Love To Slay Even The Angels
Any time any one of us recites the Apostle’s Creed we assert (among so many other things) our belief in the Communion of Saints. As we progress along the path of discipleship, this belief of ours gradually expands beyond an acknowledgement, merely, of the existence of such a communion until it reaches the confident assurance that membership in this communion is our destiny, as it is God’s will for each and every one of us.
For this reason, we’re never wasting time when reflect upon the saints. After all, the development of a devotion to one particular saint, or to a number of saints, can only serve to intensify our desire to follow in the footsteps of the Master. Besides, the very purpose of communion is love and love can only be discovered in the midst of relationship.
Allow me to propose that a discussion of any saint, and certainly any discussion of today’s saint should both begin and end with love.
The Feast of St. Sebastian
Orsino. Belong you to the Lady Olivia, friends?
Feste. Ay, sir; we are some of her trappings.
Orsino. I know thee well; how dost thou, my good fellow?
Feste. Truly, sir, the better for my foes
and the worse for my friends.
Orsino. Just the contrary; the better for thy friends.
Feste. No, sir, the worse.
Orsino. How can that be?
Feste. Marry, sir, they praise me and make an ass of me; now my foes tell me plainly I am an ass: so that by my foes, sir, I profit in the knowledge of myself, and by my friends, I am abused: so that, conclusions to be as kisses, if your four negatives make your two affirmatives why then, the worse for my friends and the better for my foes.
Orsino. Why, this is excellent.
Feste. By my troth, sir, no; though
it please you to be one of my friends.
Twelfth Night, V, 1, 7-24
By my foes, sir, I profit in the knowledge of myself,
and by my friends, I am abused.
LOVE TO SLAY EVEN THE ANGELS
Love, it is said, is blind; and there is an abundance of evidence to support this claim. When we love, sadly, we burden the object of our love with responsibility for feeding our longing to apprehend perfection; or, at least, the illusion of perfection. Oftentimes this ‘burden’ is one our beloved bears cheerfully. There can be something very appealing about being the recipient of someone else’s blind love, and to play the role of one unsullied by human flaw. Blind love gratifies both lover and beloved. It gratifies, but it doesn’t satisfy.
We surround ourselves with blind love, but there are other forms of love as well. There is, to give one example, something we could call corrective love. Corrective love is the love we get from our foes (if we accept Feste’s definition of foe.) Corrective love is hardly blind, as it is more than capable of discovering even those aspects of who and what we are we take the greatest pains to camouflage. Corrective love discerns what we are even while it imagines what we could be if only we would suspend our habit of behaving like (again to use Feste’s phrase) ‘an ass’.
Then there is the love we have been commanded to love, the love that seeks the well-being of those who depend upon us: giving love, generous love, sacrificial love. We love, as it is written, because He first loved us. (1 John 4, 19). Indeed we do! We love with the love of Jesus, the love that animates our enterprise of building God’s kingdom here on earth.
There is blind love, and corrective love, and sacrificial love and love has even more tricks up its sleeve. Love can find other guises and disguises and I will have more to say about that; but first I want us to address our attention to dear St. Sebastian.
There was, I’m quite certain, an actual human being named Sebastian who lived in the latter half of the Third Century. He is said to have been a soldier in the Emperor Diocletian’s army and – I think we can reasonably believe – ran afoul of the emperor because of his Christian faith. We’re told that there was some sort of altercation, probably with Diocletian’s archers, that resulted in Sebastian being critically wounded. Remarkably, Sebastian recovered from his injuries and then became outspoken in his denunciations of the emperor who eventually had him beaten to death.
Such a story is more than adequate to spark admiration among Christians and to enable us appreciate the vital contributions Sebastian made to our Church. And yet, as good as the story is, it only got better and better in the retelling. Folklore and legend have gilded the tale with miracle and valor, intrigue and braggadocio. So be it. I am more than happy to replace good stories about St. Sebastian with better ones. Historical accuracy matters far less than inspiration. We should all be inspired to emulate the saints and witness to the truth of Christ’s gospel.
Sebastian’s blessings, over the course of his short life (it is reported that he was thirty two when he died) were nothing short of sensational and yet the blessings didn’t stop there, for Sebastian managed to take on a second career in the centuries following his martyrdom. In life he was a soldier. In death he became the Catholic Adonis, an ever-popular subject in the religious art of masters who developed a cult of Sebastian that combined equal elements of pious zeal and joyous celebration of a cultivated ideal of masculine sexuality and beauty.
And, so, we return to the subject of love. We have called upon various forms of love and now we touch on the love whose name cannot be spoken – that is, erotic love or (even more unspeakably) homoerotic love. Some century or two after he actually died, Sebastian became the vessel through which we human beings expressed elements of our nature too dangerous to express with candor. Whatever Sebastian was while he enjoyed his allotted length of days; he became, in death, the perpetually young, impossibly desirable victim of a thousand wounds, tenderly restored to robust vitality by a legion of seraphim and cherubim.
A picture, to be sure, tells a story of a thousand words, but what if those thousand words cannot be printed? In such a situation, you can well imagine, a picture becomes indispensable. For centuries, Sebastian has enabled us to discuss freely matters we cannot even mention. How’s that for a miracle?
What we have been permitted is the mention of conduct, even though some conduct can only be mentioned in condemnation. There is a certain kind of conduct, a conduct of touching, which is condemned both in scripture and official Church teaching. We know that what the Church teaches is not always easy to accept, and some teachings are harder for certain people to accept than others. Wisdom counsels me to reason that on those occasions when the thing the Church teaches differs from what I wish were true I need to be open to the possibility that this difference is rooted in the fact that I am wrong, and the Church is right.
The Church has a commission. She has been commissioned to teach. She has been commissioned to teach me. The Church loves me, and I love the Church. The Church’s love for me, oftentimes, is corrective love. Does it follow, then, that my love for the Church must be blind love? Perhaps. Perhaps, and perhaps not.
Be assured that Captain Catholic has no interest whatsoever in taking a position of defiance against either the Bible or the Catechism. To invoke a phrase my daughter favors, “Homie don’t play dat game.” It isn’t my role to love the Church with corrective love. That assignment has been given to the Holy Spirit and I have nothing but obstacles to offer to the Holy Spirit. I am not called upon to speak out on every matter that causes me concern; but I am called upon to pray – and I pray that my Church will do a better job, each day, in teaching the gospel.
The Church, in certain situations, will condemn. The Church may condemn even when someone such as myself wonders whether condemnation is the best approach to take. The Church can condemn conduct, but it cannot condemn love – and I recommend that those who would turn to St. Sebastian would turn to him for love. Turn to one who understands that even if the body is in shackles the heart can be free.
Was Sebastian, really and truly, pierced by a thousand arrows and still able to recover? I cannot say; but I can say that the story of one who recovers after being pierced by a thousand arrows is a story worth recounting. It is a story to captivate the imagination; and, more importantly, it is a story to call forth courage and call forth faith.
We should never tire of speaking about the saints, and when we speak of them we should end as we should begin – with love.