AFTER THE MARTYRS
by Brenna Carroll
Is this blood, or is it wine? Am I damned or am I divine?
The wild wind whistled through her nostrils, warming itself for her lungs, and followed the breath in front of it out by the same route. Sister Ida followed her own route, weakly cutting through the wind on her way to the garden. She prayed as she walked, steps keeping rhythm to the Hail Mary, counting the rosary beads in time to her breath. The sky frowned down upon the sister, mirroring her own expression of slight contempt and vague discontent, but its dismal countenance was given away when the wind changed direction as if to aid the sister along on her path.
The garden appeared unseasonably vibrant against the grim backdrop of the sky. Sister Ida’s small frame could be seen meandering among the rows almost methodically, following a pattern known only to her. In closer quarters, one would find the glow on her bony cheeks contrasted with the gauntness of her face. She brushed the leaves of each plant with delicate fingers as she wandered past, debauched greenery feasting on her labors and that of others. The place smelled earthy, clean and alive all at the same time.
It was an age without martyrs. Persecution had passed and the time when one could seek salvation in the coliseum or on the cross had drifted away like smoke off a funeral pyre.
That is not to say the world looked any different than it had before; it had happened subtly and all at once. One day, the world woke up to the news that Emperor Constantine had declared Rome Christian—there could be no more martyrs, as the persecutor had become the proselytizer. Eight centuries had gone on in this way. The world was the same, but the people had changed.
One would think that the world would rejoice after the martyrs, but this posed certain problems for religious folk. How could one purport to follow Christ’s path if one could not follow it to the end? How could one prove one’s absolute devotion to the faith if one could not die for it? Anything worth living for is also worth dying for.
Some tried to do it anyway. They would beg Roman soldiers to murder them in the street, commit crimes unscrupulously in order to suffer the punishment, jump in front of carriages and dance into lion cages. Then there were those who turned it inward. They starved themselves, beat themselves, stopped sleeping but never took fate into their own hands. They let nature do their work for them, proving to the world that they did not need the world. Martyrs for the church, perhaps not. Martyrs for themselves, absolutely.
Sister Ida worked in time to her hunger. That ever-present beast was both her pride and her thorn. It was her strength and her weakness. Strength, because she could deny herself such a basic need and defy her own humanity; weakness, because her mind was consumed with thoughts of food instead of thoughts of God. It occurred to her now, as it had so many times before when her will began to wane, that she needed to further purify herself.
Heroic hunger is how she liked to think of it. She was not entirely free of the touch of vanity, and for this she felt sinful, but it was minor in comparison to her larger goal. Sister Ida wanted to escape her own human nature. The world chased her through her nightmares, pursuing her ceaselessly and attempting to force its cares and wants and desires upon her, but Sister Ida was stronger than the world. She had long since forsaken it, declaring starvation her salvation.
The sister departed from the garden and thought of salvation as she walked. Salvation was always on her mind. Her hands trembled softly, clasped tight together. Salvation was present in the habit she wore, the words she spoke, the garden she tended and the paths she walked. Salvation was present in her mind and in her hunger, proving to the world that she did not need the world. Salvation is what kept her working every day to keep the devil at bay.
She soldiered down the path back to the convent, imagining herself as one of the old Athletes of Christ, heroically perishing in the coliseum in a crowd of beasts. Not just beasts of the animal kingdom, but of the Roman one as well. Pagan beasts, urging on the slaughter of the righteous and buying themselves a seat in Hell just as the martyrs earned themselves a seat in Heaven.
Ahead of her but on the same path, Sister Ida saw a raggedy dog. His ears shot up in alertness as she approached, and his tail began to wag. Sister Ida stretched out her hand to let him smell it, and the dog tentatively but amiably came forward to lick her hand.
“What a sweet creature of God you are!” she exclaimed, slightly shocked at the sound of her own voice. It was hoarse from disuse, as she often fell into long stretches of silence when contemplating salvation.
The sister offered a piece of bread to the dog, which he first looked at skeptically, but, driven by hunger, snatched from her hand and ran off. She felt a certain sense of pride that she was unaccustomed to: She had given another creature what he needed to live for another day. Then she mentally reprimanded herself for indulging in such hubris. Only God provides for his Creation. We are just His vessels. If He had wanted that dog to die, He would not have made our paths cross.
Sister Ida hurried into the convent so as not to be late for evening Mass. Shuffling past the other habits she found her spot near the altar.
“Sister, have you been denying yourself food again? You look like it,” said Sister Adelaide.
“I have, thank you,” said Sister Ida, trying to hide her blush and banish prideful thoughts. Regardless of her defenses, a whisper of satisfaction drifted in.
“If only we could all strive for such purity as you. I shall give you a special place in my prayers today to aid you in your journey to salvation.”
Sister Ida nodded.
The priest started Mass, the sisters bowing their heads, kneeling, standing, kneeling, standing, crossing themselves, bowing heads again, as if it were all some bizarre dance. The priest began his homily:
“Only the Lord can die on the cross. Only the Lord can forgive us our sins. Only the Lord can put Death in chains. That is the truth we hold in our hearts as Christians, that the Lord is our one true salvation. But oughtn’t we to show Him we are worthy of His love? Oughtn’t we do our part in pursuing salvation?”
Sister Ida, much to her chagrin, could not give her attention to the homily. Her thoughts were instead occupied with yearnings for food and the pangs of hunger. She focused her entire willpower on the homily, but it would falter as soon as her stomach growled.
“In the days of the persecution, we could follow Christ’s path to the very end. We could give ourselves up for the Church, and it was a beautiful thing. But in our time, that is not an option. They looked Death in the face, but in a way, we face a more difficult battle. We look Life in the face.
“So what is there left for us to do? Are we living in an age without salvation? Are we all damned because we were born too late? No, we are not; do not doubt God like that. We face a bigger battle, like I said, one against ourselves. To show we are worthy of salvation, we must deny ourselves the sinful, base desires which afflict us as human beings—we must transcend our humanity. We must show we are ready for Heaven, ready to accept God by casting off all that could distract us from Him.
“Look at Sister Ida,” the priest said, and this time she was unable to stop the flow of redness on her cheeks. Two thoughts snuck in through her barrier: one of pride, and one of food. She harshly reprimanded herself for allowing these unholy thoughts in when she was being praised for doing just the opposite.
“She is truly allowing herself to be a vessel of the Lord. She does not think of hunger, she does not think of pain. She resists herself to show the Savior that she is ready to go beyond herself.”
Sister Ida could not follow the rest of the homily. Specters of hunger and pride whirled around her head, holding her captive and telling her she was a fraud. Images of bread, of milk, of the garden, of the dog, of the Eucharist, of crucifixes, of the grave floated in front of her eyes. The more harshly she judged herself the more unrelenting these specters became. She felt a dismal pang in her chest—how could she be a true vessel of the Lord if her thoughts were held captive by worldly desires?
That night, the Sister resolved to strengthen her devotion. She was going to eat less, pray more fervently and clean out her heart to make room for Jesus. No matter the cost, she would be saved.
The room is dark, lit by candles in each corner. A table sits stolidly in the middle of the room, wooden walls and a dirt floor, messy in a quaint kind of way, and a large man sits at the table. A young girl, with eyes and freckles like the man’s and startlingly black hair, sits across from him, appearing to be in deep contemplation. She cannot be older than twelve. There is a plate of food in front of the man and the child. The man eats hastily while the child pushes food around on the plate with a spoon.
“Ida, you have got to eat. Why are you not eating?”
“Pa, the priest told me the devil hides in every bite. I will not eat. The priest told me that I would get to Heaven that way.”
“That priest is full of horse shit, Ida. How are you supposed to have the energy to pray or do charity or do any of the things you say you want to do if you don’t eat? Jesus ate. The apostles ate. You can’t devote your life to God if you’re dead. I can’t bear to see you turn into a walking corpse. Please, just eat something, Ida.”
The door opens and a shaggy gray dog patters in. Suddenly, the room disappears and the floor falls out from under them, and Ida is sent plummeting down, down, down to who knows where. Terror makes a fist in her chest as she realizes this is not real, but she does not know what it is, and her screams are ripped from her mouth by the wind, or maybe they are not and the wind just mirrors her fear. Objects enter her field of vision: the dog, the Eucharist, and a Bible.
Sister Ida started awake, feeling the phantom terror still clenched in her chest. She promptly arose, looked around to ensure that she had a solid grip on her surroundings, and went over to the sink to wash her face. The water felt alive against her dry skin. She dressed, and leaving the convent, traipsed through the early morning darkness like a thin, gray ghost. It was far too early for the others to be up, but she took satisfaction in going to pray while the others slept. She immediately felt guilty because of this self-satisfaction.
Coming to the chapel, she knelt and blessed herself before she took a seat in one of the pews. There were always candles illuminating the interior of the chapel, which flickered at this new presence. Dropping down to her knees, she started the rosary, but to her consternation, she was unable to focus. No matter the mental barriers she put up, thoughts of hunger crept in to plague her with images of gluttony and sin. This was especially distressing in light of last night’s dream, which she tried and failed to erase from her psyche.
The body and blood of Christ. The body and blood of Christ! That is all my soul needs to live. To Hell with my body!
She finished her rosary and sat in silence for a moment. The world seemed to hold its breath at this time of day, and Sister Ida held hers with it.
The growing light alerted the Sister that it was time for breakfast, so she rose, blessed herself, and made her way back to the convent.
It was not unusual for Sister Ida to leave some food on her plate, but this morning she left over half of her bread loaf untouched. Sister Millicent noticed and came over to where Sister Ida was sitting listlessly.
She asked Sister Ida about her hunger, and went on about how she “could never be as devout as you.” In response, Sister Ida got up from the table and, grabbing the remaining bread, left the convent again in the direction of the garden.
On the well-worn path, Sister Ida again encountered the gray, scruffy dog. She approached him and offered him her uneaten bread, which he graciously accepted and promptly ran off with. His appearance struck her as different somehow, and she could not put her finger on it exactly. It was noticeable yet discreet. The Sister realized that, like her, the dog was gaunter than at their last meeting. The both of them took up less space in the world.
The freshness of the garden was a welcome reprieve for Sister Ida’s tired mind. She strolled through and paid special attention to the small details she usually would have ignored. This was the only break she felt justified in taking from thinking about salvation.
The flowers in the garden were spotted with tiny bugs—the type of which Sister Ida could not identify—that formed tiny societies in their tiny worlds. The Sister noticed the way certain plants clustered together and others stretched away from each other towards the sun, while still others used each other as support to reach towards the light. Dew reflected light off stalks of grass like a million tiny mirrors, and Sister Ida thought that this must be what the Kingdom of Heaven felt like.
What must a martyr feel like? she thought, and craved that unreachable distinction. It was an age without martyrs, so the righteous could no more die righteously than common sinners. Sister Ida contemplated her own battle, herself against hunger and gluttony, and she shivered. She had a long way to go.
“I think of food constantly. I reprimand myself, and the feeling intensifies. I restrict more, and the feeling still intensifies. What am I doing wrong?”
“When you think of becoming gluttonous, do you follow that desire?” asked Sister Ida’s confessor.
“No. But what if I did some day?”
“If you have faith in your heart, you will not give in.”
“I do, but I think about food so much that I cannot even think about God. What kind of Sister am I, concerned more with my physical survival than my spirit?”
“Sister, if you do not follow these urges, then you are doing everything right. Confess your gluttonous thoughts regularly and Christ will forgive you. Follow your current path and you will be like Christ.”
Sister Ida would have stormed off, but she was too tired, so she wandered away feebly instead. She made her way to her room and slammed it shut, bursting into tears on her bed. She could not understand why no one would help her. Maybe my Pa was right! she thought frantically, though she knew she could not make herself believe it. Starvation had become her path to salvation.
With a pang of guilt, she remembered that raggedy dog. Grabbing her leftover rations, she ran out of the convent to see if he was by the path to the garden. He was, and he looked worse than ever: his eyes had sunken in slightly, his ribs were visible through his fur and his coat looked dull and dirty. Guilt overcame Sister Ida and she collapsed on the ground next to the dog, heaving from both her exertion and her emotions, and remained there for a good while. Faceless shame flooded her mind, spread through her body and wrapped round her soul until she felt she was aflame. She leapt up to return to the convent and the dog was gone, along with the rations.
Sister Ida took the long way back to the convent both because she was tired and because she did not want the other Sisters to see her tear-sodden face. It was at this time that she detected a faint, smoky odor. She kept walking, and the odor grew stronger. She rounded the corner and the convent came into view. She gasped.
Flames were leaping out from the near side of the convent, and the air was filled with smoke and the frantic cries of Sisters and authoritative shouts from the priest and the awful sound of wood snapping in heat. Sister Ida was mesmerized for a moment at the terrible majesty of it all: the flares leapt and burst and twirled the way she and the other girls in the village had danced as children. The fire grew and shrank and consumed and flickered with abandon. She could not help but stare until another Sister came running up to her.
“Sister, grab a pail! Help us!”
Sister Ida grabbed a pail but was unable to carry it very far. She tried to help them fill the pails but she was too weak to operate the pump. For the first time in her life, Sister Ida felt powerless.
What caused it? Another Sister, frustrated at her inability to be as disciplined as Sister Ida, had tried to burn herself with a candle in her room, dropped it onto the bed by mistake, and the whole place had gone up in flames.
For the next several days, Sister Ida did not leave her room except for Mass and prayers. Guilt draped over her like a blanket, a heavy blanket that she could hardly move or breathe under, and smothered her resolve.
In this time, Sister Ida became weak, so weak she was unable to attend Mass or receive the Eucharist. Some good the body and blood of Christ is going to do for my soul if I cannot accept it. She was at the point of death, yet she still refused food, and the Abbess had no choice but to allow her to pursue her chosen path of salvation. A sense of unease had entered her mind.
Finally, the sun came out, and she arose from her cocoon. It was still cloudy and a little cold, but she could stand in her own skin again. With the return of the sun came the return of concerns and worries. Sister Ida fled the safety of her room to find the dog.
It took her some time to find him. She searched the well-worn path first, then the long way to the garden, and found him about halfway along the path. Revulsion rose in her throat as she realized he was limp and still, and the Sister fell to her knees in deference to this lost life. Guilt tried to overcome her again, but instead a primal terror sparked in her chest and travelled up her spine and filled her head with thoughts of her own death. Her own funeral rose before her eyes, and it was not far away. It was lonely and cold and morbid, like the poor dog’s. No matter the cause she was living for, she was just as fragile as this dog, placed in the world so tenuously. The smallest wind could wipe her out. With this newfound sense of mortality, Sister Ida resolved to live her fragile, fleeting, ephemeral life for herself. She could not be a martyr for Christ, but did He really need any? Instead, she could be her own martyr.
Anything worth dying for is also worth living for.
Taking a thing worth dying for and turning it into a life worth living is a difficult exercise in meaningful existence. Sister Ida found herself caught between two sides of herself: the pious ascetic, who gives up everything she has and then still more, and the sensible sister, who respects the limits of the human body. Not being one for moderation, she tried to do both but found that her heady enthusiasm had left her and she could not do that.
Coming in from the garden one morning, she seated herself at the table, slightly away from the others, for breakfast. Tentatively, she began to eat, and tried to ignore the incredulous glances from the other sisters. Sister Ida, that paragon of self-control and virtue, giving in to hunger!
Sister Ida looked down at her half-eaten bread and thought to bring it to the dog, but, with a pang of guilt, remembered his lifeless body in the sun. She no longer took that path to the garden.
Suddenly, something changed in her: her spirit had rebelled. Her spirit wanted to be let free, and she had the urge to jump on the table and shriek, but she reined her soul in. For the first time in her life, she felt like she had a choice.
Only God can die on the cross.
“I do not feel like I have to starve myself anymore. I do not know why, but I do not even feel guilty. What is happening to me?”
“This is all a matter of willpower and faith,” her confessor said. “Everyone is afflicted with irreverent thoughts. The holy can suppress them.”
“Does that mean I am no longer holy? Because I simply do not even feel all that impressed with the mass anymore. It all seems pointless.”
“Have you done anything to let the devil in lately?”
“I have been eating more. But not in a gluttonous way.”
“Well, this is going to be a matter between you and Jesus. Pray to him and he will guide you back to the holy path.”
It struck Sister Ida that no answers were to be found there. She had to search for them herself. Frustrated, she took her irreverent thoughts and left her confessor.
The Communion song rang out in the chapel, and the Sisters sang and swayed along with the familiar tune. Sister Ida sat in her usual pew, near the front, but she was deep in thought. Irreverent thoughts plagued her mind but she was not especially concerned; rather, she took them and ran with them in the empty spaces of her mind where personalities bloom and life begins.
Sister Ida’s row stood and lined up to take the Eucharist. The sister was still somewhere else and scrambled to keep up with the rest. Still, a seed of discontent was growing in her heart.
The body and blood of Christ. That’s all I’m supposed to need to live. But I am a human being! If that dog could not survive on what God provided alone, then how can I?
Sister Ida stood next in line for the Eucharist, and a thought suddenly struck her with such force she lost her breathe: she was free. She was her own master and she was free.
Is this blood, or is it wine? Am I damned or am I divine?
Ida looked the priest in the eye, turned around, and left the chapel.
About the Author:
Brenna Carroll is a senior studying history at the George Washington University, particularly medieval female hagiographies and the saints that inspired them. She is especially interested in the intersection of asceticism, sanctity and female rebellion.