It’s easy for me to forget that Valentine’s Day, in its flurry of candy hearts and red bows, is actually the feast day of a Catholic saint. So I decided to find out who this patron saint of romance actually was.
What I learned is shocking and bemusing.
Because I like a good build-up, first: the bemusing. It seems that romance is not what St. Valentine is really about. He is, in fact, the patron saint of bee keepers, the plague, epilepsy and fainting. He also is the patron saint of couples, but not for reasons we would think. (More on that later.)
In the meantime, it is interesting to note that his feast day is not on his birthday, April 16 , but on the day he was martyred. There are a few theories floating around as to why the Mid-February date was chosen as his feast day. One originates in England, where birds ushered in the first signs of spring. Mid-February begins the mating season for birds who, for whatever reason, have traditionally been a symbol of coupling for many cultures.
This idea persists today in the often-amusing preoccupation ethologists seem to have in birds’ courtship rituals. While the mating dances are fascinating, it seems a little too much to have events to commemorate the occasion. The Bronx Zoo, for instance, had a Valentine’s Day tour of the bird houses one year. They stayed open late on Feb. 14 and viewers stayed to watch various species of male birds put the moves on the females of the house. Champagne and chocolate strawberries were served to the zoo’s guests. Romantic pop ballads were piped through the PA system. It was one of the more absurd things I’d ever seen in my life.
But of course, I’m just one person. This event was sold out weeks in advance. I suppose it beats sitting around at home and pining after a Valentine’s dinner date!
And now, the shocking part. According to Catholic historians, there is no one person who became St. Valentine. It appears there are upwards of 14 people named Valentinus who were martyred during the reign of Claudius II. Apparently, all 14 of them were killed for having ‘assisted martyrs’. What that means is anyone’s guess, but there are some more interesting facts about the men named Valentinus. According to lore, one was brought before Claudius II for marrying couples in Christian wedding ceremonies.
And that is about as close as it comes to the patron saint we normally associate with Valentine’s Day. Marrying couples in Christian Masses was clearly dangerous business. So St. Valentine was not some kind of cherubic matchmaker, as his popular image suggests. For one, marriages at that time were largely pragmatic events – not loving, joyous affairs. Couples married out of familial obligation or for financial reasons, not for romance. Christian couples were taking a huge risk; and because Valentinus was brought up on charges of “assisting martyrs” by marrying them as Christians, we can assume that these marriages ended in the ultimate sacrifice.
The way of the cross
This idea of sacrifice, though, is what interests me most about Valentinus. The story goes that Claudius II demanded he renounce his faith, and Valentinus refused. He was then beaten and beheaded for it. Similar to Christ and other martyrs, he freely accepted his death. This, the ultimate sacrifice, has become the symbol of Christian love. Given this idea, then, Valentinus does represent love – literally, the ultimate expression of love. As my mother has taught me, all love leads to the cross.
But that flies in the face of our conventions of love. In our times, love is a strategic effort to get the highest return for the lowest investment. We are taught to constantly perform a cost-benefit analysis of our relationships: Who should pay? How long til we call back? Who should drive? What do we give? How much do we get back? Is it worth the effort? We are taught that sacrifice is the ultimate sign of weakness, not love. And it is abundantly clear that St. Valentine did not represent this kind of love. It is safe to assume, actually, that not one of the 14 men named Valentinus thought on those terms. The very name “Valentinus,” in fact, means strength; it shares the same root word as valiant and valor, after all.
Clearly we’ve lost our way here. So how do we reclaim St. Valentine’s feast day as an expression of the true meaning of love: strength and sacrifice, instead of entitlement and strategizing? I, for one, am at a loss about that, but I do reclaim Valentine’s Day as a day to dedicate to the many expressions love: charity, empathy, generosity and service. I do not think about romantic love as much as I think about the love of the Christ – and I put that thought into action by serving lunch at a local soup kitchen. If all love does lead to the cross, as I’d been taught, then I’d much prefer to express that notion by feeding the homeless than to sit around pining over my single status.
This year, I will be sure to remember Valentinus, freely accepting his own death, in love and steadfast loyalty to The Christ. This is the kind of love that cannot be expressed with a Hallmark card or a heart-shaped box of chocolate. I urge all singles on CatholicMatch to do the same.