As the world once again celebrates undying love, chocolate, and flowers, it may be of interest to recall the story of Saint Valentine himself for a change.
In his Legenda Aurea (‘Golden Legend’ – legend not as in ‘he’s a legend’, though Valentine certainly was perceived that way by some, but from Latin legenda, ‘stories that must be read’), some 1,000 years after Saint Valentine’s death, Jacobus de Voragine recorded the story behind Valentine as follows (J. de Voragine, Legenda Aurea, ch. 42; my translation):
De Sancto Valentino
Valentinus dicitur quasi valorem tenens, hoc est, in sanctitate perseverans. Vel dicitur Valentinus, quasi valens tyro, id est, miles Christi. Miles dicitur valens, qui nunquam cecidit, fortiter ferit, se valenter defendit, potenter vincit. Sic Valentinus non cessit martirium vitando , percussit ydololatriam evacuando , defendit fidem communiendo, vicit patiendo.
Valentinus reverendus presbiter fuit, quem Claudius imperator ad se adduci faciens interrogavit dicens: quid est Valentine? cur amicitia nostra non frueris, ut Deos nostros adores et superstitionem tuae abjicias vanitatis. Cui Valentinus: si gratiam Dei scires, ista nequaquam diceres, sed ab ydolis animum revocares et Deum, qui est in coelis , adorares. Tunc quidam, qui Claudio adstabat, dixit: quid vis dicere, Valentine, de sanctitate Deorum nostrorum? Cui Valentinus: ego de iis nil dico , nisi quod fuerunt homines miseri et omni immunditia pleni. Ad quem Claudius: si Christus verus Deus est, cur mihi non dicis, quod verum est? Cui Valentinus: vere Christus solus est Deus, in quem si credideris, anima tua salvabitur, respublica augebitur, omnium inimicorum tibi victoria concedetur. Respondens autem Claudius adstantibus dixit: viri Romani audite , quam sapienter et recte homo loquitur iste. Tunc dixit praefectus: seductus est imperator: quomodo deseremus, quod ab infantia tenuimus ? Et tunc cor Claudii immutatum est. Traditur autem cuidam principi in custodiam et cum in domum ejus ductus fuisset, dixit: domine Jesu Christe, verum lumen. illumina domum istam, ut te verum Deum cognoscant. Cui praefectus: miror te dicentem, quod Christus est lumen: equidem si filiam meam diu caecam illuminaverit, faciam, quaecunque praeceperis. Tunc Valentinus orans ejus filiam caecam illuminavit et omnes de domu sua convertit. Tunc imperator Valentinum decollari praecepit circa annum domini CCLXXX.
Valentine’s name means ‘possessing valour’, i. e. ‘enduring in sanctity’. Valentinus may also mean ‘valiant recruit’, i. e. a soldier of Christ. One calls a soldier valiant when he never fell, fought bravely, defended himself with valour, and won with might. Thus Valentine did not avoid martyrdom by ducking it, thus he smashed idolatry by removing it, thus he defended the faith by strengthening it, and thus he won through suffering.
Valentine was a revered priest, whom Claudius (scil. II. Gothicus) the Emperor had ordered to be brought to him and interrogated, saying: ‘What is it, Valentine? Why do you not enjoy our friendship enough to worship our gods and discard the superstition that is your vanity?’ Valentinus said to him: ‘If you knew the grace of God, you would by no means say those things, but you would withdraw your mind from the idols and worship God who is in heaven.’ Then someone who stood with Claudius said: ‘What do you wish to say, Valentine, about the sanctity of our gods?’ Valentine said to him: ‘I do not say anything about them, except that they once were men and full of impurity.’ Claudius said to him: ‘If Christ truly is God, why do you not tell me what is true?’ Valentine said to him: ‘Truly, Christ alone is God: if you’d believe in him, your soul will be saved, the state will grow, and you will obtain victory against all enemies.’ Claudius in turn said to those who stood with him: ‘Listen, Romans, how wisely and correctly this man speaks!’ Then the prefect said: ‘The emperor has been deceived: how shall we abandon what we held since our earliest childhood?’ And then Claudius’ heart was changed. Claudius handed him over in some provost’s custody, and when Valentine had been led to that man’s home, he said: ‘Lord Jesus Christ, true light, enlighten this house, so that they may see that you truly are God.’ The prefect said to him: ‘I wonder why you say that Christ is the light: if, however, he restores eyesight to my daughter, who has now been blind for a long time, I will do whatever you teach.’ Then Valentine prayed and restored eyesight to the man’s blind daughter and converted everyone in his house. Then the emperor ordered to have Valentine decapitated around the year of the Lord 280.
One may find it difficult to subscribe to the overtly proselytising message of Jacobus’ legend of St. Valentine. One may beg to differ, profoundly, over the question whether or not Christian faith is the sole (or even any) way to illumination.
And yet –
A powerful ruler who feels so insecure about himself that he makes friendship and protection dependent on shared beliefs and opinion?
A profoundly backwards adviser to the ruler who ensures that reasoning, especially whenever there is a slightest danger of getting through to the ruler, will not be listened to, removing those whose opinions and convictions differ from their convenient, fabled childhood memories?
Provision of help to those in need (on request!) and provision of evidence as triggers of one’s ultimate downfall in times of (metaphorical or real) unenlightenment?
Those are times that call for people who possess valour. (But let’s have undying love, chocolate, and flowers too! And yes, contrary to what a popular meme currently going around on social media suggests, it is STILL okay to have chocolate on this day, as my colleague Mark Humphries has pointed out here.)
Alas, we live in an age of tyrannical would-be emperors and aspiring Mesopotamian god-kings…so it is good to be reminded of the ways in which such things can be overcome. Thank you! 🙂
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