Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered.
That description of love ' from 1 Corinthians in the New Testament ' is often heard at weddings. But many people, especially many of my teenage peers, fail to really understand it.
And for a time, I was no different.
At the beginning of my teenage years, love was irrelevant to me. Girls didn't interest me much. My church life was virtually nonexistent. Neither mattered to me (or so I thought). Most of my time was spent with a group of four guys who have been together since seventh grade.
Now we're sophomores at Strongsville High School. We aren't part of any crowd, falling somewhere between the jocks and the losers. We are often misinterpreted as stoners, even though we have no interest in drugs or alcohol. We play paintball in the woods and hang out on Xbox Live. We also spend a lot of time listening to everything from country to metal, as well as the music my friends and I make in their garage band. I write lyrics and they add the music.
A small group of girls hangs out with us too ' although they usually don't join us for paintball. We watch movies and go bowling together. We also all attend church, which makes my friends different from many other people I could hang out with.
Back when we were in middle school, some of the boys in our group started to date the girls who hung out with us. I stayed on the sidelines as my friends bounced from relationship to relationship as if they were taking new cars for test drives. They spoke of hair color and looks as objective things like a paint job or rims. I thought I knew better. The urge to fit in drove me to enter my first relationship completely unprepared, mentally and spiritually. I often had to reassure myself that our relationship was special, something I now see as a sign that I should have re-examined why we were together.
In fact, we dated for more than a year through eighth and ninth grade, enduring many of the typical jokes and jabs. The comments came from all sides. 'You know you're getting married, get over it,' became a typical line I chose to ignore. Her friends constantly reminded me of how 'cute' we looked together.
Yet, all of the outside commentary ultimately highlighted how little I knew about love. Just because my friends were happy that we were together should not have convinced me that we had a loving relationship. Sadly I was fooled, as it became apparent that our relationship was no different from many other middle or high school relationships, built on an initial physical attraction that often fades rather than matures. None of these relationships was spreading messages of love and kindness to the people involved or to the people around them.
I finally convinced myself that this relationship was not leading either of us in a good direction. I told her it was over. She and her friends took it hard, hounding me for weeks. They apparently thought I was 'taking a break' (a term I still don't understand). But my first relationship ended on my terms.
In the weeks that followed, my friends and I enjoyed the freedom that is lost when a relationship takes over your life. There was more time for paintball, music and just hanging out again.
Meanwhile, I had turned increasingly to the Life Teen program at St. John Neumann in Strongsville for guidance and direction. Every Sunday after 6 p.m. Mass our youth group of 30 to 70 teens meets to have a program led by our Core Team of adults on the week's topics.
I'm not sure why I became so interested in Life Teen at such a pivotal time, but likely my family, especially my older sister, who is also involved in Life Teen, had a large impact. I began to see her growing more content, meeting many new friends and being a much happier person. I think I wanted those changes in my life as well. In the days after the breakup, I attended a summer retreat at the campus of the Franciscan University of Steubenville, which changed my outlook on life and love.
Gene Monterastelli and Brad Farmer travel the country as an evangelical group called APeX. They visit parishes and retreat centers spreading their spiritual message through juggling, entertainment and their own brand of humor. They talked to us about life, love and the treatment of women.
By getting to know God in a new way ' a personal way ' I began to see things about love and myself that had never been apparent. From their message, I began to understand that love is not a feeling, but a gift from God. Every person in my life is there for a reason, they said, and must be treated with respect. I began to see that love isn't what you want it to be. It's not easy or simple and you can't buy it with your mom's credit card.
So many in my generation have been convinced by the media, advertising and Hollywood that love is exactly what it isn't, that love is cheap, opportunistic and temporary. For the first time, I felt I could see it for what it was and take a step back. Giving everything you have to someone else is never easy. But that is what love is.
They also gave me the courage to trust in my instincts. Before their talk, I had never trusted myself with important feelings, always ignoring them if it was easier. They told me that God was always there with me and that my instincts at important times were the best things I could use to find my way.
Pray about love, they encouraged, and follow the answers. Not until I share my gifts with someone else will I realize the good that I can do. Love is a devotion to a person that doesn't disappear after the first night apart. True love is always there.
These revelations reshaped my outlook, my life and the way I share my love. I am much more comfortable with who I am and what I believe. They opened my eyes to possibilities that I otherwise would have dismissed ' and things have fallen into place in many unexpected ways.
Although I wasn't searching for a relationship, I began noticing different things about the girls in my life. Acts of patience and kindness that had never been particularly important to me before jumped out at me, making me think about what I really thought I could love in another person.
I never would have thought that alphabetical seating in second and third period at high school could lead to a growing friendship with an acquaintance from church. (Maybe school does have a purpose after all.)
In my current relationship, outward signs are unnecessary. The days of walking through the halls tied to a girl's arm are long gone for me. In fact, we talk more outside school than we do in school, so it took weeks for all but one of my closest friends to see the subtle smiles. I've learned that a smile while passing in the hallways says more about us than we ever see in the Siamese twin relationships of the ever-changing couples that pass us every day.
Even though my current relationship is still young, I know it will continue to grow through the grace of God. When I see her, as well as all of the people in my world, as gifts from God, love becomes all the more powerful in the way I live my life.