Hidden away in the Benedictine monastery of San Giusto near Tuscania in the Italian province of Viterbo there lived a monk called Valentino. At the beginning of the 11th century Valentino, an orphan at an early age, had entered the Benedictine order and, at the time of our story, he had just turned 23 years old and was an impulsive young man. He was quick to be filled with enthusiasm, but nevertheless an industrious and steady type of person. He was deeply religious and lived in accordance with the rules of the founder of the order, Benedict of Nursia, whose basic principle was: "Work and pray."
There were just 18 monks in the monastery community and all hands were needed to do the daily chores. Valentino was responsible for the monastery garden. He cultivated vegetables, grew herbs and planted many flowers. He worked conscientiously, caring for his beds with the passion of a gardener and saw his life as service to God. In this respect he was also loyal to the beliefs of Benedict, the shining example, who required the brothers in the order to do everything for the greater glory of God.
The vegetables and herbs were passed on to the monastery kitchen, but he himself looked after the flowers. He made sure that the church in the monastery was adorned with fresh, gaily-coloured flowers throughout the seasons of the year, and, whenever the abbot wanted to honour or thank someone, he put together the most beautiful bunches of flowers which the abbot could then present.
One day in spring, as he was walking through the garden, marveling at the growth of the flowers, his sense of beauty was disturbed by two roses which were not so elegantly proportioned as their sisters. Without further ado he cut them off and threw them over the wall surrounding the garden. A cry of hurt in a female voice came back over the wall. Immediately, Valentino went to the wall, which was as high as a man, and climbed upon a border stone to be able to look over. A young couple was walking on the path that went along the outside wall. The two roses had struck the young woman in the face and their thorns had scratched her badly. She was bleeding a little and complaining all the while the young man was wiping her face with his handkerchief, exclaiming: "What fool is throwing roses around?"
Valentino stared at the young twosome in shock. He called out: "I am most sorry. It was me. I am the fool. I wasn't paying attention. Let me hurry to the apothecary in the monastery and fetch a healing ointment to help stop the bleeding."
"There's no need", answered the young woman. "But tell me. Is it not true that flowers are a declaration of love? Your roses were indeed a surprise for me, but it was no accident perchance. They are the proof that this young man is the right one for me. Up till now I was not so sure."
"Reverend Brother," the young man went on, "you were an instrument of God's will. We shall be betrothed in your monastery and you shall be our witness. What is your name, monk?"
"I am called Valentino," he replied. "But before you go your way, I should like to give you a bouquet of lilies." He returned to the garden, cut the flowers and presented them to the young pair over the wall. He then said: "Please tell me your names, so that I may offer a prayer for you."
"My name is Marcella," said the young woman, and this handsome young fellow is Eugenio. I am very much in love with him. It must be God's will."
"I wish you much happiness", replied Valentino. He stepped down from the stone and followed the ringing of the bell with which brother Damian summoned the monks in the monastery to evensong.
The meeting with the young pair occupied his thoughts for a long while. Working in the garden some days later, he heard voices behind the monastery wall. He stepped up on to the border stone and saw a young couple walking by in a close embrace. He called out to them: "Please wait a moment, I have some flowers for you." He cut a fine bunch of pink carnations and held them out over the wall. "They are to bring you good fortune". The young couple took the flowers and were so full of happiness
and enjoyment that Valentino was touched to the bottom of his heart.
From that moment on it became his custom to give flowers to everyone he saw passing the monastery wall from the plentiful blooms that filled the garden all the year round. He was soon known widely in the surrounding villages. Young couples in love told one another of his kindness and passed that way in order to receive flowers from Valentino as a sign of their love and devotion. But it wasn't just young couples. Older couples, those already married, families with their children, men and women in love and even single persons all came to the monastery. Valentino made no distinctions and always found the most beautiful flowers in bloom at that moment in the garden.
Brother Damian, the gatekeeper, observed these happenings with a watchful eye and related them to the abbot, Father Lorenzo. The latter was a firm believer in the Christian commandment to love thy neighbour and said: "Flowers and gifts that come from the heart bear God's blessing within them. If there are enough flowers in the garden, then everyone should enjoy them."
It came about that Valentino's generous gifts were of advantage for the monastery. More and more people rang the bell at the gatekeeper's lodge, asking to be betrothed in the monastery church, to be permitted to celebrate certain occasions and solemnly remember their loved ones who were gone from this world. Many donations, large and small, were thus made to the monastery's coffers. The order relied heavily upon these donations. Although the monks were thrifty and lived modestly, they struggled to find the money necessary to maintain the monastery. The donations were collected by the chamberlain of the monastery, who was called the cellarer. Valentino knew very little of this. His gifts of flowers were a matter of the heart. Gifts in return were of no concern to him. The year went by for everyone with a feeling of great content.
One day the following spring while he was working in the garden, Valentino heard a woman's voice calling to him over the wall. He hurried to his border stone and looked over the wall. Standing on the path was a young woman who he thought he recognized. "It's me, Marcella," she said. "Do you recognize me? I was the one who you threw the roses at. They did not bring me good fortune. Eugenio left to study in Perugia a month later and fell in love with another woman there."
"I am so sorry," answered Valentino. "Flowers are an important symbol, but they offer no guarantee. Perhaps it would be better for you to look for someone else."
"At first I was very sad and hurt," she replied. "Meantimes I have understood that Eugenio was not the right man for me. I always had some doubts, but I was nevertheless very much in love."
The bell for vespers rang again. Valentino promised to pray for Marcella and invited her to return the next day. She agreed and from then on regularly appeared at the wall to tell Valentino about herself, her thoughts and problems. Subsequently, at evening prayer Valentino soon became aware that he was no longer thinking of the greater glory of God, but of Marcella and her pleasant appearance. His heart was aflame with boundless love.
Upon their next meeting he said to her: "Do you see those three linden trees over there with the bushes around them? Perhaps we can meet there tomorrow at this time."
"We're not allowed to do that," she replied. "You are a monk and are not allowed to enjoy the company of a woman."
"I just want to be able to talk to you without being disturbed," he answered.
"Besides, I have not taken my final vows yet. I can still return to a normal earthly life."
He looked at her beseechingly and it was clear to her that she, too, had fallen in love with him. And so she promised to be at the linden trees the next day. At the appointed time Valentino climbed over the monastery wall and hurried to the agreed meeting-place. Marcella was waiting for him. They embraced and held one another tight for a long time. Only when they heard the bell ring in the distance did Valentino quickly run back to the monastery. Marcella, neither, did not want anyone looking for him.
From then on they met nearly every day, sometimes in the morning, sometimes over midday, and sometimes at night, when the rules of the order actually prescribed sleep. Brother Damian, the gatekeeper, was the first to notice Valentino's changed behaviour. He once noticed him climbing back over the monastery wall. Valentino claimed that he had had to help a young boy who had hurt himself while running. Damian was not prepared to believe him. Valentino feared that Damian would expose him in front of all his brothers at the next meeting in the chapter room, when they openly spoke about their life together and were also able to criticize one another. He thus decided to forestall any questions his brother gatekeeper might have. He asked to see the abbot, Father Lorenzo, in order to confess.
Father Lorenzo was like a fatherly friend to him. Before he became the abbot, he had lovingly looked after Valentino, who was still a minor upon his entry to the monastery, and had been a shining example to him. Lorenzo was a very religious, but also an understanding man. Valentino put all his hopes in his help.
He was not disappointed. "You know," said Lorenzo, "that I always told you: look into yourself most carefully, before you enter the Benedictine order: the rules of the order can be helpful, but also very hard. Chastity is a difficult task. Not everyone is beyond temptation and has the calling. You know that I love you like a son and treasure your friendly nature. It would make me very sad if you left our community. I will put no hindrance in your way, but I do ask you to wait one month with your decision and not meet Marcella during that time. Within those few weeks you will discover whether God has determined that you are to be together."
Valentino promised the abbot to keep faith with his suggestion. The following day he climbed over the wall once more to tell Marcella of his talk with Lorenzo. She welcomed him with her natural affection. After some minutes her face became very serious and she said:
"I have been thinking about the two of us. I want to get married and have children. I love you, but I don't believe that you could ever support a family. You are a very good gardener, but you have never been apprenticed. It wouldn't be possible for you to find sufficiently paid work outside the walls of the monastery. My parents are not well-to-do. I only have my body which many men clearly seem to find desirable. Our love was wonderful, but I must make a decision. We should both be sensible and separate."
Although these words hurt Valentino deeply, he had to admit that Marcella was right. With tears in his eyes he nodded his agreement. He embraced her and, as if an as yet unconscious burden had been lifted from their shoulders, they lovingly and uninhibitedly made their final farewells.
The following weeks and months were not easy for Valentino, but he was sure that Marcella would never again return to the monastery wall or the three linden trees. He tried to divert his attention through hard work and prayer and took every occasion to ask for the advice and support of the abbot. A wound remained in his soul, but he didn't betray his feeling and made many people happy with his brightly-coloured flowers.
One day the following year Brother Damian came running to Abbot Lorenzo in a state of great excitement, announcing that a newborn baby had been left in a basket at the gate to the abbey. It was not the first time that something like this had happened, and yet the abbot had a certain suspicion. However, he said nothing, because it was a mere suspicion and he did not want to cause any unrest in their community. He was well aware that there was no way of establishing the parents of the child beyond any doubt. The well-being of the newborn child, a boy, was his primary concern and so he promptly started a search for a foster-mother to nurse the baby. He next wrote a letter to the Mother Superior of a nearby convent. In the past she had always been ready to take in children left at the gate to San Giusto and bring them up. However, the Mother Superior did not answer for a long time. She wrote that her community was practically overrun with children they had taken in out of mercy. If at all, they were only in a position to accept girls.
Lorenzo was at his wits' end. He knew of no family that was prepared or in a position to bring up someone else's child in their home. He saw that the brothers of the order, on the other hand, had taken a great liking to the baby boy. On asking them, they all answered that that they could well imagine keeping him in the monastery and looking after him together. Valentino and Damian took a closer look at the young fellow. Even with a stretch of the imagination, Damian could not see any likeness between Valentino and the boy.
Valentino, too, did not see anything of himself in the child. But he did see a likeness to the young woman with whom he, the lover of flowers and humanity, had been so intimately joined less than a year ago. Valentino did not betray his thoughts, but he was not able to stop himself from developing a strong affection towards the boy. Lorenzo made it easy for him by naming the boy Valentino Damian at his baptism and determining that the two brothers should be his godfathers. His decision rested on Damian having been the first to find him and Valentino being such a caring person.
It was thus not difficult for Valentino to keep an eye on the boy's development and teach him many useful things and skills. He also continued to spread great joy with his gifts of flowers. Father Lorenzo gave him permission to move the vegetable garden beyond the monastery walls, in order to have more room for his flowers. More and more frequently people came to the monastery who were happy to talk to him. He was said to be a clever man and everyone who met him felt the warmth of his heart. In one conversation of the many he had over the monastery wall he learned by chance that Marcella had left the region of Viterbo and moved to Rome. There she had befriended a well-known sculptor and they had got married. Valentino was happy at this turn of fate.
Many years passed and the young Valentino-Damian thrived immensely. Lorenzo, too, loved him with all his heart. The growing young man learnt much from him about the life and work of St Benedict. From his older namesake he inherited his openness and his love of flowers and humanity. From Damian he learnt that it was not a good idea to be too gullible.
In the following years the San Giusto monastery went through its heyday. When he came of age, Valentino-Damian joined the Benedictine order. He studied theology and wanted to become a priest. Objections were raised because of his unknown origins. However, Lorenzo, who stood in good stead with the Bishop of Viterbo, managed to have an exception made. After Lorenzo's death the Bishop even appointed Valentino-Damian to be his successor. The elder Valentino had also died in the meantime. The new abbot was overjoyed that the friend of lovers and flowers was soon honoured as a saint by the people. In his memory it became the custom to give presents of flowers and sweets and other small things on his name day, the 14th of February. Even the Bishop, among whose predecessors in office there had been a saint who had died a martyr's death and was also called Valentino, supported this form of veneration. "The blood of saints need not always be shed," he said. "They must not necessarily be martyrs. It is enough if they distinguish themselves through works of love."
Illustrations: Rita Dadder
A project of Bertuch Verlag, Weimar and of the twsd, Trägerwerk Soziale Dienste