Thursday, November 21, 2013

The Short and Tragic Life of Saint Barbara by Chris White

This Sunday, Christian worship will be held in several million churches around the world named after St. Barbara.  In addition to being one of the world's most well-known and well-loved saints, St. Barbara has the distinction of her own honorable order within the U.S. Marine Corps and is the patron saint of fireman, sailors in the navy, artilleryman in the Army and just about every group in the population that serves in harm's way and could die suddenly.  Despite her worldwide popularity, there's a little problem with St. Barbara: no one is certain she actually ever existed.  In fact the Roman Catholic church, an institution known for its certitude about most things, removed her feast day from their official calendar in 1969 due to concerns about whether she was a real person or merely a pious legend.

Fact or fiction, the essential story of Saint Barbara goes like this:  around 286 AD in the city of Nicomedia, Asia Minor (modern day Turkey) there lived a widower named Dioscorus who had a beautiful and intelligent daughter named Barbara.  It is believed that Barbara's mother may have been a Christian herself which was displeasing to her husband who was an ardent polytheist (pagan).  Whatever the reasons for Dioscorus' animus towards Christianity, as a single father left with an attractive daughter to raise, he was going to make sure Barbara was raised correctly and worshipped the gods of Rome.

Like most men of his day, Dioscorus controlled his daughter's every move and in a bit of over-control verging on paranoia, he decided the best way to make sure his daughter turned out right, was to completely isolate her from the public and act as the gatekeeper of who would ever get to see her.  Part of this plan entailed building a tower for her to live in which had a window, a bell, but no door to come in or out (it is believed the Brother's Grimm borrowed from this in constructing their fairly tale of Rapunzel).  Having her in such isolation virtually assured Dioscorus would be successful in keeping the influence of the Christians (by now a large and growing segment of the population in Asia Minor) at bay.

Dioscorus made sure that Barbara was taught by the best teachers of philosophy, poetry, and the arts.  Whenever Barbara wanted something new to read or study, she would ring the bell, and her father's servants would place new books for her to read in the basket she lowered from the window.  This plan backfired a bit though.  Being educated in philosophy, Barbara became a critical thinker and as she grew intellectually, the gods of paganism seemed more and more untenable to her.  On top of this apparently Dioscorus didn't screen all of his servants regarding their religious views because one of them slipped a book in the basket written by the famous Christian theologian and philosopher of Alexandria named Origen.

Barbara read these writings with great interest and wrote a letter to Origen asking him if he could teach her and baptize her via letter because of her living situation and the disposition of her father about Christians.  If by chance you're wondering how Barbara could mail a letter in that place or time bear in mind the phrase "Neither rain nor hail nor sleet nor snow nor heat of day nor dark of night shall keep this carrier from the swift completion of his appointed rounds" originates not with the U.S. Postal Service but with the ancient historian Herodotus who was describing the mail system that preexisted the Christian era in Asia Minor.  Put another way, there might not have been stamps and email, but the ancients had their own form of connectivity called letter writing.

Origen himself was too busy in Alexandria to leave but not too busy to hatch a plan on how to help Barbara become a Christian.  He wrote back to her and suggested on a certain day she ring the bell and tell her father she was very sick and needed a doctor.  He would send a friend who was a priest and since priests do heal souls, it wouldn't be a complete falsehood to say he was a doctor to her father.  Once he got inside the tower he would be able to further instruct her and baptize her.

The plan worked.  Barbara feigned sickness and coming up the road was the priest who heard the bell and asked Dioscorus if everything is okay.  Dioscorus asked the stranger if he could run and get a doctor, to which the priest replied that it must be a divine appointment because he just happened to be passing by and he was a doctor.  Worried sick about the health of Barbara, the father broke open the base of the tower to allow the 'doctor' in to help.  Not knowing what the sickness was, the doctor suggested Dioscorus refrain from coming into the tower for the next few days until she is treated and on the mend.  For the next week, the priest was able to instruct and baptize Barbara undetected by her father while she "recovered and convalesced."  Eventually Barbara's "doctor" had to leave but Dioscorus was quite affected by this event and wondered if part of his daughter's illness was related to living in forced seclusion.

Eventually Dioscorus let his daughter come out of the tower (apparently he didn't brick up the opening again) and find the company of friends of her choosing.  It wasn't long after this that Barbara met other Christians in Nicomedia and was greatly inspired by their holiness and way of life.  When her father tried to arrange a marriage for her with a young pagan man, she resisted this effort and made the decision that she would rather remain a virgin.  Barbara did this to remain devoted to God, but Dioscorus took this to mean she wanted to remain with him as his daughter which greatly pleased him.

In the course of time Dioscorus ordered a beautiful Roman bath be built for Barbara next to her tower that she bathe and relax in luxury.  Before he left on a long journey, he ordered the construction crew to build two skylights over the bath.  However, when he returned he found that Barbara had talked them into adding a third.  Puzzled by this he enquired further of Barbara and eventually she confessed that the three windows represented the Holy Trinity and that she had come to faith and Christ and was baptized a Christian.

Enraged, embarrassed for having been played a fool, and utterly disappointed in his daughter's foolish choices, Dioscorus brought Barbara before the local magistrate to be charged with the crime of being an atheist (what the Romans called Christians).  When she refused to recant her faith upon pain of death, she was sentenced to death.  Following the Roman tradition of  Pater Familias, the magistrate charged Dioscorus with the task of executing his own wayward daughter.  It is said he took her outside the city, beat her, and then took his sword and beheaded her.  He left her body where she died and began walking home when he was suddenly struck by lightening and died instantly.  Meanwhile a local Christian man named Valentinius ministered to the dead by giving Barbara a decent burial.  It was said not long after two pilgrims (likely en route to the Holy Land) visited the grave of Barbara and both were healed of their physical infirmities and this began the path where Barbara became Saint Barbara.

The particular virtue of Saint Barbara represents is choosing Christ despite the opposition of family, friends, and nation and valuing that choice even over your very life.  Unlike other martyrs, Barbara was given no time to consider whether she made the right choice or not.  She was swiftly charged and executed.  There is much about Barbara's situation that most people can relate to or admire which probably explains best her popularity.  Many Christians have found the greatest impediment to their discipleship is the disapproval of their closest relations and many more have lived under the malignant love of a heavy-handed father who is quick to embrace but even quicker at giving a beating.  And no doubt solace can be found in her life by those whose lives are on the line every day and may not have the luxury of Christian ministry at their death bed.

December 4th is the celebration of her martyrdom or what the early Christians called her true birthday because she awoke in Heaven.  Legend or no, surely Saint Barbara has enriched the faith of many if for no other reason than the virtues of fearless perseverance that she represents.  According to one Catholic news service, in 2013 an Italian film producer is making a theatrical movie based on the life of Saint Barbara.

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