Tuesday, 14 February 2012

'What a world would this be, were everything beloved as it ought to be!'

St Valentine's Day makes me sad. Not only for the obvious reasons, that is, not only for myself (I'm not exactly besieged by secret admirers), but for everybody, for the world. I know there are lots of people who are too sensible to pay much attention to Valentine's Day, and I'm sure there are relationships within which it is a healthy and a beautiful thing, in which no one hopes for too much and is disappointed; but for many people - even for people who are happy with themselves and/or in happy relationships - it's a day on which the gulf between hope and reality becomes painful and poignant and impossible to ignore. Everyone wants to be loved, and no one is ever really sure that they are loved enough. The power of that desire for acceptance and reassurance is ripe for exploitation by advertisers and the media, of course; but they don't create the desire, although they feed it. It is an entirely natural longing, though to express it solely in terms of romantic love is a distortion of our ignorant and bewildered modern culture (the medievals, despite what I posted the other day, largely knew better).

It all makes me think of a passage from Thomas Traherne which I've posted here a number of times before:*

That violence wherewith sometimes a man doteth upon one creature, is but a little spark of that love, even towards all, which lurketh in his nature. We are made to love, both to satisfy the necessity of our active nature, and to answer the beauties in every creature. By Love our Souls are married and solder'd to the creatures and it is our Duty like God to be united to them all. We must love them infinitely, but in God, and for God and God in them: namely all His excellencies manifested in them. When we dote upon the perfections and beauties of some one creature, we do not love that too much, but other things too little. Never was anything in this world loved too much, but many things have been loved in a false way: and all in too short a measure...

O what a treasure is every sand when truly understood! Who can love anything that God made too much? What a world would this be, were everything beloved as it ought to be!

Suppose a curious and fair woman. Some have seen the beauties of Heaven in such a person. It is a vain thing to say they loved too much. I dare say there are ten thousand beauties in that creature which they have not seen: they loved it not too much, but upon false causes. Nor so much upon false ones, as only upon some little ones. They love a creature for sparkling eyes and curled hair, lily breasts and ruddy cheeks which they should love moreover for being God's Image, Queen of the Universe, beloved by Angels, redeemed by Jesus Christ, an heiress of Heaven, and temple of the Holy Ghost: a mine and fountain of all virtues, a treasury of graces, and a child of God. But these excellencies are unknown. They love her perhaps, but do not love God more: nor men as much: nor Heaven and Earth at all. And so, being defective to other things, perish by a seeming excess to that.

We should be all Life and Mettle and Vigour and Love to everything; and that would poise us. I dare confidently say that every person in the whole world ought to be beloved as much as this: And she, if there be any cause of difference, more than she is. But God being beloved infinitely more, will be infinitely more our joy, and our heart will be more with Him, so that no man can be in danger by loving others too much, that loveth God as he ought.
Thomas Traherne, Centuries of Meditations, 2:66-8.

Last week, in some survey or other, this painting was voted the 'most romantic work of art on display in the UK':

It's Dicksee's 'Romeo and Juliet', and it really is very beautiful (though I still like this Dicksee painting more). Our culture's exaltation of Romeo and Juliet is nonsense, of course; what sane person would want a love like theirs? But we respond to the extravagant adoration and self-sacrifice in their short-lived love, and want to love and be loved as intensely (if not in quite the same way) as they love each other. As Traherne says, everyone deserves to be loved for their own sake, as the children of God, as much as Juliet is for her beauty. "What a world would this be, were everything beloved as it ought to be!"

Of course the answer for the Christian is that we should know better than to expect that kind of love on earth. Only God can love us that much (or so they say). To put the burden of that hope on another human being, as the modern Valentine's Day encourages us to do, is simply unfair, and to measure it by gifts and romantic words is only setting oneself up for disappointment. All human love, however beautiful, is ultimately imperfect and inadequate; I keep being haunted by the last line of this poem, in which the speaker says to Christ, "in sorrow endeth every love but thine, at the last". Valentine's Day urges us to believe otherwise, even if we know better. And so it makes me sad.

*(a ridiculous number of times, when there's a whole book full of such wonderful passages! You can read it online here.)

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