It’s that time of year again when we celebrate St. Valentine’s Day. Most won’t even think of the saint himself, not even in passing, though he enjoys a storied, if distant and rather unclear, history. A few faded details abide. A high-profile religious figure in third-century Rome, Valentine had an active faith and a fervent desire to share it with others. Imprisoned, possibly for performing Christian marriages, he was in 269 martyred for that faith during the harsh reign of the incompetent (though rugged and neatly kempt) emperor Claudius Gothicus, with whom he may have had prior personal interaction—the accounts are rather fanciful about this interaction, so I leave them aside here.
In any case, when in prison, Valentine would seem to have prayed over and brought about the healing of the jailor’s blind child. The saint was laid to rest very near the Milvian Bridge, a bridge that just a few years later would become very important in the history of Christianity. Since when I am in Rome I regularly jog over the Milvian Bridge, undoubtedly I have jogged quite unawares near the spot where the good saint was first buried. His reliquary today is further down the Tiber, nearer to its true mouth, in the Forum Boarium’s often-visited church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin.
But all that is history interspersed with legend. And I haven’t even mentioned the ancient Roman pagan religious festival of the Lupercalia, nor shall I, for the practical reality of St. Valentine’s Day in America is that it is a day to reflect upon that significant other person in your life, if you’re lucky enough to have one, or perhaps to entertain the idea of one, possibly even to entertain a particular person with a proper dinner and a glass of good wine, with a view to moving “idea” a bit closer to reality, as a friend of mine named Charlie recently did—bravo, Charlie! And thus, this blog, which has begun with a bit of story, moves on to reality.
I wish to address the fine points of whomever one might peculiarly love in this blog, considering virtues as stimuli of affection and true love. My thesis is simply this: the love I refer to here, both that which the person whom I shall describe gives and that which that person receives, derives from those very virtues.
I would begin with the capacity to be long-suffering. Imagine if, instead of the presentation of champagne, chocolate and roses one might think of true love as the gift of a long-suffering, gentle and gracious soul. I should distinguish here between tolerance and long-suffering grace. Tolerance really means the capacity to put up with someone. That is not quite virtue. To my mind mere tolerance suggests a temporal limit. Even a dastardly person can put up with someone pro tempore. I might tolerate swinging a kettlebell for an extended period because I know that period of swinging and the pain that it is uncomfortably engendering in my shoulders will soon end. But long-suffering grace, that’s another matter. That implies an interminable period of patience that ends with charity, forgiveness and favor. And this virtue is endearing, in and of itself. If you’re lucky enough to have someone in your life with this virtue—one that outstrips even the positive thoughts about the connection of generosity, tolerance and creativity that one might find bedecking a disposable coffee cup—then you know what I mean, and you have someone whom you can love just for being them, for being the gentle and kind soul who they are.
I would add two more such virtues. The second is metonymous with the first, but distinct from it. It is the capacity to forgive. It is connected to the word grace, mentioned above. Grace is a flexible word, derived from the Latin word gratia, with a deeper (if less obvious) Indo-European Greek root (*gwreto-) that also gives birth to the English (via Greek) charisma, and encompasses the notion not only of elegance and proper balance, such as a ballet dancer’s grace, but also, of course, of thanks, liberal thanks (cf. the liberality of the word “gratis”). If you have a person of grace in your life, particularly the lavish kind of grace, not merely the non-clumsy kind of grace, then you know what I mean. And you are lucky.
Ah, but what about the final virtue? This is a strange one, for it doesn’t have just one word to qualify it, but several words. Steadfastness is one, but another is faithfulness, and yet another confidence. If you happen to have someone who is a combination of these notions in your life, then you are experiencing something rather unique in today’s world. I’m not speaking merely of romantically faithful—though that is obviously important, especially if you’re thinking of the traditional image of St. Valentine’s Day. Rather, when I speak here of faithfulness, I am referring to the kind that is closely akin to steadfastness, the unique capacity to stay with that person in your life through thick and thin, not to lose confidence in them when the chips are down—especially when a bad decision or two by that other person has caused the chips to go down, if not the ship to go down, as well. That steadfastness is grounded in confidence, divinely inspired confidence in the other person. When you have someone in your life who won’t lose confidence in you, no matter what, that is true faithfulness. That is the steadfastness, the confidence of which I speak. If you have such a person in your life, then you know what I mean. And you are lucky.
In closing, dear reader, I wish you as much this St. Valentine’s Day. If you don’t yet have such a person in your life, may you find one. And if you do have such a person, I hope you have time to celebrate him or her and, if you have a moment to reflect on what I’ve written here, to try to be such a person. I can say that a few years back I married such a person. And if you know what I mean, then you will say that I am lucky, lucky and blessed.
Happy St. Valentine’s Day, Sweetheart. You are the long-suffering, gracious, forgiving, steadfast and faithful light of my life. I love you for your virtues, I love you precisely for who you are.