Valentine: the Man, the Martyr, and the Inspiration for Love

Valentine’s Day: a day for roses, candy and romance! School children distribute greetings to their friends and couples share intimate dinners followed by … well, we don’t need to explore the post-dinner affections. The point is this: Valentine’s Day is THE day when we celebrate love. But what about the man for whom this day is named? What does his life have to do with love?

Valentine was a priest in Rome who lived during the third century. In his life time, while the Roman Empire was in decline and broken into three main divisions, periodic persecutions of Christians occurred. The legend holds that Valentine regularly gave aid to those who were persecuted, perhaps both hiding them to prevent their arrest as well as providing care and support to them when jailed. Because of this compassionate work of justice, he was arrested and sentenced to death. He was beaten with clubs and then beheaded on February 14 around the year 270. The remains of a church in Rome built by Pope Julius I in the early 300s are dedicated to the memory of Valentine, the priest and martyr.

There are many legends about how Valentine became associated with romance. While the stories seem unlikely, what strikes me about Valentine is not romance but self-sacrifice. He lived in an age of great political turmoil when the greatest empire the western world had known was collapsing. The future was uncertain and the economy was shambles. It’s likely that fear among people was growing because of the instability in society. In that setting, Valentine demonstrated compassion and a sense of justice. He aided those who were victims of oppression. He provided what help he could at great risk to himself. The risk was real. The risks led to his death.

While Valentine is traditionally pictured with flowers, when I think of the life of Valentine, I am not drawn to cupids and heart-shaped boxes of candy. Instead, I think of the long suffering love common among relationships which endure.

Valentine’s love is much like the faithful wife I know who cared for her husband for several years as he suffered from complicated illnesses. Through a stroke he lost his eye sight. His kidneys later shut down resulting in three years of regular dialysis. Along the way, from complications due to diabetes, his legs were amputated. Like Valentine, hers is a love that knows suffering.

Valentine’s love is also like a gay male couple I know. They are a bi-national couple who lived together for years in the United States. But with the economic downturn, the international partner could no long stay in the US because obtaining a work visa became impossible. Now separated because of immigration law, they look for ways to reconnect and continue their lives together. Like Valentine, theirs is a love which endures.

Valentine’s love is also like those I know who for the last ten years have hauled water to stations in the Sonoran desert of Arizona. Despite intense opposition and political pressure, these people literally offer a drink of water to save lives for those who are lost and disoriented in the desert – often people from Latin America hoping to find a better life in the United States. Like Valentine, theirs is a love that risks personal safety to prevent the deaths of others.

Romance and attraction is wonderful things. As the character Shug Avery said in Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, “It’s some of the best stuff God gave us.” But Valentine embodied a love characterized by risk, steadfastness, and endurance. While I’ve gotten a romantic card for my beloved and sent festive cards to a few close friends, on this Valentine’s Day I prefer to remember the man, the martyr, and his example of steadfast love in the midst of difficult times. Valentine knew the depth of love’s endurance.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

© 2011, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.

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