Go ahead. Type it in. Those four little letters – L O V E.
Having just done so myself, 7.5 billion Google results popped up on my screen. That’s a whole lotta love. So, with Valentine’s Day today, and so much love out there, it is worth our consideration to spend a little time here reflecting on what exactly we are celebrating.
While many recognize Valentine’s Day as merely another consumer holiday dreamt up for the sole end of increased revenue for restaurants, florists and greeting card manufacturers, the origins of the celebration — like so many contemporary holidays — can be traced back to the Romans and the fertility festival Lupercalia.
The festival would be Christianized by the fifth century and, by the time of Geoffrey Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales,” became known as the day when lovers find their mates.
Today, Valentine’s Day may conjure childhood memories of a classroom wall covered in labeled paper bags in which classmates hand out, receive and tally up tiny cards adorned with cartoon characters. Although traditions might vary from era to era, the traditional underpinning is the notion of love. But what exactly are we celebrating when we celebrate love?
Plato attempted to arrive at an answer in his “Symposium,” in which Socrates asserts that the greatest purpose of love is that of the philosopher who loves wisdom. It is a classic and engaging dialogue, but still fails at providing a satisfactory conclusion.
St. Paul provided a litany of what love is and is not in his letter to the community in Corinth, which is oft-heard at weddings — love is patient, love is kind, love does not envy.
More recently, in the last century, C.S. Lewis identified four types of love: storge, empathetic love; philia, friendship love; eros, romantic love; and agape, unconditional, selfless love. Lewis is certainly onto something, yet these categories still beg the question — what is this love itself that is so essential, so crucial to who we are as human beings?
A fundamental aspect of our Ignatian tradition might assist in shedding light on the issue. In the foundational text “The Spiritual Exercises,” St. Ignatius of Loyola writes that the purpose of such exercises is to lead an individual to greater spiritual freedom. This spiritual freedom, he maintains, has the end of praising reverence and serving God.
Stated another way, each of us seeks greater, deeper spiritual freedom so as to live more fully who we each uniquely and authentically are created to be. Coming to a greater freedom, unfettered from distractions and disordered attachments, leads us into living more fully our true selves.
This is where the concept of love enters the equation. For St. Ignatius, one comes to recognize more fully who one uniquely is by coming to realize one’s deepest passions and desires. Passion, desire — these are indeed facets of this nebulous entity we call love.
It is crucial to understand St. Ignatius himself as an incredible romantic, an idealist, a dreamer, an individual who was dedicated to recognizing the greater good in his own life and living that out to the fullest. He was someone who reflected intently on his deepest desires, and as a result pursued living out of those desires and dreams, placing it all in the service of others.
St. Ignatius proves vital in explaining what this force of love actually is — our authentic dreams, our genuine passions and our desire to live fully from these in all things. In a quote attributed to Fr. Pedro Arrupe, S.J., the 28th Superior General of the Society of Jesus, one’s deepest desires become brilliantly clear when we recognize love and how to live it:
“Nothing is more practical than finding God, that is, than falling in a love in a quite absolute, final way. What you are in love with, what seizes your imagination will affect everything. It will decide what will get you out of bed in the mornings, what you will do with your evenings, how you spend your weekends, what you read, who you know, what breaks your heart and what amazes you with joy and gratitude. Fall in love, stay in love and it will decide everything.”
Love is not something nebulously out there, in someone or something. Love is in the very essence of each of us — in our own unique selves, in the passions that get us out of bed each day and fuel our journeys in life. Let us celebrate that.
Fr. Gregory Schenden, S.J., is the Catholic chaplain at Georgetown University. AS THIS JESUIT SEES IT appears every other Tuesday.