True love

Though I’d hate to criticize a holy father, I’m not sure Pope Gelasius knew what he was doing when he declared the Feast of Valentine, towards the end of the fifth century. For one thing, it would never be clear which Valentine we should celebrate. We had so many Roman martyrs by that name, and two centuries had already passed since we could have gotten to the bottom of it. Even at the time there was confusion between Valentine of Rome and Valentine of Terni; although they might have been the same. A previous pope (the first Julius, scourge of Arians) built a basilica on the Flaminian Way, at the place where whichever Valentine was martyred, and this was a popular site of pilgrimage (it says here, in my St Andrew’s missal).

Perhaps we will discover that the two men were indeed one, should we have leisure to investigate in the hereafter. For worldly purposes now, it doesn’t matter. I am content with the legend of his miraculous gift of sight to the judge’s blind daughter — that judge who had condemned him — sending her a note signed “Your Valentine” as a farewell. This would be a fine act of Christian retribution.

For Christian love is a strange thing. One might almost call it paradoxical. How are you to get even with him who has done you an ill turn? With those who hate and curse and despitefully use you? Who persecute you? Saint Valentine shows the way.

As weapons go, it is extremely efficacious. I’ve had it used on me, and gosh does it sting. Years later, I am still feeling painfully guilty.

I even tried it on one occasion when I was feeling uncharacteristically pure. But not being a saint — as gentle reader may have noticed — I added a nasty little barb. I pretended that I hadn’t noticed what my “persecutor” had done, when doing him a big favour. He would now be condemned to wondering about me; to wondering if he could cover his traces. He’d be thinking that he owed me, in the moral bazaar of life, when really I owed him. For his ill turn proved to be, for me, a net benefit.

This is not so surprising. Those capable of candour, with themselves, will acknowledge many such unintended boons. They begin with graduation from the school of hard knocks, and may continue until God has determined that martyrdom is the only way to save you. Those who said “please” and “thank you” along the road, had no effect upon you at all. Those who actually took the trouble to hurt you did favours that you could not have received in any other way. Why shouldn’t you bless them?

But still we haven’t got near to the strangest factor, Love, itself. It makes a mess of everything. It disturbs every routine. It is, I fear to say, revolutionary. We do things, out of Love, that no one enjoying a comfortable life would dream of doing. Enduring Love is a splendid form of enduring madness.

And it is not a Valentine’s card. Those, for the most part, are self-interested. Flowers, too, are often just contractual. Nothing wrong with self-interest, in itself — our very Salvation is in our self-interest — but it mustn’t be in conflict with an incomparably greater interest, that ought to delete the craven. A plan of seduction, for example, isn’t intended to do another any good. Rather it is meant to enslave another person, for one’s temporary pleasure.

This is why chastity till marriage is so important. My younger gentle readers are invited to think this through. And to consider how often the true Valentine is a gesture of farewell.