What is love?
I will soon be attending a family wedding by the sea, and this occasion calls to my mind some poetry. The coming together of a man and a woman is as ageless as the rocks of the shore that perch on the edge of infinity, washed gently in its bath, submerged within its depths, pounded by its relentless rhythm, now upheaving, now withdrawn, fingertips trailing, never quite letting go until the surging flood returns.
What was that? My mind is reeling, pooling…overflows. I think it was a metaphor of loving between a man and a woman, with real love as grounded and immovable as the rocks, but the experience of the loving like the dancing of the waves, the couple deluged by the ocean of feeling or as dry as the sand that blows in the wind at low tide. When the sea withdraws, will a couple remain in the rock for its return? Or will they fly away to different parts like the sand removed from the shore? Is it not better to stay? Is it not better to know their place at the edge of the world, their gazes fixed, not so much upon each other, but upon the constant horizon of ecstatic depths that comes to remind them now and again, in breaking waves and foaming slips, of where they stand?
This reflection wasn’t meant to be like this. “It’s too deep for me,” you may say, dear reader. “It’s over my head.” Yes. Precisely. Quite over mine as well. Is it over our heads, however, like a distant, unreachable star? Or is it over our heads like the ocean itself, so deep that we are completely submerged within it?
When it comes to weddings, I like Sonnet 116 by William Shakespeare, which, though poetic, is very clear about the essential element of love:
Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove.
O no! it is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wand’ring bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me prov’d,
I never writ, nor no man ever lov’d.
The man and the woman will change over the years, the blush and shine of youth will fade and dull, new habits will be picked up, old ones forgotten, and friction will cause either sparks or wear. But love will still live within them as will breath and air, as does water in the ocean deep. Should they choose to run away or withhold it from the other, they do damage to themselves by neglecting their own nature, by forgetting their place at the edge of the world where earth meets sea, where lover meets love, where human meets divine. What is that immovable mark of which Shakespeare speaks, that star that is never shaken — no matter what storms may come, no matter what dryness lingers — what is that guiding light that shows the way for every soul?
Love, we may say. Yes. But…what is love?
Shakespeare writes of the star, of real love, “whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.” When at sea, true navigation is made possible by measuring the distance of the star above the horizon — “its height be taken.” Shakespeare, however, does not write “its height” but rather “his height.” And then also writes about the worth of the star, the worth of real love being unknown.
It is easy to look at a newly married couple and point to them as an example of love. There is “height taken.” How do we measure their worth, however? Is the worth of the married couple measured by how finely they will live? Is it by how many children they have and what kind of educations those children receive, or by how many people will toast the couple in anniversary celebrations that we will know their worth? No. Their worth is incalculable, like the worth of any human being — all that we know is that they are worth love. And love’s value — love’s permanent, infinite, unshakable value — is unknown. That brings me back to the strange pronoun that Shakespeare uses “his height.” The bard is not referring to the man in the marriage, he is referring to the love. And love is not a something, love is a someone. Knowing that makes all the difference. Knowing that is knowing something of love’s worth.
No married man or married woman stands alone, not because they stand with each other, but because they stand on holy ground, each loving as the very person of love — for the sake of the other, yes, but forever for the sake of love. Of him who is love incarnate.
I will be witnessing the wedding together of two people as one on the Feast of Corpus Christi, when the Church celebrates the holy sacrament of love, the undying gift of himself that Love Incarnate gives: the giving of body, blood, and soul in the sacrifice of love. Just the week before, the Church celebrated the holy mystery of love, the very life of God as the giving and receiving of love in the Holy Trinity — that mystery much too deep, that mystery completely over our heads because we are totally submerged in it with no escape: the glory of love.
The glory of the divine life is celebrated as love, and so too is the sacrifice. The glory and the sacrifice — that’s love. At least, that’s the closest that we will come to knowing its worth here, on the edge of the world. Let us admit no impediments: love never fails.
Although crippled by disease, I am fully alive in love. I write about the profound wonder and terrible beauty of life while living with physical disability and severe dependency. Unafraid to ask life's big questions, I was briefly an atheist and considered other religions before finding, in God's choice to intimately share our humanity, what it truly means to be fully human. A revert to the Catholic Faith, I blog weekly and have written a book called It's Good to Be Here.