Today is the feast of Saint Lucy of Syracuse, a fourth-century Roman maiden who belongs to that illustrious group of young female saints known as the “virgin martyrs.” Lucy’s name means “light,” and her legend says that before she died at the hands of her persecutors, she plucked her eyes out and handed them to the man who sought to defile her.
Her act is one of such breathtaking boldness that many have been drawn to Lucy; the connections with the eyes and light have led those who are seeking sight, whether literally or figuratively, to invoke her. The poet Dante was in the second camp; he included Lucy in all three books of his Divine Comedy, entrusting himself to his sure patroness.
But why, we might wonder, does the Church put so much store in the virgin martyrs—naming them in the liturgy and prioritizing their feasts? There have been, after all, very many married persons who have suffered martyrdom; their names are in the books, their stories equally as inspiring. Why emphasize the virgins? Can such saints continue to speak to us today?
I think they can. But first we must understand “virginity” for what it is. In our current context, virginity seems to be all about a negative, a “no” that one says to intimacy with the opposite sex, to child-bearing and child-rearing. The virgin refuses what, to most of us, seems totally natural and normal.
Lucy with her undeniable pluck gives us a hint of what might stand behind the “no,”; it is not a negation at all but a resounding “yes” to something that has satisfied her at a level deeper than any human passion, what we might call a life-changing encounter with the person of Jesus Christ. Virgin-martyrdom means: “I want to belong wholly to you, Christ. I would rather be grilled or flayed or have my eyeballs plucked out than say ‘no’ to you. You are the entire meaning for my life.”
This is the kind of love that Christ, the Divine Bridegroom, inspires in the beloved. It is a love that demands a response, a “yes” from all of us.
When married persons pray to Saint Lucy, it is to be stirred to the same sort of love that she was willing to die for. It is the love that seeks the good of the other even when the other cannot give anything in return—the love that, frankly, makes marriage beautiful precisely when richer gives way to poorer and health to sickness. It is a sacrificial love.
We see a striking witness of such love in Elizabeth Ann Seton, who gave herself without stint to caring for her husband William in his final illness.
Having traveled to Italy in the hopes of finding rest and healing for William’s consumptive body, instead Elizabeth finds herself forced to quarantine with him and their young daughter in a cold, damp holding station—the Lazaretto—for twenty-five long days. While still an Episcopalian (her conversion to Catholicism would unfold in the months after William’s death), Elizabeth already habitually turned her thoughts heavenward, seeking to place everything within the “divine Will,” a will that has become undeniably dear to her.
By contrast, William has left religion to his wife, and has shown little care for his soul. But his indifference changes in the Lazaretto. In the alternately freezing and smoky confines of the stone room, bereft of friends and companions, facing the death of her husband and the care of her child, Elizabeth shows herself a woman on fire with divine love. Like Lucy, she shows a fierce courage. Her ministering hands become God’s hands and, in this way, she incarnates God’s love. In her prayer, she bears her husband up, offering him to a merciful God.
When at last they are released from the Lazaretto, William enters his final days, and in his bodily anguish—the wracking horrors of consumption—he will have no one but his wife to care for him. Elizabeth then tends him “like a baby”—seeing to his every bodily need. Yet, she continues to hold out to him the vision of heaven , and in his final moments, William yields himself to both a prayer for “my dear Wife and little ones,” and a plea: “My Christ Jesus have mercy and receive me” .
In all of this, St. Elizabeth Ann heroically witnesses to the shining heart of true love—its “virginal” core, we might say—by seeing all things “in God” and offering all of it to Him. She loves her husband not just as a friend, a lover, a companion, but as a person who, first and foremost, has his own distinctive relationship with God—and she seeks to serve that relationship. In the Lazaretto, Elizabeth becomes a path to Christ, and William thanks his wife for having first taught him the “sweetness of the sound” of “the Name of his Redeemer.”
William also becomes a way to Christ for Elizabeth, as the experience of caring for her husband unexpectedly lifts her heart to heaven. Reflecting on William’s last days, she confesses, “Every moment of it speaks his Praise.”
It is in the lives of such holy women that we see how it is that, in the Church’s tradition, marriage and virginity inform and illumine each other. For in the abiding love of a man and a woman, something of Christ’s own love for the Church shines forth. This is precisely the love the virgin desires when she is “wedded” to Christ.
In this way, all Christians, but especially those called to celibate life, can draw strength from the lives of Mother Seton and St. Lucy.
These women show us that every single soul is called to an espousal with Christ, the Divine Bridegroom. The virginal Lucy and the wife and mother Elizabeth Ann Seton have more in common than perhaps we first thought.
LISA LICKONA, STL, is Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology at Saint Bernard’s School of Theology and Ministry in Rochester, New York, and a nationally-known speaker and writer. She is the mother of eight children.
Image: Public Domain