Execution, Forensics, Faith, and Saints: Getting to Know the Grand Duchess Maria


          My fascination with the Romanovs began in 1995, although it lay dormant for twenty years. In 1995 The New Yorker magazine published a piece on the forensic and DNA identification of the nine bodies found in a forest in the Urals near the Russian city of Ekaterinburg close to the boundary between Europe and Asia. In his article “The Last Romanov Mystery” author Robert K. Massie compellingly told the story of Tsar Nicholas and his family’s last night, their brutal execution, hasty burial, removal and reburial, and eventual exhumation and identification 73+ years later. The horrific and gripping details—bullets bouncing off the Grand Duchesses because they had sewn jewels into their corsets—made a lasting impression, as did the account of one of the daughters waking up from unconsciousness and crying out in pain amid the corpses of her family being loaded onto a truck. Compelling and grisly.  What impressed me the most was the author’s explanation of the scientific evidence in a detailed yet accessible manner which was comprehensible to laypersons like myself. I renewed my New Yorker subscription for several years based on the strength of this piece alone.

It was the history and science which interested me; I’ve never gone gaga over royalty. I’d had zero desire to see the 1997 animated film Anastasia which I knew would be romanticized drivel. Fast forward ~16 years.  At the time of my conversion to the Orthodox Church—a non-Russian jurisdiction I might add—my priest informed me that Tsar Nicholas and his family were saints, and I respectfully concealed my skepticism. It was only this past July, upon reading about the Feast Days for the Romanovs, that I began to understand why they were considered saints, and then I became completely captivated with the Grand Duchess Maria.


Grand Duchess Maria 1914.                           Photo from Wikimedia.

In Russia, the royal family is considered Passion-Bearers, those who face death in a Christ-like manner, although some recognize them also as martyrs. Whatever his flaws personal and political, Tsar Nicholas II abdicated for the good of his country; he choose to stay in Russia to share the suffering of his people. Later, when he tried to emigrate, it was too late. Fate slowly tightened around him and his family. (An example of an English passion-bearer is King Edward the Martyr.)


          One religious website describes the Grand Duchess Maria as having “the rare quality of being perfectly happy in any surroundings, even when the family was imprisoned in Tobolsk.” Because of this good nature, “she was chosen by her parents to accompany them when they were forced to separate from the family and embark upon their last fateful journey to Ekaterinburg” (Sheniloff). I took a special interest in Maria—I have a history of depression amidst life trials less challenging than the horrors of political imprisonment—and I set out to learn to the truth about the Grand Duchess. Was her good temperament actual, or a religious gloss? I had to know.  Thus began my quest into the Romanovs.


          Helen Rappaport’s The Last Days of the Romanovs: Tragedy at Ekaterinburg was as compelling as the original The New Yorker article. She devotes a chapter to each of the key players—the four daughters are combined in one chapter—and the reader learns about Tsaritsa (Empress) Alexandra’s genealogy as Queen Victoria’s granddaughter and her marriage to the Tsar; some reasons for Tsar Nicholas’ ineffective reign; the tremendous courage of the Doctor and other household servants who  accompanied the royal family; and why the family was executed at that point in time: the Czech army and the pro-monarchy White Russian army was advancing on Ekaterinburg and closing in three miles away. Rappaport confirms that third-daughter Maria “seemed easily contented with very little, having no complaints about the family’s quiet life [under arrest] in Tobolsk.”  The author also verifies that Maria was “patient” and “stoic,” a natural caregiver for her oft-indisposed mother and her hemophiliac brother Alexey, the heir.  She alone initially accompanied the Tsar and Tsaritsa as they were moved from Tobolsk to what would become their final prison and execution site, the Ipatiev House in Ekaterinburg (81).  [Tsarevich Alexey was ill and couldn’t travel, and the rest of the family joined them later.]  Rappaport also addresses in brief their 2000 canonization and the founding of the Church on the Blood at the execution site; her book is copywritten 2008, before the identification of the bodies of Alexey and Maria, who were buried separately from the main mass grave.

Of particular interest to religious readers will be Rappaport’s description of the family’s final liturgy, a service called the obednitsa, a shorter liturgy-without-communion typically offered to soldiers in the field. When the serving deacon came to the part of the service commemorating the dead—“ ‘With the saints give rest, O Christ, to the soul of your servant where there is neither pain, nor sorrow, nor suffering but life everlasting’ ”— he was compelled to chant rather than speak it, and the entire family “had all silently fallen to their knees” (162). They recognized their likely approaching death, and turned to God in their last days as they had throughout their entire lives.


The Church on the Blood (Ekaterinburg, Russia), the church built on the Romanovs’ execution site. Note the photos of the imperial family posted on the church.                              Photo from Wikimedia

I remember being a little girl of 4 or 5 when my father compared me to Sesame Street’s Oscar-the-Grouch. It seems I’ve always been grumpy. Lately I’ve been thinking about Grand Duchess Maria. If she can be cheerful throughout house arrest, surely I can learn to stop complaining. An Atlantic article suggests that kindness is a muscle we can strengthen. Grand Duchess Maria is someone I aspire to emulate: I have recently taken Maria Nikolaevna Romanova as my patron saint.

To think it all started with a The New Yorker article.


Interesting Tidbits

  • New Yorker author Robert Massie  won the 1981 Pulitzer Prize for Biography for his book Peter the Great: His Life and World.
  • Helen Rappaport  has also written a 2014 book about the Romanovs, The Romanov Sisters: The Lost Lives of the Daughters of Nicholas and Alexandra.

For Additional Reading

Maria Romanov: Grand Duchess Maria Niklaevna of Russia


Massie, Robert K. “The Last Romanov Mystery.” The New Yorker. Vol. No. August 21 & 28, 1995, p. 72 – 95.

Rappaport, Helen. The Last Days of the Romanovs: Tragedy at Ekaterinburg. N.Y.: St. Martin’s Press,  2008.

Sheniloff, Matushka Natalia. “Russia’s Crown Jewels: The Child-Martyrs.” Orthodox America [Newspaper]. Vol. XVI, No.6 (146), February1997, pp. 8 & 10. Posted online at http://www.serfes.org/royal/child-martyrs.htm


Hermits and Saints

I went to morning prayers yesterday and my priest commemorated, among others, St. Colman of Ireland. A Celtic saint I didn’t know! I was pleased and flummoxed. Flummoxed because I would now have to go and research him . . .

A perusal of Butler’s Lives of the Saints and a Google consultation soon followed (not necessarily in that order). Butler concisely informs that St. Colman was a bishop and hermit in Western Ireland who escaped to the barren Burren “because he had been made a bishop against his will.” (There’s been a few of those, no? Perhaps a topic for another day.) Apparently burren (boireann) means “great rock” in Irish—not a very habitable place. During my 2003 trip to Ireland, we traveled through the Burren. It’s an inhospitable mound of rocks about which one of Oliver Cromwell’s officers famously stated had “not wood enough to hang a man, water enough to drown him, nor earth enough to bury him.”

The Burren, photo by the author, 2003

The Burren, photo by the author, 2003

Tradition says St. Colman retreated to the Burren ‘forests’—had the forest had been cut down by the time of Cromwell a thousand years later? The St. Colman Mac Duagh Burren Forest page has pictures of the dense brush today; I’m not sure I would call those scrawny trees a ‘forest’ but landforms change over the course of a millennium. At any rate, it is a place far more austere than St. Kevin’s lush Glendalough. Not a place I would want to live.

St. Colman later founded a monastery at Kilmacduagh, near Galway. I can piece together the Irish meaning: Kil-mac-duagh, church (kil) of the son (mac) of Duagh. Butler eludes to the legends of St. Colman’s friendships with a mouse, fly, and cock without recounting them, and you’ll have to visit the Russian Orthodox Christianity page on St. Colman to read them yourself.

Kilmacduagh Monastery Ruins by Jerzy Strzelecki By Jerzy Strzelecki (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)

Kilmacduagh Monastery Ruins by Jerzy Strzelecki (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)

Once, I may have wanted to be a hermit . . .

In therapy, I talk quite a bit about my introversion and social anxiety—(although it’s not social anxiety as we normally think of it, it’s still a helpful if imprecise term). My therapist’s advice ranges from the self acceptance of embracing my introversion to cognitive-behavioral promises not to be the first person to leave a party. I attended a family event last weekend—a pleasant, wonderful visit which nonetheless left me utterly exhausted.

In my therapist’s office on the eve of St. Colman’s feast, I lamented adult-ing. I wanted to go back to my high school self and sit in a corner reading a science fiction paperback for the entire duration of a party. I entertained what I call my “Unabomber” fantasy [sans bombs] in which I daydream about living off-the-grid in a cabin in Wyoming and walking into town once a week to buy my groceries and check my email through the public library computers.

I am more functional than I was twenty years ago; I make the effort; I force myself to attend dreadful odious baby showers because it’s the right thing to do. I’m probably less lonely. I’m not sure if I’m significantly happier. People exhaust me.

Knowing of my faith, my therapist spontaneously asked me if there were any hermetic examples or outlets I could explore or learn from. Doubtful, I told him glumly. A good number of hermits are only temporary hermits; eventually, after many years of solitude, they end up getting dragged (against their will!) back into the community and end up abbot of a monastery or something. The solitude teaches them the fortitude they will need for their future endeavors. It happened to St. Colman, and many others. We had a good laugh.

The next morning I learned it was St. Colman’s feast day. Later in the afternoon I discovered it was also National Hermit Day—a day dedicated to stepping away from the frenzy of our lives and the tyranny of our electronic devices. We are encouraged to “retreat to someplace quiet.” The National Day Calendar tips their hats to St. Colman, their inspiration for this nouveau holiday.

Three hermit references within twenty-four-hours. Once upon a time, I would have considered it a message from the Universe.

Lughnasa, Transfiguration, and the Harvest Feast of Mary

August brings us two Feast Days—Transfiguration (August 6) and the Assumption (or Dormition) of the Virgin Mary (August 15). In Gaelic, the word for August is Lunasa; indeed Brien Friel’s acclaimed 1990 play, “Dancing at Lughnasa” (also a movie) takes its name from the Celtic Harvest Festival, Lughnasa, celebrated in August.

August 1 was (and to certain contemporary spiritual practitioners, is) known as a Cross-Quarter Day, halfway between the Summer Solstice and the Autumn Equinox, and a festival to honor the Celtic deity Lugh. The myth of Lugh is one of my favorites, but today’s focus is on the harvest festival, and retelling his persistent convincing diplomacy to gain admission to the King at Tara must await another occasion.

August 1 marks a season of penitence, when the Irish faithful, often barefoot, climb 2500-feet tall Croagh Patrick (St. Patrick’s Mountain) in honor of St. Patrick’s own reputed forty-day summer fast in the year 441. Nowadays the preferred date to climb is the last Sunday in July.  In this same early August season, the English celebrated Lammas (“loaf-mass”), the festival of the harvested wheat, by bringing a loaf of bread to church to be blessed.

Knowing all this, I will still surprised by the Blessing of the Grapes in the Orthodox Christian tradition for the Feast of the Transfiguration. How pleasant to nibble blessed grapes as I made my way into work. So much essential similarity among so many diverse customs!

And if I am not climbing Croagh Patrick this year, nor fasting a full forty days like St. Patrick, I am at least doing my best to refrain from animal products for fifteen days until Mary’s feast. In the Gaelic, the Feast of the Assumption is known as Lá Fhéile Muire Mór sa bhFómhar—the Feast of Great Mary in the Autumn.[1]

August 1 (or thereabouts)—my friend tells me Lammas proper, the exact astronomical midpoint between the Solstice and the Equinox, was August 7 this year—as a Cross Quarter Day has an additional significance beyond the Harvest celebrations. We have heard of May Day (May 1) as being friendly to faeries, a Midsummer (June 21, solstice) night favorable to Shakespeare’s faieries and romance, and naturally Halloween (Samhain) as being a time when the veil between the worlds is markedly thin. Those familiar with Irish folklore know: all of the astronomical and cross quarter days are said to bear this quality of “thinness”.

 I reflect on the Transfiguration, also celebrated in early August: God broke through the veil of heaven to announce, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased. Listen to him.”  A little more impressive than the faeries trooping through the countryside to take up their autumn residences.

The heat wave has broken. My tomatoes are proliferating. School is around the corner. Be kind to each other. Autumn is here.

Croagh Patrick Photo by the author. 2003.

Croagh Patrick
Photo by the author. 2003.

God bless Thou Thyself my reaping,

Each ridge, and plain, and field,

Each sickle curved, shapely, hard,

Each ear and handful in the sheaf,

               Each ear and handful in the sheaf.

–Excerpt from a Reaping Blessing, from the Carmina Gadelica.

[1] O’Duinn, Séan. The Rites of Brigid, Goddess and Saint. Blackrock, Co. Dublin, Ireland: The Columba Press, 2004, 157.

John the Baptist’s Sunburn-Soothing, Fairy-Dispelling Plant

St. John’s Wort is named for John the Baptist: the Feast of the Nativity of John the Baptist occurs on June 24, and it is now, in mid/late June that Hypericum perforatum is in full bloom.


The Nativity of John the Baptist is noted on this date because, according to the Annunciation of the Angel to the Virgin Mary which is celebrated on March 25, Mary’s cousin Elizabeth “has herself conceived a a son . . . [and she] . . . is now in her sixth month.” Nine months being the standard pregnancy term, voila St. John’s Birthday is set three months later in June. (Or six months before Christ’s birth at Christmas, if you prefer).

St. John’s Day is also associated with the summer solstice, which has recently passed on June 21. From now until the winter solstice on December 21 (for those of us in the Northern hemisphere), the days get shorter; there is a little less sunlight each day. So too, when John’s disciples asked him if he was jealous of Christ’s ascendancy, John famously replied, “He must increase and I must decrease.” The sunlight of John the Baptist is decreasing as we prepare for the coming of light into the world with the Nativity of Christ which follows a few days after the winter solstice.

St. John’s Day is a public holiday in Quebec, Canada (St. Jean-Baptiste Day). The Eve of St. John the Baptist was often celebrated throughout Europe with bonfires. Wikipedia has three whole pages devoted to this midsummer celebration—one for the evening festival with customs across the globe, another for the daytime revelries, and a third for the Canadian legal holiday. It was an ideal day for picking herbs . . . including St. John’s Wort.

st jhn wort2

St. John’s Wort is a hardy perennial native to Europe and Western Asia, now naturalized in North America, known for clusters of five-petalled scented yellow flowers. The flowers, mixed with alum, make a yellow dye for wool, or when mixed with alcohol, yield a violet-red silk dye.

St. John’s Wort may not be a miracle herb, but it is close. Ancient Greek herbalists and medieval apothecaries used it to dress wounds and salve sword cuts. Like arnica, in lotion or infusion form, it eases bruises and sprains, especially those accompanied by swelling, and may also be used to treat varicose veins. Like aloe, a macerated oil of St. John’s Wort soothes sunburn.

Its most famous use is as an herbal anti-anxiety or anti-depressant. Once only available in natural food and herb stores, now most chain drug stores carry capsules of St. John’s Wort in their vitamins and supplements aisle. Any readers suffering from depression should of course first consult their physician and seek professional medical advice. From my own experience, St. John’s Wort helps elevate the mood if somewhat downcast, but is ineffective in addressing more serious psychological malaise.  St. John’s Wort often causes hyper-sensitivity to the sun, so wear sunscreen if taking it.

Folklore concerning St. John’s Wart is numerous. Pre-Christian pagans used it to cleanse rooms and drive away evil spirits. Anna Kruger, in her book An Illustrated Guide to Herbs: Their Medicine and Magic calls it “an herbal exorcist.”  After the coming of Christianity to Europe, the plant was believed to bleed on the anniversary of the Beheading of John the Baptist, commonly observed on August 29. Although its flowers are yellow, when crushed, they appear to ‘bleed’ red.

Natives to the Isle of Wight believed stepping on the plant at dusk would result in a terrifying overnight ride on the back of a fairy horse. Alternately, noted fairy folklorist Katherine Briggs cites St. John’s Wort as an herb, like the four-leafed clover, which can dispel the glamours of fairies as well as spells of evil spirits.

Someday I’ll grow this versatile plant in my own backyard herb garden. But I wonder, will it disperse the fairies from my yard? Or merely enable me to see them better?



St. John and the Annunciation: Luke 1:36

“He must increase; I must decrease”: John 3:30.

General info and folkloric references: Kruger, Anna. An Illustrated Guide to Herbs: Their Medicine and Magic.  U.S./Great Britain: Dragon’s World. 1993.  (This book is based in part on Maud Grieve’s A Modern Herbal, 1931, Penguin 1980).

Medicinal reference: Bremmes, Lesley. The Complete Book of Herbs: A Practical Guide to Growing and Using Herbs. N.Y. Viking Penguin, Dorling Kindersley, 1988. (Out of print. Sorry).

Invaluable fairy-folklore resource: Briggs, Katharine. An Encyclopedia of Fairies: Hobgoblins, Brownies, Bogies, and Other Supernatural Creatures. N.Y.: Pantheon, 1976.


Extra: Gardening with St. John’s wort: advice from Fine Gardening Magazine.

Note: This information is presented for entertainment purposes only.

Please consult your doctor for all medical conditions.  

Photo credits: Upper: Joshua Mayer through Flickr/Creative Commons

Middle: B. Vasily through Flickr/Creative Comons

Irish Books and the World’s First Copyright Case

KellsFol027v4Evang book of kellsSt. Columba loved books. When he journeyed to the tomb of St. Martin of Tours, he brought back as a relic a gospel book which had lain with St. Martin for over one hundred years. And if you’ve ever seen the great Book of Kells, housed in Trinity College, Dublin, with its intricate Celtic knotwork, stunning details of the four evangelists, tiny images of creative genius—funny faces, stretching animals, two mice sharing a communion wafer—who could blame him for his love of books, especially those made with the superb craftsmanship of the Irish monks? A sister text, since lost to history, The Book of Kildare, was described by 12th century geographer Gerald of Wales as being so beautiful that it must have been “the work of an angel.” In those days, monasteries were publishing houses. St. Columba founded dozens of monasteries, including one at Kells.

At that time, books were hand-written, almost exclusively by monks, and unlike the hyper-pious continent, which tended to destroy anything un-Christian, Irish monasteries collected pagan Greek and Latin literature, which very well otherwise might have been lost forever. Voracious readers and scholars, the Irish collected it all.  Books were most frequently copied onto parchment, made of dried sheepskin, and in Ireland, sheep were (and are!) abundant.  Indeed, the shape of the modern book, more tall than wide, was based on the size of sheepskin.  The most important books were copied onto white Vellum, made from the calf.

Books—one book, a holy book—were St. Columba’s downfall. He coveted. He envied. He desired his master’s psalter. He had no Kinko’s, no Staples superstore, no recourse to Amazon.com to order another copy. He did it the old fashioned way, borrowing the book from his mentor St. Finian and copying page by page, night after night, until he had his own copy.

Perhaps he should have asked. (Perhaps he had asked and had been refused.) Either way, St. Finian considered it theft and appealed to King Diarmait.  King Diarmait thus considered the first copyright case in history. His ruling is famous: “To every cow her calf; to every book is copy.” As a child belongs with her parents (excepting abuse), a calf belongs to its cow, and a copy of a book is retained by the one who owns the original.

Long story short, an accidental killing led to war, some say at St. Columba’s urging, between Columba’s clan (not the churchmen; the tribe from which he came, the Ui Neills, whom today we would call O’Neills) and King Diarmait.  Columba beseeched God on behalf of his people while Finian prayed for the King who granted legal judgment in his favor.  Over one thousand warriors died in battle. For his penance, St. Columba exiled himself from his beloved Eire, travelled to Scotland, and founded the noted community at Iona, which flourished for centuries. In his travels through Scotland, reportedly he drove away the Loch Ness Monster with the sign of the cross. A few centuries later, in 804, monks from Iona fled to Kells for protection from raiding Vikings. The Book of Kells was probably created in Iona and taken to Kells for safety.

St. Columba, lover of books, founder of monasteries, died June 9, 597 and his feast day is celebrated on June 9.  The Scottish name Malcolm (Máel Coluim) means disciple or servant of Columba. He is also associated with a monastic rule (including this piece of good advice: “constant prayers for those who trouble thee”) and two or three Latin poems or hymns. Along with Patrick and Brigid, he is part of the triumvirate of patron saints of Ireland.

Oh, and that whole war bit above: probably, or at least possibly, a legend. Other sources claim the love of spreading God’s message of good news, and not a penance for untimely deaths, led Columba to Iona. But it makes a good story.

If you can’t found a monastery, write a poem, or banish a monster today, honor St. Columba by respecting copyright.  For one day at least, avoid pirated DVDs and illegally copied music, cite your sources, and practice MLA style.

For further interest

The Book of Kells online, from Trinity College, Dublin.

 Awesome video about The Book of Kells (with a wee bit about St. Columba). Part 1; Part 2; Part 3; Part 4; Part 5; Part 6Part 7. (Imperfectly edited but otherwise well done.)

The Iona Community is an ecumenical Christian community located in Iona, Scotland, which works for peace and social justice, rebuilding community, and renewing worship. Their symbol, the Wild Goose, is a Celtic symbol representing the Holy Spirit.

Closer to home in Southbridge, MA is St. Columba of Iona Orthodox monastery. Anyone want to take a pilgrimage with me?

Register your copyright with the U.S. Copyright office. . . just teasing. You know you don’t have to do this, right?Copyright exists from the moment the work is created” (from their website). For the dedicated, their article on Registration For Online Works is worth a glance.

St. Columba and the Loch Ness Monster info.

References  (I did not follow MLA style in writing this blog.)

Irish monastery libraries and the making of books (p. 158-168) and St. Columba’s copyright war (p.169-171) in Cahill, Thomas. How the Irish Saved Civilization. NY: Doubleday, 1995.

Another view of events preceding St. Columba’s pilgrimage to Scotland from the Catholic Encyclopedia.

An objective/scholarly print source: Johnston, William M., ed. Encyclopedia of Monasticism. Vol. 1 A-L.  Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn, 2000. p. 319-321,

More details about St. Columba from Orthodoxwiki.

Photo credit: The Book of Kells folio 27v Symbols of the Four Evangelists, from Wikipedia Commons.

Note: Do not confuse St. Columba ( also called Columcille) with his disciple, Columbanus.

A Bird in the Hand . . .

Glendalough 001I was sick for much of the Spring, and now that the deck furniture has been taken out and scrubbed, we are feeling the first true heat of the summer, too warm to do my writing outdoors, too bright to see the screen of my laptop.

Still, I like the idea of writing outdoors, even if I can’t quite manage it myself.

An anonymous Irish monk liked it too, inscribing a brief poem written in old Irish on the margins of the Latin grammar text he was copying:

A hedge of trees surrounds me, a blackbird’s lay sings to me, praise I shall not conceal.

Above my lined book the trilling of the birds sings to me.

A clear-voiced cuckoo sings to me in a grey cloak from the tops of bushes,

. . . well do I write under the greenwood.

The blackbird brings to mind St. Kevin of Glendalough (not the author of this poem). He was said to be so calm and peaceful in prayer that a blackbird lit upon his outstretched arm like the branches of a tree. The bird laid a nest in his palm and for all of Lent, Kevin remained still in prayer. The bird fed him nuts and berries, and the eggs hatched by Easter.

Behind my house, the crows carouse, rowdy as teenagers, cawing their gossip in the tall tree all afternoon.  The sparrows in my garden peck insects from rich soil and take refreshment in my sprinkler, flitting jumpily at the rattle of my hand on the doorknob as I look outside.

My thoughts are crows and sparrows, cawing noisily, flitting restlessly.

How much inner peace does it take to quiet a crow? How much reassurance calms a sparrow? How much patience guards a nest from egg to hatchling? I have none of these gifts.

I have a laptop and a spare bedroom overlooking the back yard where I write and pray. This time of year, thick leafy veils nearly obscure my neighbors’ houses, offering my suburban home the illusion of countryside, an indoor glen.

I can offer you well wishes:

May your writing be green and fertile.

May your prayers be deep and focused.

May your thoughts be calm.

May your life yield compassion to blackbirds and all of God’s children.

St Kevin

For Further Interest

More about St. Kevin, from the Glendalough Hermitage Centre in Ireland.

St. Kevin’s Day info.

Another blackbird tale, by Lord Dunsany, available through Sacred Texts online.

The monk’s poem quoted above: “The Scribe In The Woods” in Davies, Oliver & Fiona Bowie, ed. Celtic Christian Spirituality: An Anthology of Medieval and Modern Sources. N.Y.: Continuum, 1995, p. 29. Available through Amazon (a different edition than my own).

Photo Credits

Above: Glendalough, Ireland, 2003. By the author.

Middle: Postcard of St. Kevin purchased in the Glendalough gift shop.

Hearts and Missives

heart“You love saints,” he said. “You celebrate every saint’s Feast Day there is.” (Not true.) “What do you have against St. Valentine?”

“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.