Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Romance, self-sacrifice and St. Valentine

I fail miserably at romance.  I’m like the guy in Billy Joel’s song, “Leave a Tender Moment Alone”: sometimes I get so tense, I’ll say or do something that completely spoils the moment … usually, it’s a joke. 

So if I were to write a post telling men how to win women’s hearts, I would be putting myself in a false position.  I don’t even have the excuse of being a priest;  a priest could at least form some conclusions from what he hears in confessions and spiritual counseling.  In fact, I’m convinced that even Dr. Phil is making educated guesses when it comes to women. 

(“What do women want?” asked Freud in despair … to which cartoonist Mimi Pond replied, “Shoes.”  Thanks, Mimi.  Big help.)

It’s especially difficult to write about romantic love when, in one sense, both “love” and “romance” have lost meaning in the post-modern world.  Saint Valentine, his day stripped of its sanctity in the name of secular commerce, now presides over a semi-ritualized gift-giving that drips the same sappy sentimentality with which American marketing saturates every major holiday.  Where is the passion, the adventure, the hypergolic mix of eros and agapē?  At the same time, why bother with the jewelry and the chocolates when you can just as easily get laid on Groundhog’s Day as Valentine’s Day?

And yet, perhaps this is too cynical a view.  Today at work I heard of an incident gone awry, when a vase full of roses set on a co-worker’s car had been blown off by the high plains winds we often get; I also heard all my female coworker moan “Oh-hh!” when they heard of the mishap.  The young lady who sits next to me said philosophically, “Well, it’s the thought that counts, right?”

And perhaps that’s our key right there.  That phrase — “It’s the thought that counts” — has been the absolution for any number of odd choices for Christmas gifts (the hand-made ashtray for the non-smoker, the too-large cable-knit sweater Grandma gave you that you’ll wear only in her presence).  When the choice is exactly right, then the blessing comes with the words, “How thoughtful of him/her/you!”

“Thinking of you.”  But more to the point, “Thinking about you, what would please you, what would make you understand just how much it means to me to have you in my life.”

Yes, you can get laid on Groundhog’s Day or Veteran’s Day just as easily as on February 14th, so how can the day be “about” sex?  It’s actually tangential, for while it’s associated with romantic love, romance isn’t all about sex.

If in The Iliad Homer gave us the quintessential tragedy, of nobility in a lost cause, then in The Odyssey he gave us the acme of the romantic quest: King Odysseus of Ithaca defeating numerous enemies and overcoming obstacle after hurdle to return to his ever-faithful wife Penelope and his son Telemachus.  It’s not just that Odysseus is equal to the challenges but that the challenges aren’t equal to his desire; he must succeed because “Failure is not an option.”  Penelope waits for him.

How far would you go to be with the Other?  What perils and travails would you face?  What would you give up?  Would you lay down your life for your lover?  In the generic chocolates-and-roses celebration I see a nostalgia, a reaching-back for the seemingly anachronistic idea that there is a love worth dying for.

And isn’t that the heart of witness, the core of the martyr?  A priest, whose acts Pope St. Gelasius (r. 492-496) said were “known only to God”, yet found love enough to face the clubs and axe of Claudius II, the same love that drives a mother to offer her body as a shield for her child or a man to brave the raging flames of a house to search for his wife.

But romance isn’t found merely in the adventure of the epic quest, where every trap promises death.  It’s also found in the adventure of marriage, where every new twist of the trail portends heartbreak and sorrow, but also offers potential for joy and peace.  If you can die for your lover, you can live with her “till death do us part”.  If you can give her a diamond, you can give her yourself — an act far more generous.  If you can face with her the terrors and dangers of the jungle outside, you can also face the strife and struggle of  the interior jungle, where two lives commingle into one.

Someone once said, “Man is in love, and loves what has passed.”  Just as in all the squawky, junky claptrap of Christmas commercialization we reach back for an idealized Christmas that postmodern secularism can’t offer, I think in the bare-bones gestures of romance in Madison Avenue’s Valentine’s Day we reach back for an idea of love that our overly sexualized, reductionist society is incapable of bringing forth.  Through the mist and fog of a socially-engineered selfishness and materialism, we reach back not just to the Other but to the fact that without the Other we are incomplete: “male and female He created them” (Gen 1:27).

So for one day out of God’s 365 a man is allowed to be unselfish, to be centered on his woman rather than himself, to make some sacrifices on her behalf and for her happiness.  Like the Christmas message of peace on Earth, it’s something men should be doing year-round.

Perhaps one day we’ll remember that true love always involves the readiness to sacrifice oneself, as Saint Valentine did so long ago.  Then maybe we’ll become human again.