Today is Valentine’s Day. You know this already. If you didn’t know it when you woke up, you were surely reminded by the waterfall of love-themed Facebook posts flooding your news feed. Poring over your friends’ comments and statuses, you might have noticed that while many people take Valentine’s Day as an opportunity to celebrate romantic love, others are more sarcastic. Some people jokingly refer to it as ‘Singles’ Awareness Day’. Valentine’s Day is when the romantically involved celebrate their relationships, but it’s also the day where everyone else is awkwardly compelled to reflect on their own singleness. That reflection is often uncomfortable, because of the surprising way our culture usually talks about romantic love. It struck me recently that even though our modern culture is usually wary and stand-offish when it comes to religion, there is one thing which many secular people still talk about using very religious language: romantic love.
Obviously, we moderns don’t build literal temples to Cupid and burn roses drenched in virgin’s blood on his altars; that’s not what I mean when I say that we treat romance ‘religiously’. I only mean that the way we moderns talk about romantic love is the same way religious people talk about God or the gods or the cosmos. Take for example, this exchange from the romantic comedy called ‘Fools Rush In’ (1997), starring Matthew Perry (Alex) and Salma Hayek (Isabel):
“Alex: This morning I couldn’t decide between a hamburger and a tuna melt. But my life made perfect sense. Now I know exactly want I want, but my life makes no sense. Somewhere between tuna melt and your aunt’s tamales, life lost meaning and gained a purpose.
Isabel: What are you saying?
Alex: I am saying … This is morning I was worried I’d met the girl of my dreams at the drycleaners and not recognised her. But you – you are what I never knew I always wanted. I’m not even sure what that means, but I think it has something to do with the rest of my life!” (emphasis added)
On the most popular view of its etymology, religion literally means ‘connection’ (from the Latin ligare, whence come English words like ligament and ligature). On this view, religion is that which connects us to forces and beings which are greater than ourselves, and so gives our life a purpose and a meaning beyond ourselves. Religion is that which disorients us; it pulls us out of our own, boring and limited personal worlds where we are the sole masters of our own destiny and into a world where we are only a tiny part of much larger story of gods, monsters and supernatural beauties. By giving us access to forces and beings greater than ourselves, religion gives us a purpose; an objective meaning given to us from above. When Alex speaks of Isabel as that which both confused him and gave him a purpose, he is speaking precisely about that which religion does to its devotees. In the Twilight saga, that legendary blood-sucking romantic Edward Cullen says something rather similar in New Moon:
“Before you, Bella, my life was like a moonless night. Very dark, but there were stars, points of light and reason. … And then you shot across my sky like a meteor. Suddenly everything was on fire; there was brilliancy, there was beauty. When you were gone, when the meteor had fallen over the horizon, everything went black. Nothing had changed, but my eyes were blinded by the light. I couldn’t see the stars anymore. And there was no more reason, for anything.”
There’s a theme here. We often talk about romantic love as a sort of cosmic ecstasy, a religious revelation which gives meaning and purpose to our lives. And that’s why Valentine’s Day can be awkward for single people. It can, for those whose self-esteem is already teetering, be more than awkward, it can be depressing. If romantic love really is the great, religious experience that our culture makes it out to be, then the single among us are left wondering why the universe has refused to bestow this amazing gift upon them; why does the great god of love leave them to languish in the prison of loneliness, where life has no meaning or purpose? How much crueller could their situation be? The hidden assumption in all this talk of a romantic relationship ‘setting our lives on fire’ and granting us purpose and meaning is that anyone who has not found their own Edward or Bella is living a meaningless life. And that suggestion, in Christian thought, is utterly pagan and hideously blasphemous. The forgotten tragedy of Valentine’s Day (or rather, of the cultural tendency it highlights) is that so many needlessly accept the idea that their life will only come to have meaning when they meet their significant other. They come to view their lives as nothing more than a ‘moonless night’, waiting for the meteor of love to reveal their true purpose. In so doing, they are blinded to the beauty which they already possess. No-one who knows anything about being a Western young person would dare deny that there really are people, many people, for whom this is tragically the case.
Christians certainly worship love, but not the sort of love Edward has for Bella. In Greek, romantic love was called Eros (the winged youth, whose Latin counterpart was Cupido), but charitable, unconditional love was called agapē. In the New Testament, Christians are commanded to love everyone with agapē, not eros.The difference between the two is that eros exists only when it has been ‘cosmically’ ordained; no act of free will could properly induce eros: eros, or infatuation, is something which either happens to you or does not. It is, by definition, conditional. Agapē, on the other hand, is totally (almost obnoxiously) unconditional. It’s the sort of love which extends itself always and to everyone, even enemies. And, unlike eros, agapē is an act of will. It is something which we choose to do, every second of every day. When St. John says that ‘God is love’, the word he uses is agapē, not eros. The Christian God chooses to love us unconditionally, regardless of our circumstances or our sins. Christians believe that if we let this love into us and offer it back to Him, His love will transform us into gods and goddesses, kings and queens. All of this is offered to each and every one of us unconditionally. Thus there is no reason for any human being to ever question his or her worth; the source of our meaning comes from the all-powerful, creative love that called each and every one of us into being. In St. Gregory Nazianzen’s words: “Let us recognize our Dignity; let us honour our Archetype; let us know the power of the Mystery, and for what Christ died.”
As a final note, I’m certainly not suggesting that there’s anything wrong with romantic love! But Christians approach it differently to Edward Cullen. When a Christian gets married, they would never suggest that their life had been dark and ‘moonless’ until their significant other stepped into the picture. To do so would be unjust to themselves, to their partner and to God. Each Christian is called to remember that his or her worth is unconditional; we are all Kings and Queens long before we wear the Crowns of marriage on our wedding day (or whether or not that day comes at all!). The mystical power of Christian marriage lies in the fact the union between a king and queen who love each other wilfully and unconditionally. Rather than waiting for Cupid to inspire eros, husband and wife use their God-gifted freedom to choose to love one another every moment: and their unconditional, independent choices to love flow together in their centre, taking the indescribable form of the love that exists from eternity within the Trinity itself.
How could any true romantic be content with anything less?