Valentine’s Day (indeed, Saint Valentine’s Day) and Christmas have something in common. Christmas Day has devolved (degenerated?) in our culture into a day on which many of us, consciously or unconsciously, take stock of our lives and decide whether or not we are successful. If I am ensconced in my upholstered chair, stuffed to the gills with Christmas dinner, my adoring spouse at my elbow, ready at my instruction to bring me a glass of sherry, my well-behaved children playing happily and quietly on the Persian carpet in the living-room of my beautiful house, then am I not a success? Alternatively, if I am sitting in my SRO on the downtown east side, the room illuminated by a bare bulb on a twisted cord, and a cold can of beans constituting my entire dinner (that’s if I have a can opener), then I may not consider myself a success in the consumerist terms which our society incessantly pushes into my face.
As an antidote to this pathetic kind of thinking, I recommend a reading of Thomas Merton’s essay “Learning to Live,” in his Love and Living (New York: FSG, 1979). In that essay he tells how he was once contacted by a man who was soliciting contributions to a book to be called Success. He wanted Merton to tell him how he, Merton, got to be “a success.” Merton replied that he was unable to consider himself a success in any terms that had any meaning for him; and that if he had anything whatever to say to his contemporaries, it was that they should at all costs avoid success. Unsurprisingly, Merton did not hear from this man again.
Valentine’s Day, however, has been inflated by Hallmark and its collaborators into the day on which we tell ourselves whether or not we are “a success,” not in our lives as consumers, but in our romantic lives. Am I or am I not in a “relationship”? (I have a friend who says that whenever he hears that word he reaches for his gun.) Is my relationship giving me a quantity of affirmation sufficient to help me to stand tall in my encoupled society? Is my relationship going to last? If it isn’t, what will be left of me? And so forth …
Ah, enough blather. Let’s give the floor to someone who truly had a way with words, a certain William Shakespeare. I send it to you whether you are leading a single life, a double life, or hey, even a triple life (applies only in BC and California). Just as over the desk of the director of a mission on the downtown east side there is a sign which read “Hallelujah anyway!” let me simply say, Happy Valentine’s Day anyway!
And now here’s Mr W. S., and his immortal lines from The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet, I.v.95-112.
Rom If I profane with my unworthiest hand / This holy shrine, the gentle fine is this, / My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand / To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss.
Jul Good pilgrim, you do wrong your hand too much, / Which mannerly devotion shows in this; / For saints have hands that pilgrims’ hands do touch, / And palm to palm is holy palmers’* kiss.
Rom Have not saints lips, and holy palmers too?
Jul Aye, pilgrim, lips that they must use in prayer.
Rom Oh then, dear saint, let lips do what hands do. / They pray. Grant thou, lest faith turn to despair.
Jul Saints do not move, though grant for prayers’ sake.
Rom Then move not while my prayer’s effect I take. / Thus from my lips by thine my sin is purged. (“Kissing her,” says the stage direction.)
Jul Then have my lips the sin that they have took.
Rom Sin from my lips? Oh, trespass sweetly urged! / Give me my sin again.
Jul You kiss by the book.
OK, the last line of this greatest flirtation of all time is a bit of a downer, although as we know from the rest of the story, Romeo took it as an encouragement. HVD again to all of us!
* Palmers were pilgrims who carried a palm leaf home to prove that they had made the journey to the Holy Land.