Loving Rite

Here’s a Valentine’s Day guest post for you from my friend Michelle Bartel

After my divorce a couple of years ago, I realized we had not developed rituals in our marriage over those decades, and that is an odd way to live. Rituals are markers that draw us deeper into the beauty and delights that enliven us, reminders of surviving and even thriving through the struggle and grief that visits us all. Rituals mean something to us because they are evocative.

Christmas is evocative, in both its Christian and non-Christian sense, and has become a ritual full of rituals. We enjoy generosity all year long and take pleasure in it, giving gifts to one another in myriad ways. The ritual of generosity and gift-giving at Christmas in honor of the One who is the Light of the world means something because it reminds us of who we have been told we are: the light of the world.

Christmas ritualizes something deep and true and long-lived. At Christmas our rituals of presents, feasts, and service evoke the significance of the cards and cakes people bring us through the year, to the times we’ve been invited us to walk through a door someone is holding open. We call to mind the miraculous presence of Christ in the everyday.

Valentine’s Day has become a ritual. I have yet to meet the person who is neutral about it. Some think it’s the bee’s knees. There are cynics and those who deride its commercialism, and those whose tender hearts are reminded of loss. There is intense reaction to the day because it hits a deep, sensitive spot in us.

It is the spot where love, longing, and loneliness meet.

After an odd date a few months ago, I sought counsel from my neighbor and friend. She listened to me process what had transpired, and asked questions and told me some of her stories. She also offered observations about men, dating, and life. Toward the end she looked at me and said “You really are a romantic, aren’t you?”

I never thought of myself this way. Ever. I have considered myself rational and intellectual, not sentimental. Naturally, I looked it up the next day, googling “what’s a romantic?”

Entry after entry came back with one particular marker: hope. A romantic is someone who hopes for a more beautiful reality and experience, who hopes for intimacy, who hopes to swim around in love until her fingers are all pruny. Someone like me who loves logic and who argues over definitions can also be a romantic. Through heartbreak, there is still hope.

This little bit of “research” led me in a theological direction, to consider whether or not romance is actually constitutive of Christian life. I do not mean to say that one has to fall in forever true love to be a Christian. I am saying that love hopes all things.

Christian love is a falling-in-love. It is being rapt by gorgeous landscapes and amazed by gorgeous smiles, fine paintings, a well-designed car engine, a courteous act, a piece of music that brings tears to our eyes. We have convictions about things we believe but do not see – we have hope – because love opens us to truth, goodness, and beauty.

Christian romantic life seeks to enact and witness the ordinary and extraordinary replications of Resurrection that permeate life in this universe God loves so much. We do not want to give up hope. That is why we keep seeking all three of those “transcendentals:” the quest for truth, goodness, and beauty is composed of hope. Quotidian delights point the way to the Creator who creates all that is, seen and as yet unseen.

I hope, and thus I am a proud self-identified romantic. I can’t wait to fall in love.

Here’s my confession: I have always secretly loved Valentine’s Day. I have always wanted to celebrate it, and have celebrated it almost always. Now, I wonder, can we redeem the ritual, make it one that charms us and reminds us of hope? Can we look deeper into its origins and mine its richness for a ritual that pulls our memories toward the sheer fabulous nature of God’s riotously diverse love?

The first Valentine’s Day after my ex-husband left was a big day, only a few months later and the divorce was official. I did not want to go through that day thinking only about loss. I can’t remember which movie I watched – no doubt something distracting like Serenity or Dodgeball. The day was evoking all sorts of emotions and I wanted the dominant one to be life-affirming.

To turn the distracting movie into an event, I set up a tray for the living room. I used my good china and my fine Depression-era glass. I piled in-season strawberries fresh from Florida in a crystal-stemmed compote. I poured a glass of delicious red wine, gave myself some chocolate, and prepared a meal. That very day, February 14th, I received a Valentine’s Day card in the mail from my brother and his family, which all three kids signed. You can see the card propped on the tray.

the feast

the feast

Mumford and Sons have a song titled “Awake, My Soul” on their album Sigh No More. They remind us that “where you invest your love, you invest your life.St. Valentine did this and was killed for his trouble – and for his love.

Perhaps Valentine’s Day can be a ritual for this kind of uninhibited love. Not only love that includes romance, but the whole romantic breadth and depth of love that invests hopefully in life: the longings that lead us toward certain places, certain callings, certain people. It could be a ritual that reminds us of how much we love and are loved.

Of course, like so many other rituals in Christian life, it will be mixed. Christmas evokes grief, sadness, and alienation as we grieve loved ones who aren’t sitting around the tree or the table as we celebrate. Celebrating the Lord’s Supper is a mixed experience when we cannot feel and have no intellectual patience for any assertion that we are bound into one body with those who have hurt us deeply or done us an injustice.

Still, all of our rituals – all of them – are rituals of hope. They are the conviction of things not seen.

At least, not seen in their full completion.

There is good news, though, because we can also tell stories about the manifestation of the marvel of these rituals. My oldest goddaughter was sitting on a table, sobbing, the last baby girl brought to her adoptive parents as this group of longing adults traveled to China to fetch the beloved children who were already theirs.

This child couldn’t understand at that moment that she had been loved and desired for twice as long as she had been alive. I witnessed her baptism into the life of the church, our ultimate Christian ritual, this daughter brought into her family through adoption.

Or the times (maybe it has happened to you) that you have seen someone distribute an element of the Lord’s Supper to someone they didn’t like. If they looked each other in the eyes, their perceptions of each other shifted.

Maybe you witnessed the ritual of a child’s earnestly made piece of jewelry presented at Christmas. (My mom still has the paper-covered paper clip chain I made decades ago. It’s not pretty. But her reception of the gift was.)

Or, maybe you marveled as a daughter, giving valentines to her class– a mix of store bought and homemade. She explains, “I’m mostly making cards for the kids who get teased a lot.”

I have seen why the rituals of love matter. Love seeps into us, one way or another, all year long. Clearly, the child considering the children who get teased has been learning love and how it might be felt or missed on Valentine’s Day. That takes time, time for her to learn and develop compassion.

I have seen decades-long marriages travel from enchanting young love to enduring covenantal cadences of conversation, slight bickering, the constant interruption of laughter, and the affectionate touch of kisses and hand-holding always just a breath away.

I have been around romantic commitments that are flat-out pretty to look at. The people might be pretty too, but what is really lovely is the festivity they give forth by the way they love each other: freely, with jollity and respect. I imagine some of those pairs will read this blog, and I hope they know how much beauty and hope they give me, how much joy they have imparted by welcoming me into their lives and homes.

Valentine’s Day is already a ritual.  How can we reclaim it from cheap sentimentality and consumerism?  How could Valentine’s Day allow our souls to awake, to reflect on investing our lives by investing our love? I want to suggest that we make it a ritual of hope.

I won’t give up hope. I realize now I didn’t take my marriage vows too seriously, as I originally thought. In fact, if (and when!) I get married again, I will throw myself into that covenant with more joy, hope and faith than I did the first time. I didn’t take marriage seriously enough, and now I see that its truth, goodness, and beauty are the worthier pursuit.

The images of marriage used for Christ and the church that were passed to me in my church-y youth were only beautiful: it is a relationship of infinitely generous love, I was taught, of Christ’s self-giving for the well-being of the church.

And even if we take the Song of Songs – as I was taught in church as a child – as only  an allegory of the love between Christ and the church, then let us be amazed! For that love is erotic, full of desire, full of awestruck admiration for the beloved, her curves and eyes and neck, his chest and chin, the steam and heat of it all. The scenery is beautiful in that book, the settings are lush, and the lovers are surrounded by their communities.

The ritual of Valentine’s Day already exists. I suggest we make it beautiful.

Let us declare the love we have for each other, whether it be eros, philia, or agape.

Let us declare that love in words and deeds, whether we invest money in those expressions or not. A poem of thanks, praise, or desire written on the back of a napkin because one was moved to do so is as beautiful a gesture as there is for the friend who treasures us, the family members who genuinely care about us, the lover who lights us up.

I suggest we use the ritual of this day as a marker to point toward God who is Love (as we read in our sacred text), as a reminder of the love we seek to give and receive all year long, and as a declaration of hope for the love we yearn for in the deepest, most tender, most intimate space of our hearts.

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