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Seeing Faith: The Martyrdom and Incorruptible Bodies of the Saints



Joseph Bottum - published on 06/14/15

Tales of the Saints for June 15

On June 15, 1878, out on Leland Stanford’s farm in Palo Alto, California, a photographer named Eadweard Muybridge took 24 of the most advanced cameras available at the time and lined them up along a track, 27 inches apart. What he wanted to do was capture, in a series of photographs, the gait of a galloping horse—but what he hoped to do was prove that horses have all four of their hooves off the ground at certain moments as they run.

Maybe the most peculiar thing about the whole project was that hardly anyone (or, at least, hardly anyone who had ridden much) doubted that horses are airborne during a gallop. There may have been a handful of skeptics employing bad science to deny it: Horses weigh too much! Gravity would smash them down to the ground! But really, all that Muybridge sought was photographic proof of something that was commonly understood to be true, even though the floating instants of a gallop are too brief for the human eye to catch.

On June 15 of a different year—853, in the Spanish town of Córdoba—a woman named Benildus was killed on the orders of the emir, Muhammad I. The Muslims had invaded from North Africa to take Córdoba in 711, making it the capital of their possessions in southern Spain and developing it into one of the world’s largest cities. Only in 1236 did the Spanish Reconquista recapture Córdoba, but the Muslim rulers had some trouble with their Christian population along the way.

Determined to silence the Christians protesting the conversion of their cathedral into a mosque, the emir executed a priest named Fandila on June 13, 853. On June 14, he added beheadings of the priest Anastasius and the monk Felix, soon joined by a nun named Digna. And after watching the beheadings, the elderly Christian laywoman Benildus surprised her neighbors by marching down to the city authorities and denouncing Islam. She was moved, she said, by the example of Anastasius she had just seen, and she could no longer remain silent. She was burned at the stake, her ashes thrown into the river, the next day—June 15. Today. The feast of St. Benildus.

June 15 is also the feast of St. Eadburh of Winchester, daughter of King Edward the Elder, who died in the convent in 960. The feast of St. Vitus, as well—the fourth-century martyr whose relics came to Prague in 925 and sparked the enormous popular veneration in the Slavic and German principalities that would lead to his being named one of the Fourteen Holy Helpers. Vitus is the patron saint of comedians, dancers, actors, and epileptics.

But June 15 is especially the feast of a sixteenth-century French girl named Germaine Cousin—the saint who survived vicious treatment from her family, the saint who survived deformity and disease, the saint who survived the starvation diet of the scraps of food she was allowed. “Dear God, please keep me from being too hungry or too thirsty. Help me to please my mother. And help me to please you,” runs one of the heartbreaking prayers she is said to have composed for the self-taught Rosary she made by tying knots in a piece of string, no one having thought to give her an education.

She was a saint who survived even her death in 1601, at age twenty-two. Her body, buried in the parish of Pibrac, was found unspoiled when her grave was opened in 1644—and the cult of veneration that quickly developed so infuriated the anti-Catholic forces in France that in 1793, during the French Revolution, her body was dug up again and dowsed with quicklime. She survived that, too.

Canonized in 1867, Germaine Cousin is the saint who comforts abused children, abandoned people, and the disabled—along with being a patroness of farm girls and shepherdesses. Badly mistreated by her stepmother, she was sent off daily to the fields to watch the sheep almost as soon as she could walk and forced to sleep in the straw of the barn, away from the family house. But she still managed to find companionship. Understanding, parenting, love, kindness, care: Everything that she had been deprived of, she found in God. Her prayers were constant, joyous, wild, free. The most miserably treated child in her village, she became the happiest child anyone knew.

A popular tale of St. Germaine is that she would push her shepherdess’s crook into the ground whenever she heard the parish bell ring, and leave it standing there while she ran down for Mass. That was enough to keep the wolves of the forest away from her sheep, which would always stay gathered around her crook.

But I think the more-telling tale is that the villagers, originally inclined to mock St. Germaine when they weren’t ignoring her, soon began to call the girl “the devout one.” Children would come after school to hear her talk of God. Stories were told of the river parting so she could cross for Mass, of her apron full of flowers, of the angels singing her lullabies in her barn at night. And the point isn’t the truth of those stories, but the fact that people would tell them to one another. The sight of a teenaged girl changed them, moving them to talk about her, moving them to wonder, moving them to share the reality of faith.

In her brief life—brief as the airborne moment of a horse’s gallop—St. Germaine showed the people around her an example of devotion. Just as seeing the martyrdom of Anastasius led St. Benildus to accept her own martyrdom the next day, so seeing the young St. Germaine led the French villagers to a piety that spread across the countryside. They all knew the teachings of the Church, they all believed to one degree or another, just as most people in 1878 understood the gait of a horse. But Eadweard Muybridge’s photographs made it possible to see, to prove and make present, what they thought they understood. And that’s what the holiness of the saints can do—prove and make present the truths of our existence. They allow us to see the reality of God’s love. 

Joseph Bottumis a bestselling author who lives in the Black Hills of South Dakota and author of An Anxious Age: The Post-Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of America. This is the first installment in his week-long series of reflections on the Saints. 

To read Joseph Bottum’s other essays in this series see:

"A New Mysticism: The Visions, Miracles and Devotion of St. Lutgarde"
"To Be a Saint is to be Truly Revolutionary"
"The Unlikely Holiness of the White-Collar Saint"
"The Bravery of the Martyrs and Those Who Lived Their Lives for Faith"

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