The Romance of Mortality


That St. Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday fall on the same day this year deepens the realities contemplated by both, for the former presupposes the latter.

In this dreary February is recognized Ash Wednesday, that preeminent solemnity of fasting and reflecting on mortality. All days of fasting and mortification, from Good Friday, to the ember days and rogations days, to Ash Wednesday are designed to subordinate man’s passions to his will, in order to allow his whole person all the more perfectly to express his love for God and neighbor. Fasting and all suffering and self-denial bring man out of himself and give him an acute awareness of the world around him. Just as God brings good out of evil in all ages, even as he brought the salvation of the world out of the passion of His Son, man can bring good out of his suffering by ordering it toward his beloved’s good. Such is also the nature of the romantic love celebrated on St. Valentine’s Day.

St. Valentine, that saint known for performing secret marriages between Christians during a time when the same was punishable by death, that saint who was martyred for that very act, and that saint whose ashes are still venerated on the Via Flaminia to the north of Rome, is celebrated with a feast for both lovers and martyrs.

St. Valentine’s Day celebrates romance, which is usually characterized extraneously by friendship love and erotic love, by strong emotions, desires, and predilections, i.e., the passions. The term “passions” refers to those movements of the soul inclining man to possess a perceived good. They connect the life of the senses and the life of the mind. The passions react to the senses, but as our Lord says, man’s heart is the source from which the passions spring. CCC 1764. Mark 7:21. In other words, where your heart is, there will your passions be also.

But romance encompasses more than mere friendship or eros, more than mere passions. For the real measure of romance is not the heart, but the will. Man’s inclinations are not acts of love, but merely the affections of the sensitive appetite. Love is willing the good of another even and especially when doing so requires control of the passions, i.e., when willing requires suffering.

The popular characterizations of St. Valentine’s Day are not lost in this understanding, but enriched. In addition to any other meaning they might have, flowers, music… “etc.”… can be seen almost as metaphors of the philosophy of romance. For instance, it could be said that the soul’s passions are those flowers of romance presentable to another only if arranged by the will; or that a lady loves not only a knight’s shining armor, but the fact that his passions are reined by his will; or that the dance of romance is governed by that certain musica humana that before rendering two persons in harmony with one another, must first render the components of man’s soul, man’s body, and the relation of man’s soul to his body in one accord. All these show the shared language of popular romance with romantic love.

St. Valentine’s Day also celebrates the romance of martyrdom, for St. Valentine was truly a martyr for love. Any romantic would affirm that at the heart of romance is sacrificial love, which is the greatest form of love. John 15:13. And just as no one can be a true lover without denying himself, so too no one can be a martyr without laying down his life. The fittingness of these two days then, is also that the martyr celebrated on St. Valentine’s Day is only able to lay down his life because of the very mortality recognized on Ash Wednesday. In this can be recognized the paradox of romance that embraces both lovers and martyrs, namely, that the inevitabilities of Ash Wednesday create the romance of St. Valentine’s Day. Put in another way and in another season, it must not be forgotten that beneath the confetti strewn streets of Rome are the catacombs of Christ’s saints, just as underlying the spirit of Carnevale is that of Septuagesima, the whole exuberance of the former being the knowledge of the latter: to eat, drink, be merry, and love, for tomorrow is Ash Wednesday. Ecclesiastes 8:15. But the romance of mortality is that polyphiloprogenitive quality of lovers and martyrs, that quality that produces many children, that quality that creates a new end for man, for while man will die, he will also be resurrected into new life, together with all those who benefited from his suffering and sacrifice.


Saint Valentine, patron of valiant love
who, elevating husbands and wives
to Cana’s sacramental wines,
set the romance of martyrdom above
pomegranates and chocolate troves,

pray for us, that the light of Christ
illumine this house in such wise
that its dwellers may in their lives
know Him to be very God and not miss
the path that leads to heavenly bliss.

Commentary to poem/prayer:

Saint Valentine, patron of valiant love St. Valentine is patron of valiant love, that particular love the pursuit of which is difficult but worthwhile.
Who, elevating husbands and wives The marriages St. Valentine performed in secret were not natural marriages merely, but were elevated to the dignity of a sacrament by virtue of the couples’ baptisms.
To Cana’s sacramental wines, Christian marriage is here referred to as Cana’s sacramental wines, wine being the quintessential sacramental element, and the new wine of Cana signifying the grace which Christ effects in the lives of those who experience the sacrament of holy matrimony.
Set the romance of martyrdom above True romance is characterized by suffering, which any romantic would affirm, and yet is not suffering only, but a suffering that has as its end the love of another. Hence, both valiant love and martyrdom may easily be seen to be romantic. It is no wonder the word has as its namesake Rome, the place of both lovers and martyrs.
Pomegranates and chocolate troves These gifts from God are also archtypes of erotic love, and are set below romance, for though such may be included, they are not of the essence of romance.
Pray for us, that the light of Christ This is a paraphrase from St. Valentine’s own prayer from the Golden Legend.
Illumine this house in such wise In his prayer, St. Valentine prays for God not only to illumine the blind daughter of the judge in whose custody he finds himself, but also for the whole house to be made illumined spiritually.
That its dwellers may in their lives
Know Him to be God and not miss In the Parliament of Foules (the poem containing the earliest references to the idea that St. Valentine’s Day is a special day for lovers), Scipio asks the way to heaven of his grandfather, who replies in essence, first know your eternal end, who is God, then work busily in light of that end in order not to miss the path (St. Valentine’s Via Flaminia) to the gate Christ opened and which leads to heavenly bliss.
 The path that leads to heavenly bliss

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