Saint Valentine the Unknown

Like many holidays and feasts in the west, today – Valentine’s Day – has its roots in the Catholic Church. But in this case the roots are thin and fragile. Extremely little is known about the Saint Valentine who gave his name to today. In fact, he may be any of as few as three or as many as fourteen different Valentines. But the celebration of his unknown exploits and example is not completely without foundation.

The fifth-century Pope Saint Gelasius I established St. Valentine’s feast day, and alleged relics of the saint are to be found in various location in Europe; among them Rome, Dublin, Glasgow, Vienna and Birmingham. Also, starting in the tenth century, churches started to be dedicated to St. Valentine, and at the same time, two late-Roman men, one a priest and the other a bishop, started to be identified with St. Valentine. They are buried in two different locations along the Via Flaminia, which runs from Rome to modern Rimini.

Still, even though there may have been a man name Valentine who was venerated for his holy life, even St. Gelasius I acknowledged that his name was “justly reverenced among men, but [his] acts are known only to God.”

Because of his anonymity, the Church no longer includes Saint Valentine on the calendar of saints, although local celebrations still take place where his alleged relics are kept.

Literary flourishing in the Middle Ages turned the day into a celebration of courtly love, and later into a day to express love in general to whomever one pleases. Geoffrey Chaucer, in his Parlement of Foules from 1382, wrote: For this was on seynt Volantynys day / Whan euery bryd comyth there to chese his make. But he may well have been referring to May 2, the feast day of St. Valentine of Genoa, somebody else altogether.

It’s a murky business, trying to figure out who did what when and why we celebrate those things now… But the fact remains: despite rampant commercialisation, today is a day to celebrate the love between people – the greatest Christian virtue.

As it is, these remain: faith, hope and love, the three of them; and the greatest of them is love.

(1 Corinthians 13:13)

Going on a pilgrimage

“Whan that Aprille, with hise shoures soote,
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote
And bathed every veyne in swich licour,
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
Whan Zephirus eek with his swete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the Ram his halfe cours yronne,
And smale foweles maken melodye,
That slepen al the nyght with open eye-
So priketh hem Nature in hir corages-
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages”

… as old Master Chaucer put it in the Prologue to the Canterbury Tales. And while it is May, and not Aprille, I will go and visit a shrine this afternoon, and with me a fair number of other people of the Guild of Our Lady of the Garden Enclosed. We will start with Mass in the parish church of St. Boniface in Wehe Den Hoorn and then will process to the shrine, which is also the hermitage of Brother Hugo. It’s a procession of only two kilometers and today it looks to be a slightly rainy one too. It’s a contrast to last year’s pilgrimage, of which you see photo above: it was a warm day, us acolytes wore cassocks and surplices and took turns carrying the cast iron processional cross on its three-meter pole. A rather top-heavy thing. Taking turns was a necessity.

Anyway, once at the shrine, we will celebrate Holy Hour with Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. That will then be concluded with coffee and sandwiches. A simple yet devotional practice, I always find. This will be the fourth time I’m participating.

What is the Guild of Our Lady of the Garden Enclosed? Quoting from the new website, linked above:

“The Guild […] is a so-called devotional guild [, …] a company of faithful who share a certain preference for a specific saint or a certain aspect of the faith. In the case of the guild of Warfhuizen [the village where the shrine is located] they are Catholics who are especially touched by Mary, the mother of Jesus. [They]  specifically venerate her as Mother of Sorrows. They are touched by Mary’s sorrow as she experienced the suffering and death of her Son.

“The guild was established following the development of pilgrimages to Warfhuizen, [which] started spontaneously in 2003.

“[…] the guild is primarily a community of prayer. We strongly believe in its power and daily pray for the wellbeing of the Church and the world. There is a special guild prayer that many of us pray daily, but it is also possible to do so in our own words, or in silence. The guild does require that we always specifically pray for our own diocese and bishop.”

It sounds very pious and serious, and it is, but at the same time it is not. It’s hard to characterise the guild and its members, but the aforementioned website calls it “familiar, informal”, and that’s true. Case in point: I’m meeting with about a dozen guild members who are first and foremost friends. The atmosphere is perhaps best characterised by the familiarity between friends and their familiarity with the Blessed Virgin and so also Christ.

“Mother of Sorrow, thou knowest what sadness is. Pray for us to your Son Jesus: for faith for those who do not believe. For comfort and relief of those who are ill, and, if it is God’s will, healing. For trust and peace for those who are afraid or lonely. For passionate faithful, for holy priests and religious. That God may keep the Church from any danger and bless our diocese. Mary, Garden Enclosed, pray for us.”