Who Took the 'St.' Away from St. Valentine?

Except for his association with lovers, this martyr at best had only a shadowy existence on the Catholic calendar.

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The medieval legend grew that birds selected their mates on Feb. 14. Chaucer set his

Parliament of Fowls

, celebrating avian romance, on "Seynt Valentynes day." That made it a perfect day for humans to follow suit. In a 15th-century letter, an English matron invited the young man who had been courting her daughter to stop by and formally ask for her hand: "[U]pon Friday is St. Valentine's Day, and every bird chooseth him a mate, and if it like you to come on Thursday at night, and so purvey that you may abide here until till Monday, I trust to God that you shall speak to my husband, and I pray that we shall bring the matter to a conclusion."

Amid all this billing and cooing, it was perhaps not surprising that the patron of all this, St. Valentine, would gradually fade so far into the background as to become practically invisible, as he is today. But the link between the martyr and the bonds of the heart is not simply an artificial one devised by the Church in order to tone down Lupercalian whoopee. Short as St. Valentine's legend is, it does contain a small love-story, not of romantic love but of love of a more difficult kind: love of one's enemies. Just before Valentine's beheading, his jailer approaches him and begs him to restore sight to his blind daughter. "I wonder at hearing you say that Christ is light," the jailer says. "Indeed, if He gives light to my daughter who has been blind for a long time, I will do whatever you tell me to do." Valentine's response is a prayer over the girl that cures her blindness--a healing that leads to the conversion of the jailer and his household but does not save the saint's life.

And so St. Valentine did leave behind a legacy of love--of the deepest and most selfless kind. And his example is something that should not be forgotten, even if he himself has been almost forgotten. It is something that today's lovers might ponder amid the wining and dining, the kissing and canoodling, that make his day, Feb. 14, such a special treat.

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Charlotte Allen
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