Valentine’s Day – Covid aside – is big business; stuffed velvet hearts, syrupy cards, roses that cost the earth, hiked up prices for candle-lit meals. Even for the romantics, it’s hard not to feel a bit cynical. For those widowed, separated or divorced, today simply magnifies the grief of loss. And those who are single, end up feeling excluded by the focus on coupledom. Perhaps it’s time to re-evaluate Valentine’s day and reclaim both the day and the word ‘love’ – in its wider sense. It’s unfortunate the English language only has one word to convey many different things. I ‘love’ chocolate and I ‘love’ my husband. But I don’t mean the same thing. If I could never eat chocolate again, I’d be peeved, not heartbroken; losing my husband would be another thing. Think of all the possible objects of our love; spouses, partners, children, parents, friends, pets, sports, hobbies, T.V programmes, food – and consider how different the emotions are. We use the same word to cover a whole range of likes, desires, wants, needs, friendships, affections, passions, pleasures. No wonder it gets confusing. Other languages are fortunate in having different words to cover the many nuances of love. As author and depth psychologist Robert A. Johnson reminds us: ““Sanskrit has 96 words for love; ancient Persian 80, Greek 3, English only one. This is indicative of the poverty of awareness that we give to that tremendously important realm of feeling…we are close to dying of loneliness because we have only one word for love. Of all the Western languages, English may be the most lacking when it comes to feeling.” (The Fisher King and the Handless Maiden)
Various attempts have been made to distinguish between types of love. One of the most well-known by C.S Lewis, in his book ‘The Four Loves’ (1960) builds on the distinctions made in ancient Greek culture: ‘Storge’ – affection – covers the natural love in families, between parents, children, and siblings. It also includes affection between those not related by blood (i.e. teacher and student.) It is a dependency-based love. Eros – romantic, ‘being in love’ – is usually, but not always, sexual. Philia – describes friendship; not the many acquaintances on FaceBook – but something deeper – often centred on a common interest or cause. The least instinctive of loves (our species does not need friendship to reproduce or survive) it is freely chosen. Agape – or Charity is a love that does not discriminate, that extends to strangers, enemies, the unloveable – the highest form of love – considered divine in origin.
Love – in all its forms – can be hard work. Take eros; ‘falling in love’ is the easy bit; the hard part is sustaining a long-term relationship. Perhaps these children touch on truth when they wrote: “St Paul preached holy acrimony (matrimony) which is another name for marriage.” “A Christian should only have one spouse – this is called monotony (monogamy)!” Even with those we love easily, there is flux. As Anne Morrow Lindbergh writes: “When you love someone, you do not love them all the time, in exactly the same way… It is an impossibility. It is a lie to pretend to. Yet this is exactly what most of us demand. We have so little faith in the ebb and flow of life, of love, of relationships (from ‘Gift from the Sea’ – 1955). What about storge? We can’t divorce our parents, siblings, or children – but probably wish we could at times. Being related by blood, is no guarantee we’ll always get on! It’s ironic the church always proclaims family values, when Jesus, as far as we know, never married, and said some rather harsh things to his mother and brothers. Faithful monogamous relationships (including same sex couples) are a good basis for a stable society. But deep bonds of love are not exclusive to couples or families. As C.S. Lewis points out – philia – friendship freely chosen – can be a higher kind of love. But even bonds of friendship can end up as cliches – which exclude others. Love at its highest – Agape – extends its arms to further. The early followers of Jesus, lived in communities that went beyond kin or friendship – regarding the outcast and stranger as brother and sister. But it’s natural for humans to discriminate, to love some people and not others. Trying to love ‘everyone’ all the time, can feel too abstract or idealised. Though we aspire to an all-embracing love, as flawed human beings we rarely reach it. Such love belongs to God alone. Our love is a pale reflection; “now we see through a glass darkly” (1 Corinthians 13).
And sadly, many people who proclaim faith have their ideas about God and love mixed up. In the 1st epistle of John we read: “Everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love….There is no fear in love…perfect love casts out fear” What if it really were that simple? Whatever can or cannot be said about ‘God’ – if all people of faith, whatever their creed, based their actions on that single premise – ‘God is Love’ – how would this change things? Would men kill each other in so-called ‘holy’ wars? Would the church condemn same-sex couples who live together in love? Would one nation steal land from another in the name of their God? People of faith are called to follow the example of all true messengers of the divine, all true champions of humanity – by standing on the side of love: the love that knows no boundaries of prejudice, ignorance or fear; the love that transcends nationality, ethnicity, creed, disability, gender, and sexual preference; the love that stands against hatred and bigotry – refusing all ideologies and theologies – secular or religious – which dictate the limits of love.
There is no compulsion in true love – it must be freely given and received to be worthy of the name. Anthony de Mello tells a story about Friedrich Wilhelm the 18th c. ruler of Prussia. A bad-tempered man, he would walk through Berlin unaccompanied. If anyone displeased him, he’d turn his walking stick on them! Not surprisingly when people saw him coming, they tried to hide. Once Wilhelm came down the street and caught sight of a man trying to duck into a doorway. Too late – Wilhelm demanded to know where he was going.
The man replied ‘into this house your majesty’ ‘- Is that your house?’ demanded the king.
‘No your majesty’Is it your friends house?’ – ‘No your majesty’ – Then why are you going in?
The man fearing he’d be mistaken for a burglar, blurted out the truth – ‘To avoid you your majesty.’
‘Why would you wish to avoid me?’ asked the king – ‘Because I am afraid your majesty’
At this Friedrich Wilhelm – livid with rage, seized him by the shoulder and shook him violently: ‘How dare you fear me. I am your ruler. You are supposed to love me. Love me you wretch – love me!”
In the Gospels, a lawyer asks Jesus: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment?” Jesus replies: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. The second is like it, you shall love your neighbour as yourself.” This seems contradictory – a command to love? Haven’t I just said true love can’t be forced? Whilst loving God with all our hearts may come easy to mystics – for most of us – especially those with religious baggage who imagine God to be like the ruler Wilhelm, it seems a very tall order! And what if you don’t believe in God in the first place? Well, perhaps you still have some kind of relationship with the universe which frames your life within a larger perspective? For me the command to love God, encompasses love of creation. For some people God and nature are the same. Whatever our theology, in a time of climate emergency, perhaps the only thing that will save us as a species, is to love the earth with all our heart, soul and mind; to cherish the oceans, skies, and creatures we share our planet with as kin. If we were to fully appreciate the bountiful gifts Mother earth (or God) lavishes upon us day in, day out – surely we would feel compelled to offer back our love, not from duty but from a reciprocal sense of devotion?
And consider the second commandment – to love our neighbour; in Luke’s Gospel, the lawyer asks: ‘who is my neighbour?’ In response Jesus tells the story of the Good Samaritan who stops to help a stranger. It’s helpful to realise the word ‘love’ in this context is not based on emotions. In the ancient middle-east, ‘love’ was a legal term used in treaties. When 2 kings promised love to each other, they pledged loyalty and practical support at cost to themselves. So ‘to love our neighbour’ means acting in the best interests of those not our kin – regardless of our feelings towards them. And let’s not overlook the last part of the commandment. We are to love our neighbour – as ourselves. As in the Buddhist practice of Metta loving kindness meditation – we start with ourselves, then widen the circle outwards. If we don’t start from a healthy love of self, it’s hard to sustain healthy relationships with another – whether human or divine. People often stick with violent partners or an unhealthy image of God – because they don’t believe they deserve better. We know that love and affection are crucial for the development of an infant. But even for those neglected in early life, there is hope for recovery. The brain is plastic and can rebuild the neural pathways associated with love. there are many other stories that tell of the healing power of love. But love is not without cost. As C.S Lewis writes: “To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round… avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe… but in that casket dark, motionless, airless…it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable.” (The Four Loves)
The choice of not loving anyone or anything, offers a bleak future for us, and our world. Jesus suggests if we do these 3 things – love God, neighbour, and self – we’ll naturally keep the other commandments; we won’t kill, steal, or cheat – right living will flow out from this 3-fold intention. It’s simple – but not easy. When medics work through the pandemic despite exhaustion, refusing to hate Covid deniers who shout abuse in their face, that’s not soppy emotion but true love in action. Today as well as being Valentine’s Day, is Racial Justice Sunday. When Martin Luther King Jnr refused to respond violently in the face of racial oppression – that was true love in action. MLK had good reason to hate, but he made it his intention to love, saying: “I have decided to stick with love for I know that love is ultimately the only answer to (hu)mankind’s problems. I’m not talking about emotional bosh when I talk about love. I’m taking about strong, demanding love… For I have seen too much hate… and I say to myself that hate is too great a burden to bear.” (MLK Jnr 1967)
What if Valentine’s day was opened up beyond love-struck couples, to include a focus on love in all its forms: love of God, love of the earth, love of friend, neighbour and stranger – not forgetting love of self? Now that would surely be a festival we could all get behind! So whatever the challenges of these days, let’s make it our intention to set our compass to Love – knowing we will fail time and again – but picking ourselves up and supporting each other as best we can, in taking seriously the command to love: “And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.”
Yours, in faith – hope – and love, Sheena