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)