an early martyr
of these "saintly companions" especially fascinates me.
Cecilia became a Roman martyr in the 3rd century. The Church of St.
Cecilia in Trastevere in Rome is built over the palace and house church
that belonged to Cecilia and her husband, Valerian, and were bequeathed
to the Church after her martyrdom. Cecilia's story seems profoundly
relevant in our world, which places such value on material wealth
and social position.
was a young Christian patrician. She was married to a pagan called
Valerian, also a member of the upper class and very wealthy. He was
probably looking forward to a brilliant career in government, perhaps
a seat in the Roman Senate. They were the Roman equivalent of a "power
couple," liked and admired for their youth, beauty, wealth and
social position. What happened to them must have baffled many people
away their possessions
frescoes in the church in Trastevere (exterior shown at right;
interior, below) tell their story. Cecilia converted her husband
to the Christian faith. Both Valerian and his brother, Tiburtius,
were baptized, and all three of them began to practice their Christianity
openly. Their palace became the gathering place, a house church, for
a Christian community in Trastevere. Then, Cecilia and Valerian began
giving their possessions away to the poor.
Brown writes in his book, The Body and Society, that the early Christians
were deeply concerned that the frail, mortal body should become a
reliable container for the Spirit of God, even in the face of torture
and death. A fresco in the Church of St. Cecilia showing them giving
their possessions away -- and there are similar frescoes in other
Roman churches honoring martyrs -- seems to indicate that this was
a way to prepare for possible martyrdom. It makes sense. If you can't
let go of your things, how will you let go of your life?
Cecilia and Valerian gave things away, they gained something too.
They found out that they hadn't lost themselves at all. Their possessions
did not define them. They were still Cecilia and Valerian.
Romans were fairly tolerant toward other religions as long as they
didn't threaten public order. Private religious practices were ignored
by authorities; only public behavior merited scrutiny. One thing people
within the empire were expected to do publicly was to participate
in public worship of the emperor by sacrificing (burning incense)
in his honor. Christians ran afoul of Roman law by refusing to do
this, and so they were disloyal to the state.
the public witness of Valerian and Cecilia to their Christian faith
had inevitable consequences. Valerian and his brother were arrested
and, after they refused to sacrifice to the gods, were executed. Cecilia
defied Roman law in order to bury them. Losing her husband became
another step in her journey toward self-definition. After his death,
she found that she was still a whole person. Her husband did not define
her. She was still Cecilia.
last fresco in the Church of St. Cecilia depicts the martyrdom of
Cecilia herself. Her martyrdom was itself a testimony to the person
Cecilia had become and to what she must have continued to do, even
after her husband's death.
kill a woman?