Hold the Chocolates. Spare No Sacrifice.

A call to married couples to skip the temporal trappings of Valentine’s Day (Feb. 14) and bank on the sanctifying, strengthening sacrifices of World Marriage Day (Feb. 8).

Our world so emphasizes the romantic and sensual aspects of marital love that each Valentine’s Day we feel we must give our spouse a Hallmark moment to remember — or else.

So says Augustine Institute theology professor Edward Sri, in so many words. He’s the author of Men, Women and the Mystery of Love: Practical Insights From John Paul II’s Love and Responsibility (Servant, 2007).

Sri’s insights are worth considering not only on Valentine’s Day, Feb. 14, but also six days prior: It’s on Feb. 8 that Worldwide Marriage Encounter marks World Marriage Day by offering resources to help celebrate marriage for a day and strengthen it for a lifetime. (For details, go to wmd.wwme.org.)

As integral engines of the culture of life, married couples can help bring the sanctity back into Saint Valentine’s Day, says the professor.

“The tradition about the great St. Valentine can speak to an authentic understanding of love,” explains Sri. Tradition holds that Valentine of Rome was a priest, possibly a physician and perhaps a bishop, who was beaten and martyred around 269, after aiding Christians imprisoned for practicing their faith.

“In the essence of love, we will find sacrifice,” says Sri.

While there’s certainly nothing wrong with flowers, chocolates and candlelit dinners, he adds, “Catholic couples can consider in what ways they can grow in sacrificial love in imitation of St. Valentine. Husbands and wives can ask themselves how they can give more of themselves in service to their spouse.”

“To die to myself and my comforts in order to do what’s best for my spouse” — therein lies the key to living out the sacrament of matrimony as a true vocation, he says.

Christopher West, the popular author, speaker and fellow at Theology of the Body Institute, has another practical suggestion: “Married couples should read the Song of Songs together.” His latest book, Heaven’s Song: Sexual Love as It Was Meant to Be (Ascension Press, 2008), can help flesh out the full meaning of King Solomon’s sometimes-difficult Old Testament love poem. Like nearly all of West’s work, Heaven’s Song presents Pope John Paul II’s theology of the body in lay language.

Kimberly Hahn’s latest entry in her “Life-Nurturing Love” series for women is Chosen and Cherished: Biblical Wisdom for Your Marriage (Servant Books, 2007). “It is so important to continue to romance, to have dates, because the core relationship of the family is the marriage,” she told the Register. “The greatest way to love your child besides loving God first and foremost is to really love your spouse.”

This year, Valentine’s Day falls on a Saturday. That makes it “the perfect day to commemorate the religious aspects of the feast of St. Valentine’s Day with special time as a couple,” says Lisa Hendey, founder of CatholicMom.com and a blogger at the Register’s sister website FaithandFamilyLive.com.

“For couples who live relatively close to the church where they celebrated the sacrament of matrimony, St. Valentine’s Day is the perfect occasion to return to that church for a simple reaffirmation of your wedding vows,” she adds. “Attend Mass together on Valentine’s Day, and then spend a few quiet moments after Mass in prayer for one another and your marriage.”

Deacon Pat Hayes, author of Top Ten Ways to Build a Wonderful Marriage (Bezalel Books, 2008), urges couples to “give each other the gift of your faith” for Valentine’s Day. He suggests a simple exercise for starters:

Husband and wife write out three questions apiece — one question per sheet of paper. They fold the six sheets and place them in a hat or small box. Then “go somewhere special where you won’t be disturbed by your family or your to-do list” to pray, draw and answer the questions, says the deacon.

“Make the answers honest and from your heart,” he continues. “Listen closely without comment as your spouse speaks — Jesus is speaking to you.”

Hayes and his wife, Susanne, offer some possible questions: Describe your relationship with Jesus. Where or when do you feel closest to God? Do you pray for our children and family members? Are you concerned about their relationship with God?

Because World Marriage Day kicks off “Valentine’s week,” couples who have never experienced Marriage Encounter should “de--cide to go on Valentine’s weekend to enhance their marriage,” suggest Dick and Diane Baumbach of Florida, regional leaders of Worldwide Marriage Encounter (wwme.org).

“Many of the couples then recall that closeness and intimacy they experience during Marriage Encounter when they come for a holiday such as Valentine’s Day,” says Dick. Adds Diane, “It brings them closer together.”

Little Things Mean a Lot

“How big the bouquet, how impressive the dinner? Back off and be simpler.” That’s the advice of Tom and Katie Watson of Denver, members of Worldwide Marriage Encounter’s national board. In 35 years of marriage, they’ve learned not to go overboard with gifts and getaways. Instead, they make time to talk about their dreams and hopes.

They also go to Mass. “That’s a special holy time we enjoy,” says Tom. And it carries throughout the year. “There’s not a time when we’re not at Mass together. Couple prayer is important for us, even praying to St. Valentine to ask him to intercede for us.”

The Watsons search out a place that serves the Chicago-style foods they ate together when they were dating. This simple custom “reminds us of the times we didn’t have a whole lot,” says Tom, “but we had each other.”

One Valentine’s Day, the Watsons joined 15 other couples for a wine-and-cheese social. The corks weren’t popped until after the group had recited the Rosary, making sure to include in their intentions thanks to God for the blessings of marital unity.

Asks Brenda Cerkez, executive director of Family Honor in Columbia, S.C., (online at FamilyHonor.org): What matters more — a bouquet of flowers once a year or the assurance that you’re secure in the love of your spouse all year long?

“Really more important is how you’re treating your spouse on a daily basis,” says Cerkez. “If you believe the family is the first school of love, then every day should be Valentine’s Day.”

Staff writer Joseph Pronechen is based in Trumbull, Connecticut.