It was Saint Valentine’s Day yesterday. There was only one thing I could possibly write about. But first, the man. I looked him up.
No one is entirely sure but the consensus seems to be that he was a Roman priest who was martyred on the Via Flaminia, in Rome, on 14 February, sometime in the late third century AD. He had apparently been arrested and imprisoned for marrying Christians (as the celebrant, not as some kind of fetishistic bigamist or serial monogamist). The emperor, Claudius II, took a liking to him but instead of pleading for his release, Valentinus obstinately tried to convert the emperor, who then sentenced him to death. He was beaten with clubs and stones and when that failed to kill him, he was beheaded.
The kind of love, or missionary zeal, that drove him to seek converts seems to me misplaced – mad, obsessive and more than a little arrogant. Though it’s clearly not for that that we celebrate him; more for the marrying part, his celebration of other people’s love for one another. He might well be terribly surprised to know that he’s still remembered, and I wonder what the word love meant in his time, anyway.
Today we have come to use it so loosely. In that loose sense I love many things: my family, my friends, a small three-legged cat called Elmo, making music and writing, reading and watching movies, socialising, travelling, eating and drinking well, walking and being in nature. These are things that enrich my life. Some of them I love deeply, some I merely enjoy.
I also ‘love’ the way that language allows me to make the distinction between them, and to discover the depth of my feelings in ways that are not immediately obvious. We do an exercise on our Dark Angels courses where we invite people to describe a loved one by means of a list of metaphors. The result is a kind of poem which brings the subject to life in vivid and unexpected ways. It also releases a flood of emotion; not, interestingly, during the writing when the mind is fully engaged and reaching for unfamiliar forms of description, but during the subsequent reading out loud when people hear and feel the full force of what they have written. Hearts pound, voices start to falter and tears frequently flow. ‘I never realised quite how much I love her,’ said one student of a close friend she had written about.
St Valentine’s Day is a celebration first and foremost of romantic love, of the sort that has impelled me, over the years, to write poems such as these for Sarah, and to buy her a book about Rodin yesterday at the National Gallery in Edinburgh, with a photograph of The Kiss on the cover. But I wonder whether we shouldn’t use it also as a pretext to think about the broader experiences of love that we have, and in particular the love of life itself, the love of being human that makes us want to connect with and love others – and of the language that allows us to express it.