A millennium before Ocean’s Eleven, if you wanted to hear a story of a daring heist, the best person to ask—if you were in western Europe, anyway—was probably your local abbot or bishop. In the ninth century, for example, you might have wandered up to the basilica in Seligenstadt and inquired how the mortal remains of the martyrs Peter and Marcellinus, who were killed and buried in Rome during the fourth century, wound up inside an altar many hundreds of miles to the north.
One surviving version of this story comes to us from the writings of a courtier called Einhard, and it goes like this:
Einhard was awarded a little bit of land by the Carolingian emperor and wanted to build a church on it. However, he needed a holy martyr to be the church’s patron. So Einhard called up a smooth-talking cleric named Deusdona, who was known for making himself useful in these kinds of situations, plied him with some wine, and began lamenting about how there were so many neglected martyrs’ tombs languishing down in Rome, bereft of the veneration they were due—just heaps upon heaps of ashes and bones from the days of the persecution, lying around with nobody paying any attention to them. Einhard indicated to Deusdona, delicately, that he was ready and willing to provide a very loving home for any stray martyrs Deusdona might happen to know of.
Deusdona told Einhard that he had a bunch of saints’ bones at his house in Rome, all up to date on their shots and ready to be adopted, and that all Deusdona needed was a loan of a mule and a little cash. So Einhard dispatched Deusdona to Rome, along with Einhard’s notary, Ratleig. On their way, the pair made a pit stop at a monastery in Soissons, where they acquired a third priest-accomplice, Lehun, who was also seeking some martyrs’ remains on behalf of his abbot. However, when the group arrived in Rome, Deusdona told Ratleig and Lehun that unfortunately, all his martyr-bones were actually with his brother right now, who had taken them on a business trip to Beneventum, and Deusdona had no idea when he would get back. Thankfully, Deusdona knew of somewhere else they could get martyr-bones pretty quick: a church dedicated to some martyrs.
With this in mind, our heroes paid a nighttime visit to the church of the martyr St. Tiburtius, and—in a very reverent and respectful manner—tested the durability of the lid on St. Tiburtius’ sepulcher. Unfortunately, the lid was very heavy; fortunately, down in the crypt they located another tomb, this one for two martyrs named Peter and Marcellinus. (We don’t know very much about Peter and Marcellinus beyond the fact they were a priest-exorcist duo, and therefore, I assume, were also vampire-hunters.) With a little prayer and elbow-grease, the team was able to break open the tomb, extract the dusty remnants of Peter and Marcellinus’ bodies, and then replace the tombstone so that none of the locals would suspect anyone had been there and mistakenly interfere with this very holy and totally above-board relic acquisition mission.
I wish I had space to summarize at length the second and third acts of this heist, which has many more twists and turns. Deusdona briefly commandeers and re-gifts the body of St. Peter to another church, forcing Ratleig to break into that church to steal it a second time, because St. Marcellinus sends Ratleig powerful ghost-vibes that he’s lonely in the grave without his friend. Our heroes must then evade the Pope’s emissaries, whom they nearly cross paths with near the Alps. Then they have to deal with Peter and Marcellinus’ extreme pickiness about their final resting-place: the martyrs don’t like the first church Einhard has built in Michelstadt, and so they make their casket messily ooze blood all over the altar-linens until Einhard builds them their very own special church in Seligenstadt. Later, it’s dramatically revealed that one of the relic-snatchers, Lehun, skimmed off the top by stealing an ENTIRE PINT AND A HALF of Marcellinus’ ashes when no one was looking, requiring extensive delicate negotiations between Einhard and the abbot in Soissons. In the end, Peter and Marcellinus are happily installed together in the church of their choosing, and demonstrate their favor by healing numerous visitors of various kinds of illness, paralysis, and demonic possession.
Stories like this one were an entire sub-genre of hagiographic literature in the earlier Middle Ages, explaining how various thieves—sometimes priests or monks, sometimes merchants—brought bits of saints’ bodies to new locations, with the tacit approval or even the active miraculous intervention of the saints themselves, who were imagined to be one and the same with their corporeal remains. Of course, it’s impossible to say which parts of these narratives had any foundation in actual events, or even to reconstruct the likely motives of the chroniclers who wrote them. Scholars have noted that this heist literature—whose open celebration of brazen theft defies a lot of our instinctive assumptions about Christian ethics—is a tangled mess to unpack: some of these stories were perhaps after-the-fact religious rationalizations for real-life lootings, and all of them were certainly intended to provide a miraculous pedigree (and chain of custody) for saintly relics that up-and-coming religious establishments hoped would bring in divine favor, political patronage, and tourism dollars from pilgrims.
What these stories certainly show is that the dead bodies of saints and martyrs were once hot commodities. The veneration of martyrs originally came about during the infamous feeding-Christians-to-lions period in Rome, during which the graves of martyrs became popular sites for meeting and prayer by Christian communities. Over time, the idea eventually caught on throughout Europe that these centers of spiritual power could be conveniently relocated through the simple expedient of digging up the saint’s corpse and moving it somewhere else. This led to a period of several centuries during which saints’ cults, largely through the medium of their supposed corporeal relics—ashes, bones, teeth, hair, hearts, skin, clothing—were so prevalent that they overshadowed many other elements of Christian liturgy. For a long time, you couldn’t even legally consecrate an altar that didn’t have a bit of a dead saint in it.
The veneration of religious martyrs—at least in the Catholic tradition—has a very strong focus on the body. In this way I think it differs from that of most political martyrs, for whom public remembrance tends to focus on things like speeches, with a little less focus on the physicality of their demise—especially in this modern era where slaughtered political figures are most likely to have been assassinated by gunfire, or executed by the state through methods we’ve been conditioned to view as non-sadistic. By contrast, devotion to Christian martyrs is all about physical suffering: I can’t quote you an inspirational saying from most martyrs, or tell you what exact point of morality or doctrine they went to bat for, but I can for sure tell you in what peculiar and gruesome manner they were popularly believed to have been murdered.
This interest in the corporeality of martyrs can be seen not just in the medieval fad for bodily relics, but also in very long traditions of visual art. One style of religious art shows the martyr just chilling serenely while holding their own murder weapon, while another displays them in the actual act of being tortured or killed. Some of this, obviously, is supposed to be titillating: for example, there’s a whole genre of “virgin martyrs” who consecrate their chastity to God and are then killed for refusing someone’s sexual advances—these divinity-fortified virgins are quite physically tenacious, and it usually takes a few scourgings, attempted suffocations, and botched decapitations to finish them off. For those whose interests lie elsewhere, there’s St. Sebastian, whose martyrdom involves his handsome, barely-clad body being trussed to a tree and punctured with arrows, lovingly rendered by centuries-worth of painters. On the other end of the spectrum, there are what I like to call the slapstick martyrs—like St. Denis, always depicted carrying his own severed head which is sometimes spurting huge quantities of blood, or St. Peter of Verona, usually shown walking around with a hatchet buried in his skull. Another poor bastard named St. Cassian—whom I only recently discovered through the advanced research technique of googling the phrase “weirdest martyrs ever”—was apparently stabbed to death by a bunch of pen-wielding pagan schoolchildren. (Perhaps a good patron for modern-day grad students and adjunct faculty who rely on student evaluations.)
Not all saints are martyrs, of course—you can become a saint by just giving alms to the poor, like a loser—but there’s long been a consensus that martyrs are the coolest kind of saint. Martyrdom was sufficiently revered that other, less violent modes of sainthood were sometimes conceptualized as forms of metaphorical martyrdom. In medieval Ireland, for example, it was frustratingly hard to get yourself killed for the faith: and so the Irish, like persecution-seeking conservative Christians in the modern United States, were eager to find some way to be spiritually murdered. One sermon explained that there were in fact three types of martyrdom: in addition to the traditional “red martyrdom,” involving torture and death, there was “green martyrdom” and “white martyrdom,” forms of spiritual death through self-imposed exile abroad, solitary confinement in a cell or atop a sea-rock, or various ascetic practices. Throughout Christian history, various saints have willingly practiced strange forms of self-punishment, and interpreted the appearance of miraculous wounds on their bodies as signs of God’s favor.
This whole tradition is odd, to be sure, but perhaps not much odder than a thousand other things we accept as normal: from the deeply-rooted fascination with the detritus of vanished human bodies that underlies everything from our interest in archaeology to true crime to ghost-hunting, to our constant demand that human beings who need to trade on their suffering for public favor—asylum-seekers looking for sanctuary, sick people looking for internet benefactors to cover their medical bills—somehow contrive to make their personal histories both gory and digestible.
Images and narratives of martyrs are intended to inspire meditation on suffering, which—prurient dimensions aside—is not something human beings normally enjoy doing. This is especially true because most of us stand in many attitudes toward suffering at once: we all have been or will be on the torture-rack: we are all standing by while somebody else is racked; most of us, in some sense great or small, have driven in a few thumbscrews ourselves. So the martyrs are, simultaneously, our exemplars, our supplicants, and our judges.
It’s hard to say if any human society has ever had a healthy attitude toward suffering, or even what such a thing would look like. When I say “suffering,” just to be clear, I’m referring to extremities of human agony that can make existence seem unbearable: physical and sexual abuse, serious illness, hunger, incarceration, social isolation, deep depression, grief, the toxic anxiety of poverty and day-to-day precarity. As leftists, we think that some of these forms of suffering are “preventable”: that is, we imagine that there’s a logistically feasible coordination of resources, ingenuity, and compassion that could eliminate them. Most of us also believe that there is some subset of suffering that’s not preventable, because of the hard limits of human agency—accidents that can’t be foreseen, diseases that can’t be cured, the simple fact of mortality—and the squishier limits, perhaps, of human beings’ capacity to care about one another, which may be malleable but certainly are not boundless. And so we exist in a world, now, where suffering is real and happening every minute and can’t be averted: and we imagine a future where, if many things go right, some percentage of that suffering might go away, but not all of it. Thus, even if our primary attitude toward suffering is that it’s a problem to be solved—which, especially in terms of suffering caused by material deprivation, does seem to be the most helpful way to think about it—we have to leave some mental space to think about suffering as something that will not be solved, not for the people who are alive now, and not for those who will come after us.
One way that people have tried to reconcile the existence of suffering is by thinking of it as having some kind of pedagogic function. U.S. society generally likes to silo off suffering in unseen places and pretend it doesn’t exist, but to the extent that we have any folk beliefs about suffering, this seems to be the main one: suffering is a teacher, suffering builds character. Some religious people I know believe that God allows suffering as a necessary precondition of free will, or because these trials further our spiritual growth, the same way a parent instructs a child through rules and punishment. I’ve always hated this idea, because it purports to have explanatory power within the conventional limits of human understanding, but ultimately makes no sense at all. Granting the possibility that maybe full-grown adults can sometimes derive spiritual insight from pain, under some circumstances, what about little children in warzones or stricken with terminal illnesses, who are destined to die very small? What valuable lessons are they supposed to be learning from brief, horrible experiences for which they have no context?
An alternative explanation is to imagine that suffering can be instructive to others who witness it, and that this is a source of power for the sufferer. This element is often present in martyr narratives, as martyrdoms usually result in the conversion of onlookers and sometimes of the executioners themselves. These martyrdoms exemplify the weird tension between the idea of submission to suffering as an abnegation of power, and endurance of suffering as an assertion of power. One of the punchiest martyr narratives is that of St. Lawrence: in the time of the Roman persecution, so the story goes, he was a deacon tasked with distributing alms to the community. When the Romans demanded that Lawrence surrender the treasures of the church, Lawrence made a big show of needing three days to gather all the riches together; at the end of that time, he presented the Romans with a crowd of poor and sick people whom he declared to be the treasures of the church. The Romans were not amused by this teachable moment, and sentenced Lawrence to death. Lawrence was executed by being burned alive on a gridiron, and quipped to his executioners mid-roasting, “I’m done on this side—turn me over and eat.” Even Jesus’ well-known exhortation to “turn the other cheek” has a kind of passive-aggressive energy to it: we usually think of it as a call to forgiveness, or kindness, but if you imagine an actual person who’s just been punched in the jaw turning and coolly presenting the other side of their face, the effect is the exact opposite of meekness. It’s the psychological force of this willing submission to suffering that underlies the whole theory of nonviolence as a source of power: it relies on unsettling the expectations of the person inflicting violence, and of the third person witnessing it. But I am not sure how well this theory of suffering-as-power actually works, outside of very limited moments of serendipity or carefully-orchestrated public spectacle. Most often, it seems that subjects of violence become accustomed to receiving violence, inflicters of violence become inured to distributing it, and those of us who happen to be nearby pretend we saw nothing, and, in the future, avoid the near occasion of seeing any such thing again. And many forms of suffering are inflicted by no person in particular, and are endured by the sufferer in solitude, seen by no one.
The Christian veneration of martyrs offers yet another possible way to think about suffering: that although suffering seems bad, it is in fact good, not necessarily because it’s educational (although it might sometimes be that too) but because the act of suffering, itself, at the moment of experience, brings a person close to God. To nonreligious people or people from very different religious traditions, I expect this attitude often seems morbid and demented. I myself have never been entirely sure how to feel about it. The idea certainly creates some perverse incentives toward self-harm: a lot of martyrs, for example, do a pretty questionable job toeing the line between “seeking” martyrdom (which you’re not supposed to do) and “accepting” martyrdom (which is highly virtuous), and some forms of religious self-denial—whether through actual mortification of the flesh, or the rejection of basic forms of human fellowship—are very hard for me to conceptualize as “good.” I think all of us have met people in life who seem hell-bent on making themselves suffer, and perhaps have experienced that same dark instinct in ourselves. Giving self-hating impulses a gloss of mysticism seems quite dangerous, potentially.
On the other hand—given that suffering is inescapable, and that suffering dominates the lives of some human beings in ways that seem absolutely beyond endurance—it’s hard not to cling to the hope that suffering is actually holy, in some way, and profess the faith that hard and unlucky lives are nevertheless not ruined ones. The veneration of suffering is ultimately a wish that those who suffer the most won’t be forgotten, or disregarded as aberrational outliers, but will be cosmically victorious: that the world will, one day, beg mercy and intercession from them. But it’s hard to say if this hope is anything more than a fantasy. Ultimately, it’s probably morally safer to focus most of our energy on the attempted redress and palliation of suffering, wherever we can, even if it doesn’t feel like we’re doing very much. Christianity, and most religious traditions, share with leftism the belief that we must feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, visit the sick, ransom the imprisoned, and bury the dead. Leftism is perhaps more optimistic than most religions that a couple of these duties could one day be automated or rendered obsolete through better advance planning. But leftists also realize that most of our fondest dreams about humanity’s potential, if they are achievable at all, aren’t achievable in our lifetime: and so in the end, the best any of us can do is try to die hopeful.
There is certainly something very magical about martyrs, with their physical courage, their dramatic demises, and the supernatural feats that they work from beyond the grave. When I was small, my family mostly attended Mass at multi-purpose chapels on U.S. military bases; the chaplains didn’t spend much time on saint-lore, and so my first introduction to martyrs came at age eleven, when I ended up at a Catholic school run by Dominican nuns. My fifth-grade teacher was a tall, beautiful nun with a strong sense of pageantry and drama. She loved the stories of the saints, especially the martyrs. She encouraged us to collect and swap saints’ cards, Pokemon-style, and learn all about their various miracles and grisly tribulations. Before I got to Catholic school, I had developed a big taste for fantasy novels, and loved all kinds of myths and legends and pantheons, and so I was delighted to absorb this new set of stories: all the more so because I was assured by my teacher that these stories were actually true, that this magic was not merely on paper, but in the real world. I felt intense curiosity about a kind of “religion” that included heroics and world history, with the possibility of miracles constantly hovering on the horizon—as opposed to just sitting on a hard chair in uncomfortable clothes, which had been my main impression of religion up until that point. The nun mistook this interest for deep natural piety on my part. I liked to please her, and so for a couple years I did try very hard to be pious.
She was a very odd person, that nun, and I still think about her often. She was boisterous and funny: she could do lots of tricks, like tucking her hands flat against her wrists inside her sleeves so that it looked like she had stumps for hands. If there was ever a game of soccer or kickball on the playground, she would hitch her habit around her knees and wade in. She told the class that she’d always wanted to be a truck driver, but had instead become a nun because she didn’t trust her ability to resist various temptations without discipline. She also told me once that she wore a knotted cord somewhere on her body, to punish herself, which she’d had on for so long she didn’t know if it was physically possible to take it off. I remember she once showed us a long video about St. Maria Goretti, an eleven-year-old martyr who was stabbed to death for resisting her rapist, and who then appeared to him miraculously in his prison cell and gave him lilies that burned in his hands. She and I argued a great deal, and I often made her cry; but apparently the memory of my jokes also made her burst out laughing when she was supposed to be observing silence in the convent. She liked to talk to me, and give me little gifts, and show me her drawings (she was a very good artist.) Once, she sat down next to me on the playground and told me that lots of people would want to be my friends throughout my life, but that it was wrong to indulge too much in mutual affection. Instead, it was right to seek people out who had no one to love them, because their need was greater.
It’s very strange to look back at the things adults told you when you were a child which were almost certainly cries for help, or attempted exertions of power, but which at the time you absorbed as disinterested truths, and sank so far into your selfhood that they can’t easily be dug out. The particular order this nun belonged to required its members to move frequently, and discouraged them from forming personal attachments of any kind. I’ve since found that I have the most mental energy to help strangers when I feel close to my friends and comrades: and so I’ve come to the conclusion that solidarity is, at least for me, morally preferable to solitude. Solidarity is, at its best, about marshalling shared energy to ease what suffering we can, because it’s terrible to suffer alone, and also terrible to feel that you alone are responsible for aiding those who suffer. The reality is that it’s very hard to be a saint: solidarity recognizes that we are not usually, as individuals, at our best on any given day: that it’s a little easier to be good if you know it will make your friends proud: that it’s a little harder to punish yourself ceaselessly if you know it will make your friends sad. Even the ghosts of Peter and Marcellinus, who had already endured the tortures of martyrdom, felt lonely without each other: they pestered their kidnappers and made their caskets drip with blood until they were comfortably interred together.