A Cloud of Witnesses
The Letter to the Hebrews tells us that we live out our life of faith here on earth in view of a “cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1), which is to say our holy predecessors. They watch over us from before the Throne of God, where they cheer us on and intercede on our behalf. At the time the letter was written, all these witnesses were holy men and women from Old Testament times, but that cloud has been expanding constantly over the centuries since to include countless Christian Saints. They are truly our witnesses before God, and also our examples, heroes who show us the path to follow.
Speaking for myself, one of the unintended rewards of dabbling in bloggery over the past few years is that, in researching and writing blog posts on many of these saints, I’ve come to know them so much better. I’ve come to a deeper appreciation of famous heroes of the faith whom I thought I already knew, such as St. Joseph and St. Therese of Lisieux. I’ve also come to know many more obscure saints, some of whom I had never heard of before: St. Peregrinus and St. Mellitus are just two examples. Today, however, we have the curious case of a saint who somehow manages to fall into both of these categories. He is universally “known”, at least insofar as his name is a household word, even among non-Catholics, and in fact among non-Christians. At the same time, a great many people don’t even know they’re speaking the name of a Christian saint, and those who do know it know almost nothing about the man himself, or even whether he was one man, or two.
A Shadowy Saint
I am speaking, of course, of St. Valentine, whose traditional feast day is February 14th. There can be no doubt that such a saint existed: the archaeological evidence includes a church dedicated to him at a very early date, and Pope St. Gelasius I added him to the liturgical calendar as a martyr in the year 496. His celebration was removed, however, in the reform of the General Roman Calendar in 1969 (although he is still acknowledged as a legitimate saint) because there is very little trustworthy information about him beyond the bare fact that he gave his life as a martyr for the faith in the time of the Emperor Claudius Gothicus, most likely in the year 269 A.D.
The legends attached to his name are indeed inconsistent, but there are some common threads among them. Some stories involve Valentine miraculously curing a young girl of blindness. The girl is either the daughter of a Roman judge named Asterius, who consequently converts to Christianity with his whole 44-person household, or of the jailer who is holding Valentine; here, the saint closes his final letter to the young lady he cured in a way that has become familiar to the recipients of countless Valentine’s cards over the years: “Your Valentine.” Other stories depict Valentine as a bishop who secretly performs Christian weddings, a crime at the time, for which he is arrested. All accounts agree that he refused to renounce Christianity, and died a martyr for the Faith.
We can see in St. Valentine’s affectionate farewell to the girl he cured, and in his connection to marriage, the germ of his later reputation as a “saint of love”. It has been suggested that his feast day was offered by the Church as a chaste alternative to the Lupercalia, an old pagan fertility feast that took place on February 15th. It is true that Pope Gelasius I, the same pontiff who instituted St. Valentine’s day, also harshly criticized Christians who still observed Lupercalia, and formally abolished its observance. While the circumstances suggest a connection between the two acts, there is no documentary evidence that he specifically intended to replace the pagan feast on the 15th with the saint’s day on the 14th. Another boost to St. Valentine’s reputation seems to have come in the Middle Ages, when it was a commonly held belief that birds paired up in mid February, around the time of his feast day.
Whatever its origins, we can see that his reputation has grown over the centuries to such an extent that it has take on a life of its own, with increasingly less overt connection to the saint himself. Stroll through the seasonal section of any retailer at this time of year and you will be assaulted by a wave of pink, emblazoned with messages about “Valentines Day” – most of which have long since lost the prefix “Saint”. The celebrations aimed at schoolchildren, at least, tend to be mostly innocent, albeit desanctified. The pop-cultural messages directed at those beyond grade school, however, have strayed far from anything St. Valentine would have understood as “love”, to something he would have recognized as an almost Lupercalian eros. Adults are invited to see “Valentines” Day as a time to celebrate sexual love, with very little mention of marriage. In recent years we have also seen the phenomenon known as “V Day” (here even the saint’s name is gone), which curiously employs a perverse and degrading theatrical performance (modesty prevents me from going into detail) toward the otherwise laudable goal of ending violence against girls and women.
Agape vs. Eros
The state of our society today is every bit as bad as what Pope Gelasius faced in the 5th century, perhaps worse. We would do well to look back the original stories of St. Valentine, whether or not they meet the exacting standards of modern historians, to see what they tell us about love and marriage. St. Valentine was a champion of Christian marriage, to the point of giving up his life for it. Not only that, his fond farewell to the young woman he had cured was an expression of respect, affection, and of concern for another, an act of self-giving, not the self-directed taking of lust. St. Valentine is a patron saint of transcendent love, of agape, not eros.
That, I think, is the Christian take on this wonderful saint. I started out by talking about the saints as both intercessors and heroes. Here is a saint who gave his life to bring men and women together in the loving bond of Christian marriage, and whose last thought as he faced his own death was directed toward comforting another. What better image to offer in response to the self-indulgent, dehumanizing sexuality that is so prevalent today? In an age that so thoroughly and tragically misunderstands the meaning of love and marriage, we should put the “Saint” back in front of Valentine and hold him up as an Icon of True Love, the Patron of Agape.
Music for marriage and St. Valentine’s Day: “He Shall Feed His Flock,” from Handel’s Messiah