Monday, 13 February 2012

St Valentine: Love Hurts

Who was St Valentine?

The truth is that no one knows for certain. It seems that there were several early Christian martyrs who bore the name. The best known and the one who the legend is probably built around was a third century physician priest, who conducted weddings for soldiers in Emperor Claudius II army. The Emperor had outlawed marriage for his conscripts, believing that it made them poor soldiers. Many defied these orders and secretly married, Valentine was one of the priests who conducted the ceremonies. He was eventually discovered and imprisoned for this. While in prison, awaiting execution, he fell in love with the jailers blind daughter who it is said he restored to sight. Shortly after his execution a love letter was found addressed to her, it read “love from your Valentine”. The date was 14th February 269. Two centuries later Pope Gelasius declared 14th February to be Saint Valentine’s day, and Valentine became the patron saint of lovers.

Charles, Duke of Orleans, who was taken prisoner at the battle of Agincourt in 1415, and held in captivity for twenty-five years, was the author of the earliest known written Valentines. He left about sixty of these love poems for his wife.

One of his Valentines reads as follows:

Wilt thou be mine? 
Dear Love, reply.
Sweetly consent or else deny. 
Whisper softly, 
none shall know, 
Wilt thou be mine, Love?
Aye or no?
"Spite of Fortune, 
we may be Happy by one word from thee. 
Life flies swiftly 
- ere it go 
Wilt thou be mine, Love? 
- aye or no?"

The first commercial Valentines card was manufactured in the mid nineteenth century by Esther A Howland and today Valentine’s day is celebrated all over the world. It has become a huge commercial enterprise and like Christmas it appears to have lost much of its true meaning. We can though still discover some of it's magic, if we look beneath the ribbons.

I have a Valentine in my family, My nephew is called Johnny Valentine Budby. He is named after two members of the rock band Electric 6. His older brother is called Joey Ramone Budby. He is named after Joey Ramone, from the punk band The Ramones. Joey and Johnny’s dad Rick has been a drummer in bands for years, he’s an old mate of mine from my past, when I was in bands too. He’s a great dad, although I do wonder about the stick that might come the way of these boys later in life. That said if either become famous, they’ve already got names that belong "up in lights."

On Valentine’s Day we are supposed to express our love for those who we feel passionately about. We are meant to do this publically, but we are also meant to express the love we dare not reveal, our secret love. The love we dare not name. I’m sure everyone has, at one time or another, either sent or received a secret Valentine’s card.

There seems to be something very painful in all of this. Valentine’s day is really not about flowers and bunny rabbits it would seem. Is Valentine really about the love between two people or is it more about unrequited love? Is it about the light of love, or shadow side of love? Certainly its history, its mythology, is bathed in sadness and pain and loss.

Does Love, as Roy Orbison once sang, hurt?

In Greek Mythology passionate love begins when we are wounded by Eros’s Arrow. This suggests that we must first be pierced by it before we can experience its joy; that we must be opened up to hurt before we can begin to experience love. This message appears to be shared by many of the faith traditions. In Christianity God’s love is expressed through the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross. The classic example in Judaism is Hosea’s continued faithfulness to his cheating wife, a metaphor of God’s faithfulness to his unfaithful people. Examples are found in Hinduism, which depicts Krishna continually returning to fight evil and in Buddhism where the Bodhisattva refrains from entering Nirvana in order to save others. All these positive, beautiful expressions of love are grounded in pain. It would appear that the faith traditions are suggesting that in order to experience the joy of love we must first know its pain..Cupid’s arrow must first pierce our skin before it can penetrate our hearts.

I recently attended the annual interfaith dinner at Altrincham Boys Grammar School. It was a fascinating and joy filled evening, it was great to see people of many faiths mixing and enjoying each other’s company. During the evening I had a conversation with Alan Morris, the Deacon at Holy Angels Church in Hale Barns. He asked me why I’d entered into the ministry? This is one of those questions I never like to answer, mainly because it begins with sadness. As I have expressed before my journey really began as I came to terms with Ethan’s death and witnessed the incredible compassionate love shown by the whole community to his family, in their time of need. The love I experienced through his short life and even through his death is why I entered into the ministry. His life and death changed me. If I had not felt that pain, would I have entered into the ministry? God knows. As I have said before, we do do not get to choose our pain, only our response to it.

I agree with Roy Orbison “love hurts”, however it manifests itself.

The Song of Songs reads:

Set me as a seal upon your heart,
   as a seal upon your arm;
for love is strong as death,
   passion fierce as the grave.
Its flashes are flashes of fire,
   a raging flame. 

Can love be as strong as death? Well I believe so. It is love that gives life meaning and purpose, even in its pain. Real love can survive and overcome just about anything, any hurt any pain. When we love someone deeply, we create an eternal bond. This is a spiritual connection in which personal anxiety and pain is dispelled through our relationship to one to another.

Victor Franklin in “Man’s Search For Meaning” wrote about his life as a prisoner in the Nazi death camps. He remembered that those who had no connection to people, or hopes or dreams or to God gave up very quickly and died. This he said was because they had nothing to believe in but their own bodies, which were imprisoned; where as those who communed in their thoughts, dreams or prayers with someone or something they loved survived much longer.

Frankl recalls

... We stumbled on in the darkness, over big stones and through large puddles, along the one road leading from the camp. The accompanying guards kept shouting at us and driving us with the butts of their rifles. Anyone with very sore feet supported himself on his neighbor's arm. Hardly a word was spoken; the icy wind did not encourage talk. Hiding his mouth behind his upturned collar, the man marching next to me whispered suddenly: "If our wives could see us now! I do hope they are better off in their camps and don't know what is happening to us."
That brought thoughts of my own wife to mind. And as we stumbled on for miles, slipping on icy spots, supporting each other time and again, dragging one another up and onward, nothing was said, but we both knew: each of us was thinking of his wife. Occasionally I looked at the sky, where the stars were fading and the pink light of the morning was beginning to spread behind a dark bank of clouds. But my mind clung to my wife's image, imagining it with an uncanny acuteness. I heard her answering me, saw her smile, her frank and encouraging look. Real or not, her look was then more luminous than the sun which was beginning to rise.
A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth -- that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love. I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved. In a position of utter desolation, when man cannot express himself in positive action, when his only achievement may consist in enduring his sufferings in the right way—an honorable way—in such a position man can, through loving contemplation of the image he carries of his beloved, achieve fulfillment. For the first time in my life I was able to understand the meaning of the words, "The angels are lost in perpetual contemplation of an infinite glory...."

Frankl later reflected that even if he had know that his wife was dead, their relationship would have been as strong in that moment because the reality that their love created was stronger than death. It was a flame that neither water nor flood nor human frailty could quench. It was a power that could overcome any suffering and sustain him in in what was perhaps the darkest period in human history.

Love, however it may manifest itself, is what gives life meaning. Be it for wife or partner, family, friends, community, life, nature or God, it is the expression of this love that gives life its bliss, even in the darkest of hours.

Happy Valentine's Day. May you know the love that is present in life.

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