The feast days of the four Virgin Martyrs of the early Roman church frame the celebration of Christmas. St. Cecilia starts us off on November 22, and she is followed by the feast of St. Lucy (December 13), St. Agnes (January 21), and St. Agatha (February 5). On each of these feast, the hymn at the morning office of Lauds uses this text for the fourth verse:
Sic saevientis vulnera
et blandientis vincere
mundi docens illecebram
fidem docet nos integram.
Here’s a reasonable English translation: “To triumph over the wounds of both the raging ones and the flatterers, pointing out the false allures of the world, she taught us the faith in its wholeness.”
The Virgin Martyrs occupy an interesting position in terms of categorization. They are not only virgins, but are also martyrs. Both facets get equal play. Throughout the texts of the office, we are reminded of their two-fold triumph.
Now plenty of saints occupy multiple roles: there are pastors who are also martyrs, and there are doctors who are pastors or virgins. Why is the place of the Virgin Martyrs singled out as having special significance?
If we return to the hymn text, we note that the two-fold triumph is slightly recast, or perhaps interpreted. The world’s double allure is rage and flattery, in other words, the threat of pain and ostracism, and the promise of pleasure and approval. Pleasure and pain both have a false aspect that potentially diverts us from purity of heart.
This is another way of saying that the virgin martyr is a model for what monks call praktike, the active life. The goal is the acquisition of virtue. Interestingly, by eschewing both pleasure and pain, the Virgin Martyrs also demonstrate themselves to be anti-utilitarians. Let me quote from the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy:
“Utilitarians believe that the purpose of morality is to make life better by increasing the amount of good things (such as pleasure and happiness) in the world and decreasing the amount of bad things (such as pain and unhappiness).”
Now, whether or not we are conscious of it, we have been raised for the most part to be utilitarians. Many political arguments assume that our job is to give individuals more freedom to pursue whatever the individual finds good, which usually means pleasant in some way, and we also feel that it is our job to relieve others’ pain (unless it’s the pain of a non-person like the unborn). Utilitarianism has always been considered problematic, at best, by the Church, but modern liberalism tends to take it for granted.
If this is true, then the Virgin Martyrs are as important today as they were held to be in the ancient Christian world. They remind us that the way of virtue is often “narrow at the outset,” and that virtue only becomes pleasant after we have attained to high levels of humility [see the Rule of Saint Benedict, Prol. 48 and 7: 69]. There is always the danger that we will want to call holy whatever happens to please us at the moment [RB 1: 8-9] rather than what we discover to be holy by God’s revelation, whether at the present moment it suits us or not.
So when we encounter praise or insults, pleasant things and irritating things, consolation in prayer, desolation in prayer, easy relationships in community and difficult relationships, we should see in each of these things a call to be what the great third-century theologian Origen called a “spiritual Ehud.” [see Judges 3: 12-30] Ehud was ambidextrous, and for Origen this meant that he could fight on the left as well as on the right. In other words, good things and bad things were both put to his advantage, just as they can be for the discerning among us. As our teachers, we have before us the exhortations and examples of the hold virgin martyrs.