The Feast of St. Lucy was a few days ago on December 13th. She was a young girl who was murdered by the Romans during the persecution of Christians under the reign of the god emperor Diocletian, who, as the saying might go, was a jealous god, etc. Anyway, Lucy’s troubles began when her mother decided she should get married to some pagan fellow. Lucy told her mother she wanted, instead, to stay unmarried, a virgin, and consecrate herself for life to Christ. This didn’t go down well with her intended who denounced her to the authorities. Eventually she was dragged off to be executed. After boiling in oil failed they simply decided to put her to the sword. It’s quicker and not as much fun as oil boiling, but it has the advantage of never failing. Besides oil pollutes, I guess, and maybe the Roman Greenpeace would have picketed the execution.
Since her name is derivative of the Latin word for light, she became patroness of those who suffer diseases of the eye. Sometimes she is portrayed holding a plate on which are two eyes, a rather gruesome and graphic depiction in no way connected with her death. But that was then, back in the good old days when folks didn’t scruple to make a point if it needed to be made.
Some people I know got into a discussion on Facebook about St. Lucy and her plate of eyeballs. While the exclamation “Eeewwwww!” did not appear in print that was the general tone of the remarks on such things as those which were rather common in the good old days. Someone brought up the many paintings of St. Sebastian, and most of the reactions to those ranged from horror to a kind of air-sick queasiness about the way he’s always depicted; tied up and as full of arrows as a pincushion.
Truth is, though, that while he was filled with arrows, he didn’t die that way. He was healed by another saint, Irene, but insisted on remaining a Christian. So, he was simply clubbed to death; no swords being handy, I guess. Or, since this was during Diocletian’s persecution, perhaps Lucy was being sliced up a few doors down with the sword used for Christians who just wouldn’t take a hint.
As I read the variously horrified and recoiling reactions to these distasteful displays of suffering I couldn’t help thinking about them myself. I remembered being at the christening of my granddaughter Mary, now twenty. Just before he poured the water over her, the priest held her up for all to see and said that what was going to happen to her was, in many cases, a dangerous thing. It could, some day, lead to her death; in this world. Also I remembered the story I had read only a while before this discussion which so paralleled St. Lucy’s that it took my breath away.
In a small town in Pakistan recently a young Catholic girl’s home was invaded by some men. They held her mother and her hostage demanding that the girl become a Muslim and marry one of them who wanted her for a bride. She refused on both counts and was shot dead, no swords or oil being necessary, obviously. Her mother was forced to flee, and the police aren’t really interested in doing much. Yawn.
I don’t know if I’ve ever mentioned it but my favorite stained glass window is in the nave of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City, my home town. You can see it above you on the right as you walk down the center aisle toward the altar . It is a vivid rendering of the death of St. Lawrence.
He is on the grill, his flesh beginning to roast, the flames beneath him turning the metal a deep red. I first saw it when I was a young fellow of about ten at a Holy Name Society Mass with my father and about 3,000 other men from around the city. Today we avoid like the plague installing such bloody and gruesome things in our churches, preferring not to think of such things as burnings and worse some are forced to suffer for being Catholics, Christians. In my own parish there is a nice sanitized window devoted to the North American Martyrs. To look at it one would wonder whether or not they had all died peacefully in their sleep. I’ve been to their shrine and read the account of their sufferings. Peaceful death is as far from their actual deaths as is the east from the west. (NOTE: I wonder if we could gather even 300 Catholic men and boys anywhere for a Mass today. I expect I will hear from the folks who will mention WYD in that vein, and the visits of pontiffs here and there, which only prove my point I’d say.)
What would be the case if some church were built today with one of its windows showing St. Maximilian Kolbe naked in the death cell surrounded by the corpses of his fellow prisoners as the Nazi guard injects him with cyanide? I do not think it would be quiet contemplation. I have never seen any rendering of his actual martyrdom; nothing beyond a few photos of him long before that horrible act was committed.
But such things are done, and in some places the truth is told and the acts represented for one’s contemplation. I was in a church in Gdansk several years ago and saw a statue of Fr. Jerzy Popiulsko. It was on the floor, he trussed in chains and beaten and bruised. They don’t pull punches over there. Someday perhaps there will be another window in a church in Pakistan showing a young girl held by some men while another, face contorted with lust and rage shoots her brains out as her mother looks on in horror. It might be just the needed to remind us all of the real cost of the”Pearl of Great Price”.
I think I know the reason for those very graphic depictions of the saints’ and martyrs’ sufferings. We should know, we need to know “the wages of sin” and the “cost of discipleship”. When we begin to value life too highly, to desire our ease and comfort here more than joy “ever after”, our real death begins. How yucky can that get? Maybe the first step to heaven is always down the path labelled martyrdom…of one kind or another. It isn’t something to be shied from you know, if one is at all interested in the imitation of Christ. And, there will certainly be an awful lot of company along the Way if recent events are any indication.