February 5: Agatha, The Martyr Whose Truth was Agatha-ness

Agatha lived in the 3rd century, and she was born to wealth and privilege and a Christian family, and blessed/cursed with beauty. This made Agatha a target for those rapacious for a PYT* with money. When one of the waves of Christian persecutions arose, a magistrate named Quintianus thought this would be a great opportunity to capture Agatha and make her his sexual possession and cash cow, in exchange for saving her life. Agatha rebuffed his advances. And women controlling their own bodies has not gone down well with men in patriarchal societies then (as ever).

So Quintianus’ first plan was to throw Agatha into a whore-house (thinking to make his own palatial offerings all the more appetizing), but after a month during which Agatha neither accepted his offer nor allowed herself to be used as a whore, Quintianus became even more enraged. He decided that he would control Agatha’s body–ordering her to be placed on the rack, stretched, her sides torn by iron hooks, and her whole body whipped. Then Quintianus decided that he would effect his own idea of ruining her femaleness by ordering her breast to be tortured and then cut off, with no salves or healing ministrations allowed her. Butler reports that Agatha’s response to Quintianus was this: “Cruel tyrant, do you not blush to torture this part of my body, you that sucked the breasts of a woman yourself?”

Quintianus was consumed by his powerlessness to break Agatha’s will–demonstrating the reverse-lie embedded in the Nazi tenet, “Break the body: break the spirit: break the heart,” that became the guiding principle of the administration of their concentration camps (see, for example, Matthew Hall, A Doctor at War: The Story of Col. Martin Herford–the Most Decorated Doctor of World War II. London: Bloomsbury Publishing (2013) for a discussion of this principle reinforced and even memorialized at Auschwitz, Dachau, Bergen-Belsen, et al.). So Quintianus decided on one last torture and attempt to humiliate Agatha–he ordered that she “be rolled naked over live coals mixed with broken potsherds.” After this ordeal, Butler writes, Agatha “sweetly gave up the ghost.”

The only way I can make sense of Agatha’s steadfastness is that she did not demand of life that things go a certain way, in accord with a plan of what she believed herself to be owed or entitled to. She almost literally walked that razor’s edge of the soul, falling neither into nihilism nor into masochism, nor again into bitterness nor self-pity or self-destructiveness. She found meaning in being Agatha, whatever the circumstances. And is this not the core of anything passing for faith in a Creator?–to take each and every day and circumstance as an opportunity to be/become more YOU, you-as-created, you-as-constructed…something that no one can take away, something that can only grow more fully developed, more whole in the crucible of life, something that shows reliance on your own uniqueness that is your birthright (perhaps the only one).



*”Pretty Young Thing”

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