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“Valentine’s Day. It comes every year whether you like it or not.
It’s the day when your love life is put on display.”
So begins the official trailer for the newest film hitting the big screen this month.
While I have not seen the movie Valentine’s Day, the previews indicate the theme is probably as cliché as the topic. Many single people find the February 14th holiday disheartening, confusing, downright depressing, and in general “just blah” as one of my single friends aptly described it. Sometimes it feels like the only reason for the “hearts and flowers” holiday (besides the economic boost our society generates from the sale of overpriced cards, boxed chocolates, and red roses) is for the world to take notice of the fact that all the single folks aren’t romantically attached. What’s not to love about that, right?
As a single person, I felt very much the same about Valentine’s Day as the feelings I described above. Thus it surprised me how much my perspective has changed since meeting and marrying my husband, and observing the Valentine’s Day drama from the perspective of a married person. It has been somewhat startling to learn that single folks aren’t the only people who don’t get such a kick out of Romance Day.
I just got an email from a young married couple whom my husband and I were supposed to have a couple’s night out with this week. The other couple had to cancel due to their three-year-old son going through a tantrum stage and crying incessantly every night, the husband breaking his leg at work and needing down time, and the 11-month-old coming down with a high fever. Needless to say, this young couple has a lot more important topics on their plate than making arrangements for the perfect romantic Valentine’s evening out.
Then I talked to my sister-in-law, curious what her holiday plans would include. She and her husband are the homeschooling parents of five children. “One of the highlights of the day is Eric promised me he’d keep the kids quiet downstairs so I could take a nice long shower and take my time getting ready upstairs. That rarely happens without kiddie interruption and it’s such a gift!” she told me with a laugh.
My own sister has two children under age two. She said the best gift of love is when her husband watches the babies while she goes out for a 3-mile jog around the neighborhood all by herself. Her husband is happy with a bag of his favorite bite-sized chocolate bars wrapped in pink and red foil…”and we’ll get a babysitter so we can slip out for a quick dinner too.”
Reflecting on these and many other examples of how married friends spend Valentine’s Day (especially those with children), has made me realize that the people who make the biggest deal about Valentine’s Day usually aren’t married couples – which is ironic since they’re the ones most in love and with the most excuses to pull out all the romantic stops on February 14th.
While this struck me as odd and kind of disappointing at first (after all, as a single person I thought the grass was MUCH greener – well, redder and pinker and more chocolate and roses-filled — on the married side of Valentine’s Day), upon further reflection I’ve realized that these self-giving examples of married love are the type that most resemble the original Valentine of February 14th.
Who was Saint Valentine Anyway?
The simple answer: we don’t know a whole lot about him. The biography on Catholic Online mentions he was a priest in Rome, who cared for the martyr Christians under the persecution of Claudius II. When his ministry to Christians was discovered, he was arrested, badly beaten, and eventually beheaded, on February 14th in the late 3rd century.
The Catholic Encyclopedia lists at least three Saint Valentines. Interestingly, all three of them, died martyrs’ deaths. How the Saint Valentine who died on February 14th became the patron of love, affianced couples, and happy marriages, is shrouded in legend and mystery. And yet this martyr saint is frequently depicted with lovebirds, roses, and flowers surrounding him – as early as the late fifth century.
Love as Sacrifice
If you think about it, the fact that the real Saint Valentine was a martyr priest in the early years of Christianity is incredibly profound for single and married people alike, struggling to make sense out of Valentine’s Day.
How appropriate that the calendar day when love is most celebrated is focused, in a Catholic sense, on the true meaning of love – the radical kind – the kind that is so profoundly self-giving that it’s willing to lay itself down out of love for another.
St. Valentine exemplified the type of love that matters most. Not friendship love. Not familial love. Not even Eros love. Instead, it’s the love that mirrors the divine in its total outpouring for another. Agape love.
For some, this overflowing love looks like 5:00am feedings of your newborn baby. For others, it’s getting up for work when the alarm goes off the first time. Perhaps it’s working a second shift to help pay the extra family bills. For many couples, it’s rejoicing in the little pleasures of life, like a bouquet of roses or a box of chocolates that says “I Love You” while your kids run around the two of you in their sugar-rush from just finishing off said box of chocolates that was “yours.”
Single people and dating couples are not going to find this kind of radical love spelled out on a card in the Valentine’s aisle of your local Walgreen’s or Target. It’s not found in a night at the movies or a romantic steak dinner for two. You may find witnesses of it in your parish priest, in the lives of married couples you know, perhaps in your own parents, and certainly in the Catholic saint whose martyrdom is memorialized on February 14th.
Celebrate Valentine’s Day the Real Way
There’s no easy antidote to the Valentine’s Day blues if you are a single person – especially one who longs for the love of another. I cannot offer a solution to the prick in your heart as you pass by your local flower shop, a red and pink card aisle, a Godiva chocolate store, or Kay’s Jewelers, and witness the general hoopla. It’s a cross each single person must carry.
And yet, there might be something you can do to discipline your focus this month. Instead of allowing yourself to dwell on the Valentine’s commotion around you, perhaps make a commitment to do something for one person on February 14th that is putting selfless love into practice. Perhaps it’s babysitting so a married couple can steal away for an hour or two of precious alone time. Maybe it’s bringing a heart-shaped box of chocolates to an elderly person at Church on Sunday. Possibly you’ll invite a bunch of other single people over for a fun night of movie watching or game playing.
Going to see the new Valentine’s Day movie might give you a few laughs and perhaps a sense of commiseration with other singles who don’t appreciate February 14th. But if you choose instead to do something selfless for someone else, you will have prepared well for the authentic love your heart so deeply and ultimately desires.
Sacred Heart of Jesus, kindle the fire of your divine love within our hearts!
Saint Valentine, patron of love, young people, and happy marriages, pray for us and our future spouses!
Stephanie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org