Wednesday, February 14, 2007

What Is This Thing Called Love?

Happy St. Valentine's Day!

There's no better day, really, for musing on things like the meaning of love, the meaning of romance, and the fact that these two words are not interchangeable.

Our culture, by and large, seems to forget this. The advertising leading up to St. Valentine's Day stresses the notion of love and its intrinsic connection with flowers, candy, cards, jewelry, or in some odd and undefined way, with furniture and new cars. Women's magazines are probably the worst offenders when it comes to equating romance with love: there are quizzes designed to tell you if you're really 'into' him or if he's losing his spark of interest in you; there are articles full of tips on how to drive a man to distraction, or at least into debt; there are hints on romantic getaways, romantic meals, romantic gifts, and probably romantic brands of toothpaste (I wouldn't put it past them, anyway).

Underlying this focus on romance is the notion that this is what love is all about. The subtle theme of these sorts of things is that if you don't have all of this in your life, then you're missing something, and it's probably your spouse's fault.

It would be laughable if it weren't so dangerous. But the divorce courts of America are littered with the collateral damage caused by the widespread explosion of the false conflation of love and romance, with the idea that if your heart doesn't skip a beat when your husband or wife walks into the room, then it's time to skip out on the marriage.

So what is love? How does it differ from the warm, candlelit glow of romantic attraction?

In the first place, love isn't a feeling at all. It's a choice, a free act of the will whereby we throw our lot in with that of another person, 'forsaking all others' for the sake of the one. To prove the sincerity of our choice, we make it public; we stand up in the sight of God and man and declare that we've each chosen the other, for better, for worse, and so on.

Secondly, love is a gift. It's the best gift we can possibly give, our total selves, holding back nothing. Unlike lesser gifts, it's permanent--there's no way to 'regift' such a precious and complete gift, not while the recipients are both alive, anyway. It's also exclusive, in that the totality of the gift requires fidelity.

Thirdly, love is sacrifice. That concept, even more than the others, seems to have fallen out of favor in many of our culture's discussions about love and romance. But without the willingness of each person to sacrifice themselves for the other love will die. The sacrifices may be tiny ones, like getting used to sharing things or not insisting on controlling the other person or, occasionally, handing over the remote. Or the sacrifices may be huge, such as spending months in the hospital caring for a medically fragile child or struggling together through a time of real hardship or dealing with the aftermath of a fire that destroys your home and everything you own. Either way, the necessity of sacrificing yourself, your own interests, your own agenda, will come. If there is love, there is sacrifice, and a willingness to lay down your life for the other.

Love is choice, gift, and sacrifice. Like the choice of Our Lord to redeem sinful humanity. Like His gift of His Body and Blood, Himself, for our well being. Like His sacrifice on the Cross, opening for us the gates of Heaven at a cost terrible to contemplate.

That's love.

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