The sky outside has darkened. Through the bars of the cell the pinpricks of the stars grow stronger. The air is warm and moist. The smell of burning wood from the outside brazier seeps down to where I stand. I long to stop my ears and erase the pitiful sound of weeping from another cell, but my heart stirs with compassion.
“Father, who fills the darkness with light, comfort your child and grant peace of heart and courage of spirit.” Without conscious thought, I lift my hand towards the sound, sketching the sign of the cross in the air. Quietness descends.
I stand beneath the window, casting about, uncertain of my next move. Should I spend the night in prayer, knees scuffed on the hard earth? Perhaps like Paul and Silas, in the Holy Scriptures I should rouse my spirit to sing a stirring hymn and witness my chains fall off as the walls of my prison crumble. I could spend the night in confession, but He knows more of my sins than I will ever know of. Should I simply gather my cloak about me and seek solace in slumber?
This is my last night. Death awaits me with the coming dawn. I confess that my heart yearns to be with my blessed Father. Soon I will be enveloped in His warm embrace. In just a little while I will gaze upon the face that gazes upon my own. I will hear Him speak to me. Will we stroll together along the streets of gold in His heavenly kingdom? What joy will fill my heart! Tomorrow, my Master, I will be home with You.
The final step – some say it will be the hardest. What if the blood of the martyrs does not run through my veins? I am not brave, or courageous and fear that in the end I will cry out and bring shame on my Saviour – He who spoke not a word. I hope to speak gentle words of forgiveness, but I fear that bitter words will spill from my mouth.
Suddenly my cell is transformed by a gentle light. The walls melt away and find myself standing in my old church. The familiar frescos on the wall greet me. The sweet smell of incense permeates the air. I see the shadowy figures standing just in front of the altar. A young woman clothed in a simple robe with a garland crowning her head in a halo of white flowers stands next to an awkward, tall young man. I can tell that he is nervous, his fingers twitching constantly, smoothing out his tunic. His eyes stray to the door, but return to the quiet face of the woman he loves. There – standing just in front of them – I am dressed in my bishop’s robe. Which wedding is this one? Julienne and Castor? Or Ariadne and Felix? I have married so many couples, whispering the solemn words of the ceremony, as candles blaze in their sockets during the watches of the night. I have listened to vows quietly spoken, love witnessed in the exchange of a shy kiss.
The vision fades and I return to the prison. Something scuttles in the dark corners of my cell, but in my heart there is a confident light.
“Oh Claudius..” My words echo in the emptiness of my cell. “How foolish you are. When a man has a wife and a family to protect he will fight against any army to defend them. You cannot stop love just as you cannot stop the tide flowing, or the sun rising, or the stars from shining. Do not think by silencing me that you can silence the marriage vows that lovers make. What God brings together, you cannot keep apart.”
A scraping sound by the window interrupts my thoughts. Something is pushed through the bars and falls. A rose lies on the floor, two of its petals torn away. A small scrap of vellum flutters to the floor like a broken moth.
“Courage, dear Valentine – there’s one more wedding for you to attend. Tomorrow angels will flank your right and left hand as you walk towards the altar.”
Valentine was a bishop at Rome and he secretly married couples against the demands of Emperor Claudius II. He was captured, imprisoned and on 14th February in the year 270 beaten to death with clubs and decapitated.