Be My Valentine
The association between the Gnostic teacher Valentinus with what we call romantic love is both ancient and profound and testifies not only to extremely rare evidence for the genuine Gnostic presence in Rome in the third century, but to a spiritual love bond that characterizes couples who have embraced a Gnostic conception of everlasting love.
We tend to take romantic love for granted, but it was not always so. Marriage was, and still is in many parts of the world, primarily an arrangement of property both in what the wife brought to the husband’s estate, and the husband to the wife’s family, and the disposition of the woman herself, as the husband’s “property.” The longing of love that typifies romantic dreams was primarily a matter of adulterous or premarital life: the object of desire was often quite literally “unobtainable,” since he or she was already “promised in marriage.” In the bitterly ironic words of Sgt. Troy in Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd: “All romances end in marriage.”
Western culture is, however, aware of another idea of the “love unobtainable,” something remote and spiritual, an unfleshly ideal, to which lovers are called, contra mundum. This apotheosis of love appeals to the imagination and has been prized for its ability to transform the physical pleasures of “romance” into an ecstasy unfathomable, a union of souls, something rare, unspoiled by the filth and duplicities of the world: the “knowledge of the heart.”
Such a love is properly associated with an Egyptian-born poet who came to Rome in about 136 CE and caused a stir with his startling ideas and charisma during the primacy of Bishop Hyginus. A native of Phrebonis in the Nile Delta, Valentinus (ca. 100-ca. 160 CE) very nearly became bishop of Rome himself. His disappointment at being passed over was held by detractors such as Tertullian to explain Valentinus’s embarking on founding a heretical school of “gnosis falsely so-called.” Even enemies rated Valentinus’s intellect highly, while naturally denigrating intellectualism in the process.
Educated in an Alexandrian culture of Hellenized Jews, Valentinus’s followers claim that their master was also privy to a secret, inner teaching of Paul, passed on to Theudas (cf: 2 Corinthians 12:2–4) as recorded by Clement of Alexandria. According to Tertullian’s Adversus Valentinianos (IV), Valentinus eventually retired from Alexandria to Cyprus and had Bardaisan for a pupil, having already turned into teachers and developers, or perverters, of his doctrines pupils Heracleon, Ptolemy, Marcus, Theodotus, Florinus, Secundus, Colorbasus, and Axionicus. Tertullian insists, however, that only Axionicus of Antioch kept true to his master’s teaching; all the others disavowed owing anything specifically to Valentinus and objected to being called “Valentinians.” Tertullian is emphatic that among his “followers,” personal insights were regarded as revelations, signs of gnosis. Therefore, originality and personal judgment were prized over consistency or respect for authority.
Since Valentinus’s thought is mostly known after percolation through the minds of his pupils, it is hard to know precisely what Valentinus’s own doctrine was. However, close reading of texts gives grounds for confidence that certain features, being common to all his pupils, may be regarded as inspired by their teacher.
These features include a poetic approach to philosophical questions answered through elegant mythic devices, and, perhaps above all, a seductive doctrine of celestial marriages. Furthermore, the Nag Hammadi Library has furnished us with a previously lost text--the Gospel of Truth--that may be substantially identical to a text referred to by this name by Irenaeus,1 employed by Valentinians as scripture, and therefore, possibly the work of Valentinus himself. It is indeed a work of some sophisticated subtlety, authoritative in tone and fundamentally different from other Valentinian works, but that does not mean Valentinus wrote it.
In his seventieth year, the Dutch theologian and historian of Christianity Gilles Quispel (1916-2006) shared with me his considered opinion that such was Valentinus’s appeal after his death, and such the power of his “dangerous” heresy, that the Church had to invent its own “Saint Valentine” to confuse and trounce the memory and reputation of the arch-Gnostic.
Quispel’s suspicion is perfectly plausible. The figure generally accepted as “St. Valentine” is supposed to have died a martyr’s death in the mid-third century, but his name did not appear in Roman martyrologies until very late in the fifth century, over a century after the Roman Emperor Theodosius I had declared Christianity in its orthodox form the religion of the Empire, calling deviants from orthodoxy foolish madmen liable to persecution. By then, who would dare to stand up publicly for a condemned heretic? Quispel reckoned the Catholic Church “absorbed” a major rallying figure celebrated by heretics and gave the name a “romantic” connotation with the story that Catholic martyr Valentinus, whose acts, as Pope Gelasius I said in 496 CE when establishing February 14 as “his” day, “were known only to God” (that is, unrecorded in history). Legends grew that this martyr priest had married Christian couples to prevent their being drafted into the army. It would be fitting that orthodox Christian marriage would be the story to slap onto a figure that had advocated a form of Christian marriage very different from that preached by the celibate clergy of the fifth century.
The original Valentinus would probably be dismayed by the modern idea of erotic and sentimentalized love dressed up as something “romantic” when it is only lustful fascination lathered in manufactured scent and plastered with cosmetics. Spiritually minded souls know intuitively that there is love, and there is spiritual love, and spiritual love does not necessarily mean chaste in the expression of the flesh, but chaste in the intention of the heart and mind.
Spiritual eroticism involves transmutation of the lower nature through the higher magic of spiritual union. If lovers of today and tomorrow wish to bask in the light of Valentinian love, we must look forward to rising in love, not falling into it.