I reminded my husband this weekend that he can't buy me chocolate, or wine, for Valentine's Day, because this year it falls on the first Sunday of Lent (and no, we don't get Sundays 'off' of Lent, but that's another blog post...). I reminded him of this in case he might want to get me pre-Lenten, pre-Valentine treats - hint, hint! This strange confluence of the sacred season of penitence and the much-hyped annual moment of public romantic gestures has me thinking a lot about love - how we find it, how we express it, how we live into it, and how we keep it. I am thinking, especially, of how often we are told how to 'work' at our relationships.
When my first marriage failed, I was bombarded with voices, mostly in my head, that said, 'why don't you work harder at this? Can't you fix it?' I will say that for me, as my marriage fell apart despite all the ways I tried to save it, the idea that I didn't work hard enough at it left me feeling like more of a failure, and a quitter. And also super-perplexed about what that even means.
What was the work I wasn't doing? I was trying everything I knew to do in order to be present in my marriage, and giving in terms of time and attention, and still, things were not good. Were there things I had done and left undone that could have made the difference? Maybe there were, but I could not find the proper alchemy of doing and being a good partner that would make my relationship work better, become a place where love thrived. And I began to be very sensitive to this idea of relationships and work.
Work can be drudgery, after all. It can be a place where we punch our time card and dream of something else. And, of course, it can be creative and challenging and exhilarating. But mostly, I think we see work in terms of what we do, what we make, things that are within our control and power. My work is what I produce that is valuable, and I get credit for this, whether through compensation or gratitude or respect.
But I don't think love is like this. As I have fallen in love and married again, I am keenly aware how much of my relationship is a mystery, is something I live in and hold so very dear, but not something I control. I don't know what I would do if the love I feel now in my relationship started to slip away.
But I know where I would turn, and it brings me back to Lent. Lent is perhaps the most important time of year for Christians, as we prepare our hearts and minds once again for Easter, for the gift and the joy of resurrection. And because of this, we are encouraged to take on disciplines during Lent, of prayer, fasting, and self-denial, ways in which we test our hearts and souls in order to find the places inside of us that need to live again. But we don't make that transformation happen, it is not through our effort. It is through our faith.
Preparing ourselves for Easter is not work, it is practice. It is offering up our sinfulness and our weakness and our broken places, again and again, every year, so that they might be redeemed. So that we might be made new by the love of God.
It occurs to me that this is also relevant to our personal relationships. We don't make them better. I don't think we can, actually. I think all we can do is to be present to the mystery of love and willing to take on the disciplines that help it grow - forgiveness and kindness and vulnerability and trust.
The rest we bear with awe and gratitude, a little bit of fear and trembling. Love is a gift that none of us could truly deserve, which makes it all the more astounding to receive. There is nothing we can do to improve upon it, only to make ourselves more open to it, and grateful for it.
I don't work at my marriage now. Instead I pray with and for my husband and our life together, I confess my sins and ask for forgiveness, I spend time in silence and contemplation. And I try every day to remember the miracle of how all of this love happened without any help from me. And I rejoice in this.
And also enjoy my pre-Valentine, pre-Lent chocolate!