John K. Bollard: Resolving conflict of Ash Wednesday on Valentine’s Day 

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Monday, February 12, 2018
Conflict of Ash Wednesday falling on Valentine’s Day

This year, for the first time since 1945, Ash Wednesday falls on Valentine’s Day.

Valentine’s Day is a joyful celebration of love; Ash Wednesday is a day of repentance and fasting, the beginning of Lent. What shall a devoted lover, who also wishes to observe penance, do in such a case?

This same question was raised in France more than 550 years ago by Charles d’Orléans, who was not only the Duke of Orléans and later the father of King Louis XII, but also the most elegant poet of his age. Wounded and captured at the famous battle of Agincourt in 1415, he was held prisoner in England for 25 years.

During this time he wrote much of his poetry, in both French and English. No fewer than 14 of his poems refer to Valentine’s Day, which was celebrated then as the day that the birds — and following their example, people, too — choose their mates or renew their promises of love.

But it was probably sometime after his return to France that Charles wrote the poem translated below, for Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day also coincided in 1448 and 1459. Charles resolves the conflict between one’s religious and amorous duties with his usual wit and cleverness. He suggests a compromise that might not have sat well with some of the more strict members of the church, but it surely brought a smile to the lips of those inclined towards more worldly pleasures.

Here is my translation: Saint Valentine says, “Observe me now and bring mates to choose. Whoever ought to come, must come. This is the custom of the day.” When Ash Wednesday replies, “Enough,” which of the two ought one to lose? For the strong, in the morning it is fit to remain at one’s devotions, and after dining at leisure, whoever wishes to choose, may choose.

John K. Bollard