This story is about a particular era and reflects some of the viewpoints of that time, but it also offers some insight. This Swahili story is set on the sultry coast of medieval East Africa. It is called “The Meat of the Tongue.”
Once upon a time a sultan and a sultana lived on the coast of Africa. The sultan loved to lavish his sultana with beautiful gifts.
But the sultana was suffering. Her once rosy cheeks became pale, and she started to wither away to nothing but bone.
The sultan called all his royal advisors and doctors to the palace, but they couldn’t find a cure. However, they had heard about a poor fisherman in their village whose wife was thriving. So they sought him out, cornered him in a dark alley and asked what his secret was. Scared for his life, the poor fisherman only replied with a mumble “meat of the tongue.” Confused, but satisfied, the royal advisors returned to the palace, and the sultan ordered his cooks to start making different kinds of tongue for the sultana to eat.
Unfortunately, the sultana didn’t get better, so this time the sultan went to speak to the fisherman himself.
The sultan suggested that the sultana and the poor fisherman’s wife exchange places for one week. The poor fisherman’s wife was ecstatic to live in luxury, and the poor fisherman well, it was his sultan, what was he going to say!
So the switch happened. By the end of the week, the sultan’s wife was gaining life again. Her cheeks were rosy and she seemed a little healthier, while the poor fisherman’s wife had become listless and pale.
When the sultana returned to the sultan, the sultan asked sultana what was the difference. Before she could answer, the poor fisherman who delivered the sultana back to the palace chuckled, “Your highness didn’t think I meant actual meat, did you? Meat of the tongue means conversation. Every night my wife and I sit around the fire and exchange stories and songs.”
“Is that it?” asked the sultan. He turned to sultana, “is that what you need?”
“Yes,” said the sultana. “I didn’t know it until now, but yes.”
“Wow,” said the sultan. He promised he would try to change, and at first it was awkward. Neither the sultan nor the sultana had a lot of experience sharing their lives with each other. Not in that way. But over time the two grew into a rhythm, and the sultana was happy once again. And you know what they say: Happy Sultana, happy Sultan.
This May Martha and I will have been married 42 years and we were living in sin for the 3 plus years before that. So, that’s 45 years, folks. Of those years, we have had some great years and some more challenging years—about 2-3 years when I was attending seminary, when we wondered if we would stay together. We have argued productively and not so productively. We have hurt and healed one another. We have raised 2 adult children who are now thriving in their own lives. And I would say that our relationship now is the best it has ever been. I tell you about Martha and I not to brag or discourage anyone from attending seminary, but to begin a journey with you in talking about eros love, with the understanding that I know a little about it because I have lived it with some measure of success. At least enough success to understand that there are ebbs and flows in an eros relationship, that being in love and out of love is a normal part of the process. Eros may be the spark that lights the flame of romantic love, but the embers of that love are found in some of the friendship and/or partnership that develops, with at least some shared interests and goals. The friction of individual interests and goals can keep the spark in eros relationships. And in an eros relationship there is some sort of decision about sex.
Last week I said, “It is also important that we understand what we mean by love. In The Four Loves, author and Christian thinker C.S. Lewis explored the different types of love that humans experience…He described eros as the type of love you experience if you are ‘in love’ with someone. There is a sexual component [in eros relationships] but [there] is also much more then that.”
I am not so sure this definition fits for everyone celebrating Valentine’s Day. And I wonder about the elasticity of concepts like eros or Valentine’s Day. Consider the various ways that people understand an eros relationship, ways that are beyond family connections or beyond friendship. Relationships that aren’t based on charity. Eros relationships aren’t quite the same as relationships based on the unmerited love we express as we help others, the stranger, the marginalized the oppressed, those in need. Is the default setting of Valentine’s Day hopelessly rooted in a binary construction? Whether it’s boy-boy, girl-girl, girl-boy? What if you’re part of a thrupple? In a polycue? What if you’re non-binary? What if you believe that eros is about something more than what’s going on with your genitals? Or what if you are perfectly content and happy just as you are on your own?
Is being “in love” the only reason for the season of Valentine’s Day? Martha and I have talked about celebrating Valentine’s Day over the years, we both generally feel it’s more about sales of cards, candy, and flowers than it is an actual celebration of love. What do you think Valentine’s Day is about? Capitalism? Reinforcing a hetero-normative construct? Chocolate and Flowers and Champagne? Romance?
Before there was a St. Valentine, there was holiday in Ancient Rome, Lupercalia, which was observed February 13–15 in honor of Juno and Pan, pagan gods of marriage and fertility. It was a rite connected to purification and health, and had only a slight connection to fertility--as a part of health--and none to romantic love. So often early Christian holy days were overlaid onto pagan celebration days to help make pagans transition into Christianity more palatably. There are some historians who believe that is the case with St. Valentine’s Day.
Numerous early Christian martyrs were named Valentine. And thus there were many stories of St. Valentine. One story is of the imprisonment of Saint Valentine of Rome for ministering to Christians persecuted under the Roman Empire in the third century. According to an early tradition, Saint Valentine restored sight to the blind daughter of his jailer. Thus demonstrating the godly love Christians would show even to their persecutors. The celebration of Saint Valentine is not known to have had any romantic connotations until Chaucer's poetry about "Valentine's Day" in the 14th century. After that numerous later additions to the legend became related to the theme of love: an 18th-century embellishment to the aforementioned story claims St. Valentine wrote the jailer's daughter a letter signed "Your Valentine" as a farewell before his execution; another tradition posits that Saint Valentine performed weddings for Christian soldiers who were forbidden to marry.
Does a celebration centered around purification rituals or extolling the spiritual joys of martyrdom resonate with you? I mean we Unitarian Universalists do have some martyrs of our faith, Francis David and Michael Servetus to name a couple. In 1579 Servetus was burned at the stake with his books that criticized biblical evidence for a Trinity. David disputed the mainstream Christian doctrine of the Trinity, believing God to be one and indivisible. He became the founder of the Unitarian Church of Transylvania. He also persuaded King Sigismund of Transylvania to pass the Edict of Torda in 1568. This order is often considered the first law for the 'freedom of religion' in the World. Perhaps we might celebrate some of our Unitarian Universalist martyrs on February 14th? What do you think?
As Unitarian Universalists, we affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person, and I would add the inherent worth and dignity of every relationship. Perhaps we could affirm the universality of human beings’ relationships with one another, not necessarily eros, Valentine’s Day type relationship, but any kind of relationship. Or we affirm the rich diversity of relationships that result in people thriving and growing.
Those gay and straight, near and dear,
Gender metamorphic or beautifully queer;
For swooning adolescents
And seniors in senescence…
Or perhaps we could affirm, acknowledge, and/or celebrate the union of two or more beings who are already beautifully whole before they came together. Acknowledging that you’re whole before you getting into a relationship. And that love fractures you, changes you; you’re cracked open by love. We could affirm and/or celebrate with people in relationships as they are cracked open as in-love turns to partnership/friendship, and/or as parenting turns to empty-nesters. Some kind of transition ritual, like we do when for high schoolers when they bridge to young adults.
Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist Linda Carroll writes about stages of cracking open. She says those stages are: “Merge, Doubt and Denial, Disillusionment, the Decision, and Wholehearted Love…These stages of a relationship are not linear but cyclical. Even people who reach the fifth and final stage of a relationship—Wholehearted Love—will eventually find themselves looping back to Stage 1 to start the process all over again. But they can always find their way back. [to Wholehearted Love]” (mindbodygreen.com) Note that she doesn’t say “will find their way back to Wholehearted Love”—she says “can”. If you’re luck and if you do the work. Maybe we could have yearly cracking open ritual. Maybe cracking open an egg as we affirm how love is cracking open new and different parts of ourselves. Maybe not eggs, their too expensive right now.
So, I want to suggest approaching Valentine’s Day a little differently this year. Try stepping outside the Big Red Heart Shaped box, and honor what eros love personally means to you right now, today, this year. What if you fell in love with yourself this year? What would that look like? Feel like? How would you hope the person who loves you best of all would demonstrate that love for you? Treat you to a special night out? Which by the way, this Friday the UU Miami Children and Youth are invited for an evening of fun, games, and pizza. If you’re a parent or caregiver, you might want to talk to Carly about that—just say ‘in. Those of you in Eros relationships with other people—maybe romance for you this year is checking in with each other about how it’s going, a sort of State of the Union conversation. Maybe it’s watching each other’s favorite movie in the dark, snuggled under a blanket. Or you could start a tradition, like the sultan and sultana did, sitting around a fire exchanging stories and songs. My point is that romantic love—eros—doesn’t have to look like what commercials and greeting cards and society in general tells you it has to look like. If those tropes don’t fit you and how or who you love, that says more about society’s normative expectations than it does about the wonderfully, beautifully unique person that is you.
Valentine’s Day—or Galentines Day or Palentines Day—can mean any number of things to any number of people. Find out what it means to you, and make it something that celebrates how you share love as you understand it. So may it be.