Most Valentine’s days, I try to write something about love and such, but this year, I have a story to write. I’ve often told people that asking them to be your Valentine was asking them to be a martyr, because St. Valentine was a martyr, but it was only last night that I finally dug into the Catholic traditions about the man, and decided to write a story. It’s certainly not all factual, but for dramatic purposes, I have woven in other elements that were not in the traditional accounts.
Nevertheless, enjoy this story, and consider more than just your significant other on this St. Valentine’s day.
From Your Valentine
~a short story for today~
Rome, 269 AD, the 14th of February
“Valentinus of Terni, you stand before this tribunal, accused of violating the edict of the Emperor Claudius, treason against the republic by sabotaging the war with the barbarians, and blasphemy. The magistrate will now hear the evidence set against you.”
Asterius, his face hooded by a ragged cloak, watched from the crowd. A month ago, he was to be the magistrate deciding Valentinus’ fate.
Asterius paced about the courtyard of his villa. A fountain trickled nearby. “Valentinus, you must understand that in a week’s time, if you have not recanted your beliefs and begged for mercy from the Emperor, you will die.”
“I will not.” This man, a convicted criminal facing death, was unflappable.
“You will be tried for treason. Women weaken the heart, and you know that marriage has been forbidden to keep men’s hearts in battle.”
“Yet it would be far worse treason to renounce my Lord.”
Asterius sighed with quiet frustration. He didn’t want to order this man’s execution, but he was so stubbornly devoted to his God that he had no other option. For over two hundred years, these Christians had been hiding in Rome, secretly spreading their teachings about Christ, supposedly the Son of God.
“You were a priest!” he cried, “Your lord is the divine Emperor Claudius!”
“No!” It was the first time Valentinus had raised his voice. “I was lost, like a sheep that never had a shepherd, with only a wolf to keep me astray.”
The reference to the Roman ancestry of Romulus and Remus, and to the Emperor, bit deep. How one of the most devout Roman priests could speak such words was beyond him. Yet, ever since that traitor Peregrinus had died in Terni a hundred years ago, the Christians had been strong there.
Valentinus turned the tables. “What keeps you bound to the wolf, Asterius?”
The magistrate heard all of the witnesses in turn. There was the young soldier who had arrested Valentinus for marrying young men, a direct violation of the edict that forbade any men old enough to serve in the war on the barbarians from marriage. There were several men who spoke of his blasphemy regarding Jesus Christ, and his association with Christians.
Valentinus took it all in in his serene way. He was not so old, perhaps in his thirties, but appeared to hold no regard for the rest of his years. The magistrate just nodded silently through it all. When there were no more witnesses, the crowd waited. Asterius could tell he was waiting for something.
A trumpet call cut through the silence, then a herald cried, “The Emperor Claudius!”
A procession of mounted soldiers entered the vast tribunal, and riding in the middle, a wolf pelt draped over each shoulder, was the Emperor himself. Asterius’ heart stopped. He knew the Valentinus had been sent to speak with the Emperor in the prior weeks, but what they spoke of, he knew naught.
As the soldiers pushed through the crowd, Asterius ducked his head. If any one of them recognized him, he’d be tried for blasphemy next.
Valentinus’ words had been gnawing away at him for the last three days. Why did he follow the Emperor? Had he ever seen any evidence of the Emperor’s divinity? Had any of his prayers and sacrifices in the temples ever soothed his pain?
Asterius was standing alone in the courtyard when a servant entered, a young woman on her arm. She led her slowly, whispering to her, guiding her. Adelia, his daughter. With a pained smile he ran to her. He embraced her, and kissed her lightly on her cheek.
She laughed and ran her hand over his face, feeling his hair, his mouth and chin. She was blind.
“Father, you have a new wrinkle on your forehead. What is troubling you?”
Asterius smiled. How she could understand so much without sight, he did not know. “Valentinus troubles me. He is the most stubborn-” he smiled, growing oddly fond of the criminal “-and the most likeable man I have ever met. ‘Tis a shame that he must be tried.”
Adelia smiled. “He is a pleasant man.”
“You’ve spoken with him?” he asked incredulously.
“He is under house arrest in our own house, is he not?”
“Fret not, father, he has merely been telling me stories of the Man he calls Christ, and how his God is the God who has healed many.”
Asterius froze. His thoughts ground to a halt, and he knew then why he doubted the Emperor. No sacrifice had ever brought sight to his daughter, who had been blind from birth. If Valentinus’ God could…
He shooed the servant away and ran out of the courtyard, calling for the Christian.
The Emperor dismounted regally and strode up to the magistrate. He bowed his head slightly, a sign of deference made to please the people. Asterius watched in disbelief as he was admitted as the next witness.
Claudius spread his arms wide. “My people, I stand before you today as a witness, not as your Emperor. This man-” he jabbed a finger at Valentinus “-is a Christian. In my mercy, I brought him into my chambers and offered him the chance to bow before me, to bow before the divine.”
The crowd was utterly silent, barely breathing.
Valentinus raised his head and shouted, “It is you, Claudius, who must bow before the divine Creator! You are but a man, not a god!”
The Emperor didn’t react. “And this man refused. He spoke of a Man called the Christ, and proclaimed Him to be God… So I ask you, my people, to become witnesses with me. Be witnesses to a test between the will of his God, and the will of the Emperor, and we shall find out who is divine and who is not. Will you join with me?”
The crowd roared with agreement. Asterius was silent.
“Will you put his God to the test?!”
Asterius hugged his daughter close, both of them weeping with joy. For minutes he could say nothing, but when he found his voice, he reached an unsteady hand towards Valentinus.
“You… you have given my daughter sight.”
The Christian shook his head humbly. “No; it is nothing I have done. It is what God has done, for the Father loves His children, and the Good Shepherd loves His sheep. What now, keeps you bound to the wolf, Asterius?”
He swallowed hard before proceeding. “Nothing… Teach me of your God.”
Valentinus smiled broadly. “And you, Adelia, does anything keep you bound to the wolf?”
“Nothing can keep me from the God that has opened my eyes, Valentinus.” She hugged him, then quickly pulled back.
“Then let us begin…” He kept his eyes on Adelia. “And please, call me Valentine.”
The crowd was still cheering wildly, caught up in Claudius’ dramatic speech. Asterius tensed. God had answered him when he called for a test, when he asked Valentinus to heal his daughter; surely God would answer the Emperor today.
“Then, my people, I condemn this traitor to death. Let him be taken to the Flaminian Gate. Let him be beaten and stoned. And if his God’s will is greater than that of your Emperor, surely He will save this man.”
Asterius lost sight of Valentinus as the soldiers dragged him away. He was swept up in the crowd of onlookers as they surged to the gate. Determined, he managed to force his way through the crowd to Valentinus, as the mob and the soldiers dragged him away. “Valentine! God will save you.”
The man hung his head. He reached into his tunic and withdrew a scrap of parchment, passing it to Asterius. Then the jostling of the crowd pulled the two apart.
Asterius, Adelia, and Valentinus raced through one of the thin alleys of Rome, the pounding of soldiers behind them louder than the pounding of their hearts. They had been on the run ever since a servant had confessed that his master – Asterius – was a Christian.
They turned the corner and Valentinus stopped by a wooden door, leading down into the catacombs. “Asterius, Adelia, quick!”
They scrambled inside, but he remained in the alley.
Adelia grabbed his arm, trying to pull him in. “Valentine, come on!”
He pulled away from her, tears in his eyes. “They will search the alley unless I lead them on. Go, you find other Christians – tell them that I sent you. Adelia, I will find you if I escape.”
Asterius watched disbelief turn to heartbreak in his daughter’s eyes, then he nodded. He pulled her close, shut the door, and carried Adelia, weeping, into the safety of the darkness.
Outside, the soldiers shouted, laying eyes on Valentinus, and ran harder. They passed the little door without a second thought.
By the time Asterius made it to the Flaminian Gate, Valentinus was lying in the bloody mud, struggling to rise. His eyes were nearly swollen shut, and one arm was bent at an unnatural angle. He pushed himself up onto his knees with his unbroken arm. Another heavy rock struck him, this time in the side of his head, and he fell again.
Asterius cringed at the sight of his battered friend, and tears began to trickle down his cheeks. He thanked God that Adelia was not here to see this. She had grown fond of him in the days before they had to run, and his arrest had filled her with despair. This sight would surely be the end of her.
He looked up at the sky. Where was God? Where were the angels coming to save Valentinus? Why was God not humiliating the Emperor that defied Him?
Suddenly, Adelia was next to him, looking on in horror. Numb, her knees buckled and he had to catch her. He buried her head in his shoulder, trying to keep her from looking. She wept, sobbing tears of agony for the dying man.
The crowd’s jeering grew suddenly quiet, and Asterius looked up. Valentinus was on his knees, looking up to the sky, murmuring something. His voice was growing louder.
“The Lord is my light and my salvation – whom shall I fear? The Lord is my stronghold – of whom shall I be afraid?”
One of the Roman soldiers drew his sword.
“When evil men advance against me to devour my flesh, when my enemies and my foes attack me, they will stumble and fall. Though and army besiege me, my heart will not fear; though war break out against me, even then I will be confident.”
The soldier walked up to Valentinus.
“One think I ask of the Lord, one thing I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord and to seek him in his temple.”
The soldier’s blade fell heavily on Valentinus’ neck, silencing him.
Asterius was sitting with the other Christians underground, reading Valentinus’ letter aloud by torchlight.
“Tomorrow, I will be tried and executed for my Lord and Savior. I have defied the wolf, and for it, he means to devour me. Do not despair. Do not mourn for me, for I will be in the presence of the Lord at last, and will one day meet you there.
“Those of you whom I have married, devote yourselves to each other in love, as Christ and the church are devoted to each other. Those of you who are not married, do not be quick to give away your hearts. All love is to be a reflection of Christ’s love for us, and this is never to be taken lightly.
“I pray that the Lord will keep you and protect you all, and that through this persecution, He will sow a great harvest. I pray that He will strengthen you every day, and that one day the wolf will be driven away by the Shepherd, never to return.”
Asterius faltered. “The rest is personal,” he explained.
“My friend, Asterius,” it continued, “Do not be eager to test the Lord, and though I will most likely die, keep your trust in Him. As high as the heaven are over the earth, so are His ways higher than our ways.”
He passed the letter to his daughter. Adelia took it in trembling hands and silently continued.
“My dear Adelia, teach others to see God, as God helped you to see the world. He will help you to open blind eyes and blind hearts. There is little comfort I can offer you, except that God will never leave or forsake you. Let this letter be a token of love from your Valentine.”