“Since [the great Tao] is merged with all things
and hidden in their hearts,
it can be called humble.
Since all things vanish into it
and it alone endures,
it can be called great.
It isn’t aware of its greatness;
Thus it is truly great.”
~ Stephen Mitchell (trans.), Tao Te Ching: A New English Version (New York: Harper Perennial), 2006.
Mother Theresa (allegedly) said we cannot do great things, only small things with great love.
St. Valentine was not, in fact, the patron saint of lovers. He was a 3rd century Christian cleric and martyr who ministered to persecuted Christians. The legend of St. Valentine was created in the 14th century, and the industry of Valentine’s Day developed centuries after that. But both the legend and what little we know of the reality of the saint tell us a great deal about the hidden meaning of perhaps our most light-hearted holiday.
What yokes the life and legend of St. Valentine is devotion. Our modern conception of romantic love—that marriage should be based on personal passion rather than economic necessity and social status—derives in large part from the tradition of courtly love from the Middle Ages. But this idea was profoundly moral and religious: the knight errant does not simply devote himself to a noble lady because of her beauty and purity, but because she embodies qualities that reflect the divine. Put another way, he is not attracted to her, but through her, to something that transcends her. The danger of this, of course, is obsession: to idealize her and put her on a pedestal. That is the dark side of passion.
But the other side of passion is captured, to the best of our knowledge, by the real St. Valentine: selfless, sacrificial love. David Foster Wallace put it well:
“there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talk about much in the great outside world of wanting and achieving…. The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.”
To do small things with great love is precisely to do great things.
New to the Dao Du Jour? Check out “Day 0.”