Valentine's Day: A Lenten Exercise

Valentine's Day has been set aside to celebrate the joys of human love. For many others, however, the day will come not as a happy occasion but a bitter reminder of heartbreak: of relationships that have failed to endure or materialise, of affections left unreciprocated, and hopes of the receipt of love being met with the reality of that love being placed in someone other than oneself. 

If the heartbreak is fresh, getting through Valentine's Day can be nothing short of torturous. The saturation of romantic vignettes in our social environment ensures that however much one may argue of the facile glamour that comes with the day, its ethos may seep into our hearts and shape our desires in ways contrary to what we wish to think with our minds.

The Christian undergoing heartbreak may be able to go beyond the vague feelings of loneliness and rejection put some exact labels on their experience, but the exactitude of such labels may serve to intensify the pain of heartbreak. Such experiences may include rejection by the object of their affections and extreme jealousy. Going further the Christian, even the most faithful ones, may take the occasion of heartbreak as a concrete sign of his or her abandonment by God. The Christian may entertain the feeling that their world is decisively closing in on them and coming to an abrupt and untimely end. Sadness may sometimes give way to rage, and in that anger, the Christian may even come to reject the biblical assurances that "God is close to the broken-hearted" and will "bind up all their wounds" (Ps 147:3) - words used in the morning office that coincides with Valentine's Day -  regarding them as little more than cheap word games that mask what may seem to be the reality of a never-ending procession of disappointment and regret. Such experiences may cause the heart of the Christian to dry up into an arid desert, devoid of life and resistant to the hope of anything different.

Could the coinciding of Valentine's Day with an unusually early Lenten season speak to Christians such as these? Valentine's Day falls on the first day after Ash Wednesday, and the day after the Lenten call from the Ash Wednesday liturgical reading by the prophet Joel - "Let your hearts be broken" (Joel 2:13). This coincidence would make the intersection of Lent with heartbreak particularly poignant. Moreover, the experience of the heart as a desert against the backdrop of the 40 days of Lent may find parallels with Lent's remembrance of God calling Israel to spend 40 years of purification in the desert following their liberation from Egypt in the Book of Exodus. Could the heart be not seen as that Lenten desert, the site where God would, in the words of Hosea 2:14, "seduce and speak tenderly" to us?

A clue to what that encounter might entail can be gleaned from the writings on marriage by St. Gregory of Nyssa, which are teased out in an article by John Behr of St. Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary. In his On VirginitySt. Gregory cautioned those who are married against the temptation to place hopes of permanence - which can only be found in the glorified Christ - in one's spouse instead. Even where spouses fulfil their vows of fidelity, the finality of death proves that spouses, however much they reflect the neverending faithfulness of God, are in and of themselves transient. As such, our hope for something eternal in the object of our affections would be woefully misplaced.

On Ash Wednesday, palms that were once used to express the hope and joy of a people, are now burnt and ground down as so much dust to be put on our heads. The heartbroken Christian may, on the day after we have these rendered hopes and dreams smeared on our foreheads, rightfully feel that one's world has come to an end with the failure of a relationship and its attendant hopes and joys. Human attachment allows us no way to avoid that feeling. However, to extend St. Gregory's thought in On Virginity, the degree of finality attributed to this feeling may also indicate the extent to which we place messianic value on the object of our affections, thereby turning a legitimate human pleasure into an idol.

In the face of disappointment over misdirected hope, the experience of heartbreak can be an involuntary, but nonetheless real, practice of penance. The experience of heartbreak can be the concrete material with which we can repent of our misplaced hopes and desires, come to the realisation of the fragility of our designs, and from that realise our utter helplessness. The cracks of the broken heart can be the gateways through which God can speak to that Christian and say to him or her as Joel said to Israel: "Even now, come back to me" (Joel 2:12). 

This Lent, God can speak to the heartbroken by beckoning one away from what is transient to what is eternal. In so doing, God is calling one away from the walls of one's world which seem to go on an inexorable path towards implosion, towards Him who slowly goes towards the Cross and Resurrection, and says to us

See, I am doing  new thing. Now it springs up. Can you not see it already? (Isaiah 43:19)


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