Wednesday, May 18, 2011

St Venantius, Martyr

Wisdom 5:1-5 / John 15:1-7

According to legend, the tormentors of St Venantius, a mere boy of fifteen years, were not satisfied to end his life directly by beheading, which was the fate he ultimately met. Rather, the sufferings of the young and faithful servant of Christ read as a grim and gruesome litany of torture: scourging, burning by torches, and hanging upside-down over flames. In a perverse reversal of dentistry, he had his teeth knocked out and his jaw broken. He was thrown to the lions to be mauled, but not slain, and subsequently thrown from a cliff. Only then was the fatal blow struck.

Were it not for the cruel, and cruelly efficient, regimes of torture crafted in the twentieth century, and given new vigor at the dawn of the twenty-first, we might be left unable to make any sense of the sufferings of Venantius. Indeed, we could be tempted to dismiss them as pious elaboration, a kind of gilded masochism in which the faithful of days past delighted. We might even find ourselves laughing, unable to handle this vision of a sustained assault on the dignity of the human person without the refuge of gallows humor.

On the other hand we could turn away from the dark scenes of Venantius' burned, broken, and savaged body with a renewed vigor to call out and resist the regimes of torture which still exist today, which are deployed even now on our behalf and in the name of our nations on those suspected of being, or even proven to be, enemies of the State. Make no mistake, torture, less public and extravagant than the sufferings of Venantius, but no less dehumanizing, no less intended to assault and dissolve the victim to his very core of personhood, no less directed at violating and all but eliminating his reason and his will, are committed even now, and in the name of free peoples as well as of tyrants.

To be sure, God does bring pain to his saints. In the language of our Lord Jesus Christ, Every branch in Me that beareth not fruit He will take away: and every one that beareth fruit, He will purge it, that it may bring forth more fruit. Purging and pruning may indeed make things more fruitful, but a plant repeatedly pruned needs the constant tending of the vinedresser to keep its growth from becoming unruly. One must imagine that, could it feel, the plant would hardly enjoy its purging. However, God, who works not only without, but also within, can heal and restore us. He can transform who we are, so that the pains we endure in him are not merely compensated for, but actually become, at one and the same time, our penance and our sharing in the redemptive work of Jesus Christ. God, that is, fulfills our prayer that we be conformed to his Son, and that means being conformed to his suffering as well, to then be made like him in his Resurrection.

We however, whether as private persons or in the collective authority of the State to promote and defend the common good, have no capacity to work on human persons from within. By God's grace, the permission of Venantius' suffering served for his sanctification and glory and the confounding of his enemies. In the hidden and desolate chambers of torture maintained by the State, there is no like font of grace. The desire to break another human person so that he might no only manifest anything he knows and then, being irredeemably broken and harmless, be cast aside, the mere residue of a man, has nothing in common with God's providence. The terrible but redeeming work of suffering in the hands of God may be inscrutable, but they are, received by grace in charity, the means by which our personhood is uplifted, transformed, united to the joy of the abundant life of the risen Christ. The work of the torturer, the criminal or the State-appointed practitioner of coercive interrogation, has only the end to unwork, to undo, to reverse the wondrous marvel that is a rational animal, the sons and daughters of Adam and Eve, made according to the image and likeness of God. Even more so than execution, which can oddly enough respect the person by allowing his dignity in defiance, torture assaults the very means by which the human person echoes the Word, Jesus Christ, in his flesh, in his reason and will, in his power to hope and love.

We can, of course, know the power of Resurrection even when subject to the worst violations of our persons. After all, this is among the reasons Christ endured the Passion for our sake. What we cannot do is twist our heart after the likeness of the torturer and image that such a heart will survive the Lord's pruning. Change it must, or be cut off forever.

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