The Divine Hours of Lent

I have always had a love/hate relationship with the Bed and Breakfast phenomenon. Like many another writer, I travel a great deal in the course of my work, talking to groups and lecturing. Providing me with housing while I am with any given group is always part of the contractual arrangement between us. Nine and a half times out of ten, that arrangement always means a standard hotel room in a standard hotel. But every once in a great while, thinking to provide me with an extra perk or a perception of more elegant hospitality, a contracting group will house me in a local B&B, at the announcement of which, my heart always sinks.
Obviously, given the success of the things, B&B’s are a very satisfactory way to luxuriate when one is on holiday. They are rarely satisfactory when one is on a working tour. The desk space is notoriously non-existent, for one thing, as is wireless access for a computer and/or even a handy and compensatory phone line. The plumbing as a rule is quaint, which is a matter or no moment to me until I discover the next morning that there is a tub but no shower, or a shower but not a great deal of water pressure.
Being by disposition not much given to fussiness and frills in either décor or life-style, I tend to drown in all the doilies and fringed pillows and beaded lamp shades that I am confined to sharing space with for ten or twelve hours. Even when the thing is a restoration from the pre-Victorian years of the 18th or early 19th century, it is still apparently incumbent upon its owners to furnish it with the lacework and hand-drawn linens in which I snag either some errant button on my clothes or some buckle on my briefcase….always to my instant horror, by the way, lest I have ripped history apart with my clumsiness or inattention.
I would think myself faintly un-American in my general unease with what is obviously a thoroughly established custom like the B&B, were it not that I know dozens of travelers who share my dread of the things when one is working instead of taking a holiday.Yet, with all that having been said, I also don’t think I know a single person–me, included–who can enter one of those converted, restored, commercialized old houses without being to some greater or lesser degree also charmed. Sure, they make me grumpy. Sure, they’re so dolled up and decorated that they have almost no contact with reality, either as it once was or as it presently is. None the less, they stand there, those old houses; and beneath all the fussiness and the silliness, always there is something that has survived. Always, buried beneath the doilies and scatter rugs, there is a story. There is the charm, like a drop of sweet upon the tongue, that comes from moving into a space that could tell more tales and describe more human truths than even the most gifted or fanciful of us could ever imagine.
All of this is a long way around to finally admitting, both to myself and to the world in general, that I have the exact, same love/hate relationship with Valentine’s Day. I also have it with St. Valentine’s, which is at the heart of the problem, no pun or word-play intended.
There are two names for the day that will house all of us these next few hours.
Valentine’s is the charming lace, but St. Valentine’s is the story. And it’s a story so clotted and contorted and obscured that even the Church herself can’t recall the details of it. There were six or seven or who knows how many Valentines who were martyred in the 2nd, 3rd. and 4th centuries. They came by the name because they were “Worthy,” valens being the Latin word for worthy. Probably some of them were nameless in death and were remembered and named only generically and later as a result of the form of their death.
Two of the Valentines were the Valentine(s) of February 14, because at least one of them was buried on that date. Or else that date was assigned to his burial after the fact and for convenience. That is, some historians say, the Church chose to use one or both of the Valentines to christianize the days from 13-15 February. Those three days every year were the time of a really, really pagan holiday called the Lupercalia. When I say “really, really pagan,” I mean it.
Priests ceremonially slaughtered two goats on the 13th, peeled off the hides, and then made long, thin thongs or short whips out of them. After that, naked young men grabbed the thongs and ran through the streets striking women of all classes and conditions with them. It was supposed that being touched–or struck, actually–by the flesh and blood of the sacrifice would grant pregnant women an easy, safe delivery and/or grant fertility to the barren. Convinced of the efficacy of all this, Roman women spent the 14th and 15th of February lining the streets of the Imperial City, their hands outstretched, begging to be struck.
The Church took this annual occurrence as an offense on several fronts and managed finally to destroy it, some say by using one of the Valentines to convert the whole thing into Christian ways. Other say, “Not so. Valentine was real and was buried on this day some eighteen hundred years ago. Don’t demean his sacrifice with political implications.” Others say, “Pure co-incidence, and nothing more.” Still others say, “If in doubt, don’t,” which is what the Church finally has said. That is, in 1969, when the Roman Catholic Church revised its calendar of saints to be held in universal liturgical veneration, it removed February 14 as the Feast Day of St. Valentine.
But to tell you the truth, even these thirty-nine years later, I miss the old boy, whoever it was and however badly he may or may not have been used by us and regardless of many of “him” there really were. So, yes, I walk into today with annoyance at the silliness and also with a contradictory delight in its charm and in the children who are dancing with excitement and the couples that, caught in young love, will celebrate their joy most particularly this day. But I walk into it lonesome as well–and more than a little awed.
Lonesome for the truth of whatever it was that this day actually came from and the truth of all the courses by which it has come from its original existence to its present one…Awed by the wonder of how it is that we humans weave our nests of time and place as certainly and surely as the birds of the field weave theirs of twigs and grass.
May God have mercy on all our many houses and bless us who live in them this day.
Happy St. Valentine’s Day