On Tuesday, the world celebrated the Feast of St. Valentine by gifting loved ones anything and everything that could be heart-shaped. The association of this third-Century martyr with romantic love goes back centuries and is one of the Church’s best examples of what is called hagiography. Hagiography, from Greek, means “holy writing” and refers to stories of the lives of the saints that transcend the purely biographical.
Some argue that hagiography should be categorized as folklore, legend, or exaggeration, but none of those designations take away from hagiography’s purpose. These stories are examples of what my great colleague Paul Prokop calls “if they ain’t true, they ought to be.” Did St. Patrick and his fellow priests really turn into deer in order to be spared from an ambush? Did St. Christopher really carry the Christ Child across a dangerous river? Did St. Valentine really restore the sight of the daughter of a pagan judge and then, as he was being taken to his execution, send her a note signed “your Valentine”?
What matters in all hagiographical tales is not so much the historicity but rather the symbolic meaning. An often told story about St. Valentine has him officiating at the secret marriages of Christian couples and then sending them heart-shaped cutouts made of papyrus as a reminder of God’s love for them and their commitment to each other. The linking of divine and human love is not only an essential aspect of Christian teaching, but is the clearest path to a successful relationship and marriage.
The world where the bond between divine and human love, so beautifully portrayed in the hagiographical stories of St. Valentine, is long past. But, sadly, so is the world of 1966, where a Top Ten hit like the Beach Boys “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” could blatantly extoll the beauty of romantic love that leads to marriage. The singer even proposes that the couple pray that time will pass so that they will be old enough to be married:
Maybe if we think and wish and hope and pray
It might come true
Baby, then there wouldn’t be a single thing we couldn’t do
Oh, we could be married (oh, we could be married)
And then we’d be happy (and then we’d be happy)
Oh, wouldn’t it be nice?
There is a wonderfully transcendent feel to this song’s lyrics and music, and there is almost a fairytale sense of “and they lived happily ever after” to it. Contrast that with songs from a very popular album a decade later, written by Jim Steinman and sung by Meatloaf, Steinman turns away from romance and wallows in the worst predatory excesses of the adolescent male.
One might think that lyrics like, “I want you, I need you; but there ain’t no way I’m ever gonna love you. Now don’t be sad ’cause two out of three ain’t bad,” are about as bad as things could get way back in 1977, but Steinman is merely revving up.
On the album’s very next song, a young woman repeatedly asks, “Will you love me forever?” while her self-centered boyfriend replies over and over, “Let me sleep on it.” He finally cracks and says he will love her till the end of time. Ironically, just as in the Beach Boys classic, the young man starts praying for time to speed up, but for a very different reason:
So now I’m praying for the end of time
To hurry up and arrive
’Cause if I gotta spend another minute with you
I don’t think that I can really survive…
Praying for the end of time,
So I can end my time with you!
St. Valentine was a martyr, and therefore knew firsthand the romance involved in the total offering of oneself to the Beloved. He also lived in a pagan world, much like our own, where the lyrics of “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” would surely be seen as quaint and those of Jim Steinman would be the equivalent of holding up a mirror to society.
Lent begins next Wednesday, and with it comes the Church’s focus on the sacrificial love of God manifested in the Cross of Christ. Wouldn’t it be nice if this Lent becomes a time of sacrificial love rather than a continuation of the slide into deeper and deeper realms of predatory selfishness? Can or will that happen? God only knows.