How was Valentine's for you?

The saint's day reminds us that love is not just about lovers, but spiritual soulmates.

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Valentine's day is over for another year. Phew. The pressure is off. Hopes have been fulfilled, dashed, or perhaps feelings remain as unclear as they were on February 13th. But what does the annual lovefest, which seems to get commercially bigger each year, say about how we today understand and imagine love?

It's often remarked that, since the sixties, love is sucked into the singularity of sexual action as relentlessly as light is sucked into a black hole. Or maybe it's Freud, as if there's only one question to ask about eros: will it fall into bed? In truth, the founder of psychoanalysis realised exactly the opposite is true: human sexuality is so loaded with complications and meanings that coitus is usually the least interesting thing about it. He should be remembered for attempting to recover a far richer understanding of love which most of humanity, for most of history, had access to too.

Think of the experience of falling in love. You brush hands. A touch that yesterday would hardly have registered, now thrills you. You spot your beloved across the crowd: the face that previously would have blurred into the masses beams out like a star. You tell your friend about the discovery, an event that has turned your life inside out. They sit silently, indulgently whilst musing: hmm, sounds alright...

But to you, it's as if you're given a second sight, double vision. The beloved is no longer only a member of the species homo sapiens, a sample from the population sociologists call humans. They are an individual, uniquely offering happiness, pleasure, excitement, promise. When you venture to say, I love you, the words that billions have borrowed before carry a message that's yours, way in excess of the familiar formula. You no longer see a face, you know a soul. You aren't alongside, you are in a presence. You no longer feel flesh, you are embraced by the universe.

We need to take notice of these implicit, hidden senses when they ignite. Love prompts their ecstasy, even in the age that officially trusts only the empirical, instrumental, measureable. Lovers idle away the hours and, economically, they uselessly waste time. But to those whose eyes have been opened, idling the days in the company of love cannot be better spent. It is to embark on a transformative journey of depth.

It was celebrated in the medieval notion of courtly love. The point of these romances is almost inconceivable today, when we want mostly to know what is going to happen next. But courtly love sought more patient goals. The knight fell in love with an unavailable, married lady so that the love couldn't be consummated. It had to be borne so that, as the poems put it, the knight became gentle, aware, kind. The beloved nurtured experiences and, then, capacities of which the knight was previously unconscious. It was as if she became the lost half of his own soul. When he saw her, he might realise that he did not want her but rather what she graciously channeled and conveyed. That's why, in the Divine Comedy, Beatrice berates Dante when he finally catches up with her on the doorstep of heaven. Did you not see, she sighs? When you glimpsed me and I glanced at you, that glimpse and glance were like a knife slicing open the subtle path to paradise?

Now, though, is the time of "single vision and Newton's sleep", to quote William Blake. Eros struggles to open the double vision Blake testifies his eyes "do see". Only, perhaps Valentine's Day gives us pause. Maybe it holds out the hope that love's power remains. Implicit in the expensive roses, the red cards, the potent sentiments lies love's alternative potential. Eyes meet and the inner beloved may be awoken. Yearnings might be detected that do not collapse onto the sexual. The hope could be not for a lover but a soulmate.

So i hope you nurtured that moment, suffered any suspense. A mystical eroticism can fulfill not just physical desires but spiritual aspirations. "Love is unto itself a higher law," wrote Boethius, author of The Consolation of Philosophy, after Lady Philosophy appeared to him in prison. "How happy is mankind, if the love that orders the stars above rules, too, in their hearts."

Mark Vernon

Psychotherapist, teacher, author

Mark Vernon is a psychotherapist, writer and teacher. He's written books on friendship, love, wellbeing, belief, spirituality, and the philosophy of the ancient Greeks. His articles and reviews on religious, philosophical and ethical themes have appeared in many newspapers and magazines. He leads workshops and groups for professionals interested in exploring the dynamics of transformation and inner life, and also regularly contributes to radio programmes and discussions, notably on the BBC. He has degrees in physics, theology and a PhD in philosophy. His psychotherapy practice includes working with individuals privately, in family constellation workshops, and at the Maudsley hospital in south London.