There are several different legends associated with St. Valentine but there is one in particular that really captures the importance of love to the human heart. The story goes as follows: Under the rule of Claudius the Cruel, Rome was involved in many unpopular and bloody campaigns. The emperor had to maintain a strong army but was having a difficult time getting soldiers to join his military leagues. Claudius believed that Roman men were unwilling to join the army because of their strong attachment to their wives and families. To get rid of the problem, Claudius banned all marriages and engagements in Rome. Valentine, realizing the injustice of the decree, defied Claudius and continued to perform marriages for young lovers in secret. When Valentine’s actions were discovered, Claudius ordered that he be put to death. Valentine was arrested and dragged before the Prefect of Rome, who condemned him to be beaten to death with clubs and beheaded. The sentence was carried out on February 14, on or about the year 270. He is recognized as a martyr and traditionally venerated on February 14th. This story of self-sacrifice in the name of love and marriage has stood the test of time; serving as a reminder to stand up for what is dear to us. I believe the story of St. Valentine also contains a deeper, and perhaps hidden wisdom about love and relationships.
How to Approach Legends and Hagiographies
I think it’s important to briefly lay out the purpose or function of these types of stories before diving into what St. Valentine can offer us today. In modern times, analysts have spent their energy debunking the historical claims about this saint, often highlighting the murky details of his life and confusing origins of the stories about him. However accurate these investigations may be, they present us with one of the difficulties we face in the Information Age: more data can mean less clarity and a loss of meaning. While we strive to find the most accurate and detailed description of historical people, places and things, we are left with an unanswered question: why were these stories remembered in the first place? When it comes to the lives of the saints, we use the word hagiography to classify the types of stories told about them. Hagiography is a form of distilled wisdom; details condensed into short stories using experiential and symbolic language. Some are more fantastical than others but there is a common purpose behind this approach. By distilling the message in this way, the legend transcends the specific time, place, and people involved. This makes the wisdom contained in the stories accessible to all people throughout all times; rich and poor, ancient and modern, saint and sinner, etc. They are, in a very real sense, capturing the reality of what it’s like to live in the world for all people. Although this may seem alien to us in some ways, we use this strategy all the time. For example, I might say, “I was totally blown away” to describe a concert I attended. When we hear this, none of us believe that I was actually swept up or tossed aside by the musician’s performance. We know that this refers to an experience of awe, enjoyment, and being impressed by talent. Ok, thank you for tolerating my pre-analysis analysis (it’s the philosopher in me, I can’t help it!). Let’s take a look at the pattern within the legend of St. Valentine.
Hardness of Heart and Vulnerability
The first part of the story that stands out is the dichotomy between the emperor, nicknamed “Claudius the Cruel”, and the young lovers. There is an immediate sense of disconnection between the harshness of the emperor and the softness of this “young love”. This is further illustrated by Claudius’s insistence on waging endless wars to gain more power for the Roman Empire. It’s a classic example of a power-hungry ruler exploiting those under his rule. This is contrasted with the deep longing of his soldiers to be home with their wives and children. There’s a sense in which the more the emperor demanded, the more the soldiers clung to their loved ones. It was a battle of self-protection; Claudius chose to protect himself through hardness of heart, fueling his drive for more power and control, while his soldiers sought the inner sanctum of their families for protection. This is where St. Valentine enters the story, wedging himself between the two sides. His self-sacrificial love on behalf of the sacrament of marriage is an equalizer. Even his death cannot take away the impact of his actions, proving that love is more powerful than any form of tyranny. It is this very love, patterned after Christ Himself, that would eventually convert the entire Roman Empire, cracking open that hardened heart.
Epic story aside, how does this relate to our everyday experience? Fortunately for us, the pattern scales up and down. On the one hand, it shows us how to deal with a corrupt and overbearing authority. On the other hand, it shows us how to deal with interpersonal conflict. Lastly, it shows us how to deal with the battle within our own hearts. On all levels, the battle is against a tendency towards self-protection (which makes so much sense given the harshness of this world) and taking a risk to trust, believe in, and deepen love. In St. Valentine we see the ideal of divinely inspired love which is described so eloquently by Pope Benedict in his book “God is Love”:
“Love of God and love of neighbor are thus inseparable, they form a single commandment. But both live from the love of God who has loved us first. No longer is it a question, then, of a “commandment” imposed from without and calling for the impossible, but rather of a freely-bestowed experience of love from within, a love which by its very nature must then be shared with others. Love grows through love. Love is “divine” because it comes from God and unites us to God; through this unifying process it makes us a “we” which transcends our divisions and makes us one, until in the end God is “all in all”.”
This applies so powerfully to our relationships. How often do we get hurt and then react in self-protection; covering up our vulnerability and isolating ourselves from each other? How often do we do this to ourselves; dismissing or hiding a part of us that we cannot bear to engage? When this happens, our growth may come by lingering with the moment this happens, wedging ourselves between this instinct to protect and our soft/vulnerable parts. Just like St. Valentine, we can stop the escalating pattern of pain and self-protection. We can lean on some borrowed trust and security. We can ask Christ to put Himself between us and our suffering. If it is safe to do so, we can ask our loved ones not to abandon us in our pain. We can work together to fight against our hardness of heart and prioritize our relationship to strengthen our bonds. It is a risk, yes, because we have all been let down, abandoned, rejected, or dismissed in moments of need. Fortunately, love is more powerful than anything and it needs a place to live, in our hearts, in our relationships, and in our society. If we can make room for and plant a seed, it will grow.
St. Valentine, pray for us! ♥️
– Jonathan Dixon, LMFT
Jonathan Dixon is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in Virginia who has offered mental health services at Alpha Omega Clinic’s Fairfax office since 2013. He is an active member of the Association of Marriage & Family Therapy. He also seeks to inspire healing and wholeness through reflections on Instagram @deepspeakstodeep.