With the bustle associated with Valentine’s Day we often forget that February 14 is about love. True love, that is. We also forget that it is the celebration of the martyrdom of a saint who points the way to true love. Yes, Valentinus (anglicized, Valentine) was a priest of the third century Roman empire. Heavy persecution still hung over the head of the Church, forcing her to tiptoe cautiously around possible torture or death at any moment. Valentine was a priest who was particularly devoted to preparing young Roman couples for the sacrament of matrimony. His tender yet firm instructions in the ways of wedded love captured the hearts of young couples, making them even more eager to have him witness their sacred vows.
In the midst of his noble work with newlyweds he won the notice of the Roman Emperor, Claudius Gothicus. Quite surprisingly, a bit of friendship began to grow. Valentine wasted no time in raising the perilous question of conversion. After all, the affections of friendship are usually the ideal occasion for opening profound questions of this sort. So it is that Blessed Cardinal Newman takes the motto on his coat of arms: Cor ad Cor Loquitur. The same cardinal wrote:
The heart is commonly reached, not through the reason, but through the imagination, by means of direct impressions, by the testimony of facts and events, by history, by description. Persons influence us, voices melt us, looks subdue us, deeds inflame us. Many a man will live and die upon a dogma; no man will be a martyr for a conclusion.
For all of that, this friendship was not so deep. A highly insulted Claudius arrested Valentine and sentenced him to death. After the ingenious tortures of the Roman imperium, Valentine succumbed to death on February 14, 269 AD. Veneration quickly arose among the Roman people, and not too long afterwards, St. Valentine was named Patron of Those in Love.
This may sound strange to the Catholic ear—Patron of Those in Love. But it shouldn’t be. While our secular culture has vandalized the word love, it is central to our Catholic Faith. Aquinas, remarking on Christ’s Passion, teaches the proper doctrinal emphasis: “By suffering out of love and obedience, Christ offered to God more than was necessary to overcome all the sin and evil of humanity. Above all, because of the greatness of the love with which he suffered, the love of perfect charity for the Father and for us sinners” (ST III, 48, 2). Isn’t this clear from the crucifixes we wear? No institution on earth honors the love that joins man and woman more than the Catholic Church. Look at the taunts she endures to protect love from those who would drag it through the mud of mere carnal amusement. Oh no, the Catholic Church practically invented romance. She rescues it from the clutches of those who would pull it down from its pedestal of purity. Only the Catholic Church summons men to see romance as a kind of symphonic overture to the beauties of marriage.
Romance is chaste not promiscuous, sincere not cynical, and filled with promises of forever, not the lies of a one-night delight. Romance moves happily in the self-control of courtship so that it could flourish in the sweet fidelity of marriage. The Church is not blind to the quotidian snares that threaten the integrity of romance and conjugal love. This high calling can never flourish by itself; only the divine assistance can protect and sustain it. Beset by a purely natural outlook, more than a few voices in the Church recommend capitulation to the zeitgeist. They seem to forget the words of St. Augustine: “God does not order us to do impossible things, but in ordering us he admonishes us to do what we can, and ask his help for whatever is outside our power.” That sound theology receives the infallible seal of the Council of Trent.
The vocabulary of love sounds like the arias of a glorious opera: fidelity, purity, restraint, marital privilege, vow, oblation, and promise. No matter how hard secularism tries, it cannot steal the melody from those words. It tries to bury them beneath the sludge of self-absorption, but they cannot be kept buried. Every human heart longs for them, and no secular pantomime of love will do. In fact, it is romance that carries with it still another longing—that for the Perfect Love of God. St. Augustine memorably writes in the Confessions: “You have made our hearts, O God, and they shall not rest until they rest in you.” Yet, we become enchanted with all the beauty that God created for us in this world, especially romantic love. God intends to seduce us with this beauty. C.S. Lewis expresses this truth eloquently in the Weight of Glory:
The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust them; it is not in them, but only through them, and what comes through them is longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself, they turn into dumb idols, breaking the heart of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself: they are only the scent of the flower we have not found, news from a country we have not yet visited.
In the end, romance on earth leads to the final Romance of Heaven. It is only right that the world should love to celebrate Valentine’s Day. What is there not to love?
That is, if we remember it is Saint Valentine’s Day. Otherwise its just another day to bore us. Or worse.
Editor’s note: Pictured above is “The Painter’s Honeymoon” painted by Sir Frederick Leighton in 1864.