Just who is St. Valentine?

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We have just celebrated Valentine’s Day. But who is St. Valentine exactly and why his name synonymous with love and romance? The patron saint of love has been identified with two early Christians: a priest martyred in Rome around 269 and buried on the Flaminian Way north of the city and a bishop of Terni, in Umbria, who was also executed in Rome. Some seventeenth century sources assert they are the same person. Modern experts believe the priest-martyr to be the real Valentine. The name “Valentine” derived from “valens” (worthy, strong, powerful) was a popular name in Late Antiquity. At least eleven other saints are named Valentine.

The reasons for his association with lovers is also disputed. There are many legends associated with this saint, none of them based on fact. One is that Valentine, a priest, going against the emperor’s order, secretly married couples so their husbands wouldn’t have to go to war. The legend claims that soldiers were sparse in those day so this was a huge inconvenience for the emperor. Another legend is that he refused to sacrifice to pagan gods. Being imprisoned for this, Valentine gave his testimony in prison and through his prayers healed the jailer’s daughter of blindness. On the day of his execution, he left a note for her signed “Your Valentine.” A possibility for his association with lovers derives from a centuries old belief that birds choose their mates on February 14. Another one is that it is a survival from the Roman festival of Lupercalia held in mid-February to secure fertility and keep evil away. It was once thought that Valentine’s Day was created to supersede this pagan feast. But this theory has been dismissed by modern scholars. Many of the current legends were invented  in the fourteenth century, most notably Geoffrey Chaucer and his circle, when February 14 first became associated with romantic love.

What we do know for certain is that troubled lovers have invoked him since medieval times and that the custom of sending a Valentine’s Day card to a chosen partner, first commercialized in the U.S. in the 1840s, has become a major industry.

St. Martin of Tours (316-397)

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He was the son of a pagan Roman officer and born in 316 in what is now Hungary. Educated in Pavia in northern Italy. From the age of ten, he knew he intended to become a Christian but was enrolled in the Imperial calvary five years later against his will and before he could be baptized. One bitterly cold night at Amiens, he gave half of his cloak to a freezing naked beggar and soon afterwards saw a vision of Christ wearing it. This is the basis of his invocation against impoverishment and has been depicted by numerous artist including El Greco (seen above). As a result of this event, he was finally baptized.

He asked for a discharge because he believed that as a Christian he was not allowed to fight and was accused of cowardice. His answer to that was to stand unarmed in battle holding only a cross-at the sight of which the enemy surrendered. He was given his discharge in 339 and became a disciple of St. Hillary of Potiers; he ended up converting his mother to Christianity. Martin later travelled in Italy and Dalmatia. He lived as a hermit for ten years before rejoining Hilary who encouraged him to found a community of monk-hermits at Liguge, the first monastery in what is now France.

In 372, Martin, now 56, accepted the episcopate in Tours. He was reluctant to accept the position and continued to live as a monk, first in a cell near his church and later at Marmoutier where he established another great monastic center. He continued to live in a strict monastic way until his death. He was zealous in the discharge of his duties. As bishop of Tours, he was a dedicated missionary to the Franks and other northern tribes who had invaded the region. As a former soldier, he used military methods in missionary work. He travelled to the remotest parts of the diocese by foot, by donkey and by boat. From Tours, he led an army of monks through France destroying idols, pagan temples and graves and preaching. Martin was also a wonder worker whose miracles included healing lepers and raising a man from the dead.

Martin opposed Arianism and Priscillianism, the two great heresies of the day, but condemned the practice of putting heretics to death. He actually interceded with the emperor Maximus in an unsuccessful attempt to prevent the execution of Priscillian and others for heresy, declaring that it was sufficient to declare them heretics and excommunicate them.

The first great pioneer of Western monasticism, Martin died at Candes, near Tours in 397. More than 2,000 monks attended his body on its return to Tours. He is the patron saint of France. His feast day is November 11. The saint has given his name to a spell of good weather around his feast day (Nov. 11) known as St. Martin’s summer; the English equivalent of the American Indian summer. His biography, written by Sulpicius Severus, was extremely popular in the Middle Ages and his cult was widespread. In France, over 4000 churches are dedicated to him. And the Benedictine monastery near me where I am going to be an oblate is named after St. Martin of Tours. A popular saint indeed, he is the patron saint of not only France, but also soldiers, horses, riders, geese and wine growers. His emblems are a globe of fire and a goose.