The essay below was first posted several years ago in my currently comatose blog, The Neighborhood of God. It has been resurrected and dusted off for this occasion.
Note to readers who’ve asked: yes, one day soon, I really will wander home and begin writing from there again. No politics, no impending economic doom, just life in its bathrobe, wandering through fields of mondegreens.
Meanwhile, Happy Saint Valentine’s Day to all.
During the latter part of the third century A.D., Claudius was Emperor of Rome — Claudius II, that is. In what has to be one of the dumbest edicts ever devised, Claudius decided to outlaw marriage, thinking it would be more efficient to raise troops if he didn’t have to tear them away from their families.
On paper, this decree must have looked good to Claudius, and it’s doubtful anyone was willing to tell him how sand-poundingly stupid his idea really was. After all, what happens when you outlaw normal human behavior? Of course: normal human beings sneak around the corner and do it anyway.
Thus, young couples started showing up at the Bishop’s house — this was in Interamna, now Terni, Italy— asking to be married. The news quickly spread and Valentinus was called before Claudius to explain himself. At the time, Christians were not considered persona grata, so Claudius wanted to deal: if Valentinus would renounce his faith and his bishopric and stop this marriage business he could escape unharmed. Needless to say, Valentinus wasn’t having any.
Claudius ordered the Bishop to be martyred in three stages. I will spare you the details. While awaiting execution, it is said that he fell in love with his jailer’s daughter and that his love cured her blindness.
There are at least two martyrs named Valentinus, so parts of the legend probably have some fact. One of them is buried on the road to Rome…
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and one of the smaller gates leading into the city was called for many centuries St. Valentine’s Gate. It has some other name now.
Eventually — about 200 hundred years later, a brief period in ecclesial time — Valentinus was canonized. He was made the patron saint of lovers, of epileptics (he perhaps suffered this disorder), and a regular grab bag of other ailments or past times. He is, for example, the patron saint of beekeepers — no doubt because of pressure from the beekeeper’s lobby.
Saint Valentine is not only the patron of lovers, originally he was appealed to as the savior of troubled love. The old people swore he could save marriages. Hmmm…
Maybe when it ceased being Saint Valentine’s Day and just became candy and flowers…maybe then, the divorce rate began to rise?
Save marriage — put Saint Valentine back on the calendar!