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A penitential Valentine’s Day

Unusually, Valentine’s Day coincides with Ash Wednesday this year (Getty)

I’m a bit miffed that Valentine’s Day coincides with Ash Wednesday this year. Why couldn’t it have happened years ago? For most of my twenties I was one of those single people who looked forward to February 14 about as much as you look forward to passing a kidney stone. Had it coincided with the start of Lent I could at least have told myself I was ignoring the day due to piety rather than loneliness.

There is a sort of irony surrounding the fact that Ash Wednesday clashes with Valentine’s Day. After all, the Church supposedly introduced the feast as a buffer against Roman pagan celebrations. According to Butler’s Lives of the Saints, one of the ancient rituals reserved for February 15 included a local ballot where men drew women’s names for casual liaisons. This prompted “zealous pastors” to substitute ladies’ names with those of the saints or short sermons.

But today the timing of St Valentine’s Day risks posing a distraction for Catholics from prayer and repentance. Indeed, the Church’s attempt to Christianise an originally pagan time of year has come full circle when you look at the high street. In local shops and online, a significant proportion of Valentine’s cards are so crude and salacious that even Russell Brand would blush when browsing.

Once upon a time, I used to roll my eyes at ugly teddy bears in shop windows bearing giant hearts. But I’d rather receive a giant cuddly animal than a card from my husband declaring “I —-ing love you”.

The more savoury end of this year’s sentiments from some of the cards out there include “Even creepy weirdos like you need love” and “I love you like a fat kid loves cake!” The word “heart” still features heavily but, bizarrely, so does another word that rhymes with it.

So is it really a great loss for Catholics that Valentine’s Day falls on Ash Wednesday? The Archdiocese of Chicago has gone as far as issuing a statement to remind parishioners that it might be Valentine’s but fasting and abstinence rules still apply. This suggests that for some Catholics, February 14 is posing a genuine dilemma.

I asked some fellow married Catholic women how they were approaching this conundrum. A handful asserted that Valentine’s was too commercial so they were ignoring it anyway, while a good portion said they would simply celebrate on another day. Essentially, no one seemed to be taking it terribly seriously and for a lot of Catholic couples it is a moveable feast.

I feel that this potential conflict presents an opportunity. The bad taste that seems to be colouring February 14 doesn’t mean that Catholic couples should shun it altogether. Just as the Church once tried to counteract lewd pagan practices, Catholics can still embrace Wednesday as a day to honour the Christian ideal of agape.

There’s no reason why husbands can’t buy their wives flowers on Ash Wednesday or, better still, as it’s a day of penance, they could also offer to scrub the loo or take on some other chore that they don’t usually do, for the remainder of Lent. It’s hardly Barry White material, but St Thérèse of Lisieux would almost certainly approve.

For Catholic couples who are not yet married, there is still room for romance, even if a celebratory meal out is at odds with a penitential day. I knew a boy at university who wrote 20 Valentine’s cards for his new girlfriend. When I asked him why he was sending so many, he explained that she had never received one before and so he was making up for every year missed. He married her after we graduated.

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And what would I do if I were unmarried and single on Valentine’s Day this year? I might have what I used to call a “spa day”. During the weekends when friends were preoccupied with spouses, kids or boyfriends, I would occasionally take myself to Westminster Cathedral for some spiritual pampering.

First stop was Confession, followed by Mass and then, painfully aware of how much time I had left to spend, I would sit in the Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament and finish off by lighting some candles. As someone who struggles with prayer and my own company, I can’t say I recall these visits fondly, but I always walked back to the Tube station feeling a little lighter and less alone.

Finally, if you are on the look out for a husband or wife, don’t be tempted to wash your forehead after receiving the ashes on Wednesday. I bet that February 14 is a time when a lot of single people resolve to start looking seriously for a spouse. Ash Wednesday is the one day of the year that you can make it a lot easier for them to find you.

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After almost seven years as associate editor at this magazine, I am moving on after accepting the assistant directorship at the think tank Living and Dying Well, a research body which opposes changing the law on assisted suicide. During my time at the Herald I have lived through one of the most dramatic moments in Church history – the resignation of our beloved Benedict XVI – and our own historic milestone as we moved from a newspaper into magazine format. I have had the privilege of working with brilliant colleagues who are now dear friends, while serving a unique and wonderful readership. I still hope to return to these pages from time to time. Thank you all for every moment.

This article first appeared in the February 9 2018 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here