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The sacred task of educating upcoming generations about love and marriage is as ancient as it is urgent. Shakespeare shows us this task, badly bungled, in his Romeo and Juliet, one of the greatest love stories of all times. Romeo mopes onto the stage, moaning about his unrequited love not for Juliet but for another girl, Rosaline. His undying allegiance, however, is quickly shifted to Juliet, who, like Romeo, is completely over-the-moon with the idea of love. Although there are background threats of violence, we seem to be watching a comedy, with sweet naïve young lovers. As Adam and Eve once hid in the Garden of Eden after the party with God, so to speak, was over, so Romeo hides in the dark garden of his enemies, the Capulets after the party in which he has met his new love. His beloved suddenly appears on a balcony above and he enthuses: “But soft, what light through yonder window breaks? It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.” This is heady stuff. The sun is a symbol of divinity and Romeo’s words effectively equate Juliet with God. Later in the same scene, Juliet calls Romeo “the god of my idolatry” (2.2.120).
Throughout history, teenagers, testing their capacity for love and their budding sexuality, have been susceptible to various kinds of overblown romanticism. Young people have always been inclined to exalt love, to grossly over-estimate the perfections of their beloved and to greatly under-estimate their own weakness. Adults, on the other hand, have always had at least a few unrepressible experiences with their own weakness and with the imperfections of others. These lessons in reality can lead either to cynicism or to wisdom. The cynical response dissolves the youthful idealization of love down to the hard remnants of lust, money and power. The response of wisdom, however, recognizes in youthful idealization a glimpse of a real love which vastly exceeds it but which demands humility, sacrifice and the grace of God.
The comedic love story of Romeo and Juliet turns into a tragedy because the responsible adults, with the exception of Friar Lawrence, have bought into a cynical, reductive view of love. Juliet’s old nurse, for example, is not caught up in romance and gallantry but licentiousness and faithlessness. Juliet’s father, on the other hand, is convinced that he has an absolute power to dispose of his daughter however he wishes and he is harshly insistent on an inappropriate marriage between this thirteen year-old girl and a friend of his she hardly knows and doesn’t love. Both the Montagues and the Capulets, furthermore, are steeped in an ethos of pride and revenge. The elders, blinded by selfishness, prove to be far more foolish than the teenagers – and their foolishness is not comedic but deadly. Romeo and Juliet, in contrast, are ennobled as they strive to be faithful to each other in the face of mounting difficulties. They rise above the prejudice and hatred of their elders and grow in authentic love. In the end, they teach the grown-ups, including those of us who are responsible for helping current generations of young lovers.
The tragedy of our times is that most young people exploring their capacity for love are guided by our cynical, consumerist society, which is at least as catastrophically foolish as any of the adults in Shakespeare’s comedy-turned-tragedy. Grown-ups who have encountered their own weakness and become familiar with the fallen state of the human race have a profound responsibility to help young people learn that real love is in fact far greater than youthful idealizations of love. But it is also not easy. It requires courage, knowledge, commitment, forgiveness, sacrifice and the help of God. Romeo must have a chance to learn the liberating truth that, while Juliet is not the sun, which is the source of its own light, she is created to be like a clean window through which the light of God can shine. Human love is made to lead to divine love and divine love purifies and elevates human love. Through love the gospel turns the tragedy of human rebellion against God into the joyful comedy of salvation.
What has this to do with the Your Love Story book project? With your generous donation and prayers, you can help bring the truth about love to our young people who are growing up in a confused and cynical society. You can help turn the tragedy of our times into a divine comedy of eternal happiness.
“But soft, what light through yonder window shines?” It is the light of Christ and it illuminates the beauty and the challenges of human love.