Monday, June 27, 2016
In Sofia, Bulgaria, the boys and I visited the St Sofia church, a redbrick building dating back to the 6th century. The church honors Sofia the Martyr, who, along with her daughters, was murdered in Rome, around 137 AD.
I’m not Catholic, but I can’t resist a good saint’s life. Saints stories are like comic books except with virgins and God and miracles, instead of mutants and magic lassos.
There are less than 1000 canonized Catholic saints. About 80% of them are male.
Most female saints are either virgins or reformed prostitutes. St. Sofia was neither. She was a mother, like me.
St Sofia’s story is bloody and violent and horrible. I am going to tell it anyway, because it is about the power mothers give children when we allow them to believe in themselves:
Sofia was a Christian woman living in Italy in the 2nd century, a time when the pagans were irritated by Christian’s refusal to offer sacrifices to gods or emperors. Roman emperors punished Christians for their beliefs by setting them on fire, or feeding them to lions.
Sofia was a married, upper-middle-class citizen leading a quiet life. Not long after the birth of her third daughter, her husband died. Sofia carried on alone, educating her three daughters, who were named Faith, Hope and Love, to read the stories of the apostles and prophets, to take care of themselves and each other, and to be devout Christians.
When Hadrian, the fourteenth emperor of Rome, heard about the pious Sofia, her three wise and lovely daughters, and her husbandless Christian household, he summoned the family to his throne room where he explained that the girls would disavow their Christianity and become his charges.
By “explained”, I mean that he didn’t ask.
Hadrian urged Sofia’s daughters to denounce their Christianity and make a sacrifice to the goddess Artemis. He mentioned the benefits of paganism such as animal sacrifices, multiple gods and goddesses and premarital sex. He tried to make it sound fun.
Sofia respectfully declined his offer. She told him that her daughters were already betrothed to Christ, and they were saving themselves for Him.
Hadrian assumed Sofia didn’t understand. He gave her time to think.
After three days, he brought them back to his throneroom and lined them up in front of him.
Hadrian told the girls that he already loved them in a fatherly way. He said that once they pledged fealty to the goddess Artemis, he would adopt them and raise them as his own daughters.
The girls stood with square shoulders and looked him in the eye. They spoke for themselves. They said no.
He was surprised. Not many people refuse the emperor of Rome.
If they didn’t accept his generous offer, he said, shaking his head sadly, he would have to cut off their little arms and legs and feed them to his dogs–not because he wanted to, but because they would have left him no choice.
Faith, Hope and Love were aged twelve, ten and eight, respectively. They didn’t flinch.
“We spit on your gods,” they answered politely, in unison. “Your threats do not frighten us. We wish to suffer bitter torments for the sake of our sweet God, Jesus Christ.”
Hadrian’s eyes widened. His eyebrows raised.
Sofia stood by, watching the straight backs of her daughters as they stood before the emperor, speaking in their own voices.
“My soul will be magnified and my spirit will rejoice,” she whispered, “if you remember what I have taught you and contest for your Lord even unto the shedding of your blood.”
Hadrian ordered his henchmen to grab Faith and strip her naked. They beat her while he watched.
He again asked Faith to make a sacrifice to Artemis. She said no, she’d understood his question the first time, and her answer was the same.
Hadrian took it up a notch and ordered her breasts to be cut off.
Faith bled milk instead of blood.
Some members of the court wondered of their emperor had gone too far. Hadrian tugged at his beard. Sofia murmured a desperate circle of prayers. She clutched her hands and made herself stand back and listen while her daughters spoke.
Hadrian had a metal gridiron heated up over a huge fire and laid Faith on it. She lay there for two hours but she wasn’t burned because her God was protecting her.
Hadrian threw Faith into a cauldron filled with boiling pitch. She sat in it and sang praises to God, wiggling her toes like she was relaxing in a bubble bath.
At his wit’s end, Hadrian commanded his executioner to cut off Faith’s head.
Next up was Hope, aged ten.
Hadrian eyed the blood on the floor and asked Hope if she had learned anything from Faith’s experience.
Hope said that she was her mother’s daughter and her sister’s sister. She was also, she reminded him, betrothed to God and true only to him.
Hadrian ordered her to be stripped and beaten.
Hadrian’s henchmen beat Hope with such enthusiasm that their arms got too tired to continue, but she didn’t feel a thing because her God was protecting her.
Hadrian was surprised, though at this point he shouldn’t have been. He flicked a knotted finger and had her thrown into a fire.
She didn’t burn.
“Good girl,” Sofia said, even though her heart was breaking. “Remember the pain I felt giving birth to you! Remember the labors I undertook in rearing you! My spirit will rejoice to watch you suffering bravely for Christ. He will reward you for your suffering.”
Hadrian hung Hope from the ceiling like a chandelier, and had his men scrape her with iron claws until her adolescent skin peeled off in strips like the bark on a maple tree.
Hope didn’t submit. Instead, a beautiful fragrance came from her injuries and filled the room with sweetness as she reveled in the love of the Holy Spirit.
“I am going to paradise,” she told Hadrian. “And you. Are. Not.”
Sofia thanked God for giving her child such strength and asked for some for herself.
Hadrian heated up a great cauldron of oil and pitch to pour on Hope, but when it came to a boil, the kettle melted and spat the burning liquid onto the members of the court who were watching the procedures like it was the Friday Night Fights.
By now it was obvious to most of the remaining audience that Hope was being protected by a higher power, but Hadrian wouldn’t give up. He ordered her head to be cut off, too, and after that was done, he called for Love to step forward.
Sofia saw her youngest child standing before the man who had just had her sisters killed. Love used to sit with Sofia in the mornings, her head resting on her mother’s shoulder, while they read the Bible together. Her hair was soft and fine, with a slight curl. She wiggled when her mother brushed it.
“Would YOU like to make a sacrifice to Artemis?” Hadrian rumbled.
“Nope,” said the eight year old Love, in her clear, young voice.
Hadrian had Love stretched out a wheel until her tender arms and legs pulled noisily out of their sockets.
He had his men beat her.
Then he showed her a furnace, stoked white-hot.
“Pledge to Artemis or I will throw you into that furnace,” he said.
“I hope both you and Artemis die!” Love replied, and walked into the furnace under her own power.
Love stood in the sizzling furnace as cool as a December morning, singing the praises to God that her mother had taught her.
Flames shot out of the furnace and burned Hadrian and other bystanders who still hadn’t figured out it was time to go home.
Hadrian flinched, and commanded his prosecutors to pull Love from the furnace and drill holes in her arms and legs.
She was brave, and her God protected her and she didn’t cry.
Finally, Hadrian was fed up. His burns hurt. He wasn’t getting the response he wanted, even though he was the ruler of the entire Roman empire.
Hadrian told Love that he was going to have her head cut off, just like her two sisters. She shrugged and said she was glad to die because not only would she get to fulfill her troth with God, but she’d see her sisters in heaven.
Sofia was relieved her daughters’ pain was about to end.
“I gave birth to you, and thus endured suffering,” Sofia told her last remaining daughter. “But you will redeem my suffering if you die for Christ’s sake.”
Love’s head was cut off and Hadrian was left with a big mess to clean up and no new daughters to adorn with jewels and sin.
Worse yet, he had been outmanouvered by three preteen girls. He was the emperor, but he clearly wasn’t the hero. Sofia and her daughters were.
Sofia took the corpses of her beloved daughters to a hill outside the city. She wept over them–some sad tears, but mostly tears of pride for their profound courage, and tears of joy because she knew they were together in paradise.
After the third day Sofia died, which was a mercy, and she joined her daughters in heaven.
See? I told you it was a horrible, gory story. But motherhood is messy– from the first bloody breaths of air that our babies take in front of us, to the sleepless nights of fevers and sick, to the daily battle of watching our child become her own person.
As mothers, we hold our children close for as long as we can. We stroke their hair; we read them stories; we help them imagine what their future will bring.
But then we have to let them go.
Sofia led her daughters into Hadrian’s throne room and then she stood aside and listened while, one by one, they chose their own words.
Their words brought them death, but also glory. And glory to Sofia, too.
Because isn’t that what all mothers want? To know that once we let our children go, they will stand tall and true to themselves? To know that there is someone besides us looking out for them when things get tough? To know that there is someone waiting to greet them on the other side?
(I aggressively paraphrased Sofia’s story from www.stsophia.com).