Do you think that St. Valentine’s Day is just one of an increasing number of cynical excuses for retailers to part us from our hard-earned cash? You are not alone.

Some people choose to fight commercialism and spread the love at the same time by making and selling cards for charity, or perhaps by making a donation.

For anyone thinking that they would like to mark St.Valentine’s Day in this way, I would like to suggest that there is one particular kind of charity that is especially appropriate to remember on this occasion: any charity that concerns itself with epilepsy.

St. Valentine, the patron saint of lovers, is also the patron saint of epilepsy.

I know – it surprised me, too.

There are at least a dozen different St. Valentine’s; the one we ‘celebrate’ on February 14th is commonly known as St. Valentine of Rome.

He’s actually the patron saint of a number of things, and just one of about forty patron saints of epilepsy, though perhaps the best known.

So, how did this association come about?

Epilepsy has a long history: it has been recognised for over 4,000 years.

In ancient, pre-Christian cultures it was invariably linked with gods or supernatural beings because there were no externally observable natural explanations for the causes and symptoms (even today, there is much about epilepsy that defies explanation).

Thus, in the past it was often thought of as a the effect of a having a demon ‘cast into’, or come to inhabit, one’s body; and since only a god had the power to defeat such, it was believed that the only way to ‘cure’ someone was to invoke the help of a god.

When Christianity replaced older religions in many parts of the world, the church merely absorbed this belief from the belief system it had supplanted.

There are several references in the bible to epilepsy, three in particular (Matthew 17:14-18, Mark 9:17-27, and Luke 9: 37-43) describe Jesus healing a boy of it by casting out a demon.

By the Middle Ages, though, few Christians would dare to approach God directly for help, but would instead beg the help of a saint to act as intermediary, and ‘intercede’ for them with God.

So, that is how epilepsy came to be associated with the saints, but why did St. Valentine acquire a particular responsibility for it?

There are differing explanations. Little is documented about the life of St. Valentine, and much of what is ‘known’ has a whiff of the mythological about it.

There is a legend that a bishop – Valentine von Turni (later St. Valentine of Rome) freed the son of a Roman orator from a seizure.

Another explanation suggests that the association originated in German-speaking countries, because of the similarity between the German word for ‘fallen’ (fall) and ‘Valentine’.

Epilepsy was once known as ‘the falling sickness’, which reinforced the connection and led to the common name for it in German: ‘St. Valentine’s illness’.

In non-German speaking areas St. Valentine’s patronage of it is less strong, for instance, in Old Ireland it was referred to as ‘St. Paul’s Disease’, because it was believed that St. Paul was affected by it (and yes, I know it isn’t a disease, we wouldn’t say that now, I hope).

The more a saint became associated with an illness, the more people prayed to him (or her), the more statistically likely it is that a few of these people will experience a spontaneous improvement for some reason and attribute it to the action of the saint, and so the reputation grows.

I’m not sure how many people these days genuinely believe in the action of saints. 

But maybe, if the world jumped on the idea of using a saint’s feast day as an excuse to make a tangible effort to help those causes of which that saint is a patron , we could bring to life the power of their patronage in a very real sense, one that is relevant to the modern world. 

 

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