It was around 10 months in the making, from April 2015 up to the first weekend of February 2016. Speakers were contacted, funds were raised, advertisement and temperamental cameras were procured. I was involved in probably five percent of the upfront turmoil of the whole thing, the lion’s share being shouldered by the club organizers. But, by the end of 11th annual Edith Stein Conference, we are all a bit wiser, all a bit more well-versed in Catholic teaching, and, hopefully, all a bit more willing and able to love.

More than a few speakers at the conference were quick to acknowledge that the broader social discussion of love—through TV shows and women’s health magazines and top 40 hits—limits itself to portrayals that are either overly sexualized or sickeningly sentimental. You will often hear love discussed in terms of “love lives” or “lovers” or “love songs,” all of which evoke eroticism as the heart of love’s true nature.

Or, maybe you will think of the pink and plush trappings of Saint Valentine’s Day, the heart-shaped notes and warm fuzziness of admiration, whether for friends or for romantic interests. But St. Valentine, as I recall, was martyred for marrying Christian couples against the will of the emperor, not for penning “I love yous” on themed cards for his paramour. According to the message of the speakers, though, the self-sacrifice of St. Valentine would have more to do with love in its true sense than even the most ostentatious display of balloons and flowers would.

I heard various speakers advance definitions and implications of the Catholic understanding of love. Good, nuanced definitions, no less. I myself tried to make sense of Edith Stein’s understanding of love presented in her doctoral thesis on empathy in my own panel talk. But I think the conference organizers set the bar pretty high by including Pope Benedict XVI’s slam dunk of a definition in their opening remarks.

Benedict describes love as “an ongoing exodus out of the closed inward-looking self towards its liberation through self-giving, and thus towards authentic self-discovery and indeed the discovery of God.” There is a whole dissertation’s worth of ideas packed in there: love is about departing from oneself. Love is about freedom and self-gift and knowledge of God, and why not throw self-discovery and identity in there, too? Really, though, I think the pope emeritus packs a punch with the title of this encyclical alone: Deus caritas est. God is love.

This formulation might seem simple, but it couples together two of the most inexhaustible and thought-inspiring concepts around. There is a moment in Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle in which a character offers this formulation, “God is love,” as a statement of perfect truth, to which a befuddled scientist responds, “What is God? What is love?”

I cannot claim to have a thorough-going response to either of these questions, even after the Edith Stein conference. I can offer words from a few theologians and thinkers and maybe from the lyrics of a pop song or two. This is not to say, of course, that I do not have an experiential understanding of what God and love are as supremely important facets of life.

Following the final Mass of the conference, the most devoted of conference attendees and planners congregated in the dining room of McKenna Hall (a room I did not know existed) for a closing banquet. I sat at a table with two pairs of newlyweds, the younger brother of one of the new husbands, and a recent Notre Dame graduate I had met years before. We had all heard hours of talks on everything from Edith Stein’s devotion to the liturgy to the preservation of religious freedom. Yet, sitting there, I was not running through speeches in my mind or musing over unanswered questions. I was just in a room full of people who had given so much of themselves, who had shared and endured so much with the people sitting around their tables in the name of promoting God’s truth. And I thought: is this love?

Actually, yes. Yes it is.

Charlie Ducey is a senior studying English and German. He waxes poetic without warrant, but who needs a warrant to write poetry? Contact him a