February 14 – Auxentius of Bithynia; Valentine

Auxentius of Bithynia, illumination, 11th centuryAuxentius of Bithynia (ca. 410–470 or 473), after serving in the Equestrian Guard (where he guarded the horses admirably), sought out the hermit’s life, withdrawing to Mount Oxia (later called Mt. Auxentius, go on, guess why) to escape the attention of the world and work miracles in wholesale quantities. As we have seen more than once, this is a difficult combination to pull off. Auxientius went out of his way to let the people know that it was Jesus who was healing them, not himself—sometimes by explicitly saying, “It’s Jesus healing you here, not me,” and other times saying, “Tell you what, why don’t we all pray for George’s healing.” This fooled no one, of course, since when they all prayed for George without Auxentius there, it didn’t work.

In 451 he was invited to come to the Council of Chalcedon, and when he politely demurred, saying, “It is for bishops to determine the right teaching of the church, not mere monks,” he was dragged kicking and screaming. Some sources say he boldly fought with the heretics, and others say he was accused of heresy and defended himself. At any rate he left on good terms with the Emperor, and withdrew to Mount Scopas (later called Mt. St. Auxentius (goodness knows why)) for more hermiting and miracleworking. There his disciples built him a tiny wooden hut with a window through which he could greet his many visitors, perhaps the origin of the now-ubiquitous† drive-through blessing. After he died, his relics were taken to a nearby monastery.

Valentine, wooden sculpture, 1505Valentine (d. 269, or 270, or 273, or maybe 280) is the subject of a great deal of confusion: who was he? Somebody with that name is listed in the Martyrologium Hieronymianum, and was commemorated as early as 496. The two most likely candidates, sometimes thought to be the same guy due to similarities in their stories (as you’ll see), were a priest of Rome and a Bishop of Terni (once Interamna—about an hour north of Rome on the E45, or the Via Flaminia (“Flamingo Road”), depending on what century you’re traveling in).

Valentine of Terni was on holiday in Rome, where he healed a judge’s daughter of blindness, whereupon the whole family converted to Christianity. Between this and other pious deeds he somehow ended up before Emperor Claudius, who almost started to like him until Valentine tried to convert him, which lead to his being beaten with clubs (not hearts) and then beheaded. This was on 14 February 269, 270, or 280. He was buried in a shallow grave near the Via Flaminia (see above). His disciples found his body later that week and returned it to Terni whilst the guards weren’t looking.

According to the Nuremberg Chronicle (1493), Valentine of Rome was caught marrying Christians (to each other), in defiance of local criminal codes. Somehow he ended up before Emperor Claudius, who almost started to like him until Valentine tried to convert him, which lead to his being beaten with clubs (not hearts) and then beheaded. This was on 14 February 269, 270, or 273. He was buried in a shallow grave near the Via Flaminia (q.v.). If this sounds like the previous paragraph it’s because it is very like the previous paragraph. (But I typed them separately; I didn’t cut and paste.)

“But what about hearts and chocolates and greeting cards and cherubs with bows and arrows?” I hear you cry. Well, I will tell you what I was able to piece together. Our first bit of evidence shows up as early as Chaucer, who wrote of birds choosing mates on “Volantynys day.” Since few (i.e. no) English birds do that in February, some experts think he was referring to Valentine of Genoa, whose day was May 3. Be that as it may, things accelerated through the 1400s, and by Shakespeare’s day, Ophelia talks about being Hamlet’s Valentine. It’s been downhill since then. Thankfully, the Catholic Encyclopedia in 1913 said the sending of valentines was falling into “desuetude.” In 100 years (you can imagine them saying), nobody will be doing it at all.