Faith Matters

Will the penance of Ash Wednesday kill the romance of St Valentine's Day?

Ash Wednesday and St Valentine's Day fall on the same day next week, posing a challenge for the couple who loves God. Meeting it could mean helping 'each other to heaven', says Fr Dominic McGrattan

Ash Wednesday and Valentine's Day coincide this year

IF you were to open a Valentine's card next week and read 'Remember thou art dust, and unto dust thou shalt return', you would be forgiven for thinking that romance was dead.

And yet the Lenten call to conversion might not be an entirely inappropriate verse given that, this year, Ash Wednesday and St Valentine's Day coincide.

This no doubt presents a quandary for those romantics who would ordinarily say 'I love you' with chocolates and fine dining, but who nevertheless wish to begin the Lenten season in true penitential spirit.

During Lent, the Church reminds us of the eternal importance of opening ourselves and our relationships to the light of Christ and the fresh breeze of the Holy Spirit.

Instead of focusing purely on self-improvement during Lent, we are called to surrender ourselves so that God may live even more within our hearts and our relationships.

For those with a 'significant other', this necessitates going a little deeper than the 'Roses are red, violets are blue' brand of romance pedalled during the flower-filled, Hallmark-driven, love-fest that is Valentine's Day.

Pope Francis, in his apostolic exhortation Amoris laetitia, 'The Joy of Love', invites couples to discover a more realistic and long-lasting love than the feelings of romance or passion on which our culture fixates.

They are called to make lasting choices, which can be challenging in today's throwaway culture.

Francis encourages couples to look beyond the here and now to build a future together: "Don't build your house on the sand of feelings that come and go. Build it on the rock of real love."

At this point you may be wondering what a confirmed-celibate like me - or indeed Pope Francis - has to offer by way of relationship advice worth listening to this Lent?

As it happens, there's nothing unusual in cutting across the traditional dividing categories of lay and ordained, married and celibate.

During my studies for priesthood, one of my theology teachers, Sarah Coakley - who is married, a mother and an Anglican minister - encouraged me to reflect on the work of the early Church Fathers, in particular their treatment of celibacy.

Instead of focusing purely on self-improvement during Lent, we are called to surrender ourselves so that God may live even more within our hearts and our relationships 

In the late fourth century, Gregory of Nyssa, the younger brother of Basil of Caesarea and one of the great Cappadocian Fathers who forged our classic understanding of the Holy Trinity, wrote a remarkable treatise entitled On Virginity.

It is a work which has puzzled his readership ever since, not least because Gregory was almost certainly married when he authored the work.

His message is a subtle one, for what Gregory presents to us is a vision of desire that does not imply the opposition of marriage to celibacy, but rather views them as complementary.

His vision entertains the thought that the godly ordering of desire is what is common to the aims of marriage and celibacy at their best, and equally what judges both of them at their worst.

The key issue, for Gregory, is a training of desire, a lifelong commitment to what we might now call the 'long haul' of personal transformation, and thereby of reflection on the final significance of all our desires before God.

This, in a nutshell, is what Lent is all about. Through fasting, prayer and almsgiving, we allow ourselves to be purged of worldly desires and thereby free ourselves to journey onward toward the real good, the final end, which is God.

To illustrate, Gregory uses the metaphor of the 'stream' of desire, and of its right direction, use, and even intensification.

If a person's stream of desire flowing toward God divides itself off into a number of smaller, accidental channels directed at the pleasure of the senses, it will be useless.

Its flow will dissipate, making each particular current small and feeble, and therefore incapable of reaching its divine destination.

The choice is whether ultimately to be a 'pleasure-lover' or a 'God-lover'. It is not that romantic or sexual pleasure holds any intrinsic fear for Gregory - unlike his near-contemporary in the West, Augustine of Hippo, whose epic and tortured struggles for sexual continence we know about in detail from the Confessions - but rather, that it is all a matter of due balance or 'proportion'.

Desire toward God does not exclude physical intimacy in marriage. On the contrary, Gregory uses the same metaphor of the stream precisely to explain how in marriage, intimacy can be a "good irrigation" provided it, too, is moderate and ordered to God.

Good, spiritually productive marriage is equal to celibacy in its potential to bear the fruit of service to others, especially to the poor

It is not then to suppress passion that the treatise is written but rather, as stated by Gregory at the very outset, precisely to "create passion" for "the life according to excellence".

Good, spiritually productive marriage is equal to celibacy in its potential to bear the fruit of service to others, especially to the poor.

Yet Gregory reserves singular praise for virginity, not on account of its sexlessness, but because of its withdrawal from worldly interests - the building up of families, status, and honour - and hence its emulation of the changeless life of the Trinity. It is not sex that is the problem but worldly values.

On this view, the married person who can 'channel the water' of desire toward God is significantly above the mere physically celibate virgin who is still subject to false attachments or the spiritual vices of envy, malice, and slander.

But the special power of the virgin who has rightly channelled the stream lies in his or her significance for others.

Such, for Gregory himself, was the inspiration of his celibate brother. In imitating Basil's spiritually powerful witness, Gregory could 'catch the halo' of right-ordered desire: celibacy was ultimately to be 'caught,' not 'taught.'

Gregory ends, much in the spirit of Alasdair MacIntyre today, with an insistence on the transformative power of ascetical practices, and the indispensable significance of witness.

This is surely a point of great spiritual import - right-channelled desire, whether married or celibate, is impossible without deep prayer and ascetic perseverance; but it is even more impossible, interestingly, without shining examples to emulate.

Could this be the challenge for, and gift of, the couple who loves God this Lent?

To be committed to what Pope Francis calls "the art of living together"? To observe as a couple, and intentionally, the three pillars of Lent: fasting, prayer and almsgiving? To prefer 'us' time to 'me' time?

To choose words carefully and share them at the right moment to daily protect and nurture love, words like 'please', 'thank you' and 'sorry'? To strive together to be shining examples to emulate, offering the counter-cultural witness not of film stars, sports heroes or royal families, but of rightly-ordered, desire-filled saints?

If 'yes', then to mark St Valentine's Day this year as a day of fast and abstinence, the beginning of a journey to channel desires and become passionately moderate so that we might help each other to heaven, might not seem that unromantic after all.

  • Dominic McGrattan is a priest of the Diocese of Down and Connor and a former curate at St Patrick's Church in Belfast and chaplain to the Mater Hospital. He is pursuing post-graduate studies at the Catholic University of Leuven in Flanders, Belgium.

Ash Wednesday and Valentine's Day coincide this year

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