On Valentine’s Day, I went with a few friends to light a candle in front of the relic of San Valentino in the Church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin, which also houses the famous Bocca della Veritá (The Mouth of Truth) made famous in the film “Roman Holiday” with Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck. It supposedly snaps shut on your hand if you tell a lie while resting it in its open mouth.
St. Valentine’s skull is encased in a gold reliquary and decorated with flowers, a macabre tribute to the patron of lovers. The church is only a few steps from the Tiber, and was built over an ancient Temple to Hercules.
It’s uncontested that Valentine’s Day has Catholic roots, but the specifics are unclear. There are likely three separate men sharing the name whose stories have been conflated over the centuries. The oldest dates back to the third or fourth century AD. Some years later, Pope Gelasius I, the last African pope, emphasized devotion to the saint to combat the pagan Roman celebration of Lupercalia in February and its associated sensual extravagancies.
Chaucer added to its importance, tying the feast to the mating patterns of birds when they chose their partners as spring approached. In 1969, the universal church removed St. Valentine from the official calendar, in an attempt to focus more on saints with unquestioned reliable historical veracity, but local celebrations continue in some settings, and so he is still revered by many Christians, in addition to all florists and chocolatiers.
Love lies at the heart of the Christian experience, for as the writings of St. John make clear, “God is love.” Yet, love is more than affection or emotional excitement. C.S. Lewis’ famous book “The Four Loves” explores the differing concepts covered by the one word in English.
We say we love our partners and spouses, we love our extended families, we love our friends, we love our neighbors as ourselves, we love pizza, we love God. These express very different realities, and other languages (Greek especially) have different words for these nuanced and varied experiences.
In short, for them the term philia describes “friendly love.” So philosophy, often translated as “love of wisdom” (philia-sophia), really is better understood as cultivating a lasting friendship with benevolent, holistic learning.
Storge refers to fraternal love, steeped in familiarity. It’s the love we feel for our families, sometimes showered indiscriminately irrespective of bad behavior or hurtful choices. Eros, from which we get the word erotic, is the love most associated with Valentine’s Day. Though it’s never just about sex, we know at its best it combines elements of pleasure with an ability to brighten just about everything in daily life; it’s when “birds suddenly appear….”
Transcending them all is agape, self-emptying, other-centered, altruistic love. “For Christ Jesus, who though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself, and became obedient to the point of death — even death on a cross.”
It’s important to continue to reflect on the different forms, expressions and dangers of misinterpreting or exploiting love(s) and their role in our lives. Regardless of who the men named Valentine actually were, we can use their memorial, like most other things, as an opportunity to ponder our journeys of faith and the always human tendency to slip into idolatry, worshipping things other than God — even those of lesser or distorted experiences of love — in his place, who alone “is Love” without qualification.
The authentically loving relationality of the Trinity within the Godhead always serves as a model calling us to re-examine how deeply we experience and emulate it.
Collingswood native Michael M. Canaris, Ph.D., Pontifical University of St. Thomas (Angelicum), Rome.