Monday, December 10, 2007

Santa Lucia, Asceticism, and Virgin Martyrs

The stories of the Martyrs of the Church during the Roman persecutions of the early Christians are manifest throughout our history. Much of this imagery continues to this day in the images of people like Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi and Maximillian Kolbe. We love these examples outwardly while hating their prophetic nature internally because they are profoundly unsettling to our comfort.
I have always been attracted to the Martyrs and to their successors the ascetics of the Church. The truth is that I am too weak a person to ever live that way and if I was faced with death I do not know what my reaction would be? I have always been attracted to artists and poets who give it all up for their art because I have never had the guts or gumption to do the same.
In my family there are two martyr saints that play large in our lives. St Lorenzo who is memorialized in my mother's region of Italy (Brescia) with Sausages and Polenta on a gridiron and shooting starts in August- we commemorate his being grilled alive for not turning over the Book of Scripture to Roman Authorities and Santa Lucia the virgin martyr of Siracusa.
Santa Lucia devotion is known by allot of Americans because of Sweden and Swedish Americans but actually Lucia was Sicilian and died in the great Diocetian persecution of the 290's. She refused to give herself sexually to a man who was to be her husband and who was a pagan- he denounced her as a Christian and she was blinded and miraculously her eyes were restored.
There is a strong devotion of Lucia in Brescia, Trento, Cremona, Verona, Bergamo and Mantova because it was believed that during the Middle Ages her intercession relieved a huge famine that was causing people to be blinded. Our celebration is simple we put out food for Lucia and her Donkey- we make Polenta and Spiedo- wait for her to bring simple gifts to the Children which when my mother was young was chocolates or oranges and we celebrate a Virgin Martyr.
Older people in our region are often named Lucia (My mother and Great grandmother have this name) or the male version Luciano. I think that the power of virgin martyrdom is forgotten today in an over sexed age. The fact is that there is something powerful about saying that you won't do something that is natural- that you will be ascetic and deny yourself food or sex or money to attain something better or higher. Whether you believe in God or not this is an ideal that so few people even bother to think about in today's hyper-consumer economy.
To deny yourself is viewed as weird or unnatural when in reality it has been the ascetics who have been some of the greatest people. Be it the artist or scholar who focuses on one thing forsaking all others or the Saint who wont give in, or the political activist who focuses on her goals and forsakes all others this is a motivation that most of us run from as quickly as possible but perhaps that is why we have the problems that now exist? Perhaps this is the locus of our dissatisfaction and alienation? Perhaps a little asceticism would make the world heal? A little denial and pain so that the world can be healed? A little refusal to go along with the crowd? Not waiting on line for four hours for the Nintento Wii? But putting value in something else. Making life full with real things rather than transient ones?

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