In honor of revolutionary love: remembering Saint Valentine — Susan Raffo
I love to tell my daughter stories about Catholic saints and Catholic history. Across all of our lines, our people have been Catholic, Catholic, Catholic. So far I haven’t been able to find anyone across any of our lines who thought the Protestant Reformation was worth converting for. Italian Catholics. German Catholics. Irish Catholics. French Catholics. And then the Wabenaki and Anishinaabeg lines that were forced to become Catholic because those were the missionaries assigned to that land. Choice and violence. Catholic. Catholic. Catholic.
For years, I hated anything to do with Catholicism. I still feel that way about most of the organized Catholic Church: its dogmatism, its sexual violence and glorified patriarchy. Its history of colonization and empire. Its creation and ongoing practice of anti-Semitism as a way to deal with its faith-insecurity and to blame its own violence on somebody else. From the moment Rome was like, hey, this whole monotheistic belief system can be a great tool for forcing people to align with a single emperor, the roots of this belief system began to unravel and then tangle up with violence rather than love.
It was maybe 15 or 20 years ago, as I was feeling my way into histories and ancestors for the first awake time, that I began to think: well, shit. I am not the only person in my lineage to have these insights about the Catholic overlords. I come from thousands of people across all of my lines who have submitted and defied, who have been the perpetrators of violence through the church and who have resisted it every step of the way. I also come from people who found peace and connection, a deep sense of life, through Catholicism as culture. Yes, I thought. Catholicism the infrastructure is different, sometimes, from Catholics as people and is different, sometimes, from how those people follow Catholic teachings and traditions.
Because Catholicism is a syncretic belief system, you can still find preCatholic beliefs, traditional older beliefs, in the stories of saints and martyrs. I thought about all of the ways that resistance shows up when a system of colonization is as relentless and tied to political power as the Christian force has been. And so I asked, in prayer and deep listening, how I can turn towards my people and do two things at the same time: center on the stories that have managed to come through and that have shaped my people while also deeply holding accountable every act of violence — from the larger systemic to the small interpersonal, like being told in Sunday school that there was something wrong with all of my questions.
One of my teachers once said to me that part of our work is to sieve through all of our lines, listening with mind and body, with heart and brain, with belly and spirit, for the stories and then listen for the truth and contradictions within them. And so on this day, I turn to Saint Valentine. Because there is a culture here, a history of disappearance and resistance and then collapse, in the celebration of a single once-alive man.
In the beginning, as so many of you know, this thing called Christianity was a Jewish resistance movement. It was more complex than any single story can name and no one knows about its aliveness in the same way we can get closer to the aliveness of resistance movements today. And, at the same time, we know that it was alive. We know that those early teachers were calling out class- and rank-based systems that allowed poverty and houselessness and sexism and dogmatic judgments to continue. We know that they were not just naming the problem, but they were doing this thing that a friend of mine always wonders why more of us don’t do: refusing to participate anymore. Period. They preached, like all powerful movements for connection do, revolutionary love.
And by revolutionary love, I mean something deeper and more complex than that English. The basic prayers of Catholicism like the Our Father and the Hail Mary, they mean something completely different when understood in their original language of Aramaic. I am still early-learning this, but when I understand that the Aramaic word for Our Father, Abwoon, actually translates to something like Oneness/Divine Creator/the Breath/Holy Spirit/Divine (genderless) Parent, then I realize that this revolutionary love was alive at a time before political and spiritual became separated from each other.
Which means, even though I’m about to try, most of us raised Christian have no idea what any of the Christian teachings actually meant. We just know how our binaried brains interpret them. Good/evil. God/person.
The one who became known as Saint Valentine was one of those who lived when Abwoon and revolution were like two strands of a DNA chain. He lived in that time between Jesus’ death and the Roman establishment of the Catholic church. This was a time when there were lots and lots of different kinds of communities following the teachings of this person, Yeshua, who had died. It’s the same as the revolutionary moment we are in, where there many different Black and anti-racist and anti-white supremacy organizations and approaches that emerge and embody every time there is a moment of sacred power, such as in response to Dr. King and Malcolm X, and in response to the Black Lives Matter movement. These moments impact movements of those directly impacted or with shared culture and lineage — and they impact and shape the movements of those who don’t. We are shaped and in the shaping, we become, sometimes together and sometimes apart.
Saint Valentine was one shaping, one way of listening to and responding to a call for revolutionary love. On the surface, he fits the usual Catholic martyr story — he refused to let go of his beliefs so “they” killed him. I’ve always thought this continued focus on early martyrs is a very clever way for the imperial church to never have to actually look at its own actions: “What?” they say, “We are a church of those who have been attacked and killed! We aren’t the guilty ones! It’s those who stop us from practicing our faith, those are the ones who have to go!!!” There’s a reason why white nationalism is just the American reframe of Christian supremacy. They are one and the same thing.
And, it’s also true: many of those killed as martyrs in the early Church were killed because they fought against state violence. They refused to allow a culture of wealth and poverty to continue. Catholic martyr stories are often stories of wealthy people who left behind their wealth and dedicated their lives to being in service, women who refused their assigned social role, and other forms of resistance and refusal; a sense of purpose taken to the death.
Another teacher once said to me, one of the ways that generational trauma is passed forward is that, as children, we are shaped to be the people that our adult caregivers need us to be so that they feel ok about who they are and then, terrifyingly, they convince us that we chose this way of being all on our own. Their longing/lack of connections shapes our sense of who we are — people who meet that longing and connection — and then because we are so very very young, we are not aware of this shaping. We feel as though “this is who we are.” This isn’t intentionally manipulative, it’s unconscious survival manipulation. This is the only way that I can understand how a movement of revolutionary love, with martyrs who were speaking and active with profound truth to power, could end up becoming a justification for missionizing violence. It’s the same process that happens when a newborn infant, full of the capacity to connect, to express healthy rage, to express joy and sadness, becomes, for example, someone able to say I love my partner and then beat them the next day, or someone who identifies as a good Christian and who then feels justified in the violence of the Capitol takeover. Same processes, again and again.
And so Saint Valentine was killed. And around 200 years later, as the Roman Catholic Church was looking over the 400 years of Christian history and deciding which stories to keep and which to throw out, they decided to lift up Saint Valentine, along with a whole host of other people who had been martyred for the cause. Remember what I said earlier: martyrs definitely help a political strategy move forward.
He was real. As far as I can tell, and hello to you who are deeper into Catholic early history than I am, he was a revolutionary and a healer. He spoke of revolutionary love in that spiritual/political way. We know he evangelized, but we don’t know if it was with force or in the same way that you talk with the people you meet about why you believe what you believe. Because these were early days and being Christian was not yet aligned with imperial political power, it’s likely that what is called evangelism was actually a kind of cultural worker and community organizer. Someone who spoke of the power of love across difference and who lived what he spoke. I think of people who are deeply spiritually guided in their justice work: Dr. King, Thich Nhat Hanh, and people I know personally here in Minneapolis where I live. We don’t know for sure. Valentine might have been a real asshole, but the state didn’t like him and killed him for it so we know some aspect of his resistance was effective.
For years he was remembered on February 14th as a symbol of someone who lived out their purpose; of someone who saw healing in the power of revolutionary love. Revolutionary love was collective; about being part of a people and feeling a sense of purpose towards the care and safety of these people. Revolutionary love was about the radical roots of Christianity: a push against wealth, an ending of poverty, and a push against social dogmatism that prevents liberated connections. Valentine was also remembered as a martyr with all of the layers implied in that. He was NOT lifted as someone who symbolized individual romance. That didn’t begin to solidify until, gasp gasp, the Protestant Reformation began to move forward.
There is a lot to say about the various fronts of the Protestant wave and, like all things, they are tools and they are weapons. Fighting against the Catholic state and its horrific manipulation of regular people means that this 16th and 17th century wave was a revolutionary moment. While there were different fronts in this revolutionary wave, what each front shared was this: the idea that an individual can have their own relationship with God without having to go through the mediation of a priest or other person.
It matters, by the way, that the Reformation emerged after 200 years of plague and poverty and famine across western europe, a set of disasters and profound struggles that eroded the faith that many people had; the faith that the Church could protect them. It’s not a surprising survival response to say, well fuck it, let’s take this into our own hands. In this case, God and spiritual life. After the contraction of this period of crisis came the expansion of Empire, this flight response of European Christians, stuck in the scarcity feelings that comes from 200 years of death, that saw no confusion about taking, taking, taking what was not theirs to begin with — people, resources, belief systems, histories, and more.
This cultural revolution, the Reformation, also deepened the separation of the individual from the collective. This is one, unintended but real, outcome of this move to take holy matters into our own individual hands. I have said it before and I will say it again: I don’t believe in reform. Healing is about getting to the roots and addressing what happened, whether somatically or intellectually or preferably both.
The roots here, I believe, are the moment when the state stepped in to turn Christianity into a political strategy. Everything that happened after this, and I am talking about the year 325, is suspect. And real people have lived real lives of integrity, finding peace through the teachings of the Church, living from connection rather than harm. Real people today who seek to reroot Christianity, listening for the animistic elements alive within its teachings, open to and engaged in repair. I wish the teachings had never switched from Aramaic to Greek and Latin, meaning we got “Our Father” instead of The Holy Breath Which Animates Us All.
In the late 1300s, a poem by Geoffrey Chaucer, The Parliament of the Fowls, told the story of birds who gathered in early spring, on Saint Valentine’s Day, to choose their mate. And so it expanded, one story here, another story over there, and greeting cards were exchanged and other traditions merged with this one, from cupid to red hearts and red roses, and then capitalism got involved and suddenly, generations and generations from its beginnings, we have mandated valentine’s day cards in school, as was done when I was small, before it, too, was released into the newest cultural belief about this day. And collective love, revolutionary love about purpose, the place where spirit and politics are the same becomes one about individualized romance, about honoring or longing for an ideal that takes the expansive nature of love and focuses it only on the love between two people.
Let me be clear: I love love. I love the sacred intimacy that can arise between two people, it’s spiritual/physical possibilities. I love celebrating and honoring that love. And I love ceremonies. And so….
I called my daughter this morning to tell her this story. As I said at the beginning of this piece, I love to tell her bits and pieces of Catholicism. She was never baptised and was not raised in the Church. It felt too contradictory to our queer lives and not a value between my partner and I. As much as I had one random and strange panic attack when I realized we weren’t baptising her (that shit gets IN), I have never felt sad about it. The Catholic Church would need to change more for it to be the place I want to hold me accountable.
Raised in the church or not, my daughter, like me, is somewhat culturally Catholic. Meaning, the traditions that have shaped my people for generations also shape her. My partner’s family is mixed Catholic/Protestant but Brazilian so they have that whole Catholicism-everywhere thing. Telling my daughter about different moments of Catholicism is about passing along culture, about connection, about something else. What she does with it will be about her life that comes after.
Telling her these stories is not about passing along little disconnected gems of meaning. For me, the story of Saint Valentine is about a lot of things. It is about the story of this space of early Christianity, when it wasn’t even called Christianity yet. It’s about believing something so strongly, not just for yourself but for your people, that you will fight even if it means your individual disappearance. It’s definitely a story about revolutionary love, but as a collective thing, something connecting and not individuating. It’s about trying to sense, ever deeper, into that place where spirit/politics (which really just means people) are the same, before the wounds that evolved English separated them out. It’s a story about how state violence, from early Rome until capitalist USA, can manipulate revolutionary love into something that promotes harm instead of care.
And finally, it’s a story of what it means to live in contradiction and still stay within dignity. My cells carry thousands of years of Catholic histories; the memories of those who chose this faith along the memories of those forced to convert. As rageful as I am about the Church itself, I will not turn my back on generations of my own people. I, my daughter, my partner, my family, my Catholic friends: we are all of it. We are all of this. And so on this day, I take the dog out, bring my partner breakfast in bed, and we will spend the evening being together. We will probably smooch.
And, at the same time, I remember these histories, and that this love I feel for her has to be connected to the love I feel for all of us, to finding my, our way again to living within this greater spirit, this breath that animates us all, that breathes into our revolutionary end to poverty, to houselessness, to dogmatic gender roles, to constructing the idea of race as a way to justify the violence of turning people into objects for personal gain and profit, and remembering, as the Aramaic did even though the Greek and Latin forgot, that the spirit is the land, is the people, is the whales and fish and cardinals and cats. This is what the Breath animates which is why we are all connected, which is why this is revolutionary love.
Happy Valentine’s Day.
Originally published at https://www.susanraffo.com on February 14, 2021.