Cecilia, an early woman saint, page two

Cecilia, an early martyr

One 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.

Cecilia 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 in Rome.

Giving away their possessions

The 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.

Peter 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?

Loss and gain

As 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.

The 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.

Thus, 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.

The 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.

Why kill a woman?


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