“St. Valentine visited people in prison,” I answered. “Do you want to go out to Graterford tonight?” Graterford Prison, west of Philadelphia.
“Do you?” he countered.
“No,” I admitted. I tried to explain. “I hate the way Christian charity has been co-opted by sexual Eros.”
Not much is known about the real St. Valentine. He was a priest. Or a bishop. There may be one saint or two. Or more. The legends are mixed, intermingled. Meaning strong or vigorous (from valens in Latin), the name was popular in earlier centuries.
This much is known: he was a martyr.
The story I had always heard, as indicated above, was that he visited people in prison. Other sources say he was himself imprisoned for his faith.
His connection to romantic love?
He married couples in secret when the Emperor outlawed marriage in an attempt to encourage military service. This led to his public profession of faith, imprisonment, and martyrdom. In jail (whether because he himself was imprisoned, or because he was visiting a prisoner), he prayed and healed the warden’s (or judge’s) daughter of blindness. Legends say he gave her a letter before his execution signed “your Valentine.”
Then again, Geoffrey Chaucer may have invented the holiday with his Parliament of Foules because wild birds start mating around mid-February: “For this was sent on Seynt Valentyne’s day / Whan every foul cometh ther to choose his mate.” (NewAdvent.org)
Of course, there was the pagan fertility festival Lupercalia on February 15 to contend and compete with.
Whatever the source of the holiday, reducing a festival to honor a man known for compassion and piety to a romantic celebration discomforts me.
No, I’m not going out to the prison tonight. But I am remembering these famous words by St. Paul: “And now abide faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love.”
May my love be a true deep compassion for everyone I meet.
Six quick fun facts about St. Valentine from the History Channel.
The Catholic Encyclopedia‘s account.
My original resource for Saint V (all those years ago) is a book called To Celebrate: Reshaping Holidays & Rites of Passage. This includes the prison tale, with a note that some congregations celebrate “Criminal Justice Sunday” on the Sunday closest to Feb. 14.
An Orthodox point of view.