This Monday, the West will celebrate an early Christian saint, with many not even realizing it. It’s the feast day of the martyr, Saint Valentine.
Valentine’s Day will be overflooding in expressions of emotional love. It will be a day of heartfelt sharing, hugs and kisses, chocolates and candlelight dinners.
Since Valentine’s Day has become its own event, it might surprise some people to learn that Valentine was a real person. In a culture that tells us “love is love” and that “love is never wrong,” the literal person used to celebrate such notions is a Catholic saint. He was a historical person who shed his blood for Jesus Christ and his Gospel.
As such, perhaps we can ask if Valentine himself could help us to understand love? He’s honored by our culture for a reason. With the secular version of Valentine’s Day taking the frontstage, however, is the perspective of Valentine, the person of faith, permitted in the discussion on love?
In observing life and watching the fluidity of the human heart, we can identify two simple movements: the euphoria of desire, the thrills of affection, and a pursuit of pleasure on one hand, and the perseverance of care, the warmth of accompaniment, and the self-denial of love for the good of another on the other.
In most relationships that endure, there is a dynamism between these two movements of the heart, with sacrificial love becoming the foundation of the relationship, since euphoria, thrills, and pleasure are never stable and inherently contain a certain capriciousness about them. Admittedly, such a capriciousness makes them enjoyable, but also marks them as unstable and possibly dangerous at times to a loving and sustained relationship.
As we learn from Valentine’s witness, love is refined and deepened by self-abnegation. Love takes us up the task and journey of seeking seek the good of the beloved, even to our own discomfort and suffering. The one who loves says, “I love you” is also willing to say, “I seek your good before my own.”
The task of love is not easy. It requires the tempering and ordering of the calls within us for euphoria, thrills, and pleasure for its own sake. In love, we permit a mirror to be held in front of us. We see our own weaknesses. We recognize our own selfishness and the various disorders within our souls that distract or hinder true love. In trying to love another, we can be shocked by the narcissism within us. As we seek to love another, we realize that love actually purifies us. By loving, we become who we truly are. In love, we become ourselves.
Love can only fulfill its higher calling if we allow it to refine us. A love that is being purified can give this witness: “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.”
With this summons in our own hearts, we can turn and look to Valentine and to the God he worshiped. He gave us a beautiful testimony that has survived even the secular purge of Western culture. It is a testimony of love that contains lessons on loving. It is the story of a person who knew love so well, and accepted divine love so openly, that he loved others beyond himself. He accepted death to show this love.
Following the way of the Lord Jesus, the one person who loved the most in human history, Valentine laid down his life for others. Through his holy life and death, he shows us the grace and the adventure of love: euphoria leading to endurance, emotional thrills to self-possession, and the pursuit of pleasure giving way to sacrifice.
Saint Valentine knew that it was love which sustains and carries us through life. Love is what reveals us to ourselves, allows to give ourselves as a self-donation to another, and what binds us to one another. As we honor the holy Valentine, martyr and witness to love, we are also invited to learn from him and imitate him in his selfless love.