Love Among Ashes: a “Valentash” Day Litany

Blog from CWS member Rhonda Miska

“But don’t you want to get married and have a real family?”

This was the honest question posed by my ten-year-old honorary niece shortly before I entered the canonical novitiate.  My middle school girls from ministry ask me similar questions: “But don’t you want to fall in love?”   “What if you meet a boy you really like?”

Adults ask, too, though without the disarming frankness of these preteen girls.  If you’ve grown up on the narrative of falling head over heels and living happily ever after, Disney-princess-and-Prince-Charming-style, it’s hard to believe a life that doesn’t follow that road map could be meaningful and fulfilling.  This narrative gets an annual shot in the arm every February when corporate America rolls out the candy, jewelry, lingerie, and flowers, replete with lots of pink hearts and red glitter, to sell us a cupid’s-arrow-pierced image of romantic love.  Unhappily-single friends quip that Valentine’s is “singlehood awareness day” as it serves as a painful reminder of their unpartnered state in a culture where romantic, sexual love is at the heart of identity, belonging, and worth.  In the face of such relentless marketing, the vow of consecrated celibacy I am considering sounds unrealistic at best, impossible and unhealthy at worst.

How can this way of loving possibly make sense?  Such an inclusive, counter-cultural way of loving can only be understood by expanding the definition of love and intimacy.  There is a lot of love that doesn’t fit into the commoditized mold of a gorgeous bride and gallant groom – both with Colgate-advertisement-smiles and perfect hair – walking hand in hand through a spring meadow.  I appreciate the way Valentine’s Day is named in Latin America: as el dia de amor y amistad – the day of love and friendship.

The confluence of Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day – dubbed by a pastor friend as “Valentash Day” – in the calendar adds a unique twist to my take on celebrating love this year.  There is a stark contrast between the Hallmark-card caricature of love and the black, dry ashes we smudge on one another’s foreheads at liturgy.  Fairytale fantasy meets a solemn call to fasting and conversion.  How can the two fit together?

Perhaps there’s a valuable truth in this holiday mash-up:  all authentic, enduring, love – in marriage, community, family, ministry, or friendship – requires struggle, and often sacrifice.  St Valentine was, after all, a martyr.   Love is costly. “Love in reality is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams,” said Dorothy Day, quoting Dostoyevsky.    Given her life of voluntary poverty, service to the poor, and justice-seeking in community, she knew well the cost of love.

Recently at a house panel discussion on consecrated celibacy, a Dominican sister stated, “our world needs mirroring of who God is.”  Her words echo in my mind as think about “Valentash Day” with its simultaneous celebration of love and call to conversion.  I began to catalogue the glimpses of God I catch in countless acts of love I witness and share in, each of them a mirror.

I smile at the enduring love of a couple at church – both over 90 years old – and the gentleness with which the husband helps his wife into her coat at the end of liturgy.  I am moved by the spontaneous love of a middle school student who affirms a classmate after reading an original poem in front of the class.  I weep at the muscular love in the public sphere of friends who have taken to the streets proclaiming “black lives matter” and nonviolently challenging police violence – all while refusing to diminish the human dignity of police officers.  I treasure the inclusive love of my brother who invited a transgendered friend to our family Christmas dinner when her own family no longer accepted her.  I witness the courageous, risk-taking love of a couple who have become guardians of an unaccompanied migrant Guatemalan teenaged boy so he can apply for Special Immigrant Juvenile status.  I am in awe of the quiet love of monastics who rise in the middle of the night to pray for the needs of the world. I appreciate the thoughtful love of sisters back home who send me so many cards of encouragement that they cover nearly every spot on my bedroom walls. I am heartened by the childlike love of my fifth graders as they wield Crayola markers and glue sticks to fashion red-construction-paper valentine cards for local nursing home residents.  I am humbled by the vulnerable love of a friend in early recovery from cocaine and alcohol addiction who brought me to an open Narcotics Anonymous meeting so I could bear witness to his resurrection.   I respect the truth-telling love of a sister who admits she found something challenging about an interaction with me so that we can deepen in relationship.  I hold in prayer the gritty love of my friends Sam and Daniel who do urban streetoutreach, carrying Narcan in case they encounter someone who has overdosed on opioids.  I am moved to tears by the astonishing love of my friend Mary Grace who, on August 12 in Charlottesville, while wearing a homemade t-shirt proclaiming “Love, 1 John 4:7-8” compassionately poured water on the face of a white supremacist with tear gas in his eyes and staunched his bleeding wound, despite her total disagreement with his point of view.  I give thanks for the generous love of Dominican congregations who for thirty years have offered novices the space to grow in freedom to make an authentic discernment about God’s call on our lives.

This Ash Wednesday, might you write your own litany to celebrate how the love you witness mirrors God’s love and bears witness to Lent’s call to continual conversion?

Posted by Sister Rhonda Miska