Butterflies. Warm emotions. Feelings of security. Long hugs. Sweet terms of endearment. Small deeds, done in kindness. These may all be things we as humans tend to think about when we hear the word: “love.” But it’s so much more than that! As an engaged woman who is currently in the midst of pre-Cana preparations, I contemplate the meaning of the word almost on a daily basis. On St. Valentine’s Day, it only seems appropriate to broach this topic with the help of a dear friend: Venerable Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen.
In his book, The World’s First Love, Sheen outlines very clearly what he perceives to be the seven laws of love. He directly correlates these “laws” with sayings and doings of the Blessed Mother Mary, the one human being who was born most perfectly from Love itself.
1. Love is a choice.
“How can this be, since I know not man?” (Luke 1:34)
By default, when we love someone, we are choosing them over something else. That something could be an activity we would rather do, a place we would rather go, or even someone else we may be more attracted to at the moment. Sheen describes it in terms of detachment and attachment: “Because love is a choice, it means detachment from a previous mode of life, a breaking with old bonds . . . Along with detachment, there is also a deep sense of attachment to the beloved” (162). Our Blessed Mother’s question at the Annunciation did not strike a chord of defiance. She was not challenging the request of God, but rather asking “how can this be?” In humility she recognized the choice before her, and acted accordingly.
2. Choice ends in identification with the beloved.
“Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. Be it done unto me according to Thy Word!” (Luke 1:38)
When love encounters the beloved, all choice melts away in a desire to serve the object of love. “Once the will makes the choice, surrender follows, for freedom is ours only to give away,” says Sheen (163). Just like in the Song of Songs, the lover will surrender everything over for the sake of the beloved. Freedom only has value if it itself is free to be given away—burnt up on the altar of love.
3. Love requires a constant de-egotization.
“Mary rising up in those days, went into the hill country with haste.” (Luke 1:39)
No one who claims to love God can disregard their neighbor. “It is easy for love to take the beloved for granted and to assume that what was freely offered for life needs no repurchasing. But love can be treated either as an antique that needs no care or as a flower that needs pruning” (Sheen 164). There is no place for “I” in love. The ego either overpowers love – like the thorn in Christ’s parable of the seed on good soil – or it rejects its crown in the name of service for the beloved. This process is a slow one: requiring small surrenders every day which wipe away the ego, allowing love to shine through.
4. Love is inseparable from joy.
“My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord!” (Luke 1:46)
Regarding the connection between joy and love, Fulton Sheen says the following: “A woman’s greatest joy is when she brings a child into the world. The father’s joy is changing a woman into a mother” (164-165). Love is often seen in connection with ecstasies and joys, but seldom are these recognized in connection with the Creator of all joy. Mary’s Magnificat does exactly that. When expressed in its purest form, the greatest joy in love is gratitude, pure and simple: gratitude to the beloved for the opportunity to surrender freedom.
5. Love is inseparable from sorrow.
“Son, why have You treated us this way? Behold, Your father and I have been anxiously looking for You!” (Luke 2:48)
It is a great paradox that profound truths like joy and sorrow – supposedly so contrary – can be intertwined in love. But, hardship is necessary in order to make love run the gauntlet and prove itself worthy. A love that hasn’t weathered storms has not yet been tested. Sheen elaborates on this on a spiritual level when he says, “Not even the most spiritual love is exempt from aridity, spiritual dryness, and a feeling that one has lost the Divine Presence” (166). Mary surely sensed something akin to this when she and Joseph struggled to find Jesus in the temple after looking for Him for three days.
6. All love, before it mounts to a higher level, must die to a lower one.
“And when the wine failed, the mother of Jesus said unto him, ‘They have no wine.’” (John 2:3)
Sheen describes how when someone is standing at a well and benefiting from its contents, there is no longer any thirst. It is not possible to love too much, but one can love too little. For this reason, it is necessary for love to outgrow certain seasons in order to attain new heights. “There is no certainty of increasing ecstasy,” Sheen writes. “If there is no purification, the fire of passion becomes the flicker of the sentiment and finally only the ashes of habit” (166). How many marriages can we think of that fit this description? It is a continual willingness to grow beyond the comfort zone that helps love to reach new heights, as Mary did when she turned the next page in her relationship with Jesus.
7. The end of all human love is doing the will of God.
“Do whatever He tells you.” (John 2:5)
By helping initiate His first miracle, our Blessed Mother set Christ out on the path toward the cross. “Cana was the death of the mother-Son relationship,” Sheen explains, “and the beginning of that higher love involved in the Mother-humanity, Christ redeemed relationship” (167). When love first starts out between two human beings, actions are typically performed for the will of the other. As that love matures, the motive is rediscovered as a desire for the will of God to be fulfilled in and through the other person. These last words of Mary point towards this ultimate goal of love: complete and utter abandonment to the will of God.