So for 40 days, I fasted from the need for love. For 40 days, I focused on giving love to others. I wrote cards to my grandfather, I called friends and fielded their worries, I smiled more warmly than usual at strangers. I listened to the long story of my hairdresser's harrowing childhood and encouraged him to pursue his dream of going back to college. I devoted a week to helping my brother adjust to civilian life after serving in Iraq.
That part of the discipline came fairly easily. The parts involving Joe did not. Daily I felt the tingling temptation to devise some new way of forcing the question. (Aloud: "Don't you think we're wonderful together?" Implied: Then why can't you say you love me?) I found myself refusing to offer my love because of fears that he wouldn't return it. I'd withhold a kiss, or fall into a dark mood. But every time I slipped, I returned to my fast. I cleared from my mind the impulse to try to take love. My mood brightened; I kissed him out of spontaneous affection instead of the hope that he'd utter the magic words.
One morning in the middle of my 40-day love fast, I awoke with a realization: I already had all the love that I needed. I had it from my mother and brother, from my friends, even from the memory of the love that my father had given me before his death. Consciously giving love to others—and seeing them spontaneously give it back—had made me recognize the love in my life more clearly. Most important, I had all the love I needed from God, or whatever you want to call that larger reality of the universe. I didn't need Joe's love. And yet, I still wanted it.
Near the end of the 40 days of Lent, Joe suddenly said, "Perhaps I'm not giving you everything you deserve." We both knew the three unuttered words we were really talking about. He asked to come over, his voice resigned over the crackle of our bad cell phone connection. I had the sad expectation that we would be saying goodbye.
When Joe rang my apartment door, my impulse was to hold myself aloof, to welcome him politely but coolly in case he wasn't, in fact, going to say that he loved me. But then, my arms around him, I thought, "What would happen if I stuck to my fast even now? What if instead of pulling away because I'm afraid he won't give me love, I stay here holding him, I keep kissing him and letting him feel my love?"
Joe drew back. He said, "I feel overcome by love for you and it feels...amazing." And then he said it. "I love you."
It could have gone the other way, of course. Joe could have balked; our relationship could have ended there. My fast from love had prepared me for that possibility—and my acceptance of it made Joe's love possible. The fast continues. As Bishop Marc said at the end of his sermon that Ash Wednesday, if your Lenten fast is a good one, it's not one you ought to give up once the 40 days are over. Joe still squirms over commitment. I still fight the urge to pressure him. I'm still tempted, every day, to think I need more love than I already have. And I still feel a strange new peace every time I say "I love you" first.