Editor’s note: here we begin the serialization of this work by a great saint, which we pray will give souls nourishment and strength for our times. The complete text may be accessed online here or purchased here.
By St. Alphonsus Liguori
The Advantages of Devout Meditation on the Virtues that the Martyrs Practised during their Sufferings
From an earnest consideration of the illustrious examples of virtue which the saints have given us during their martyrdom, oh, how much is to be learned!
I. By beholding, in devout meditation, the utter contempt in which they held the world and all the allurements of its pompous vanities, we are taught to despise the fleeting and unsubstantial pleasures which it offers to its deluded votaries. Many of them, previously to having been put to torture, had been offered by the tyrants immense rewards, posts of honor, and noble marriages, to induce them to abandon the faith. Yet they not only indignantly refused them, but willingly renounced the riches and honors which they already held, and offered themselves up to tortures the most excruciating and deaths the most ignominious, in order not to lose those heavenly graces which benign Providence fails not to impart to the servants of the Lord, as the earnest of the eternal blessings which shall be the recompense of their fidelity.
To St. Clement of Ancyra the tyrant offered a great quantity of gold and precious stones if he would deny the name of the Lord Jesus; but the saint, raising his eyes to heaven, exclaimed: “And is it thus, O my God, that men treat Thee!—to compare Thee to dust and dross!”
The pontifical dignity was offered to St. Theodore of Amasea, as the reward of his apostasy. The holy martyr, ridiculing the proposal, replied: “Pontifical dignity! I am about to enjoy God forever in heaven; and is it likely, think you, that I should prefer remaining on earth, to follow the trade of a cook and a butcher to your false gods?”
II. From the example of the martyrs we learn also to place our confidence only in God, and to become daily more enamoured of the excellence of our faith: since in their constancy we cannot help admiring the wonderful power of God which enabled them to encounter torments and death with heroic fortitude and ecstatic joy.
For without the interposition of the most powerful assistance from heaven, how could the delicate constitution of nervous persons, the tottering decrepitude of age, the timorous disposition of tender virgins, the recklessness of adolescent manhood, or the inconsideration of boyhood years, be equal to tortures, the bare recital of which fills us with horror? Caldrons of boiling oil and liquid pitch, red-hot coats of mail, hooks to pull out the eyes and teeth, iron combs to tear off the flesh; fires quickly to consume, or tediously to torture; scourging until bones and bowels appeared; beheading, quartering, lacerating, impaling—these were only some of the ingredients of the martyr’s cup.
St. Barlaam, a poor laborer of a village in Antioch, having evinced extraordinary fortitude during his sufferings, and having been scourged until the executioners had exhausted their strength, was obliged by the tyrant to hold his hand over the flame that burned before the shrine of an idol. At the same time burning coals and incense were placed upon his hand, in the hope that he might be obliged by the pain to let them fall upon the altar, and thus afford them the opportunity of asserting that he had sacrificed to the idols; but the constancy of the saint was greater than their malice—he allowed his flesh to be burned to the bone, and expired in the effort.
St. Basil and St. John Chrysostom have eulogized this martyr.
St. Eulalia affords another instance of the wonderful aid which the Almighty gives to those who are devoted to his service. She was a youthful virgin, of only twelve years; the tyrant ordered her to be cruelly scourged, and then caused boiling oil to be poured into the wounds, and burning torches to be applied to her breasts and sides. During these tortures she ceased not to praise the Lord. Her joints were entirely dislocated, the flesh torn from her bones with iron hooks, and she was finally burned alive, having baffled the ingenuity of her inhuman executioners.
The martyrdom, also, of St. Vitus and St. Agapitus shows us the wonderful assistance of grace, which never fails the servants of the Lord. The former, when only fourteen years of age, was scourged, racked, and torn with irons. His father, who was a Gentile, wept with anguish to see his son expire in such torments. “No, father!” exclaimed the boy, “I do not die: I go to live with Christ forever”
St. Agapitus, also a youth, evinced the same fortitude: the tyrant threatened that he would place upon his head a red-hot helmet: “And what better fortune could await me,” said the saint, “than to exchange your instrument of torture for a heavenly crown?” Then the emperor ordered that red-hot coals should be placed on his head, that he be scourged, and be suspended by the feet over a thick smoke; he afterwards had boiling water poured over his breast, and finally had him beheaded.
The triumph of divine grace in the aged was manifested in St. Simeon, who at the age of one hundred and twenty endured the most excruciating tortures and expired on a cross, as is related by Eusebius of Caesarea. St. Philip, Bishop of Heraclea, at a most decrepit old age, was dragged by the feet through the city, scourged till his bowels appeared, and afterwards burned alive. The venerable martyr, till his last breath, ceased not to return thanks to the Lord, who had made him worthy to die for his glory.
III. From the patience which the martyrs evinced during their tortures, we should learn to suffer with holy resignation the crosses and afflictions of this life; poverty, sickness, persecution, contumely, injustice, and all other evils, are but trifling when compared with their sufferings. The reflection that it was the will of God that they should suffer for his love, was their only solace. We also in our tribulations should remember the necessity of resignation to the divine will; and, calling to mind the more grievous sufferings of the martyrs, should blush to complain. St. Vincent de Paul used to say: “Conformity to the divine will is a sovereign remedy for all evils” (Abelly, 1. 3, ch. 9).
It may be useful here to remark, with St. Augustine, that it is not the torture but the cause which maketh the martyr (“Martyres veros, non poena facit, sed causa,” Epist. 89). Whence St. Thomas teaches that martyrdom is to suffer death in the exercise of an act of virtue (Summa, II-II q124 a5). From which we may infer that not only he who by the hands of the executioner lays down his life for the faith, but whoever dies to comply with the divine will, and to please God, is a martyr, since in sacrificing himself to the divine love he performs an act of the most exalted virtue.
We all have to pay the great debt of nature; let us therefore endeavor, in holy prayer, to obtain resignation to the divine will—to receive death and every tribulation in conformity with the dispensations of his Providence. As often as we shall perform this act of resignation with sufficient fervor, we may hope to be made partakers of the merits of the martyrs. St. Mary Magdalene de Pazzi, in reciting the doxology in the office, always bowed her head in the same spirit as she would have done in receiving the stroke of the executioner.
Photo credit: W. D. Flanders.