I fell for the bait. I should have known better, but to be fair, I hadn’t been out of the seminary that long. By the tender age of 26, other guys my age had become skilled in navigating the treacherous minefields of Valentine’s Day. I was still green…still a rookie…still in training.
I knew enough to get the card and buy the flowers. Despite my meager salary, I was smart enough to make dinner plans at a restaurant up-scale enough to take reservations. The problem was, work kept me late. Besides that, I was enrolled in a master’s degree program that required research. I was staring down into the jaws of a morning deadline. A research paper was now calling for my pound of flesh. Coffee would have to be consumed. Midnight oil would have to be burned.
I arrived at Mary’s apartment huffing and puffing. I apologized for being late. She was trying her level best to sound magnanimous. As she snipped the flowers, and placed them into the water she asked me how I was doing. If I had known the proper Valentine’s Day code, and answered according to protocol, I would have said, “I have been looking forward to tonight all week!” I would have hugged and kissed her. May be I would have carried her to the car. Instead, I made the ultimate Valentine’s Day mistake: I answered honestly and openly.
That’s when she dangled the bait. And that’s when I bit down hard. In a voice as soothing as a cold washcloth on a feverish forehead, she said, “Well, maybe we could just cancel the reservations so that you can finish your work and get to bed at a reasonable hour?” My heart soared. “You’d do that for me?” I gushed. Ecstatically I hugged her and held her in my enthusiastic embrace for what must have been a full minute. When I pulled away, there was something indescribable in her glance that suggested she wasn’t sharing in my enthusiasm. In the next two minutes, I was to learn that there had been a test…a pop quiz. I had failed.
When I realized the Valentine’s Day hole in which I had placed myself, I did what any man without training would unwittingly do in my place. I started digging the hole deeper. I tried to back peddle. “Look, I wasn’t thinking that we would cancel Valentine’s Day! I was just thinking we could postpone it a little while! February 14? February 21st?…what’s the difference?” By the time I was done chasing my own tail, and that convoluted conversation was over, I was begging to go back to the original plans we had arranged. In the last analysis, she gave in. We kept the reservations, and went out to eat. We washed down our Valentine’s Day supper with a big, awkward cup of silence.
On that night, Mary learned that I was not the man of her dreams. In retrospect, I learned that sometimes God sends people into our lives to provide us with a spouse; other times God sends people into our lives to provide us with training. At least one reason God brought Mary into my life was so that I could figure out how not to screw up subsequent Valentine’s Days. In this way, one more impediment could be removed so that my Lisa would one day give me a chance, and God could bring my three brown-eyed kids into the world.
Where are you still in need of some Valentine’s Day training? If you are married, or in training to be married, where can you bring your Valentine’s Day game to the next level? If you are single, who and what is the object of your delight? A soul can exist without a spouse, or sweetheart; a soul cannot thrive without delight.
All spiritual traditions worthy of their names teach that each of us is an unrepeatable miracle. Furthermore, scripture after scripture proclaims that God is head over heals in love with each one of us. Each and every one of us is God’s Valentine. And so, when the scripture says, “Love one another as God loves you,” that doesn’t mean that we are merely to avoid doing harm to one another. It does not mean that we are merely to tolerate one another. It means we are to delight in one another as God delights in us. For married people, that means we are to dedicate our intellect, body, and will toward the project of staying in love, or falling back in love with our spouse. For many marriages that have drifted apart, that is a tall order.
Valentine’s Day is a good day to examine one’s RIQ (Romantic Intelligence Quotient). When was the last time you delighted in someone? When was the last time you fell in love with a landscape, a bird’s song, a melody, or a work of literature or art? When was the last time that you stilled your heart long enough to hear God ask you to be his Valentine?
Presented below, is a smorgasbord of exercises from which you can pick and choose. As you will see, these exercises are designed for people in various stations in life. Since Lent and Valentine’s Day intersect this year, you could use these exercises as a one-time-only reflection, or you could practice them one-day-at-a-time until Easter.
Practices to Increase Romance
Romantic love is a gift that cannot be manufactured. For many of us, the rigors of work, child rearing, and household administration have a way of draining the romantic love out of a relationship. If your romantic gas tank is running a little low, consider committing yourself to the following spiritual exercise.
Exercise to Gain Marital Love
At the beginning of each day, pray this prayer,
“God increase my love for (name of spouse).” Pray it with your whole heart in the morning, and before going to bed. Punctuate your day with this prayer. Set a timer on your Smartphone that reminds you to pray at various points in the day. The God who is love will never fail to answer a prayer like this one. Look for the subtle ways that your attitude begins to shift toward your spouse as you pray this prayer.
For Couples with Bad Habits…The Marital Manners Exercise
The journey of a thousand miles starts with a well-placed first step. If you and your spouse have ventured into the territory of rudeness toward one another, this exercise is for you. Resolve, that starting on Valentine’s Day, you will begin treating your spouse as if he or she were a valued customer at work. If your spouse is a tough customer, resolve to treat him or her as if this were a tough client that is essential for the success of your business. In other words, practice kindness, hospitality, and bear with him or her, one-day-at-a-time. One more thing, if you set an intention to do this exercise, then you must do it unilaterally. Your kindness and hospitality is not predicated upon his or her behavior. You can, however, decide to do this exercise as a couple, so long as you don’t use your spouse’s failures as an excuse to go back to your old ways. If necessary, consider calling a couple’s counselor for a few sessions. My number is 314. 503.8080.
For Marriages When Negativity has Established a Foothold
How, and what you think about your spouse will determine the level of marital satisfaction. Couples who are in a downward spiral tend to think of negative attributes when they think of their spouses. Since our actions always proceed from our thoughts, these negative inner thoughts about our spouse always influence our behavior toward them. Such behaviors have a way of setting in motion a self-reinforcing loop of negativity. A powerful way to bring more joy into your marriage is to intentionally change your mind.
In this exercise, each day, write down a gratitude list of all the nice things your spouse has done, or been for you on this day. Don’t be afraid to extrapolate from the data—if she did a nice thing, consider writing down that she is a nice person. Nothing is too small for writing down! Remember, the thing that drives you crazy about your spouse is usually the shadow side to a sparkling gift. For example, the person who can make spontaneous fun out of anything could also be the person that is not very well organized. Noticing disorganization as the shadow side of spontaneity may help in thinking of this issue in a more productive way.
Whenever you are aware of a negative thought about your spouse, consult your ongoing gratitude list to remember at least two positive attributes about them. Within a month, your affection for them will be growing.
For Single People or Married People…A Walk In Gratitude
Carve some time out, and fill a backpack with lunch, plenty of water, a journal, and a pen. Go to someplace where you feel safe to be by yourself in nature’s beauty. Go for a hike, inviting God to be with you. At some point in your hike, close your eyes, and become aware of all of the sounds you can hear. Notice how they pop out at you the longer you stay still. Before opening your eyes, voice a prayer of gratitude for the gift of your hearing. Having opened your eyes, take a seat, and really drink in your surroundings. Notice far away objects. Select an object that is the furthest away, then notice the nearest object that you can see. Shift your attention back and forth between these objects. Next notice the contrasting colors of green, and brown. Are there other colors? Notice shape and form. See how nothing in nature clashes, but it all weaves together like an infinite symphony of color, shape, form. Notice light. If it is a sunny day, does light pool up on the forest floor as it spills through the canopy? If it is a cloudy day, how does that make nature’s colors more vivid? Spend a moment giving thanks for the blessing of your sense of sight. Next, close your eyes again, and run your hand over the bark of a tree. With your eyes closed, simply examine the textures with your fingertips, and the flat of your hand. Simply savor the goodness of the sense of touch, and give thanks.
At the end of this exercise, reflect upon the many gifts that your sight, smell, touch, taste, and hearing bring to you. Conclude by writing a reflection in your journal, or a prayer of gratitude to God. If you like to write, let this assignment take you where it wants to go.
Another exercise is to sit and observe the behavior of an animal, or contemplate a specific scene in nature. Let the landscape speak its messages to you. Write that message in your journal.
For Single People Feeling a Call to Be Married
Begin by forming a daily habit of asking God for the grace of discernment. Next write a thorough list of the attributes that you wish to find in a spouse. At first, just write quickly. Brainstorm every little thing you would like to find in your ideal spouse. Nothing is too small or silly on this list. After you have written an exhaustive list, rank order these items according to their priority. Share this list with a good friend, and ask for feedback. Next, begin praying for the gift of openness to God, so that you can be led to your future mate.
As you pray, don’t be surprised if God calls you to some form of emotional, spiritual, psychological, or physical challenge. Sometimes, when looking for a sweetheart, we get caught up in marketing when we really should be engaging in product development. For many of us, getting physically active, taking a retreat, or engaging in a few sessions of spiritual direction or counseling is a prerequisite for finding our spouse. Don’t be afraid to locate a spiritual director, or counselor if your discernment requires it.
30 Second Bursts of Delight
If you have only 30 seconds to dedicate to improving your marriage or family life, pay close attention how you greet your family when you step through the door at the end of a work day. Before you step through the door (or before your sweetie steps through your door), resolve to have everything about you (your smile, eyes, face, words, voice, and perhaps arms) communicate, “you are a delight to me.” If you have 30 more seconds to spare, do the same just before bed. If you can dedicate another 30 seconds, consider making first contact in the morning another burst of delight. These three times are high impact moments. With a little intentionality, and decisive love, see if this simple practice doesn’t lift your relationship.