Feb. 14 marks the celebration of Valentine’s Day, a day which has become synonymous with love. That word, love, is much over-used in a world that often seems to have an inadequate supply of such a quality.

Over-used and misunderstood, or not properly understood because our conception of it is too limited. Love is bandied about in a rather meaningless way for too many people. Love is more than mere liking someone a lot. Love is not merely desire (which seems to have a possessive quality). Love is more than mere romance and it transcends the bonds of good feeling between individuals.

That is what love isn’t. But what is it? A good starting place is to recall that in its essence, love is a gift from God and any love we have – for Him or for another – is but a mere pale impression of His love for us. As John reminds us, He loved us so much He sent His only Son to earth to die for us on the Cross and save us from our sins. That incredible act sums up love as the best poets, philosophers and theologians understand it: the selfless regard for the well-being and happiness of someone else.

We could not live up to this model of love. That is not a condemnation of our capacity to love, but a fact.

Another fact is that we have failed utterly to comprehend the social and political reality of love. The great American conservative Russell Kirk wrote in his book Prospects for Conservatives, that “the object of life is Love … that the just and ordered society is that in which Love governs us, so far as Love ever can reign in this world of sorrows.” Later, Kirk describes love as “the one reality which makes life worth living.”

Love entails in it all the best qualities in man: the affection for truth, beauty and goodness.

All, or almost all, our stories – the poems, novels, histories – address the issue of love. From the Iliad’s Paris and Helen (and even the love of the friends Achilles and Patroclus) to Samson and Deliah, from Antony and Cleopatra to Cordelia and Lear, and, of course, Romeo and Juliet, the glories and travails of love have been the basis of most of our civilization’s story-telling: romantic love, familial love, love of self, love of country and love of God.

Why then is love, seemingly, in short supply? Quite simply, because it is not easy.

We have long abandoned the idea of a sacrificial, selfless love — the importance of looking beyond oneself; in being other-directed as the sociologists say. Instead, we have wrapped love up in the kitschy red lace and chocolate romance of Valentine’s. Such notions are not far removed from Freud’s degradation of love as mere sexuality. “The nucleus of what we mean by love,” Freud said, “naturally consists … in sexual love with sexual union as its aim.” If Kirk is right that love is the object of life, how sad it is to reduce man to the animal instinct to reproduce. Love is a thing of the spirit as well as the body.

But Freud, as he was about most things, is wrong about love. A better description of love, the selfless hope for the best of the object of our love, is Juliet’s words to Romeo: “My bounty is as boundless as the sea, my love as deep; the more I give to thee, the more I have, for both are infinite.”

Love requires that which is good: charity, compassion, tender feeling, sacrificial devotion, purity and virtue. Aristotle said that love (perfect friendship) was more important than justice because “when men are friends, they have no need for justice.”

We must replace the culture of death with a civilization of love. That does not mean just saving the unborn or speaking up for the vulnerable. It means restoring the sense that we should want the best for others. That is easier said than done, but man, despite his failings and shortcomings, must aspire to love others as he does himself. And in doing so, he most fully loves our God.

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