Normally, reading the “Saint of the day” is a source of inspiration for me. I’m sorry to say though that I was troubled by my most recent reading. Perhaps it is owed to my scruples, though I would like to think not and that the issues I raise below are actually debatable and not merely a case of me “overthinking things”.
Taken from the Laudate App’s “Saint of the day”, 13 March 2015
Virgin and Martyr
The holy virgin Euphrasia lived in Nicomedia during the reign of Maximian. She was of noble origin, beautiful and virtuous, and faithfully served Jesus Christ. Idolaters seized her and demanded that she sacrifice to demons, but she refused. They flogged her mercilessly; however, they could not break her resolve. Finally, they turned her over to a barbarian, and he took her to his home, intending to rape her. On the way, she prayed silently and ceaselessly to her most pure Bridegroom, Christ the Lord, beseeching Him to preserve her undefiled. Entering the house, the loathsome barbarian ordered her into his room. Euphrasia asked him to wait a moment before he ravished her, because she wished to give him a plant with miraculous power.
“If you wear this sprout on your person, no one can harm you”, she said, hoping to mislead him into thinking she was a sorceress.
“Give it to me later”, replied the barbarian.
“The plant is powerless if touched by a woman who has lost her virginity”, she explained.
The barbarian agreed to let her go into the garden, where she broke off a sprig. She showed it to him, and he asked, “How will I know if you are telling the truth?”
Euphrasia held the sprout against her neck and said: “Strike my neck with a two-handed sword as hard as you can. You will not harm me at all.” The barbarian fetched a sword and brought it down with all his might, decapitating her. Too late, the imbecile realized he had been outwitted, and gnashed his teeth furiously. The wise virgin, who preferred to die rather than be sullied, departed to her Bridegroom Christ, providing us a wondrous example of chastity.
The Great Collection of the Lives of the Saints by St. Dimitry of Rostov
- Doesn’t this indicate intention to deceive?
Compare with: I remember a confession in which I asked a priest if a certain thing I had said (or rather, not said, since it was a case of omission or mental reservation) was technically a lie, and he said it’s hard to say but that I could, if I wished, confess any intention to deceive that I might have had in my heart when I made that omission. For him to even suggest this means that he thinks there is an element of sin in having the intention to deceive, even if that which comes out of one’s mouth is truthful.
- Does she share some culpability for her death? Stated another way, did she wrongfully tempt the barbarian into killing her?
The narrative suggests that she had the intention to die. I see a distinction between someone who intends to die and someone who accepts death. If a person is threatened with death unless she renounces Christ, and she refuses to renounce him, that doesn’t necessarily mean she wants to die, or intends to die (after all, death is a tragedy and a consequence of the Fall). It means that she is willing to resign herself to the death that she has been threatened with, that will be imposed on her. She would profess Christ/refuse to renounce him, not in order that she may die, but in order that she be faithful to him and her baptismal vows and be saved. She intends the good of honoring Christ and of her salvation, not the evil effect of being murdered. And no questionable means is employed, since professing Christ is good thing in-itself, not morally neutral or wrong.
Asking someone to strike you on the neck with a sword, however, as a means to preserving chastity, is not good-in itself or manifestly morally neutral.
My conclusion: I think that the desire to be a martyr has to be qualified. Christian martyrdom is contingent upon an act of injustice (murder). But we should never will that someone commit murder, and therefore should not will that someone kill us on account of our faith. Yet we can will to be faithful in all circumstances, even in the face of death. In that sense, I can desire to be a martyr.
On the other hand, asking someone to do something which you know or believe will fatally injure you, seems morally problematic to me. Would it have been wrong for her to have taken his sword and fatally injured herself? If the answer is “yes”, I would ask why? If the answer is “because to kill oneself is intrinsically evil”, I would say, what if you don’t do it yourself but have someone do it for you? Assisted suicide? Isn’t this wrong too?
Please don’t be scandalized that I am asking these questions about a saint. I have detailed moral questions and doubts like this, saint or no saint, all the time going around in my head.
On a more general note, if we were to cast martyrdom in terms of cooperation with evil (employing the formal/material and remote/proximate distinction), what would we identify it as?