Faith & Reason: Lifelong fidelity: the source of this madness is in God

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Is St Valentine's Day a saint's day or just a pagan hangover, an ancient festival of courtship? asks Margaret Atkins. Is there a distinctively Christian ideal of love?

It may all be a great mistake: it may be the wrong St Valentine. When the poet Chaucer told of the birds choosing their mates on St Valentine's Day, he described not mid-February, but May:

And for the new and blissful summer's sake

Upon the branches full of blossoms soft,

In their delight they turned themselves full oft,

And sang, "Oh blessed be St Valentine,

For on this day I choose you to be mine!"

Chaucer, it appears, knew of a different St Valentine, whose feast was in early May. Could it be that the spring frolics of his poems were later attached, in error, to the other St Valentine's Day, in February?

That would make sense. What could be more natural than to celebrate courtship in May, when scented blossoms hang from the bough, when the hedgerows echo with birdsong, when balmy evenings beckon lovers into the countryside? May, in most of Europe, looks like nature's own festival of fertility. Surely it is no coincidence that the pagan Romans commemorated Flora, the goddess of flowers, at this time. The roots of St Valentine's Day could be older than Christianity itself.

Historians tell us to be wary when we look for an unbroken link between modern and ancient festivities. The more history we discover, the more we learn how festivals are born and die, adapt and alter, to fit local needs and changing times. The point is important; but still . . . Surely here, if anywhere, in the fusion of human love with the first thrill of summer, we might be allowed to detect an ancient impulse quickening our modern veins.

Has Christianity, then, made any difference? Is the celebration of courtship simply a pagan thing, or is there a distinctively Christian ideal of love? We might look to fidelity: "for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part", as the marriage vows put it. But there is nothing exclusively Christian here. Think of Penelope, who spent 20 loyal years awaiting the return of her husband, Odysseus, from the Trojan War, warding off the advances of her many suitors. And even today many a starry-eyed Valentine dreams, however naively, of lifelong love.

Is there not a kind of insanity in this? It is all very well to declare everlasting love on a summer's evening; but, in the face of countless broken marriages and shattered dreams, how can anyone, in cold blood, dare such a thing? Romanticism is all very well; but it seems to have little to do with reality.

And yet - perhaps there is realism also in the romantic's dream. It is becoming ever clearer that divorce inflicts lasting damage on spouses, on children and on society at large, despite the honourable struggles of so many parents to soften the blow. The dream, in so far as it can be lived, protects us all, in concrete and ordinary ways.

"It is only Christian men / guard even heathen things," G.K. Chesterton once wrote. Chesterton always valued those good things which are shared by all human beings, of any faith or of none, things such as courage and laughter and poetry. These, he argued, although not specifically Christian, are most securely sustained within the framework of faith.

There is indeed a kind of madness about lifelong fidelity. But Christians, like Jews, find the source of this madness in God. God's steadfast love for his faithless people, Israel, was like a man's love for his adulterous wife; St Paul compared marriage to the love of Christ for his Church. Here, perhaps is the key to how Christianity might "guard heathen things". For Christ's love was above all a love that healed by forgiveness. In the bruised world of our everyday relationships, only forgiveness can heal; only forgiveness can restore and sustain fidelity. That is why the tidy, clinical, model of serial monogamy - a clean break with the wife, then marry the mistress - is not the Christian way. Divine forgiveness, by contrast, is thoroughly entangled in the messy reality of ordinary living.

As for February's St Valentine, we are sure of only one thing: that he was a martyr. Today's feast belongs to a man who was faithful to Christ even unto death. Perhaps, after all, he is an appropriate patron for lovers. In order to cherish our youthful dreams, we need the loyalty of a martyr no less than the laughter of May. It is as well that God, as the saying goes, writes straight with crooked lines. Out of our confused customs, the Church can rescue a feast that makes sense. And out of our broken attempts at faithful loving, a God-given forgiveness can bring healing and hope.