I was told about a Carolina Governor who was carrying on with a woman who was not his wife, and, when it became public, justified himself on the grounds that she was his “soul mate.” The term is used constantly now and some assume, unfortunately, that we should be constantly looking for this soul mate. This is utter rubbish, of course. There’s no such thing, at least not in the sense we use the term now.
My dad taught me a great number of wise things before his untimely death, and one of them was that we don’t fall in love with “the one person” who was created for us; what usually happens is that we reach a point in life where we’re ready to have a family and the person who most closely resembles our vision of a spouse at that point is the one we focus our attention on. There is a lot of truth in that. I’ve seen it over and over as a parish priest.
At one time that wasn’t a bad thing, either. We generally kept around folks who had been raised with the same basic values and background that we had. Our families often had known each other for some time. Expectations were shared. Now, people can share only four years of college (or a night in a bar) and an overwhelming lust – what a foundation! – but they say, “I’ve met my soul mate.”
Real love, the kind that really works and is good for us, requires more than attraction and appreciation; it requires active, sacrifi cial love. Real love is not about self-actualization and self-discovery – that can be therapy, not love. Real love requires the Cross of Christ, because God is love. This is the tough stuff: we don’t want sacrifice, we want romanticism instead. A person who is set only on romantic love will never find true love. The romantic is ultimately the sad, melancholic figure at the edge of a cliff watching the crashing of the sea far below.
Love is self-offering, and self-oblation. Could it be any different? Christ himself said that “a greater love hath no man than to lay down his life.” This is the ultimate definition of love. Most people immediately turn to I Corinthians 13, but the Gospel comes first. Yes, love is patient and kind, and so forth, because that is the way we sacrifice ourselves for the other person on a daily basis. Love is the Cross embraced personally for someone other than myself. That is not an easy task. It is a struggle to do it, but it is actually the true Christian struggle.
Notice that the assumption behind the soul mate is that the other person is really oriented towards me. The desire for a soul mate is concerned with my happiness, my fulfillment, my completion. As fallen human beings, however, we are so fickle that what makes us happy this week will be bland next week. As long as my emotions and passions are the measure of love, then I will never find love. That is only found when we move outside of ourselves and willingly, deliberately offer ourselves to someone else.
The special status of soul mates in the minds of many makes crystal clear why marriage and love seem to be failing left and right. We are celebrating romanticism and narcissism. Thank God we don’t allow people to write their own marriage vows in the Orthodox Church, because the ones I have heard are ghastly things that proclaim the opposite of love. “You are my fulfillment, my joy, my hope … .” Yuck. Why not be really honest and talk about the act of the will to commit oneself to one’s spouse. “I’m going to die for you every day, in little ways and big ones, until God takes away my breath.” That won’t wow them at Hallmark. How much better the old vows really are, because they are about giving and not about receiving. (It seems to me that our Lord might have said something like that.)
Sentimentality goes hand in hand with this distorted notion of love and romanticism, because it is simply the syrupy side of self-love. It makes me feel good. To wit, if we were honestly Christian we would have to reply, “I’m sure Christ didn’t feel too good on the Cross, but he called that love. What do your feelings have to do with it?”
I hinted that there is perhaps a good use of the term soul mate. And I believe that there is. In a perfectly true sense, a soul mate is a person who joins us in the spirituality of sacrifice and oblation. This is done sacramentally and mystically in the Church. These two become true soul mates, for their souls are directed together in the Cross which leads to suffering, death and resurrection.
The Governor lost what could have been his soul mate because he opted for romanticism and self-fulfillment on his terms. He lost the possibility of real love. He traded happiness (something fleeting and undependable) for joy. “Joy cometh in the morning,” that is, after the dark night of oblation and sacrifice.
Fr. John Winfrey
St. George Orthodox Church, Grand Rapids, Michigan