I took this picture on the last day of a holiday in Australia a couple of years ago. Saying a fond farewell to the sights of Sydney whilst walking through the glorious Hyde Park that cuts across the city, I stumbled on this couple strolling through, fresh from their wedding at the nearby cathedral. Her gorgeous white dress was training along the dusty central path and they were oblivious to the skateboarders, tourists and city workers with their lunchboxes and newspapers. It was the most natural thing in the world for this couple to walk together through the park in bridal gown and morning suit: they were in love and happy and proud of their union. It remains one of my favourite holiday snaps: although there is nothing essentially Australian about it, it is unique. I truly hope they're still married and still head over heels in love.
Closer to home, last night I caught the late bus after a pizza with a friend. At one of the main stops out of Brighton city centre, a young man pleaded with our driver to hold the bus while he hunted for a pen and paper: he had met a very pretty girl that night and she was stood at the same stop waiting for another bus. This was his last bus home but he desperately wanted to write down his address and mobile number for her and hers for him. The driver initially said he couldn't wait with a bus full of passengers; then the boy and girl both said they had fallen in love. He looked about seventeen and quite sporty, she was maybe a year or two younger, fresh faced and mini-skirted in the cold. He stepped onto the bus and said his name was Mark and that he believed he had found The One For Him: could he please have a pen and paper? She then stepped onto the bus platform and said they would write on their hands if someone had a pen. She was embarrassed but just as ernest; she'd tried writing on her hand with eyeliner pencil but was scared the writing would smudge.
Everyone downstairs on my bus, including the driver, looked for writing materials. Various pens and pencils, envelopes, Sunday papers and even serviettes were found. Someone even offered them a tenner to catch a cab to both their homes so they could travel together. In the end, our driver waited the extra three minutes until Ellie's bus pulled into the stop. The pair kissed like seven year olds before Mark tore upstairs to wave at her in the other bus. We all applauded and the everyone told the driver it was absolutely fine when he apologised for holding up the bus. The woman next to me was in her late sixties and coming back from bingo. We shared her tissues to dab at our mascara for the rest of my journey. Something else quite wonderful happened which I can't imagine happening in my old hometown of London; as each of the passengers alighted at their stops, we all said goodnight.
The day before my romantic bus journey, I was at a wedding in Hampshire. Nothing that unusual, except maybe that the bride is seventy and her new husband was eighty in December. It was a very moving ceremony and also very intimate, even though the church was packed with friends and extended family. The Catholic parish priest gave a memorably affecting homily, which again found me nearly in tears. He spoke of the many words for Love in ancient Greek, found in the scriptures and other texts. In particular, there are four distinct words for love in it's various forms.
"Agape" translates in modern Greek as "unconditional love", and has been appropriated by Christians to express the love for and from God. Transcending physical attraction, Agape describes the deepest high regard, respect and sacrificial love.
"Storge" describes natural affection in both modern and ancient Greek: the innate bonds between parents and offspring and family members; kinship, shared history and acceptance. "Philia" describes love between friends and comrades, including affection, familiarity, loyalty and a sense of community and equality. Apparently, it thrives among bus passengers late at night in Brighton!
As does "Eros", the passionate and physical love of both courtship and marriage. Although Eros encompasses desire and longing, there is also the feeling of oneness and a connection of the spirit: the priest on Saturday spoke of finding The One who would help you get to Heaven. This phrase in particular has stayed with me. He also spoke of the validity of marriage at any age and of love whenever and wherever it's found. We frequently say love is blind. I believe the opposite is true. Love is seeing clearly and purely, clairvoyance and realisation. When we truly love, we see properly, beyond any mask or distortion, any barrier or limitation.
I'm a real sucker for soul mates. I discovered the writing of the late, beautiful John O'Donohue a while ago; his book "Anam Cara", literally "soul friend", is on the special books' shelf in my front room. If someone visits and either picks it out to read or comments that they know and love it, I know we're going to be friends. Call me old fashioned (it happens rather a lot), but I do feel that the sacredness of marriage has suffered a sad demise. I know couples who have lived together happily for years and who feel totally committed and devoted to each other without the making of vows in front of an altar; I also know many who have seen marriage as a formalised "long" relationship, a tax convenience and a shared account. Divorce is now seen as much more acceptable and generally a fix-it or getout clause: divorce rates are actually in decline these days, but this may be because the number of people getting married is the lowest it's been for 150 years. Marriage rates started to decline steadily in the heady seventies. Again, I have dear friends who are divorced and my intention is not insult them or blame them for current trends. I simply feel that the sacrament of marriage has been variously dismissed or too easily and loosely entered into.
It's been my personal choice to remain unmarried because I want to marry a soul mate. The word spinster no longer means a single woman of marriageable age but has become a term of ridicule, laced with rejection. I know single men who remain celibate are open to even more misunderstanding or abuse. I simply never want to marry for comfort, for security or for the sake of it. I know if I make those vows I will want to keep them, yet I have no wish to pledge myself into a loveless union to keep my family and bank manager happy. People frequently think being alone implies loneliness; I believe I would be far lonelier in a marriage or committed relationship where I wasn't fulfilled emotionally, spiritually and physically. I believe I have great love in my life, in the forms of Philia, Storge and Agape. I also still believe Eros is out there for me. So I'm totally heartened when I see a teenage declaration of love at first sight move a bus full of Saturday night weary folk. I feel moved to hear a Catholic priest acknowledge the precious role of tenderness and desire within marriage whether the couple are eighteen or eighty. And I'm enchanted to think that somewhere in New South Wales a lovely couple may be sitting down to breakfast, blissfully unaware that their wedding day stroll through the park still inspires my dreams of happy ever after.
"Bring Me a Higher Love" James Vincent McMorrow