A Homily for the Day of Holy Valentinus
by Bishop Steven Marshall
February 14th has been a holiday associated with love and lovers, since ancient Roman and Pre-Christian times. The Roman festival of Lupercalia, a spring festival celebrating sexual and romantic love, coincided with this date. Ancient Romans believed that the springtime mating of birds occurred on this date as well.
The naming of this holiday after a St. Valentine seems to be a case where the Catholic Church of Rome attempted to find a saint’s feast day to substitute for a popular pre-existing holiday. In fact, there were three saints who could be associated with the theme of love, all three of them named Valentine.
It is thus only fitting that we, as Gnostics, should pick our own Valentinus as the saint for whom this feast day is dedicated. In studying the Valentinian tradition of Gnosticism, particularly in that of his disciples in Ptolemaeus’ Letter to Flora and the Gospel of Philip, we find that this is more than a mere coincidence of the name, but that the Valentinian literature is filled with the imagery and metaphor of spiritual love and the Gnostic sacrament of the Bridal Chamber and marriage.
“Indeed marriage in the world is a mystery for those who have taken a wife. If there is a hidden quality to the marriage of the world, how much more is the undefiled marriage a true mystery! It is not fleshly but pure. It belongs not to desire but to will. It belongs not to the darkness or the night but to the day and the light.” (The Gospel of Philip)
The teachings of Valentinus do not advocate celibacy or sexual abstinence, but point us to something more, a mystery that is wholly other, something transcendent and hidden, something which can be missed if we do not penetrate beyond, behind, and beneath the surface of the physical, psychological and social manifestations of sexual union. In my experience, the usefulness of an extended period of sexual abstinence is that it may be the means by which some people come to the insight that beyond, behind and beneath the desire for sexual satisfaction is a love-impassioned will and longing for a spiritual wholeness that no amount of purely physical sex can fill. Once this insight is realized, sexual abstinence no longer serves any real spiritual purpose; one can see the purely physical nature of sex for what it is, and know that it is simply not what it has been cracked up to be; it is an imitation and counterfeit of the real union. After this realization, abstinence may serve egotistical, neurotic, moralistic or social purposes, but it no longer serves a spiritual purpose. One is then liberated to make the choice of settling for the lesser or seeking the greater without the attachments, suffering, resentments or disappointments that so often fill up our sexual lives.
The Valentinians did not deny the physical dimension of love in the world but sought something greater, something that could truly bring wholeness, that could fulfill the desiring of the longing heart for that which truly fills the emptiness of the soul and heals the fragmention and separation of the human condition. They symbolized this consummation of wholeness, of the union of the human and the divine, in the image of marriage and the rite of the Bridal Chamber. “Those who are separated will be united and will be filled. Every one who will enter the bridal chamber will kindle the light, for it burns just as the marriages which are observed at night. That fire burns only at night and is put out. But the mysteries of this marriage are perfected rather in the day and the light.” (The Gospel of Philip)
The hidden spiritual dimension behind the mystery of marriage has been a favorite inspiration of Christian mystics as well. Indeed, Jung quotes St. Augustine of Hippo where in one of his most mystical writings he describes the cross as a marriage-bed, and Christ as a bridegroom consummating his nuptials.
“Like a bridegroom Christ went forth from his chamber, he went out with a presage of his nuptials into the field of the world…He came to the marriage-bed of the cross, and there in mounting it, he consummated his marriage. And when he perceived the sighs of the creature, he lovingly gave himself up to the torment in place of his bride, and joined himself to the matrona forever.”
The cross is a particularly apt symbol for the divine marriage. Indeed, there are more references to the cross as a holy symbol in the Gnostic literature, a symbol of transcendence and union, than exists in the entire canon of the Bible. The horizontal bar of the cross represents the pairs of opposites in the world, the marriage in the world. The vertical bar of the cross represents the union of the below with the above, the celestial or heavenly marriage of the Gnostic bridechamber. We must perfect the vertical union, before the horizontal union can be truly realized. Through union of the above and the below, the outer and the inner, we can become united with all living souls. As expressed so beautifully in one of our occasional collects, “…until we awaken to our true estate in Thee, and living in unity and concord attain to Thy Gnosis in which there is no division or separateness, but only unity with Thee and through Thee with all other souls.” A person in certain exalted states of consciousness may report spiritual experiences shared in union others who have no knowledge or memory of sharing those experiences, yet, in these exalted states on the vertical bar of the cross, the sense of spiritual union with others on the horizontal plane of being cannot be denied.
Though the Valentinian Gnostics seem to have disappeared after the Fourth century, the spirit of transcendent love in the poetry and message of St. Valentinus has never really died. Joseph Campbell has theorized that the spiritual marriage of the Valentinians may have survived in some form in the Valentine Clubs of Southern France described by him from John Rutherford’s The Toubadours. On the 14th of February the members of the select society would process in two rows, male and female, on horseback, led by four officials representing Cupid, Mercy, Loyalty and Chastity. The procession stopped at the Hotel de Ville where Love was worshipped in a parody of the Mass. After the Mass a silver casket was brought out that contained slips of paper with the name of each of the assembled gentlemen written on them. Each Lady would pick a name and Cupid would read out the names of the couples thus chosen. Each gentlemen was to remain faithful to the lady chosen for him during the entire year, to keep her supplied with flowers, poetry, and gifts, to escort her wherever she wished to go, and to do knightly deeds in her honor. The pair were strictly forbidden to marry.
The ritual celebration of the Valentine Society describes a strictly spiritual marriage after the ideals of courtly love. This celebration of Love in a Mass and the mythological characters portrayed indicate the recognition that the true essence of romantic love is not in the traditional marriage of conventional society but in a relationship which transcends the world and enters the realm of myth, poetic imagery, and the symbolic life of the spirit. The ritual of the Valentine Societies of medieval France, as in the mysteries celebrated by the Valentinian Gnostics, and our own sacramental mysteries has as one of its fundamental purposes that of providing a symbolic enactment upon which the powerful archetypal energies of wholeness within us can be projected and brought into consciousness.
The archetype of romantic love is one of the most powerful of those energies. It unconsciously pervades our entire culture — ninety percent of our popular movies, art, music, and literature revolve around this theme; yet most are blind, like the blind-folded figure of Cupid in the Tarot card of the Lovers, to the spiritual root of this archetype and continue to confuse the mythic image of romantic love with the worldly goals of marrying and raising a family. When this archetype is not allowed expression in ritual or some other symbolic, transcendental context, then it erupts in our human relationships. We go about seeking the perfect anima or animus in the perfect woman or perfect man; we hope to find the Holy Grail in worldly relationships. St. Valentinus, like the Gnostics before him realized that the perfect marriage was not to be found in the world but in the spirit. Yet this spiritual and divine union must be found while in this embodied existence. As stated in the Gospel of Philip: “If anyone becomes a son of the bridal chamber he will receive the light. If anyone does not receive it while he is in this world, he will not receive it in the other place.”
The symbols and rituals of our Valentinian forebears provide an effective vehicle for bringing the archetype of the romantic, spiritual love of the Bridal Chamber into conscious recognition and memory. What begins as a faint wisp of nostalgic memory becomes an opening to the effulgent light that embraces and pervades the entire universe. In the Gnostic myth we have the image of the Savior as a romantic love figure with Mary Magdalen as his consort, who is described as the Virgin who yet has many husbands and the barren one who is the mother of the angels. This enigmatic description can only have meaning in a spiritual sense. When we attempt to apply it to our conventional image of human sexual relationships, our vision of it becomes like the marriages that are observed at night, we cannot see the spiritual dimension of what is being described poetically and mystically, because we cannot get through to the transcendent level in which the romance of perfect love is a reality.
The proper sphere for the archetypal energy of romantic love is in the spiritual and symbolic dimension of one’s life. When we fall in love with Love, as an eternal archetype of our spiritual wholeness, the presence of that mysterious other, the spiritual helper and true lover of our inmost being becomes realized and recognized. Unlike our experiences of secular relationships, this one never fails us. The archetype of romantic love no longer overwhelms and controls us unconsciously, we need no longer resent the spoiled ties of our secular marriages and we can approach those relationships in a more loving, caring and conscious fashion, as we no longer unconsciously expect from them the wholeness which they cannot provide.
One of the problems with traditional Roman Catholicism is the institutionalization of the spiritual marriage as a replacement for human sexual relationships. The fulfillment of the spiritual marriage does not replace the need for physical and emotional comforting from other human beings. The spiritual marriage frees us from the unconscious possession by the archetype of romantic love, so that we can approach physical relations in a more conscious fashion. We must neither confuse the longing for the perfection of romantic love with sexual desire nor attempt to quell sexual desire with the institutionalization of spiritual relationships. The spiritual marriage is something wholly other; it comes from an alternative worldview categorically different from the conventions of both society and the flesh; it transcends the world.
This transcendence of the world and the falling in love with Love is expressed nowhere more simply and beautifully than in the short prayer of St. Francis, who also in his spiritual life followed the myth of the virgin knight of the grail romances and the romantic love sung by the troubadors:
“May the power of your love, O Lord, fiery and sweet as honey, wean my heart of all that is under heaven, so that I may die for love of your love, you who were so merciful as to die for love of my love.”
We find in this prayer and in the mythic stories of romance a willingness of the lover to die for the beloved. The subtle connection between love and death runs like a thread through all of the literature of romance. In the world of suffering, the round of birth and death is fueled by physical attraction and worldly marriage; in the realm of the spiritual marriage a love transcendent to wordly things kindles a fire that never goes out. In a spiritual expression the connection between love and death becomes that of transcendence; it is translated into the sphere of poetry and the realm of the archetypal powers of eternity, beyond the wheel of death and birth. The dying for love becomes a symbol for the spiritual rebirth that transcends physical death and suffering.
One of the symbols of Valentine’s Day that has always struck me as holding some symbolic and hidden mystery is that of the heart pierced by Cupid’s arrow. It reminds me of the heart of Jesus pierced by the lance of Longinus and the heart of Mary pierced by a sword. Yet these religious images transcend history, and point to a mystery of redemption that transcends the physical death described by these images even as the arrow pierced heart signifies the piercing by Love’s shaft, instead of a physical slaying. This mystery of redemption to which St. Valentinus’ description of the Bride Chamber points us is that expressed in the Gospel of Truth:
“This is why Jesus appeared: he opened the Book of Gnosis. He was nailed to a tree, he fastened the testamentary disposition from the Father to the Cross. O such magnanimity, such that he draws himself downward to death while eternal life encloses him. Having divested himself of these perishable rags he clothed himself with the imperishability which none has the power to take from him.”
The contrasting of the perishable with the imperishable in the above quoted passage from the Gospel of Truth is essential to the Valentinian worldview and mythic context necessary for understanding the Gnostic mystery of the Bridal Chamber. The message of Valentinus in the Gospel of Philip is almost throughout a point by point contrasting of the marriage in the world with the spiritual marriage of the Bridal Chamber. In this fashion he contrasts the conventional world view with an alternative spiritual view of the world. He describes the terrestrial marriage as an imitation of the Bride Chamber of the Light. Indeed, he even describes the whole of the material universe with its seemingly endless cycles of birth and death, of decay and growth, as a mere imitation of the eternity and timelessness of the alternative spiritual vision of reality.
“When the Demiurge, the god of those who know not the true God further wanted to imitate also the boundless, eternal, infinite and timeless nature of the original eight Aeons of the fullness, but could not express their immutable eternity, being as he was a fruit of the defect, he embodied their eternity in times, epochs and great numbers of years, under the delusion that by the quantity of times he could represent their infinity. Thus truth escaped him and he followed a lie. Therefore his work shall pass away when the times are fulfilled.”
The timeless marriage is the true one, the other is an imitation, a counterfeit of the true. We can stay trapped in that imitation of love that keeps us chained to the wheel of death and birth, or we can seek the liberating vision of Gnosis that St. Valentinus expressed in his teachings and the writings of his disciples. We can know the love that transcends the death in this world and gives rebirth in the spirit. Again, the Valentinian message contained in the Gospel of Philip describes this relationship between the Resurrection (the spiritual rebirth), the Bridal Chamber, and the overcoming of death by a spiritual union.
“If the woman had not separated from the man, she would not die with the man. His separation became the beginning of death. Because of this Christ came to repair the separation which was from the beginning and again unite the two, and give life to those who died as result of the separation and unite them. But the woman is united to her husband in the bridal chamber. Indeed those who have united in the bridal chamber will no longer be separated.”
When we see through the imitation to the real, when we transcend the world to enter the eternal, instead of a wheel upon which we are chained like Ixion, we can receive another symbol, the symbol of the marriage ring whose circle is a symbol of the eternal and timeless, that signifies the love that transcends death and birth in the world, that brings us into the Bride Chamber of the Light where the two are made one and no longer will be separated, where we will no longer be separated by death or by birth in the world, where we can dwell in union and wholeness even while we dwell in the world. Such is the message of the mystery of divine love given us by the holy Saint Valentinus of Rome. As stated in the Gospel of Philip:
“He who has received that light will not be seen, nor can he be detained; and none shall be able to torment one of this kind even if he dwell in the world. And again when he goes out of the world he has already received the truth in images. The world has become the aeon. For the aeon is for him the pleroma and it is in this manner; it is revealed to him alone, not hidden in the darkness and the night but hidden in a perfect day and a holy light.”
Steven Marshall is the Bishop of Queen of Heaven Gnostic Church, a parish of the Ecclesia Gnostica in Portland, Oregon.