As we continue with a series of discussions about forgiveness, I’m borrowing from Jack Kornfield’s discussion about the history of Valentine’s Day.
It’s possible that the origins of the holiday go back to the 14th century, when Chaucer wrote the following lines in a poem to honor the first anniversary of King Richard II’s engagement to Anne of Bohemia:
For this was on Saint Valentine’s Day
When every bird comes to choose his mate.
In February of 1400, a “High Court of Love” was established in Paris to deal with love contracts and betrayals or violence against women.
To decide who might be sympathetic to their point of view in matters of love, women chose the judges on the basis of poetry-reading competitions.
A re-invention of St. Valentine’s Day occurred in the 1840s, when people in the U.S. started brightening the dark days of February by exchanging lacey cards bearing love notes and poems.
Valentine, the man associated with expressions of love, lived in the third century A.D., when the Roman Emperor Claudius II was persecuting Christians.
Venerable Bede, an 8th century Benedictine monk and historian in northern England, is the author of the Legenda Aurea or Golden Legend, which recounts tales of saints’ lives.
According to this version, Claudius interrogated Valentine about his Christian beliefs.
The emperor was impressed by Valentine’s courage and offered to spare his life if he would convert to Roman paganism.
Not only did Valentine refuse, but he also tried to convert Claudius to Christianity.
The irate emperor ordered his execution and threw him into a filthy prison to await his fate.
After meting out cruel and unjust punishments, Valentine’s jailer announced that the prisoner would be executed the next day.
Valentine responded by praying aloud for the light of God to illuminate the prison so that all would believe in His divine presence.
The story tells us that the jailer was amazed by the prayer’s effects and asked if his blind daughter’s sight might be restored in God’s light.
Sensing the man’s love for his disabled child, Valentine’s heart was moved to forgive the jailer.
Through prayers of compassion for the blind girl, Saint Valentine restored her sight.
In a later version of the legend, Valentine wrote a letter addressed to the girl he had healed and signed it “from your Valentine.”
This part of the story links Saint Valentine with modern declarations of romantic love.
The deeper lesson of Valentine’s compassion and unconditional forgiveness is less well known, but it gives credence to his sainthood.
When he faced unjust imprisonment and execution, Saint Valentine didn’t invoke the wrath of God in retribution.
Instead he prayed for divine healing mercy to cure his jailor’s blind daughter—with no strings attached.
Valentine’s story inspires us to cultivate a place of unconditional love and forgiveness in our own hearts.
We may question why it’s worthwhile to practice forgiveness.
Over the past two decades, research has shown that forgiving greatly benefits people who feel injured.
Robert Enright, a psychology professor at the University of Wisconsin and founder of the International Forgiveness Institute, has been researching forgiveness since 1985.
Enright found that those who learn to forgive have improved physical health, lower levels of anxiety, depression, and anger, and an increased sense of wellbeing, self-esteem, and hope.
Richard Fitzgibbons, a Philadelphia psychiatrist who helped introduce forgiveness practice into the mental health field, observes that his clients who can forgive have “an enhanced ability to trust” and heightened feelings of love.
In 1998 the John Templeton Foundation contributed almost $5 million dollars to 29 research projects that relate forgiveness to both physical and mental health.
One grant recipient is Frederic Luskin, director of the Stanford Forgiveness Project at the Stanford Center for Research and Disease Prevention.
Luskin has found that the process of forgiving protects against disease and improves emotional health.
By forgiveness, he is referring to a change of heart, not a formal act.
When he worked with people who felt wronged or victimized, they reported that the more they tried to forgive in a formal way, the harder it became and the more resentment they felt.
What helped was to stop working so hard at forgiving and, in a gradual, gentle way, to let go of grievances.
A person who exemplifies this kind of letting go is Father Lawrence Jenco, who was program director for Catholic Relief Services in Beirut during the early 1990s.
He was kidnapped by Shiite Muslims and held in a series of makeshift prisons for 564 days.
Despite beatings, starvation, isolation, mental cruelty, and unsanitary conditions, the priest wrote these words in 1991 to his family at Christmas time:
Dear brothers and sisters,
If I am to die, I hope that I would die with the words of Jesus on my lips: “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” Please do not hate them. Much love, Larry
One of his captors was moved by the letter and read Father Jenco’s words back to him, as a way of asking for forgiveness.
Before Larry was released, an especially brutal captor named Sayeed petitioned him for forgiveness.
In his book Bound to Forgive, Father Jenco recalls, “I was called to forgive, to let go of revenge, retaliation, and vindictiveness. And I was challenged to forgive him unconditionally. I could not forgive him on the condition that he change his behavior to conform to my wishes and values. I had no control over his response.”
Larry did forgive Sayeed.
This story points to one of the remarkable consequences of unsolicited forgiveness.
It often has the paradoxical effect of encouraging perpetrators to change their behavior.
When you forgive someone preemptively, that person usually senses it and feels more comfortable around you, even if you never discuss the issue.
Human beings are usually too scared or scarred, too proud, or too sure of the rightness of their positions to mention the harm they’ve caused one another in the past.
But, if your heart softens into forgiveness, people who’ve hurt you may be able to see you without being haunted by the thought of the harm they caused you.
Your presence no longer reminds them of their own failings, and they can stop blaming you for arousing their own discomfort or guilt.
Even if your forgiveness doesn’t have a perceptible impact immediately, they might be capable of changing in the future.
If we let go of wanting or requiring an apology before forgiving those who have harmed us, we create greater possibilities for authentic reconciliation.
We can learn to see forgiveness not as an end but as the starting point of a gradual process.
Remembering St. Valentine’s compassion and forgiveness towards his jailer might motivate us to free ourselves from bitterness, vengefulness and hatred.
Can we open to the possibility of accepting the imperfections of being human and begin to forgive ourselves and others?
Dr. Eileen Borris-Dunchunstang. Finding Forgiveness: A 7 Step Program for Letting Go Of Anger and Bitterness. McGraw-Hill, 2006.
Bennie Crockett, Jr. “First Century Prisons,” Biblical Illustrator, 31/4 (Summer 2005):46-49.
Martin Jenco and Lawrence Martin Jenco. Bound to Forgive: The Pilgrimage to Reconciliation of a Beirut Hostage. Ave Maria Press, 1995.
Jack Kornfield. The Art of Forgiveness, Lovingkindness and Peace. Bantam, 2002.
Charlette Manning. The Ingredients to Spiritual Peace. Elevate, 2006.
Mariah Burton Nelson. The Unburdened Heart. Harper-Collins, 2000.
Dr. Janis Spring. How Can I Forgive You: The Courage to Forgive; The Freedom Not To.
Perennial Currents, 2005.
Colin Tipping. Radical Forgiveness. Global 13, 2002.