Love is in the air!

Just a day ago, as Christ’s followers, we began the Lenten journey. Receiving ashes on our forehead we recalled that ‘we are dust and to dust we will return’. A certain sombreness seemed to descend upon us as we enter into the privileged desert time to walk the Exodus journey. However it was almost as if our liturgical journey was interrupted and we  seemed to be surrounded  by hearts, flowers, roses and the apparent commercialism that accompanies Valentine’s Day.

In its continual effort to create a culture of life and be leaven in our University, the Students for Life group here in St. Paul’s decided to do something to celebrate the gift of life and of love in a visible way. Following on from last year, an enthusiastic group prepared a colourful display of free treats including homemade cookies and cupcakes and sweets. We also had a few dozen roses for people to take away for a small donation. A written message accompanying the display read:”God's love is free, total, faithful, and fruitful. May yours be as well. This phrase echoes one of Pope Benedict’s recent phrases from one of the Angelus’: “Every human being is loved by God the Father. No one need feel forgotten, for every name is written in the Lord’s loving heart. “. We also had a new poster to display which reminded us of the gift of complimentarity of relationship, of being created as male and female and that this is a gift from God the Creator (Gen 5:2).

Valentine’s  Day can be a hard time for some people who feel alone or have been hurt because of relationships or are afraid to open their hearts to love and trust someone. This said, it was probably strange for some people to have a religious sister to wish them a ‘Happy Valentine’s Day’ as they were offered cupcakes or chocolate chip cookies but Valentine’s Day doesn’t have to be just for couples! It is a celebration of life and of love, hence the importance for our group to be a silent yet poignant reminder that you cannot have one without the other. If you are open to love, to enter into relationship and through marriage hand over everything as a gift to each other so as to bring new life into the world, life follows love, new life made manifest in a small child.

This is a concept which is not always understood and not always accepted. Today I realised that people are suspicious if you try to give them something for free, even a cookie! For some people, there must be a catch, I must have to sign something, commit to something, I am supporting some ideology. If people are suspicious of a free cookie, try and explain unconditional love. Unconditional love grows by giving. The love we give away is the only love we keep. The only way to retain love is to give it away. However love hurts.  I remember somebody recently asking me: ‘are you willing to bleed?’. It sounds stronger than: ‘are you willing to suffer?’. I am reminded of a video I saw at a Youth 2000 retreat in Shankill a few years ago (thanks Fr. Shane Crombie!) which set scenes of The Passion (on the life of Jesus) to Leona Lewis’s ‘Bleeding Love’ song (note I have linked it but some of the scenes are strong but this is the reality of the Cross and how much the Father loves us).

Often we can romanticize love too much. The abrasions of love have inspired many a great writer. From Shakespeare to Jane Austen, writers have at some time or the other dwelt upon the anguish called love.The reality is love hurts! Remember St. Valentine was a martyr! Out of love for Christ whom he refused to deny, Valentine was beheaded. Whilst we may be not be martyred for our faith, discipleship asks of us to die unto ourself and live for another. It requires that we bleed.  True love is selfless and unconditional. True love knows no boundaries, it is not judgmental, it is kind. It is enough to look at St. Paul’s hymn to love in 1 Corinthians 13 to see the kind of love we are called to. Those of you from my generation might remember the song from the Backstreet Boys:"I don't care who you are, where you're from, what you do, as long as you love me." We all carry the deep desire to be loved. Unconditional love only gives, but does not take anything in return. Essentially, everything proceeds from Love and tends towards Love. God’s gratuitous love is made known to us through the proclamation of the Gospel, through the sacraments, through each other. If we welcome these with faith, we receive the first and indispensable contact with the Divine, capable of making us “fall in love with Love”, and then we dwell within this Love, we grow in it and we joyfully communicate it to others.

How can we ‘stay in love’? For me, one of the best Valentine gifts I had today was the possibility to go for Adoration and sit with Jesus! It gives that quiet space to keep falling in love, to work through the difficulties, to be aware of how marred my human love can be, to cultivate the sense of being loved because this is something which we can easily forget.Like every relationship, our relationship with the Lord needs to be constantly nourished, worked at, dialogued through. In the novel The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, we remember the young girl Liesel has difficulty in believing in love and more so, that she was loved. Interesting enough, the novel is narrated by Death who doesn’t do much to encourage her in believing the contrary. In fact we read, “ no matter how many times she was told that she was loved, there was no recognition that the proof was in the abandonment.”It is true- often in life we cannot recognize when love begins but we definitely know when it ends. We focus on how we have been disappointed and we are unable to heal. We see how sin can warp innocent love and turn agape to eros. However forgiveness is an intrinsic part of unconditional love. When you love someone deeply, you find the heart to forgive. You can overlook the blemishes because your love overcomes the flaws. Martin Luther King Jr. beautifully put it in words when he said, "He who is devoid of the power to forgive, is devoid of the power to love." Unconditional love never imposes because the more we try to twist them to fit our own image, the more we end up loving the reflection of ourselves we find in them. In reality, the only image we should see in them is that of Christ, even if the image is a work in progress, we respect the efforts and uphill struggle that each person makes in striving for holiness.

I know I have quoted this on other occasions but it never ceases to be old for me and it is fitting to end with this: “Nothing is more practical than finding God, than falling in 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 morning,
what you do with your evenings, how you spend your weekends,
what you read, whom 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.(Pedro Arrupe).

Well done if you made it to the end...sorry it was a bit longer than usual! Blessings for the First Friday of Lent!