26 December 2009

'Light Is Beauty in Beholding'—St Lucy of Syracuse

Today, 13 December on the Church’s calendar, we celebrate the memory of the Holy Virgin Martyr Lucy of Syracuse, Sicily. I posted the Life of St Lucy from the Prologue last year—this year I offer the account of St Lucy’s life from the Great Horologion:

Saint Lucia was from Syracuse in Sicily, a virgin betrothed to a certain pagan. Since her mother suffered from an issue of blood, she went with her to the shrine of Saint Agatha at Catania to seek healing. There Saint Agatha appeared to Lucia in a dream, assuring her of her mother’s healing, and foretelling Lucia’s martyrdom. When her mother had been healed, Lucia gladly distributed her goods to the poor, preparing herself for her coming confession of Christ. Betrayed as a Christian by her betrothed to Paschasius the Governor, she was put in a brothel to be abased, but was preserved in purity by the grace of God. Saint Lucia was beheaded in the year 304, during the reign of Diocletian. [1]

In the passage ‘For Consideration’ in today’s Prologue, St Nicholas (Velimirović) expands in quite an instructive way upon the story of St Lucy distributing her mother’s goods:

To give alms out of one’s own need is true almsgiving. Not even the most hardened sinner sins then, for it is an act precious before God. When St Lucy had seen her sick mother miraculously healed, she suggested to her that her possessions be used as alms to the needy. Her mother replied that she was not willing to relinquish her goods until her death, but agreed that, when that happened, lucy should use them in whatever way she wished. ‘First cover my eyes with earth’, she said, ‘and then do what you will with them.’ Lucy said: ‘He who gives to God only what he cannot take with him into the grave, or make use of in this life, is not very pleasing to God. If you want to do something pleasing to Him, give him that which you yourself need. In death, you can use nothing at all, and need from Him things that you cannot take with you. It is better to give to Christ that which you have while you are alive and well. Give to Him all that you have set aside for me, and do it now!’ The devout mother hearkened to her wise daughter, and did so.

When the torturer Paschasius was trying to force this holy maiden into carnal sin, lucy tried to keep the thought of it from entering her will. When the torturer threatened that his men would defile her by force, saying with a smirk: ‘When you have been defiled, the Holy Spirit will flee from you’, Lucy, full of grace, replied; ‘The body cannot be defiled without the consent of the mind’, and holy Lucy went to her pure death having given away all her goods and having preserved her pure young body from defilement. [2]

The name ‘Lucy’ is of course derived from the Latin lux, for ‘light’. Gordon Giles observes, ‘Before the reform of the Gregorian calendar in the sixteenth century, Lucy’s Day fell on the winter solstice (now December 21), the shortest day.’ [3] Hence the motif of light drawn upon by the Kontakion in Tone 6 from the Akolouthia for St Lucy composed by Reader Isaac Lambertsen:

Upon those sitting in darkness and the shadow of unbelief hast thou cast the brilliant beams of thy splendour, O radiant Lucy, namesake of light; wherefore, illumined by the grace of God which shineth in thee like a beacon, we discern the straight and narrow path of faith, which leadeth to the mansions on high, wherein, O most holy martyr of Christ, thou abidest eternally with thy heavenly Bridegroom.

Thus, this holy Virgin can be seen as ushering in the days of increasing light. According to the Oxford Dictionary of Saints, ‘Especially in Sweden her feast on the shortest day of the year has become a festival of light: the youngest daughter, dressed in white, wakes the rest of the family with coffee, rolls, and a special song.’ [4] The Golden Legend rather poetically ties in the meaning of St Lucy’s name to the beauty of her virginity:

Lucy is said of light, and light is beauty in beholding, after that S. Ambrose saith: The nature of light is such, she is gracious in beholding, she spreadeth over all without lying down, she passeth in going right without crooking by right long line; and it is without dilation of tarrying, and therefore it is showed the blessed Lucy hath beauty of virginity without any corruption; essence of charity without disordinate love; rightful going and devotion to God, without squaring out of the way; right long line by continual work without negligence of slothful tarrying. In Lucy is said, the way of light.

The moral purity of virginity is naturally a prominent virtue in the crown of today’s Saint. According to this website, the following passage from St Ambrose’s book On Virginity is read during the office for St Lucy in the Western Church:

You are one of God’s people, of God’s family, a virgin among virgins; you light up your grace of body with your splendor of soul. More than others you can be compared to the Church. When you are in your room, then, at night, think always on Christ, and wait for his coming at every moment.

This is the person Christ has loved in loving you, the person he has chosen in choosing you. He enters by the open door; he has promised to come in, and he cannot deceive. Embrace him, the one you have sought; turn to him, and be enlightened; hold him fast, ask him not to go in haste, beg him not to leave you. The Word of God moves swiftly; he is not won by the lukewarm, nor held fast by the negligent. Let your soul be attentive to his word; follow carefully the path God tells you to take, for he is swift in his passing.

What does his bride say? I sought him, and did not find him; I called him, and he did not hear me. Do not imagine that you are displeasing to him although you have called him, asked him opened the door to him, and that this is the reason why he has gone so quickly; no, for he allows us to be constantly tested. When the crowds pressed him to stay, what does he say in the Gospel? I must preach the word of God to other cities, because for that I have been sent. But even if it seems to you that he has left you, go out and seek him once more.

Who but holy Church is to teach you how to hold Christ fast? Indeed, she has already taught you, if you only understood her words in Scripture: How short a time it was when I left them before I found him whom my soul has loved. I held him fast, and I will not let him go.

How do we hold him fast? Not by restraining chains or knotted ropes but by bonds of love, by spiritual reins, by the longing of the soul.

If you also, like the bride, wish to hold him fast, seek him and be fearless of suffering. It is often easier to find him in the midst of bodily torments, in the very hands of persecutors.

His bride says: How short a time it was after I left them. In a little space, after a brief moment, when you have escaped from the hands of your persecutors without yielding to the powers of this world, Christ will come to you, and he will not allow you to be tested for long.

Whoever seeks Christ in this way, and finds him, can say: I held him fast, and I will not let him go before I bring him into my mother’s house, into the room of her who conceived me. What is this ‘house’, this ‘room’, but the deep and secret places of your heart?

Maintain this house, sweep out its secret recesses until it becomes immaculate and rises as a spiritual temple for a holy priesthood, firmly secured by Christ, the cornerstone, so that the Holy Spirit may dwell in it.

Whoever seeks Christ in this way, whoever prays to Christ in this way, is not abandoned by him; on the contrary, Christ comes again and again to visit such a person, for he is with us until the end of the world.

Although St Ambrose draws primarily upon the Song of Songs in the passage above, his exhortation to ‘wait for his coming at every moment’ surely reminds the Christian of the parable of the ten virgins from Matthew 25:1-13, appointed to be read during the Liturgy for St Lucy and beautifully connected to the Saint by the Ikos during the Canon of Matins:

Waiting for the divine Word to come for her, like the wise virgins Lucy filled the lamp of her soul with oil most rich; for having sold all her property, she bestowed all her substance upon the poor and destitute. Wherefore, feeding the hungry and giving drink to those athirst, clothing the naked and providing shelter for the indigent, she laid up for herself great store of the oil of mercy, wherewith to delight her Master. For this cause, let us sinners entreat her with boldness, that she pour forth of her oil and wine upon our manifold wounds, treating the afflictions of our bodies and curing the passions of our souls, that, restored to full health by her, we also may abide eternally with the heavenly Bridegroom.

The great English poet, John Donne, has composed a dark poem for this darkest of days, upon which we nevertheless look forward to the light:

A nocturnall upon S. Lucies day,
Being the shortest day.

Tis the yeares midnight, and it is the dayes,
Lucies, who scarce seven houres herself unmaskes,
The Sunne is spent, and now his flasks
Send forth light squibs, no constant rayes;
The worlds whole sap is sunke;
The generall balme th’hydroptique earth hath drunk,
Whither, as to the beds-feet, life is shrunke,
Dead and enterr’d; yet all these seeme to laugh,
Compar’d with mee, who am their Epitaph.

Study me then, you who shall lovers bee
At the next world, that is, at the next Spring:
For I am every dead thing,
In whom love wrought new Alchimie.
For his art did expresse
A quintessence even from nothingnesse,
From dull privations, and leane emptinesse:
He ruin’d mee, and I am re-begot
Of absence, darknesse, death; things which are not.

All others, from all things, draw all that’s good,
Life, soule, forme, spirit, whence they beeing have;
I, by loves limbecke, am the grave
Of all, that’s nothing. Oft a flood
Have wee two wept, and so
Drownd the whole world, us two; oft did we grow,
To be two Chaosses, when we did show
Care to ought else; and often absences
Withdrew our soules, and made us carcasses.

But I am by her death, (which word wrongs her)
Of the first nothing, the Elixer grown;
Were I a man, that I were one,
I needs must know; I should preferre,
If I were any beast,
Some ends, some means; Yea plants, yea stones detest,
And love; all, all some properties invest;
If I an ordinary nothing were,
As shadow, a light, and body must be here.

But I am None; nor will my Sunne renew.
You lovers, for whose sake, the lesser Sunne
At this time to the Goat is runne
To fetch new lust, and give it you,
Enjoy your summer all;
Since shee enjoys her long nights festival,
Let mee prepare towards her, and let mee call
This houre her Vigill, and her Eve, since this
Both the yeares, and the dayes deep midnight is. [5]

But to counter his spell, here in full is the translation given by Giles of the famous traditional song,‘Santa Lucia’ (don’t ask me to explain the oddities of the last stanza!):

Hark! through the darksome night
Sounds come a winging:
Lo! ’tis the Queen of Light
Joyfully singing.
Clad in her garment white,
Wearing her crown of light,
Santa Lucia, Santa Lucia.

Deep in the northern sky
Bright stars are beaming;
Christmas is drawing nigh,
Candles are gleaming.
Welcome you vision rare,
Lights glowing in your hair.
Santa Lucia, Santa Lucia.

The darkness shall soon depart
from the earth’s valleys
thus she speaks
a wonderful word to us
The day shall rise anew
from the rosy sky.
Santa Lucia, Santa Lucia. [7]

Incidentally, the mosaic at the top, from San Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna, contains ‘the earliest surviving image’ of St Lucy, who is second from the right. [6]

[1] The Great Horologion, trans. HTM (Boston: HTM, 1997), p. 342

[2] St Nicholas (Velimirović), The Prologue from Ochrid, Vol. 4, trans. Mother Maria (Birmingham: Lazarica, 1986), pp. 321-2.

[3] Gordon Giles, O Come Emmanuel: A Musical Tour of Daily Readings for Advent & Christmas (Brewster, MA: Paraclete, 2006), p. 51.

[4] David Hugh Farmer, The Oxford Dictionary of Saints, 5th ed. (Oxford: Oxford U, 2004), p. 328.

[5] Herbert J.C. Grierson, ed., The Poems of John Donne, Vol. 1: The Text of the Poems with Appendixes (London: Oxford U, 1966), pp. 44-5.

[6] Farmer, p. 328.

[7] Giles, p. 49.


Steve said...

Aaron-- I posted a day or two ago but it never showed up. I was saying that this post on Saint Lucia was a blessing to me. I'm not sure exactly why, but it simply struck me as a compelling witness of Christ's work in a simple life.

aaronandbrighid said...

Glad you liked it, Dad. Thanks for commenting!