St Philomena: a Princess and a Martyr

“If you stay faithful to Christ, you will lose everything”. This is the fear that can enter our hearts when we go through trials for our faith. The Christians being persecuted in Iraq and Syria have to make this choice daily, and for them the choice is losing their lives. Though my struggles are much less than theirs I think of the time when I first decided to become Catholic, knowing that I might lose friendships and suffer loneliness. This fear added a heavy burden to my conversion. As I continued, I realized that these are not one-time sacrifices, and that God calls us to continually put Him first in our hearts.

So often, the enemy comes in and whispers lies and exaggerations – “see, you will be miserable if you continue… you will be alone and you will never be happy…”. A compromise is suggested – maybe if I don’t do “so much”, I would lose less.. A doubt arises in the mind – where is God? Why is He letting me go through this? We turn to God and sometimes we feel He is silent, and we are left with only an image of the Cross. “..If any man will come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. For he that will save his life, shall lose it: and he that shall lose his life for My sake, shall find it” (Matthew 16:24, 25, D-R).

God’s thinking is not our thinking, and with Christ, loss is gain. The more we are purified in the fire of tribulation, the more our souls will be like Him, and even if we give up the whole world for Him, He is yet more generous. The life of St Philomena demonstrates this reality in an amazing way. She loved Christ to the point of heroism, and she has been a great encouragement to me to seek greater purity and God’s Will.

I tried to imagine what it must have been like for this Greek princess, the only daughter of Christian parents. Her sacrifice was her life, and what is to the world a successful marriage – a marriage to an Emperor. In her thirteenth year, she was pressured to accept the marriage proposal from Diocletian. Yet for St Philomena, this offer was impossible to accept, as she had vowed her virginity to Christ. She chose her Heavenly Spouse over an earthly spouse. I sometimes wonder what it was like for her… either you become a great Empress, avoid an unjust war with your country, ensure the prosperity of your family, and live surrounded by comforts and riches… or, you choose Christ, and face the wrath of the Emperor, the disappointment of your family, and even death. I can’t imagine the difficulty of her situation as her parents cried for her to take pity on her family, her country, and her kingdom. Are we ready to choose Christ above all? Trust becomes the only remedy.

As young women, we are often pressured to give in to worldly standards and face ridicule for the degree of purity asked for by Christ. This can be ridicule for the virtue of purity or modesty for married or unmarried women, or the choice of celibacy for consecrated women. Whether it’s from friends or even the media, this pressure often tries to get us to lessen our purity by degrees – a little here, a little there… and then our hearts forget the love of Christ and become distracted and confused. St Philomena rejected the Emperor’s invitation right from the start, and said, – no, I have another Love. For her, virginity was worth more than the gold and jewels of an Empress, because it is the priceless adornment of the soul. Our purity is more valuable than the world’s promises or even requests from those we love, as painful as the sacrifice may be. Through joyful purity we imitate Jesus, and show Him to be our greatest love.

As nothing moved St Philomena’s resolution, the Emperor moved to threats and then ordered her to be thrown into the dungeon. As she was tortured, she received strength from God by recommending herself continually to Jesus and to the Blessed Mother, who appeared to her and gave her courage. St Philomena underwent more tortures at the age of 13 than I could imagine enduring. She was scourged, tied to an anchor and thrown into the Tiber, and pierced with arrows. Each time, she was rescued by Angels and miraculously healed, and many were converted through her example. In the end, the Emperor ordered to have her beheaded.

St Philomena’s story was unknown when her relics were discovered in 1802. We know her story because it was miraculously revealed to three people, unknown to each other. We can read it in her words. After her relics were discovered, she became known as the “Wonder Worker” because of the amount of miracles and healings that occurred with her intercession. Her story does not end, but continues with the words: “My soul, glorious and triumphant, ascended into heaven, there to receive the crown of virginity which I had merited by so many victories.” Then, she gives the date when this happened – August 10th.

Most of us are not faced with the choice to give our lives for Christ. Some are called to vow chastity to Him like St Philomena, and all are called to purity and holiness. Yet St Philomena’s story shows us that God gives us strength to overcome all things for Him. There is nothing to fear in following Christ, not because we won’t have to suffer or sacrifice, but because God will give us what we need. Bearing the pain with love and resolution can add a certain joy, and through the cross we become more like our King. The same God who gave such courage to St Philomena, is with us now and always, and crosses carried with love for Him, become less difficult.

Also posted at Made4More

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God’s longing

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+JMJ

We all dream of finding great love and a life of happiness with the beloved. It took me a long time to realize that it is right in front of me, in the Blessed Sacrament, in a greater way than could be found anywhere else. I spent my years in high school and university seeking this love in other places and each time leaving with an unsatisfied heart: nothing was enough. It was unfair of me to expect infinite love from other people, yet looking back, this is what I wanted.

Instead of finding it in other people, I had a conversion. Even so it took me a bit of time to open up to Jesus. For me, it was something gradual. Yet when at last His love began reaching my soul, it was something I never knew existed. How to describe the deep joy, the feeling of being set free, totally understood, loved, – not like in any earthly love, but infinitely infinitely more, because to no human love can we give our hearts so completely. There’s no way I could ever earn such a love, yet it was there, and it’s there for each of us. It’s there even if you’re coming to it with a lifetime of sin and failure.

And yet, God does not do all His work in our souls in one step. He could, as He could do anything, – but we open our hearts to Him bit by bit. Though in my imagination I felt like it’s not possible for God’s love to be even greater, I saw later that there is no limit to His love and our understanding of it is like a drop in an endless ocean.

I read about that idea of God’s love being infinite, and I didn’t get it, and I still don’t get it. I don’t see the depth of it, and so often, these ideas just seem like so many words – ideas we believe, but have not met. Of course, we don’t meet ideas, we meet Jesus Himself, – He is not content with only showing us about Himself; He wants us to KNOW Him.

Know like how the bride in the Song of Songs knows her Beloved, and seeks Him alone: “I found Him whom my soul loveth: I held Him, and I will not let Him go” (Douay-Rheims).

I never knew about God’s longing for us until I started to read about this in Catholic books. Not an impersonal “us” – but for YOU, for me. Personally, intimately. He longs to immerse us in His love, to unite us so closely with Himself that we become one with Him. He is always the Gentle Saviour, but this longing is something more vehement, like a fire, that consumes His Heart in the Blessed Sacrament, as He waits there for us – alone, day and night, on a cold ciborium. The Prisoner of Love. How much must He want instead to make His home in our hearts, – to enter into us in Holy Communion.

The foxes have holes, and the birds of the air nests, but the Son of Man hath not where to lay His head” (Luke 9:58).

O Jesus, let my heart, be that place.

There are words of Jesus that continue to amaze me whenever I read them. When I first read them, it’s like I discovered hidden places in my heart that I have not yet surrendered or given to Him. Past wounds that now bring me closer to His love, as He makes Himself the only answer to all my desires.

These words were spoken by Jesus to a nun, Sr Mary of the Holy Trinity:

“Give Me your heart – that heart which creatures do not know and which they slight; it is more than a universe to Me, because I love you”.

More than a universe! This little heart, that compared to the universe is like an atom or less. If we see His longing for us… this longing that lead Him to the Cross, caused Him to cry out “I thirst” as He was dying in anguish, and that now consumes Him as a prisoner in our Tabernacles – how could we not give ourselves unreservedly to Him? The God who made Heaven, the stars, planets, oceans and everything there is – He has all, all except the one thing He wishes that we could give – our little hearts. Poor as they are, His unspeakable love and desire for them is what drew Him from Heaven to be made Man, and be nailed to the Cross, and continue seeking us from eternity.

“For our God is a consuming fire” (Hebrews 12:29, Douay-Rheims)

(the quote is from the book ‘Words of Love’, compiled by Fr Bartholomew Gottemoller, TAN books, Charlotte, North Carolina, 2012).