This article was originally published in the San Marino Tribune on for February 9, 2018.
Saint Valentine’s Day first became associated with romantic love in the work of the 14th Century English poet Geoffrey Chaucer, best known for his ‘Canterbury Tales,’ but he was a fellow who remained very much smitten by his wife his whole life long. Now secularized, Valentine’s Day is a “must remember” occasion for most American couples, complicated this year by its arrival on Ash Wednesday. Some couples in local restaurants next Wednesday evening will bear the ashes of Lenten penance on their brows even as they clink glasses of Syrah across white-linen table clothes!
That visual admixture of human love and faith expression is not incongruent. Love is a risk, and once stabilized within the structure of commitment, covenant or marriage, remains subject to human frailty and the unavoidable wounds and slights two people deal each other while traversing life together.
Ashes will intrude, apologies must be made, and reparations undertaken. “Love hurts,” as Graham Parsons famously crooned, or, to quote Oxford don and theologian C.S. Lewis: “To love is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping your heart intact, you must give it to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it up carefully around hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket of your selfishness. But in that casket—safe, dark, motionless, airless—it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable.”
To risk love in this world is the one necessary thing, and that is because the world was made for love by a Divine Lover. “The really interesting thing about religion is God,” said the 20th Century Anglican mystic Evelyn Underhill, and it is clear from reading her writings that she was passionately, intensely, personally and experientially in love with God. She was also in love with her husband, the lawyer Stuart Hubert Moore, and insights from her marital relationship influenced her reflections on how we love and experience a transcendent God, the Divine lover. Through prayer and attention, she had learned how to experience God’s near Presence, and how to rejoice in that Presence through life’s vicissitudes and hard blows.
The word ‘mysticism’ can conjure images of suggestible people too easily given to waves of emotion and irrationality, but Underhill eagerly followed post-Enlightenment advances in scientific understanding, and was steeped in the Creeds, Sacraments and structures of the ancient Church mediated through the Anglican Tradition. It was just that she adamantly resisted Immanuel Kant’s assertion that the only acceptable religion was “religion within the limits of reason,” and she was right to do so. In affairs of the heart, reason never has the last word.
It may be well this year to recall that ‘Valentine’s Day’ remains also ‘St. Valentine’s Day.’ Human passions are most healthfully located within a larger understanding of a world in which Divine Love speaks to us as individuals, couples and communities. The web of moral authenticity and mutual accountability necessary for thriving human relationships is something difficult to invent whole-cloth over and again each time passion looks for contours of commitment and covenant. The mystical element of human love (and what else can committed love be called but mystical, transgressing the frontiers of pure reason?) is soundly located within the mysticism of genuine, passionate Faith.
Another of my St. Valentine’s Day heroes is, therefore, Blaise Pascal, the 17th Century French mathematician, physicist, and devout Christian. He wrote extensively and well about both science and theology. At the age of thirty-one, Pascal had a profound experience of God’s Presence while engaged in prayer. He wrote an account of this experience on paper and sewed it into his suit coat so that it would always be near his heart, where the account was found in the suit coat upon his death. It read: “since about half past ten in the evening until about half past midnight. Fire. Certitude. Certitude. Feeling. Joy. Peace…” a love-note from God.