The 18th-century British statesman Lord Chesterfield famously stated: “Wear your learning, like your watch, in a private pocket. Do not pull it out merely to show that you have one. If asked what o’clock it is, tell it; but do not proclaim it hourly and unasked, like the watchman.” Sometimes we confuse a gift or talent with the purpose it helps us attain. For instance, which is more praiseworthy: to have “M.D.” after your name, or use your expertise to save lives? The same thing holds true for virtue. In the early Church, the moral practices of Christians, particularly those governing sexuality, were thought to be quite peculiar when compared with the “lax” mores of Roman culture. So, too, was the religious “fanaticism” (we would say zeal) behind their refusal to worship the state gods and witness to Christ, even to the point of death. It is not simply the material aspect of virginity or the courage to die that makes one holy, but rather the desire to put oneself radically at the disposal of our Lord. This is why many of the early female Christian saints are known to have merited the “double crown” of virginity (“freshness” and purity before God) and martyrdom (the ultimate “witness” to Christ).
St. Lucy is one of the highly esteemed female saints listed in the Roman Canon (Eucharistic Prayer I), although there is some doubt about the accuracy of certain details of her story. The Catholic Encyclopedia and Butler’s Lives of the Saints tell us that she was born to devout Christian parents of noble birth in the city of Syracuse, during the waning days of the Diocletian persecution of Christians. Much like St. Nicholas (whom we honored last week), she was advanced in her love and dedication to the Lord from her birth. Having made a secret vow to God, she committed herself to a life of chastity and service to other persecuted Christians. Lucy sold her considerable belongings to purchase supplies, entering the dark catacombs to care for the fugitives. In order to carry more food in her arms, she wore a wreath on her head with a lit candle to illuminate her path (a practice that continues today, especially in Scandinavia). Accused by her suitor of dissipating the inheritance he was hoping to inherit, Lucy withstood the efforts of those who tried to degrade her by carrying her off to a house of ill repute. Then her eyes were gouged out by her persecutors. Even after being covered in burning pitch, she likewise survived. Finally, she was dispatched by the tip of a sword. There is no reason to think that God spared her any physical pain from these ordeals. Then what accounts for her strength?
As was the case with St. Nicholas, Lucy was rooted in an environment of love and piety from birth. Perhaps she “missed” certain pleasures, but as with any athlete or scholar, she disciplined her mind and body for the purpose of caring for her brothers and sisters at a time when the practice of Christianity was a capital offense. God willing, none of us will have to face such horrors. Yet in many places even today, the Christian message is often rejected, even to the point of persecution. And so, the spirit of virginity and martyrdom still speak to our world. Purity (by the grace of God) balances the energies of body, mind, and spirit, and self-denial, which is the essence of martyrdom, helps us keep our eyes firmly fixed on the Lord.