Our Gift of Self

Fingers forming a heart against the setting sun

It’s Valentine’s Day on Monday!  However, today’s secular response to St. Valentine has completely lost sight of the original person and meaning.  The true story of St. Valentine, like most early saints, is mostly lost to the mists of time but our best understanding is that he was a priest in Rome under Emperor Claudius II. When the Emperor forbade young men to marry, so as to more easily recruit them into his army, St. Valentine began conducting secret weddings. For this he was arrested, imprisoned and eventually executed.  His life stands as a testament to the importance of life-long romantic love, sacrificing his liberty and his life in order to support couples in their pursuit of marital holiness.

Most of us think of love as that feeling of affection and attachment we experience for another person.  But is love just a feeling? Or is there more to it?   We recall St. Paul’s great reflection (1 Cor 13) about love being patient, kind, never jealous or boastful or conceited, never rude, selfish or resentful, being always ready to excuse, trust and endure whatever comes.  Both this reflection and the love poetry of the Old Testament’s Song of Songs are often used as readings at weddings.  Written as a poetic dialogue between the bride and groom, the Song of Songs speaks of the raptures of being in love.  It also represents the nature of God’s love for His people. This  YouTube video is worth watching to understand the context and structure of this love poetry.  It’s very interesting!

Every person experiences love in a unique way. Some gestures of love will more powerfully communicate love than others.   For example, some people feel close and connected when they can physically touch the other person. Others demonstrate love through words of affirmation or affection, acts of service or thoughtfulness, or by spending time in close conversation.

In our culture, ‘love’ is generally seen to be a feeling. We ‘fall’ into love and we ‘fall’ out of it; love is something that just happens to us – we can’t help falling in and out of love. It’s a feeling over which we have no control… or so the culture tells us.  But there is another view and a better definition.  St. Thomas Aquinas defined love as “seeking the good of the other”.  In his philosophy, feelings and emotions were secondary to the will when it came to love.

In fact, love is a choice.  It’s a conscious, deliberate choice to make a gift of one’s self to another.  In his “Theology of the Body”, St. John Paul II saw this ‘gift of self’ in marriage as being made in various ways through the body.  We are embodied souls, so our ‘gift of self’ will be expressed and lived out through bodily acts.  This may for example, take the form of a generous act of service, or of listening to the other patiently, or the total ‘gift of self’ enacted in marital union between husband and wife.  This ‘gift of self’ may, at various times, be unilateral or mutual.  A parent-child relationship is most often a one-sided ‘gift of self’.  It is a benevolent love in which the parent has no expectation of having his or her personal needs met by the child.

In a mutual ‘gift of self’, the love is reciprocated. This is the ideal of the husband and wife relationship, where both make a sincere ‘gift of self’ to each other, and both sincerely seek the good of the other and to meet their needs* for appreciation, affection, companionship, respect and intimacy.  These qualities of married love are evident in the Catholic wedding vows and form the basis of Catholic marriage.  They also speak to the nature of Christ’s love for his ‘bride’, i.e: the people of God.  And that’s one of the reasons why Matrimony is a Sacrament (a sign) because it demonstrates and makes visible to the world the nature of God’s love.  It is the means whereby husband and wife sanctify (make holy) the other, helping each other to Heaven.

*CathFamily.org / smartloving.org