14 February 2014

(Saint) Valentine's Day: Losing one's head for love

As children today give cards called "valentines" to each other and adults celebrate romantic love, very few will - curiously - give any thought just to what "Valentine's Day" is all about.

It is telling, I think, that it is almost never called by it's proper name, "Saint Valentine's Day." Even the calendar hanging on my wall - which includes the ecclesial memorials, feasts, and solemnities of the Saints and of the Lord Jesus - notes that today is both "Ss. Cyril and Methodius" and "Valentine's Day":

To be fair to the makers of the calendar, the memorial of Saint Valentine has no place today on the liturgical calendar of the Ordinary Form of the Mass. Still, if it seems import to mark the phase of the moon, then surely it is important to note that Valentine is a Saint of the Church. This is a simple and necessary step in helping couples remember that today should be more than a mere celebration of romantic or erotic love; it should be a celebration of true and authentic love, a celebration of the Love for whom Saint Valentine lost his head.

According to The Golden Legend, Saint Valentine was a priest who in the year 280 was summoned before the Emperor Claudius because he refused to worship the gods of Rome. We are told what transpired after the charges were laid against the holy priest by the emperor:
And Valentine replied: "Your gods are but the wretched fabrications of men, and are sodden with uncleanness!" Claudius then said: "If your Christ is the true God, tell me the truth!" And Valentine made answer: "The truth is this: that Christ is the only God, and that if you believe in Him your soul shall be saved, your power increased, your enemies put to the rout!"
When Valentine seemed to be winning the emperor, the prefect called Emperor Claudius "deluded" and asked, "Must we therefore renounce what we have believed since we were children?" The emperor's heart was hardened at these words and he ordered Valentine imprisoned within a courtier's house.

While imprisoned, Valentine cried out to the Lord: "Lord Jesus, You who are the one and only Light, shed Your Light upon this house, that those who dwell herein may know You for the true God!"

When the courtier and his household were converted after Valentine healed the courtier's daughter of her blindness, Claudius ordered Valentine beheaded.  Saint Valentine lost his head for Him who is Love (cf. I John 4:8).  Do we not often speaking of falling "head over heels" in love?  This, I daresay, is what happened to Saint Valentine.

At this point you may well be wondering how this martyr of the third century came to so closely associated with couples.  The answer is very much tied up with his life.  When the Emperor Claudius forbade young men to marry in an attempt to increase the size of his armies, Saint Valentine met with young couples in secret so that might enter into marriage.  When this pastoral work was discovered, he was brought before the emperor.

As we consider all of this, I am very happy that His Holiness Pope Francis invited couples preparing for marriage to meet with him today in Saint Peter's Square.  Nearly 40,000 couples answered his invitation and have been talking and singing about marriage all morning, and the Holy Father will soon speak to them.

In the meantime, Pope Francis encouraged young people not to be afraid of marriage:
In his own way, Saint Valentine issued this same invitation and helped young couples to enter into the joy of marriage, to be united in love, and to witness to Love.

I cannot help today but recall what His Holiness Benedict XVI wrote in his Encyclical Deus caritas est in a lengthy but worthwhile section (with my emphases):
That love between man and woman which is neither planned nor willed, but somehow imposes itself upon human beings, was called eros by the ancient Greeks. Let us note straight away that the Greek Old Testament uses the word eros only twice, while the New Testament does not use it at all: of the three Greek words for love, eros, philia (the love of friendship) and agape, New Testament writers prefer the last, which occurs rather infrequently in Greek usage. As for the term philia, the love of friendship, it is used with added depth of meaning in Saint John's Gospel in order to express the relationship between Jesus and his disciples. The tendency to avoid the word eros, together with the new vision of love expressed through the word agape, clearly point to something new and distinct about the Christian understanding of love. In the critique of Christianity which began with the Enlightenment and grew progressively more radical, this new element was seen as something thoroughly negative. According to Friedrich Nietzsche, Christianity had poisoned eros, which for its part, while not completely succumbing, gradually degenerated into vice.[1] Here the German philosopher was expressing a widely-held perception: doesn't the Church, with all her commandments and prohibitions, turn to bitterness the most precious thing in life? Doesn't she blow the whistle just when the joy which is the Creator's gift offers us a happiness which is itself a certain foretaste of the Divine?
4. But is this the case? Did Christianity really destroy eros? Let us take a look at the pre- Christian world. The Greeks—not unlike other cultures—considered eros principally as a kind of intoxication, the overpowering of reason by a “divine madness” which tears man away from his finite existence and enables him, in the very process of being overwhelmed by divine power, to experience supreme happiness. All other powers in heaven and on earth thus appear secondary: “Omnia vincit amor” says Virgil in the Bucolics—love conquers all—and he adds: “et nos cedamus amori”—let us, too, yield to love.[2] In the religions, this attitude found expression in fertility cults, part of which was the “sacred” prostitution which flourished in many temples. Eros was thus celebrated as divine power, as fellowship with the Divine.
The Old Testament firmly opposed this form of religion, which represents a powerful temptation against monotheistic faith, combating it as a perversion of religiosity. But it in no way rejected eros as such; rather, it declared war on a warped and destructive form of it, because this counterfeit divinization of eros actually strips it of its dignity and dehumanizes it. Indeed, the prostitutes in the temple, who had to bestow this divine intoxication, were not treated as human beings and persons, but simply used as a means of arousing “divine madness”: far from being goddesses, they were human persons being exploited. An intoxicated and undisciplined eros, then, is not an ascent in “ecstasy” towards the Divine, but a fall, a degradation of man. Evidently, eros needs to be disciplined and purified if it is to provide not just fleeting pleasure, but a certain foretaste of the pinnacle of our existence, of that beatitude for which our whole being yearns.
5. Two things emerge clearly from this rapid overview of the concept of eros past and present. First, there is a certain relationship between love and the Divine: love promises infinity, eternity—a reality far greater and totally other than our everyday existence. Yet we have also seen that the way to attain this goal is not simply by submitting to instinct. Purification and growth in maturity are called for; and these also pass through the path of renunciation. Far from rejecting or “poisoning” eros, they heal it and restore its true grandeur.
This is due first and foremost to the fact that man is a being made up of body and soul. Man is truly himself when his body and soul are intimately united; the challenge of eros can be said to be truly overcome when this unification is achieved. Should he aspire to be pure spirit and to reject the flesh as pertaining to his animal nature alone, then spirit and body would both lose their dignity. On the other hand, should he deny the spirit and consider matter, the body, as the only reality, he would likewise lose his greatness. The epicure Gassendi used to offer Descartes the humorous greeting: “O Soul!” And Descartes would reply: “O Flesh!”.[3] Yet it is neither the spirit alone nor the body alone that loves: it is man, the person, a unified creature composed of body and soul, who loves. Only when both dimensions are truly united, does man attain his full stature. Only thus is love —eros—able to mature and attain its authentic grandeur.
Nowadays Christianity of the past is often criticized as having been opposed to the body; and it is quite true that tendencies of this sort have always existed. Yet the contemporary way of exalting the body is deceptive. Eros, reduced to pure “sex”, has become a commodity, a mere “thing” to be bought and sold, or rather, man himself becomes a commodity. This is hardly man's great “yes” to the body. On the contrary, he now considers his body and his sexuality as the purely material part of himself, to be used and exploited at will. Nor does he see it as an arena for the exercise of his freedom, but as a mere object that he attempts, as he pleases, to make both enjoyable and harmless. Here we are actually dealing with a debasement of the human body: no longer is it integrated into our overall existential freedom; no longer is it a vital expression of our whole being, but it is more or less relegated to the purely biological sphere. The apparent exaltation of the body can quickly turn into a hatred of bodiliness. Christian faith, on the other hand, has always considered man a unity in duality, a reality in which spirit and matter compenetrate, and in which each is brought to a new nobility. True, eros tends to rise “in ecstasy” towards the Divine, to lead us beyond ourselves; yet for this very reason it calls for a path of ascent, renunciation, purification and healing.
6. Concretely, what does this path of ascent and purification entail? How might love be experienced so that it can fully realize its human and divine promise? Here we can find a first, important indication in the Song of Songs, an Old Testament book well known to the mystics. According to the interpretation generally held today, the poems contained in this book were originally love-songs, perhaps intended for a Jewish wedding feast and meant to exalt conjugal love. In this context it is highly instructive to note that in the course of the book two different Hebrew words are used to indicate “love”. First there is the word dodim, a plural form suggesting a love that is still insecure, indeterminate and searching. This comes to be replaced by the word ahabĂ , which the Greek version of the Old Testament translates with the similar-sounding agape, which, as we have seen, becomes the typical expression for the biblical notion of love. By contrast with an indeterminate, “searching” love, this word expresses the experience of a love which involves a real discovery of the other, moving beyond the selfish character that prevailed earlier. Love now becomes concern and care for the other. No longer is it self-seeking, a sinking in the intoxication of happiness; instead it seeks the good of the beloved: it becomes renunciation and it is ready, and even willing, for sacrifice.
It is part of love's growth towards higher levels and inward purification that it now seeks to become definitive, and it does so in a twofold sense: both in the sense of exclusivity (this particular person alone) and in the sense of being “for ever”. Love embraces the whole of existence in each of its dimensions, including the dimension of time. It could hardly be otherwise, since its promise looks towards its definitive goal: love looks to the eternal. Love is indeed “ecstasy”, not in the sense of a moment of intoxication, but rather as a journey, an ongoing exodus out of the closed inward-looking self towards its liberation through self-giving, and thus towards authentic self-discovery and indeed the discovery of God: “Whoever seeks to gain his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will preserve it” (Lk 17:33), as Jesus says throughout the Gospels (cf. Mt 10:39; 16:25; Mk 8:35; Lk 9:24; Jn 12:25). In these words, Jesus portrays his own path, which leads through the Cross to the Resurrection: the path of the grain of wheat that falls to the ground and dies, and in this way bears much fruit. Starting from the depths of his own sacrifice and of the love that reaches fulfilment therein, he also portrays in these words the essence of love and indeed of human life itself.
This reality of love is what the celebrations associated with the life and death of Saint Valentine should be about.  Let us do our part to foster this!

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