Tuesday, February 18, 2014

"Let him kiss me with the kiss of his mouth..."

Praised Be Jesus!

I hope this post finds everyone in good spirits — and warm! Traditionally, on February 14, the Church celebrates the Feast of Saint Valentine, and the secular world has adopted the feast as a holiday celebrating romantic (and, in many cases, erotic) love. This feast causes a lot of hard feelings and usually results in mushy Facebook posts, resentful memes, and angry words from those who are bitter about their single state. I've also heard people murmur that all the erotic undertones are not a dignified for the feast of a martyr of the Church.

But let's back up for a minute and look more closely at the man whose honor we celebrate. Little is known about Saint Valentine, and what we do know is more than likely a combination of more than one Valentine. But despite all this, the story goes that Valentine was a Bishop in Rome (but not a Pope) who married Christian soldiers when it was illegal under the Emperor Claudius. Long story short: Valentine was caught and beheaded, and the Church raised him to the altars for the public veneration of all, and lo and behold, we have the feast we celebrate in this day and age. (Although technically removed from the General Roman Calendar in 1969, Valentine's feast is still celebrated in the Extraordinary Form and is still acknowledged by the general Catholic populace.)

Now, back to where we started: What do we say to those who are opposed to the sexual and romantic nature of this feast? What is the use of celebrating the feast of a martyr in this way? I think if we look closer at Christian teaching that this form of celebration is most appropriate. I think first we need to address the problem of sex in our American culture. Most Americans (and Christians) view sex and human sexuality as something dirty, or forbidden, a zone of human existence that should only be examined in the bedroom, or for its pleasureful and procreative purposes. This view can lead to a rather unhealthy view of sex and sexuality, and we owe a lot of this to our Puritan forefathers and their ideas of the erotic and sensual.

In truth, a Catholic view of the matter in more balanced, and in fact, sex, martyrdom, God, and the Cross fit together better than what most may think. I think that we need to first start with the thought process of a tradition that is not our own and look at our "elder brothers" in faith, the Jews. In the Old Testament, it is said that God's spirit dwelt among his people in a particular form. This form was known as the Shekinah; this was the Glory Cloud that would overshadow the ark of the Covenant, was the pillar of fire that led the Hebrews out of Israel, that filled the Temple, and was present at public prayer. The Shekinah was also present at the Annunciation and overshadowed the Virgin Mary when she conceived God the Son. The Shekinah is, interestingly enough, a feminine attribute of God and a feminine name for God and His presence. It is said in some traditions of Judaism that the Shekinah is also present at the lovemaking of married couples and rejoices, blessing the couple in their marital bliss. The Song of Songs is also seen as the coming together of these two elements of God and, in a Christian context, of how God loves the Church, and how God loves each human soul.

Yes, the Book of the Song of Songs speaks of God's love for the human soul, and the Song of Songs is no soft reading!
Let him kiss me with the kiss of his mouth: for thy breasts are better than wine, Smelling sweet of the best ointments. Thy name is as oil poured out: therefore young maidens have loved thee. Draw me we will run after thee to the odor of thy ointments, The King hath brought me into his storerooms: we will be glad and rejoice in thee, remembering thy breasts more than wine: the righteous love thee.
This is one example from the Song of Songs which uses highly erotic imagery for God and His love for the soul and also a very erotic response of the soul for God. This is not the fluffy image of God's Love that we've been sold over the years and, for those who are unfamiliar this imagery, could make some uncomfortable (refer to my article, "The Man and the Mystic"). But this is the truth of God's love for us: God longs for us and longs for union as lovers long for sexual union with each other, and our soul, at the core of its very being, longs for this union with God. What we are in for, ladies and gents, is a love affair with God, one that is only mimicked on Earth by the sexual union of a married couple. God wishes to be united with us so "the two may become one flesh," where we are united as one, but remain distinctly two. But it's important to remember God's erotic love for the soul is also tempered with charity and is directed for the good of the soul and for the salvation of the beloved.

This is how the erotic can help us to understand how God loves us and what he desires from us and what we are aspiring to. This love is brought to fulfillment on the Cross of Christ, where Christ outpours Himself for His bride, the Church, and through His outpouring, He is able to enter into union with His Church literally through the Eucharist. In this exchange, we enter into this most intimate union with Christ, and we enter into that divine marital embrace of God's union and grace. As we grow more in the spiritual life, we can experience this union more deeply and profoundly. I think about Bernini's statue, "Teresa of Avila in Ecstasy," as she drinks in the delight of her union with her beloved. The description of Teresa's ecstasy and the transverberation of her heart by God's love, too, is is the most accurate of this union with God — one that experiences piercing pain, but at the same time indescribable joy, one that invokes an erotic intimacy set aflame with love and charity:
“I saw an angel beside me toward the left side, in bodily form. He was not very large, but small, very beautiful, his face so blazing with light that he seemed to be one of the very highest angels, who appear all on fire. They must be those they call Cherubim… I saw in his hands a long dart of gold, and at the end of the iron there seemed to me to be a little fire. This I thought he thrust through my heart several times, and that it reached my very entrails. As he withdrew it, I thought it brought them with it, and left me all burning with a great love of God. So great was the pain, that it made me give those moans; and so utter the sweetness that this sharpest of pains gave me, that there was no wanting it to stop, nor is there any contenting of the soul with less than God.”
—Saint Teresa of Avila
As many of us know, we are all called to Saints and now know that we are called to mystical union, but many of you may be surprised that we are all called to be martyrs! Like Christ, we must outpour ourselves in love for God, we must outpour our entire lives for love of God, and that outpouring must be done to our neighbor. We must draw into union with God, and through our charity, we must invite others to this unity. We will not all shed our blood for Christ, but we all must constantly die to ourselves, and like in any intimate relationship, the more we die to ourselves, the more we find who we really are, and we find ourselves in God. 

So, as we reflect on the life of Valentine, and as we celebrate all our intimate relationships, whether they be romantic or deep friendship, may we, like Valentine, pour out our lives for Christ, Christ who is constantly pouring out his love for us.

“When the sweet Hunter shot and wounded me
My soul rested upon Love’s arms. 
And regaining a new life 
I have changed in such a way, 
That I am my Beloved’s 
And my Beloved is mine.

I have surrendered to Him 
And to such a great extent 
That I am my Beloved’s 
And my Beloved is mine. 
He wounded me with a love arrow 
And my soul became one with her Creator. 
I do not want any other love, 
For to my God I have surrendered. 
I am my Beloved’s 
And my Beloved is mine.”

—Saint Teresa of Avila


  1. : I am sorry to say that the image you posted that you think portrays the Western saint Valentine of Rome IS NOT! The image is in fact St Valentin Sventitsky one of the many New Russian Martyrs under the Bolsheviks. It is the only icon like it in which our monastery had commissioned many years ago by a local iconographer Gregory Melnick. We, the Orthodox Hermits of St. John the Divine, request that you honor the Russian Saint by removing it from the internet. cf.: http://hermitage-journal.blogspot.com/2010/10/new-martyr-valentine-sventitsky.html

    The Least in our Lord's Service,
    Father Symeon salo

    1. Please accept our humblest apologies, Father! That image is actually a very popular meme, and many sites have since shared it (including History.com!). We will gladly honour your request. God bless you and your ministry.