The Eroticism of Harrison Lemke’s “Song for St. Valentine”

Some counter-cultural attitudes are actually pretty widespread. An obvious example is an attitude towards Hallmark holidays like Valentine’s Day. Shirking the yoke of corporatized romance, chocolates in pink wrappers, and garish cards isn’t exactly an underground movement, whispered about at the margins of society. And Catholics have unique ways of being counter-cultural on this day; icons of St. Valentine get shared on Facebook, his martyrdom is remembered, or it’s emphasized that February 14 is actually the feast day of Sts. Cyril and Methodius.

But Harrison Lemke is counter-cultural in a more interesting way in his “Song for St. Valentine,” from his album Sound Check at the Eschaton. The opening line, “they left you lying headless on the Via Flaminia,” is a fairly blunt way of letting the audience know what they’re getting into. This isn’t your typical love song; the love in this song is a love that inspires one to martyrdom, instead of sentimental romance. All in all, for Lemke, St. Valentine deserves to be honoured for that love; not a romantic feeling, but a love that leads him to empty himself.

Love and Sentimentality, Eros and Agape

As Lemke sings,

o unfeeling saint of all our favorite feelings,

o bloodied saint of bloodless letter-love:

would you pray for us?

St. Valentine is one we have made into a figure of sentimentality, associating him with the feeling of love instead of love itself, reminiscent of Terrence Malick’s exhortation to want love instead of love experiences. However, as Pope Benedict XVI says in Deus caritas est, “love is not merely a sentiment. Sentiments come and go. A sentiment can be a marvellous first spark, but it is not the fullness of love.” St. Valentine is “unfeeling”; he does not mistake romantic feelings for love. Indeed, those romantic feelings that are expressed on banal cards are “bloodless.” There is no sacrifice or life expressed, but St. Valentine’s love leads him to empty himself of blood and to give of all he has.

Lemke’s description of St. Valentine’s blood on the ground recalls of Tertullian’s comment that the blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church, and Lemke prays that through St. Valentine’s intercession, his martyrdom may prompt us today to aspire to a higher love than sentiment. Lemke describes St. Valentine’s “blood splayed out in the mud like a crown.” That crown is the crown of martyrdom, spoken about in Revelation 2:10: “Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life.” As Mike Aquilina says, “The murals in the Roman catacombs and other works of early Christian art typically depict the martyrs wearing or holding crowns, the universal sign of membership in the order of St. Stephen — the order of martyrs.” In emptying himself out of love, in sacrificing his love, he is worthy of glory, but the “bloodless letter-love” of sentimentality cannot aspire to those height, as nothing is given and there is nothing to give, but perhaps there is the hope that the spilling of his blood and his intercession will bear fruit. True love must be heroic in its selflessness, and its focus on the highest good and truth.

The feeling that is mistaken for love is a disordered eros, which Benedict describes as “that love between man and woman which is neither planned nor willed, but somehow imposes itself upon human beings.” However, he warns that

eros, reduced to pure “sex”, has become a commodity, a mere “thing” to be bought and sold, or rather, man himself becomes a commodity. This is hardly man’s great “yes” to the body. On the contrary, he now considers his body and his sexuality as the purely material part of himself, to be used and exploited at will. Nor does he see it as an arena for the exercise of his freedom, but as a mere object that he attempts, as he pleases, to make both enjoyable and harmless. Here we are actually dealing with a debasement of the human body: no longer is it integrated into our overall existential freedom; no longer is it a vital expression of our whole being, but it is more or less relegated to the purely biological sphere. The apparent exaltation of the body can quickly turn into a hatred of bodiliness. Christian faith, on the other hand, has always considered man a unity in duality, a reality in which spirit and matter compenetrate, and in which each is brought to a new nobility. True, eros tends to rise “in ecstasy” towards the Divine, to lead us beyond ourselves; yet for this very reason it calls for a path of ascent, renunciation, purification and healing.

Corporate St. Valentine’s Day makes eros into such a commodity. For the health of our romances, we rely on buying cards and flowers in order to experience good feelings, instead of desiring that which is good for our beloveds. Eros is a very good thing, but it has the potential to be abused and diminished. For Benedict, the solution is to purify eros with the love of agape:

Yet eros and agape—ascending love and descending love—can never be completely separated. The more the two, in their different aspects, find a proper unity in the one reality of love, the more the true nature of love in general is realized. Even if eros is at first mainly covetous and ascending, a fascination for the great promise of happiness, in drawing near to the other, it is less and less concerned with itself, increasingly seeks the happiness of the other, is concerned more and more with the beloved, bestows itself and wants to “be there for” the other. The element of agape thus enters into this love, for otherwise eros is impoverished and even loses its own nature. On the other hand, man cannot live by oblative, descending love alone. He cannot always give, he must also receive. Anyone who wishes to give love must also receive love as a gift. Certainly, as the Lord tells us, one can become a source from which rivers of living water flow (cf. Jn 7:37-38). Yet to become such a source, one must constantly drink anew from the original source, which is Jesus Christ, from whose pierced heart flows the love of God (cf. Jn 19:34). In the account of Jacob’s ladder, the Fathers of the Church saw this inseparable connection between ascending and descending love, between eros which seeks God and agape which passes on the gift received, symbolized in various ways. In that biblical passage we read how the Patriarch Jacob saw in a dream, above the stone which was his pillow, a ladder reaching up to heaven, on which the angels of God were ascending and descending.

Lemke’s St. Valentine is not concerned with self-preservation or acquiring possessions. He does not try to control or use people. Instead, his eros exists in union with his agape. His desire for union with the other is purified by his desire for the other’s good. This is a love that moves one to pray for others, and to sacrifice oneself for the other’s good.

The eros of death

And ultimately, as Benedict says, the true eros is for God:

Love embraces the whole of existence in each of its dimensions, including the dimension of time. It could hardly be otherwise, since its promise looks towards its definitive goal: love looks to the eternal. Love is indeed “ecstasy”, not in the sense of a moment of intoxication, but rather as a journey, an ongoing exodus out of the closed inward-looking self towards its liberation through self-giving, and thus towards authentic self-discovery and indeed the discovery of God: “Whoever seeks to gain his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will preserve it” (Lk 17:33), as Jesus says throughout the Gospels (cf. Mt 10:39; 16:25; Mk 8:35; Lk 9:24; Jn 12:25). In these words, Jesus portrays his own path, which leads through the Cross to the Resurrection: the path of the grain of wheat that falls to the ground and dies, and in this way bears much fruit. Starting from the depths of his own sacrifice and of the love that reaches fulfilment therein, he also portrays in these words the essence of love and indeed of human life itself.

This eros is not covetous, seeking to possess things, but is the opposite: it looks to the object of desire, to the point of no longer considering the self. Instead of taking, this eros gives of oneself, to the point of giving one’s life. The fulfillment of eros is to have this desire for God and to want to be united to Him. Indeed, Marc Barnes of Bad Catholic cites this song as an example of how Lemke’s songs are “a slow, steady removal of the self as the proper subject of poetry — a gradual replacement of the ego with the saints, patriarchs, prophets, psalmists, and the ever-there presence of Christ Jesus.” The song does not only sing about the self-diminishing so that Christ might increase, but itself performs that diminishment.

The theme of eros is at its fullest when directed at God, perhaps through other people, isn’t exactly new to pop music; U2 have all but built careers on that theme. Lemke, however, makes that eros more unsettling than most. The fulfillment of St. Valentine’s eros can be seen when Lemke describes how “the winter sun pulled back the rain like a bridal veil” at the moment of martyrdom. St. Valentine, in his accepting death, is invited to the wedding feast of the Lamb of Revelation 19:7-9:

Let us rejoice and exult
and give him the glory,
for the marriage of the Lamb has come,
and his Bride has made herself ready;
it was granted her to clothe herself
with fine linen, bright and pure”—

for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints.

And the angel said to me, “Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.”

This is the eschaton of the album’s title. In pulling back the veil, lover meets beloved and they are united to each other. The bloodless romantic sentiments that have nothing to do with St. Valentine are but a pale imitation of this consummation. Indeed, in this context, the image of the blood as a crown even suggests the crowning ceremony that takes place in Eastern Christian weddings. This connection is perhaps a bit of a stretch, but it would further highlight how Lemke intertwines eros with martyrdom and eschatology, and how he finds the glory of love amidst the brutality of hatred and persecution.

Saints in the world

Now, of course, there is a danger of romanticizing martyrdom, as much as we rightfully honour martyrs. Lemke’s lyrics don’t shy away from brutality and ugliness and trying to unpack all they contain runs the risk of making them somewhat sanitized. Lemke just gives us the image of a headless corpse, and we have to confront it, entering into the mystery of suffering and love, and pray that we may have the capacity for such love.

We could use some more Christian art like this. There’s no way in which the song could be thought to possess any liturgical function whatsoever, and it doesn’t provide the overwhelmingly happy sentiments that much “praise and worship” music is designed to provide. Instead, it’s very much a secular song; not in topic, but in the sense that it’s meant to be sung in the world outside the walls of a church. As essential as it is for our churches to be beautiful, and for our artists to contribute to that beauty, Lemke’s music is the music of a layperson who goes out into the world to Christify it, instead of putting a sharp divide between the secular and the sacred. Lemke doesn’t preach, but simply passes on the memory and tradition of his people. In this way, it’s closer to folk music than to anything else.

Lemke’s counter-culturalism isn’t ostentatious. It’s not an ironic denunciation of corporatized eros. Instead, in “Song for St. Valentine,” he simply remembers, and passes on that memory, while praying that we may experience conversion.