Valentine’s Day was never really observed, much less celebrated, in our family; neither with my only sibling and our dear departed parents, nor with my beloved better half and our five loving children. February 14 only became an important date after I came in contact with Opus Dei, being the anniversary of the foundation of the Women’s Section (1930), and of the Priestly Society of the Holy Cross (1943) from which come the priests of Opus Dei. Apart from this date being a feastday in “the Work” (shorthand for Opus Dei), Valentine’s Day (for me) is just one of those secular, consumerist feastdays invented by the titans of commerce to boost sales.
Be that as it may, today I bow to convention and fashion, and so concede the good in having a feastday for romantic love, represented by the image of the human heart. (Indeed, Valentine’s Day sounds more natural in the vernacular Araw ng mga Puso). But, yes, we use the adjective “romantic” to qualify “love” because Valentine’s Day is specifically about that kind of love, even “erotic” love; whence the image of Cupid or Eros (mythological god of “desire” of ancient Rome/Greece) that is nearly as ubiquitous as the Heart on V-Day.
In his very first Encyclical letter, now Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI adverts to three kinds of love—desire (eros), friendship (philia), and self-giving (agape)—but notes a certain unity among these. Indeed, in its most basic sense, Love is an act of the Will—a “choice”—the object of which is a “good”—whether for the self (eros), for the “other” as an equal (philia), or for the other in self-denial (agape).
Benedict XVI writes: “We began by asking whether the different, or even opposed, meanings of the word ‘love’ point to some profound underlying unity, or whether on the contrary they must remain unconnected, one alongside the other. More significantly, though, we questioned whether the message of love proclaimed to us by the Bible and the Church’s Tradition has some points of contact with the common human experience of love, or whether it is opposed to that experience. This in turn led us to consider two fundamental words: eros, as a term to indicate ‘worldly’ love and agape, referring to love grounded in and shaped by faith. The two notions are often contrasted as ‘ascending’ love and ‘descending’ love. There are other, similar classifications, such as the distinction between possessive love and oblative love (amor concupiscentiae – amor benevolentiae), to which is sometimes also added love that seeks its own advantage.
“In philosophical and theological debate, these distinctions have often been radicalized to the point of establishing a clear antithesis between them: descending, oblative love—agape—would be typically Christian, while on the other hand ascending, possessive or covetous love —eros—would be typical of non-Christian, and particularly Greek culture. Were this antithesis to be taken to extremes, the essence of Christianity would be detached from the vital relations fundamental to human existence, and would become a world apart, admirable perhaps, but decisively cut off from the complex fabric of human life. Yet eros and agape—ascending love and descending love—can never be completely separated. The more the two, in their different aspects, find a proper unity in the one reality of love, the more the true nature of love in general is realized. Even if eros is at first mainly covetous and ascending, a fascination for the great promise of happiness, in drawing near to the other, it is less and less concerned with itself, increasingly seeks the happiness of the other, is concerned more and more with the beloved, bestows itself and wants to ‘be there for’ the other. The element of agape thus enters into this love, for otherwise eros is impoverished and even loses its own nature. On the other hand, man cannot live by oblative, descending love alone. He cannot always give, he must also receive. Anyone who wishes to give love must also receive love as a gift. Certainly, as the Lord tells us, one can become a source from which rivers of living water flow (cf. Jn 7:37-38). Yet to become such a source, one must constantly drink anew from the original source, which is Jesus Christ, from whose pierced heart flows the love of God (cf. Jn 19:34).” (DCE, No. 7)
The entire encyclical, Deus Caritas Est (“God is Love”, a phrase from the First Letter of Saint John [1 Jn 4:8, 16]), is certainly worth re-reading, V-Day or not.
But thinking of Love, I cannot help touching on “human freedom”, which is precisely our capacity to love. Without freedom, there can be no love; but freedom necessarily implies the possibility to not-love.
So, to all the lovers out there: our freedom is not absolute (it has to bow to objective reality and the binding effect of our choices); it becomes meaningful when it is exercised and ends in commitment; and it is inseparable from responsibility (we have no one to blame but ourselves for the consequences of our choices). In the final analysis, authentic human freedom is our capacity to direct ourselves towards our end. In the language of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “God willed that man should be left in the hand of his own counsel, so that he might of his own accord seek his Creator and freely attain his full and blessed perfection by cleaving to Him” (CCC, No. 1743).
Happy Valentine’s Day to everyone! (14.II.2021)