Valentine’s Day is two days away (hint hint), and while I didn’t intend to write a blog post about the topic, after just a bit of research to answer questions from curious children, I discovered it’s ripe for exploration.
Not being from the Catholic tradition, my knowledge of saints and their stories is limited. However, there’s treasure to dig for in church history, especially in the early period before Constantine. That’s exactly where the real Saint Valentine’s story lies, in the mid-3rd century. And his story has much to teach us about love in our own time, as well as love in our fiction.
Here’s the core of the story: St Valentine was beheaded on the order of Emperor Claudius Gothicus after trying to win the emperor over to Christianity. Valentine was given the opportunity to recant and was executed when he refused.
Here’s a five-minute summary of his life to round it out.
But how did he end up as a prisoner with the personal attention of the emperor?
Whether legend or history, the story claims that Valentine served as a minister, and he had a reputation for spreading the Christian faith, helping persecuted believers, and performing Christian marriages against the emperor’s demands. All potential crimes for another generation or two.
The marriages were a two-fold condemnation for Valentine:
First, it opposed the emperor, who reportedly made marriages illegal for a time to boost conscriptions for the army.
Second, it set him firmly against the culture that celebrated sexual immorality and promiscuity of all sorts.
It sounds familiar.
In the midst of a culture and government that had turned anti-marriage, Valentine was promoting an alternative expression of true love. He presented a love that rejected the self-gratifying cult of eros, that idol that denigrates and abuses both self and others in the pursuit of pleasure, and replaced it with the self-sacrificial love of Christian marriage, in which each partner serves the other as a co-equal child of God.
It’s a bit of a secret in our culture today, but marriage in a biblical worldview is more than just the love between two people. It is a “living sermon” of God’s great loving sacrifice for humanity through his son, Jesus Christ. The Apostle Paul presents marriage as the picture of the great mystery of Christ’s love for his people, the church, in Ephesians 5.
Recovering that perspective could heal a lot of wrong in our world today, and so, Valentine’s example is relevant and important now.
But what of our fiction?
The True Love of our old fairy tales often points to the same self-sacrificing love presented in Christian marriage. It’s often wrapped up with romantic love (Thanks, Walt). But the idealism of it presents so much more.
If the knight’s only motivation for fighting the dragon was the hand of a maiden whose fairness will soon fade—as those who wish to deconstruct these stories claim—then we’re right to cast off such fables as selfish and shallow.
Not to mention unrealistic. If all he wanted was a little eros, it’s easy to find in a fallen world. Although the dragons still invade that scenario sooner or later.
But if the knight is the symbol of the King who sacrificed everything to destroy the dragon of sin enslaving his beloved, then that tale holds the secret to our freedom and happiness, both in life and in love. Not only that, but it speaks deeply to our desires (both men and women) to be both heroic and worthy of love, while providing examples to follow in fulfilling those desires.
Agape. The unusual Greek word in the New Testament is hard to define—God’s love or sacrificial love are common. Both are apt and true, but the term seems too complex to be nailed down in a lexicon. Perhaps the only way to understand it requires sixty-six books and centuries of long-patient faithfulness to bring our limited minds into the ballpark.
It’s a thing most challenging to write into a story without seeming silly and moralistic, for it is both tender and fierce. It is frustratingly “unrealistic” because it grates against our nature while being the thing we secretly desire.
The best example I’ve encountered in fiction is Samwise Gamgee in JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of The Rings, trilogy, and it takes a tome as thick as most Bibles to accomplish it. And when we see it, especially in film, we experience discomfort at such deep and unselfish love.
And why would we be comfortable when we have such little experience with it?
Our culture has not fostered it, so we have no category to place it in. Sadly, too many in their discomfort mis-categorize it as eros and turn a beautiful thing into a crude joke.
This is where profound stories of love, like that of St Valentine (legendary or historical) can guide us, giving authors and readers pictures of what True Love looks like in flawed humans trying to engage a broken world.
In this case, the past might have a lot to teach us about our future.
If you’re like me and like to understand both the practical and theoretical sides of a thing, you may want to delve deeper into the different types of love mentioned here. I highly recommend C.S. Lewis’ The Four Loves for the task. Perhaps it will help you better see love’s facets and come a little closer to the real thing.
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