The Psalm of St. Valentine: a poem

It’s that time of year again! Men everywhere are furiously making last minute plans involving chocolate and flowers in hope of receiving some fleshier delights in return. If you’re planning a romantic evening with your special someone on Saint Valentine’s Day, might I suggest preparing a lovely steak dinner, served very juicy and rare, in remembrance of that pool of blood which gushed from the decapitated body of this 3rd century Christian priest (and also because any steak cooked beyond rare is a piteous waste of beef).

In the old Roman Martyrology in force prior to the post-Conciliar reforms, the entry for 14 February still lists the feast of St. Valentine of Rome. The first commemoration of the day reads as follows:

Romae, via Flaminia, natalis Sancti Valentini, presbyter Romae qui, post multa sanitatum et doctrinae insignia, fustibus caesus et decollatus est sub Claudio Caesare.

At Rome, on the Flaminian Way, the birth [into heaven; i.e., his death] of Saint Valentine, priest of Rome who, after healing many and instructing them the doctrines of the faith, was clubbed to death and beheaded under the emperor Claudius.

Another entry for the same day reads:

Iteramnae, Sancti Valentini, episcopi et martyris, qui, post diutinam caedem mancipatus constodiae, et, cum superari non posset, tandem, mediae noctis silentio ejectus de carcere, decollatus est, jussu Praefecti urbis Placidi.

At Teramo, the memorial of St. Valentine, bishop and martyr, who after being flogged, was imprisoned, and, because he could not be made to give up, was thrown out of jail in the dead of night and beheaded by decree of the city prefect, Placidus.

Though this post will focus on only Valentine of Rome, the memorials of both aforementioned saints reveal a darker dimension to the oft-heard question, “Will you be my Valentine?”  In the original sense, to be a “Valentine” has less to with chocolate and romance, and more to do with the kenotic, sacrificial love at the heart of the Christian faith.  In fact, to be another “Valentine” really means to be an alter Christus, another Christ; St. Valentine in a real sense was an alter Christus by virtue of his sacerdotal ministry; but in another sense, Valentine imitated Christ as a healer, a teacher, and finally, by shedding his blood for the Truth.

What follows is “The Psalm of St. Valentine”, a poem I wrote for St. Valentine’s Day 2010.  It is a speculative reflection on the thoughts of St. Valentine of Rome in the hours preceding his death.  The poem is a “ring of sonnets”, consisting of 14 stanzas of Shakespearean sonnets, followed by a “culminating” 15th sonnet (read the whole thing to understand).  I called this a “psalm” after the model of the penitential psalms in which psalmist, though lamenting his misery, still places his trust in the Lord and praises his Name.

As this “psalm” unfolds, you might notice references to Scripture, ancient history, the Roman liturgy, and the theological tradition.  See if you can find them all!

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The Psalm of St. Valentine

Sing unto me, proceeding Spirit wind:
my conscience cowers, clouded and confused;
harsh, slith’ring faces mock me; evil grinned
as I wept like a child, shamed and abused.
Then, in the Forum’s air I once announced
your power, majesty, and splendid light!
Today the serpent coiled, on me he pounced;
my lips are hushed, my limbs too weak to fight.
I limp like some hostage, incredulous
that I’ve been traded to such vicious men.
Your promise of reward grows nebulous
as guards corral me to the lion’s den.
I sense you not in hour of dark distress;
alas, my thoughts have lapsed to nothingness.

Alas, my thoughts have lapsed to nothingness.
My mem’ry almost failed me to recall:
ordained was I to consecrate and bless,
divinely charged to preach to great and small
the Truth ineffable and source of joy.
But now, sad suff’ring shatters ev’ry smile;
when scourging whips these rabid foes employ,
who can forgive, absolve, or reconcile?
Naïvely, once I hoped to blaze a trail
and in the depths of Babel leave your mark.
But grime obscures my path; a tempest gale
uproots my crop; the field is dry and stark.
Forgive my weakness, please! My fate rescind!
In my beleaguered heart I know I’ve sinned.

In my beleaguered heart I know I’ve sinned;
would you but spare these precious, numbered days
and slow this sentence, for I am chagrined
in sight of bloody death? Oh, let me graze
upon lush, verdant pastures; tend my life;
no longer shall I covet, want, desire.
How tiresome is this aching, mortal strife;
deliver me from rash Imperial ire!
I stumble, creep, and crawl on cobbled stones;
to you I raise my hand, to you I plead;
the firmament– deaf, blind– ignores my moans;
a sword has pierced my heart, though not I bleed.
Uncertain thoughts indict my righteousness;
nor have I had the courage to confess.

Nor have I had the courage to confess:
although I fear man’s hand, I fear yours more,
for death by man lasts not; death from you, yes–
your frightful word shakes all creation’s core.
Then bathe me in your mercy; I am dirt
too low to loose the sandal from your sole.
When I to dusty origin revert,
with hyssop sprinkle me and make me whole.
Renew in me the fire that I might stand
upon the altars of olympic gods
and damn them all, for they defiled your land;
and let twelve yield to One against the odds.
So that my end I’ll worthily endure,
to you I lift a supplication pure.

To you I lift a supplication pure–
no pigeon, turtledove, nor choicest calf;
no fattened beast, but my soul, sad and poor;
a rocky heart made soft by Moses’ staff.
I pray you’ll smile upon my off’ring here
as you had done for Abel, Adam’s son;
Melchizedek and Abram’s gifts were dear
to you– accept mine, then, O Holy One.
A voice, once booming, shrinks to tragic groans
beneath the shade of she-wolves raised on high;
decipher now among my faintest moans
the old cry: baruch atah Adonai!
And as I kneel, my heart this prayer screams,
vain and inadequate it often seems.

Vain and inadequate it often seems
to turn my heart to one I’ve never seen.
You could not even carry your own beams,
but begged the aid of one come from Cyrene.
He, like a beast of burden, bore your load.
How dare you call your yoke easy and light?
Did you tow me on that dolorous road,
or did my highest treason crush your might?
Shall I regret the duty of the stole,
the chasuble’s grand mission not for me?
My hunger stings, without bread to console;
no wine to take and drink in memory.
Yet when my weakened flesh lay so unsure,
a host of saints attested to your cure.

A host of saints attested to your cure,
but here they speak not. Quiet are their bones;
I strain to think of verses which ensure
that you hear silent thoughts the heart intones.
Nobody visits me. Did they forget
that I now languish on these stony floors?
Have I become a faceless silhouette
awaiting a tribunal in closed doors?
I peek into the narrow window crack,
in desperate need for hint of warmth or light;
familiar forms dissolve into the black,
like praying men arrested in the night.
In this abyss, I pine for love’s stray beams;
love vanquishes the serpent’s wicked schemes.

Love vanquishes the serpent’s wicked schemes;
why, then, am I sequestered in the dark,
subjected to the Tempter’s whispered themes,
seduced by ev’ry blasphemous remark?
If cupids fly to me or find my place,
no flow’ry messages shall they impart,
nor bandages to wrap my battered face,
nor morsels sweet, nor words to heal the heart.
Bows drawn, they launch sharp arrows so precise,
assailing this old body beaten thin,
imposing on my faith a costly price,
enticing me with error, lies, and sin.
And stronger grows this instinct of denial
especially in hour of bitter trial.

Especially in hour of bitter trial
they flood me with their accusations fierce.
A slanted case against me they compile
as sharp-edged tongues and pointed insults pierce
me like a cold, indifferent, rusted nail,
while I am silenced, held without defense,
withstanding their ironic cries of “Hail!”
The tyrant Claude, to whom I’ve giv’n offense,
pronounces me a criminal to die
for I refused to render him his due–
his false divinity I dared deny,
for flesh and blood reveals not what is true.
Their self-styled god a murd’rous prodigy,
night reigns supreme; I am a refugee.

Night reigns supreme; I am a refugee.
Within my native town I go disgraced,
much like a worthless, lifeless effigy
that frenzied mobs prepare to lay to waste.
I stand alone while wicked men confound
me with their gazes of hostility.
The sinners, not the saints, come to surround,
reducing me to meek docility.
Incessantly the crowds call not for peace
but death. Their mad aspersions know not rest
while nervously I wait for the release
of all the State’s blind rage in highest zest.
Will you still take me back with gracious style
though I abandoned you for but a while?

Though I abandoned you for but a while
and sought some useless refuge far from you,
I sha’nt allow let your enemies beguile
a soul no Worldly Prince shall e’er subdue.
Here, only in the belly of the beast,
within the dark, ribbed cage of prison walls,
I recognize how much I miss the East,
the rising sun at whose Name each knee falls.
The judge of death has now prepared for me
that place of guilt upon the witness floor
so that the before the Judge of Life I’ll be
found worthy to traverse his narrow door.
Though other men with your plan disagree,
iterum ad Romam crucifigi.

Iterum ad Romam crucifigi,
you told the Rock who stumbled out of Rome;
now you pronounce these very words to me
and show me that the tomb shall lead me home.
The soldiers drag my fragile frame away,
beyond the shelter of the city wall;
spilled human blood within them breeds dismay
from gods; outside, their mercy hears no call.
Along the path the chosen rocks are picked
and harvested from fields of martyr bones
whose buried altars silently predict
an end, once theirs, which soon shall be my own.
The first stone takes to flight; I glimpse the gate;
now comes the dawn; now swiftly comes my fate.

Now comes the dawn; now swiftly comes my fate;
O tarry not, O Executioner!
Be kind, be quick, extend no more my wait;
to your most happy fault I shall defer.
How bright is day, how lovely earth’s expanse
when newborn light unfolds upon the land;
how brilliant are all things when first I glance
beyond the shadow of the tyrant’s hand!
Let fall his fasces to exact the cost;
let travertine arouse wild springs of red,
for when their vicious efforts reach exhaust,
the Baptist’s crown shall ring my humbled head!
And when my ruins lay upon the slate,
evoke my soul, released of worldly weight.

Evoke my soul, released of worldly weight
that I may render praise before your throne
with all the saintly choirs round your estate
whose vict’ry palms extol your Love made known!
Unceasingly do all the angels sing
as conqu’ring victors, not as somber ghosts,
who let their joyful cry with one voice ring:
“O Holy, Holy, Holy Lord of Hosts!”
There, I will praise the Power by whose voice
the skies and seas and peaks and plains became;
and I shall praise the Wisdom by whose choice
revoked the choice of him who caused our shame.
Praise to the Love that heals me though I’ve sinned–
sing unto me, proceeding Spirit wind!


Sing unto me, proceeding Spirit wind;
Alas, my thoughts have lapsed to nothingness.
In my beleaguered heart I know I’ve sinned,
Nor have I had the courage to confess.
To you I lift a supplication pure,
Vain and inadequate it often seems.
A host of saints attested to your cure:
Love vanquishes the serpent’s wicked schemes.
Especially in hour of bitter trial,
Night reigns supreme; I am a refugee.
Though I abandoned you for but a while,
Iterum ad Romam crucifigi.
Now comes the dawn; now swiftly comes my fate;
Evoke my soul, released of worldly weight.

SAINT VALENTINE
The skull of St. Valentine at Santa Maria in Cosmedin, Rome

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