.” Every day it will mean something a little different, but every day it will be true.
Happy St. Valentine’s Day, husband, I love you!
Happy St. Valentine’s Day, son, I love you!
Happy St. Valentine’s Day, God, I love you!
If you are a warm-blooded, sentient, and rational American who desires to love and be loved, then you have probably experienced at some point in your life a profusion of emotions in the days leading up to and on Valentine’s Day. How could you not? From the time of our youth and continuing all the way through adulthood, there is a cultural pressure to either judge how well you are loved by another or show your love for your crush/beloved/spouse by the type of chocolate, gift, dinner, or special night that can be experienced together. More to it, what if I don’t receive anything from anyone?
If we take a step back, however, and reflect upon the love of God and the love we are meant to share with others, then we must ask ourselves the important question of “Why?” Why, if I am single, must I judge my self-worth by chocolate delights and the special love of my crush? Why must a special night consist of fancy dinners and pre-written cards? Why must I show my love for that special someone on this particular day and not everyday? These are important questions that we would all do well to take to prayer and our beloved.
It is my belief that we fall prey to these pressures because it is hard for us to see any other alternative to what has been presented to us as normal and ordinary for a 21st century American. In this article, however, I would like to offer some healthy alternative mindsets and practices with which to approach Valentine’s day, whether you are single, dating, engaged, or have been married for a life-time.
1. Reflect well upon the love of God for you.
St. John Paul II, a hero to so many of us, was very passionate about teaching the world about the self-identifying love of God. I would like to share with you an excerpt from a particularly powerful and impassioned homily of his that has stayed with me for many years:
We are not the sum of our weaknesses and failures; we are the sum of the Father’s love for us and our real capacity to become the image of his Son.
It is in this universe-creating love that we are all called to plant ourselves. It is with this love and this love only that we can identify ourselves, i.e., draw forth our name, our personality, our worth. This is the only love present in and outside of the universe that will never falter, never fail, never change. I believe this is the fundamental reason why the famous John 3:16 quote that we see all over NFL and college football games is so incredibly piercing and powerful — “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” Furthermore, it is only in this love that we should understand the various human loves that we will experience throughout our life.
2. We are all made for communion but not explicitly for marital communion. God has created us in the image and likeness of love but that does not mean that we are all called to the love shared in holy matrimony between a husband and wife. There are other instances of love that are equally important for each of our own developments into the person that God created us to be. Such loves include that which is shared within a family and between friends.
Love is not limited to marital and dating relationships. For those people who do enter into the Sacrament of Matrimony, however, that love is incredibly important and irreplaceable in their own personal vocations. Nonetheless, the love experienced in family and friendship is invaluable and ought not to be overlooked and taken for granted. Therefore, instead of feeling an intense anxiety about receiving and needing the particular love experienced in marriage or a dating relationship, appreciate and delight in the love of friends and family — for that is true love — as St. Thomas Aquinas betokens to us:
There is nothing on this earth more to be prized than true friendship.
3. Take time to visit Jesus in adoration. Regardless of your state in life or relationship status, we would all do well to take time on Valentine’s Day (or any day for that matter!) to visit and commune with our Lord who is present in the Most Blessed Sacrament. It is important for us to keep in mind that discovering God’s will for our life is only one very small part of our life-story. The actual day-to-day living out of his will in love is what is most important of all. To fulfill God’s will for our lives can only come to fruition if we are spending time with him in consistent and authentic prayer. How can we hope to see Jesus in the people around us if we cannot see him where is he fully and substantially present in the Eucharist? The vocations to marriage, religious life, and holy orders, after all, are not ends in themselves but ways in which we are called to grow in love and service to one another. The only way we can grow in love and service, however, is to grow in love and service to Jesus!
Perhaps there is no better way we can spend our time on Valentine’s Day either by ourself or with our loved ones (friends included!) than by spending some quiet, quality time with Jesus in the Eucharist. Bl. Mother Teresa speaks precisely to this point:
We need to find God, and he cannot be found in noise and restlessness. God is the friend of silence. See how nature – trees, flowers, grass- grows in silence; see the stars, the moon and the sun, how they move in silence… We need silence to be able to touch souls.
4. Don’t spend your time trying to find the most expensive or glamorous present for the person you care about. Instead, spend your time trying to find the perfect way to demonstrate to the people around you on Valentine’s Day that you genuinely and authentically care about them. In this way you can make your Valentine’s Day more person-centered than thing-centered. This will usually take the form of action but could very well include a special gift. The emphasis, however, is not on how much you spend or the “thrill-factor” that accompanies it but the thought and intentionality you put into buying this particular gift for this particular person.
Ultimately, the greatest gift we can each give to someone we care for, whether that be a friend, family member, significant other, or spouse, is our time, care, and attention directed toward their true and lasting good. This love, which opens up and develops our own true identity, in turn has the potential to grow and blossom into even more love than can be given simply on Valentine’s Day. Gaudium et Spes #24 speaks directly to this paradoxically dynamic and multi-faceted experience:
Indeed, the Lord Jesus, when He prayed to the Father, “that all may be one. . . as we are one” (John 17:21-22) opened up vistas closed to human reason, for He implied a certain likeness between the union of the divine Persons, and the unity of God’s sons in truth and charity. This likeness reveals that man, who is the only creature on earth which God willed for itself, cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself.
When we give ourselves to others, it purifies and perfects us, allowing us to give even more love than was previously thought possible. Bl. Mother Teresa, once again:
I have found the paradox, that if you love until it hurts, there can be no more hurt, only more love.
5. Don’t limit love to Valentine’s Day. We Catholics and Christians don’t need the media and economy to tell us when to express our appreciation and love for the people around us. A very helpful piece of advice I have received once and been reminded of often is to reflect upon the singularity and uniqueness of each day in light of our eventual death. This might seem a bit morbid, but in light of the hope of the resurrection, it grants great freedom. If we live each day with the belief that it might be our last, then we will not allow opportunities to show and express love for those around us to slip by. Instead, we will approach each day with the light-heartedness but seriousness that it deserves — light-heartedness because life and love triumph over evil but seriousness because we cannot re-write or re-live what we have allowed to slip into the past. In love the universe is created by God and through love we allow the universe to be re-created through us.
So, my advice is not to ignore or flee from Valentine’s day but to embrace it and purify it with your friends, beloved, or spouse. Let us reflect well upon the love of God, the love of those around us, the preeminent place Jesus ought to occupy in our lives, and how to show true love day in and day out. If and when you feel the nervous tension that will ultimately accompany Valentine’s Day, simply remember what true love is and offer the following prayer to God: “Father, may I be satisfied with your love and the love of others in my life right now. May I love others as you have loved me.” Do not fear love, but instead embrace this most powerful force and allow yourself to be authentically transformed by it. To close, I would like to leave with you a powerful message from our beloved Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, a personal hero of mine, which continues to inspire my mind, heart, and soul:
My dear young friends, I want to invite you to “dare to love”. Do not desire anything less for your life than a love that is strong and beautiful and that is capable of making the whole of your existence a joyful undertaking of giving yourselves as a gift to God and your brothers and sisters, in imitation of the One who vanquished hatred and death for ever through love (cf. Rev 5:13).
Love is the only force capable of changing the heart of the human person and of all humanity, by making fruitful the relations between men and women, between rich and poor, between cultures and civilizations. (Message for the 22nd World Youth Day: Palm Sunday, 1 April 2007)
As if there wasn’t enough pressure from our society to “couple up” – at least temporarily – we also have an entire day solely dedicated to celebrating romantic love. As a single person myself, I don’t really get worked up over the whole Valentine’s Day “thing” (although, these days, being in the last year of my 20s and with most of my friends settling down and starting families, I can tell you, my biological clock sometimes sounds more like a ticking time bomb). But for those who do feel a little left out or alone today These Benedictines have some advice:
[I]f today you are alone and feeling that there is no one very much to care about you, and no one in particular for you to love in return, consider this: by virtue of your baptism you are espoused to him before whom the sun and moon bow down. Jesus is not your boyfriend, but he loves you more than you could ever possibly imagine.
I am not one to amuse myself with the heart of a lady, since my love is pure and noble. If I have waited until I was 20 years old to go out with a young lady, it is because I knew that I wanted to find real love. One must master his heart before he can give it to the one that is chosen for him by Christ.
Finding real love can take quite some time, but we should never let ourselves settle for less. Nor should we give our hearts (or our bodies) too freely or foolishly in search of that love. God alone is the One who can and will satisfy our every desire. Establish a relationship with Christ first and build on that relationship so that He may a.) create in you a clean heart and guard you against impurity and b.) lead you to a worthy, suitable companion (if that is your calling). Then, remember to keep God as the “third party” in your relationship to be your glue, your bond, your wingman.
-There are actually multiple St. Valentines, many of whom are martyrs. Which is appropriate, since love – real love – is a total gift of self. Quoting St. Therese of Lisieux: Love is nourished only by sacrifices.
As a single-almost-thirty-year-old, I could easily read way too much into this, but I don’t want to get my hopes up. So, for now, I will just pray:
O St. Valentine, lover of Christ and of the Church, we ask your intercession that we may learn how to love God above all things, and to selflessly love one another. O glorious St. Valentine, pray for us, that we, too may have the steadfast faith of the martyrs. Amen.