March 9 — 40 Martyrs of Sebaste; Catherine of Bologna

The 40 Holy Martyrs of Sebaste (d. 320) were Christian soldiers who were martyred in Sebaste (hence the name) under Emperor Licinius. The lead-in was the usual story: they were told to forswear their Christian faith and sacrifice to the Roman gods or be killed. Licinius told them he was going to strip them of their military rank and honor, and their spokesman, (St.) Candidus, said he might as well kill them because what they considered important and honorable was Christ. They were taken away to be killed by stoning, but the stones bounced off them and hit the throwers (is that a cool superpower or what?). One of the stones even broke the commander’s teeth.

After that flopped, they were rounded up, stripped, and driven into (onto) a (frozen) lake to die of exposure. The wily Romans even had a hot tub by the side of the lake with a sign saying (roughly), “Denounce Christ and get warm here.” The martyrs prayed to God, and the water felt warm to them—all but one, who bolted for the Jacuzzi. Right about then, 39 crowns came down from heaven to rest on the martyrs’ heads. One of the guards saw this and believed. He cast off his clothes and bolted into (onto) the lake saying, “I am a Christian too!” The celestial goldsmiths had a spare, and he too was crowned.

The sources get into some disagreements about what happened at dawn, but either they were dead already or died later, and their bones were burned and cast into the lake (or a nearby river). When other Christians came to gather them for proper burial, they (the bones) began glowing like stars and floated to the top of the water.

Catherine of Bologna (1413–1463) was at age 11 a lady-in-waiting to a duchess-to-be. When her lady got hitched, she fell in with some Franciscan tertiaries* in Ferrara, whom she quickly whipped up into a Poor Clares convent. She took her vows at age 19, and soon was made mistress of novices. Sometime later she went back to Bologna to oversee the building of a Poor Clares convent there, and was made its abbess. She had a special heart for sinners (well, it was the same heart she used for everything else, but it especially cared for sinners), and spent many hours pouring forth tears for their salvation.

Catherine had many visions. Some she felt were diabolical in origin, but those that brought her peace, she judged to be genuine. In one of them she saw the Blessed Virgin holding the Christ Child, an image which she herself later rendered. In fact she was a multi-talented woman, not only an iconographer but a hymnographer, diarist, writer on spiritual topics, calligrapher, and painter of miniatures. A breviary written and embellished by her hand still exists at the convent in Bologna.

After her death, she was buried without a coffin (I was unable to determine why). Her grave immediately began to give off a sweet fragrance (which is uncommon, at least near where I live). The sisters went there to pray and read, and soon miracles began to occur. They went to their father confessor and confessed they had buried her without a coffin. “So what are you going to do about it?” he asked. “Um, dig her up and rebury her properly?” they replied. By then it was a whole 18 days after her death, and the priest was afraid it would smell bad (he hadn’t been there praying). When they dug her up, her face had been smooshed (technical term), but as she lay there, it gradually and miraculously unsmooshed, and her skin regained a healthy color. They were so impressed that instead of burying her again, they put her in a chair, and there she still is, in an incorrupt condition. She is the patroness of artists.