The patroness of light, eyes and virgin ‘lucidity’

(CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz) (July 5, 2012)

Someone very dear to my heart in Spain is named Mariluz (“Mary Lucy” in English), and so I wrote her on Dec. 13 as is common practice in the Mediterranean and Latin American countries, where one’s onomástica or “saint day” is as widely celebrated as one’s birthday.

The names Lucy, Luz, Lucia and Lucille are all derived from the Latin stem for “light” or “dawning.” In its wisdom, the church situates her feast day during the darkest week of the year in the Northern hemisphere, as we approach the winter solstice on Dec. 21. The pre-existing midwinter festivals (yuletide) were thus effectively “baptized” by tying them to the Christian patroness of light, eyes and virgin “lucidity.”

Since tradition holds that her execution included the brutal step of intentionally blinding her, Lucy is almost always depicted in Christian art with a plate containing eyeballs, sometimes budding from a flower, and either an instrument of removing them (such as a sword or dagger) or the palm representing martyrdom. Sometimes she wears a crown of candles, closely resembling an Advent wreath on her head. The images of Saint Agatha, whose intercession some legends say Lucy sought during her lifetime, are even more gruesome, as her plate usually contains another part of the female anatomy that were amputated during her martyrdom.

Lucy plays a central role in one of my favorite works of literature. In the “Divine Comedy,” Dante exalts Lucy as an intercessory figure in his journey, who along with the Madonna and his beloved Beatrice, enlist Virgil to guide him through the darkness of Hell, as he progresses to Purgatory and Paradise.

In the “Paradiso,” Lucy is placed opposite Adam in the mystic celestial rose of Heaven, for when he and Eve first laid eyes on the tree, they saw that it was “pleasing to the eyes and delightful to behold” (Gen 3:6).

Lucy counterbalances this primordial misuse of the eyes, showing that their proper functioning is important for the Christian life, and that abusing them can inhibit seeing as God wishes (“and if your eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out. For it is better to enter the Kingdom of Heaven with one eye, than to be thrown into Gehenna with two.” Mk 9:47).

Think of all the references to restoring sight in our tradition, from Bartimaeus to the slave-trader’s hymn “Amazing Grace.”

The media storm of our contemporary world undoubtedly assaults our eyes with images of violence, degradation and untold suffering. So many of our brothers and sisters are not “seen.” We simultaneously avert our eyes from the homeless, the immigrant, the trafficked, and the silent lives snuffed out in our midst, while remaining entranced by images of sensuality, luxury, decadence and vulgarity. Our era is not unique in this way, there is something quintessentially human about transfixing our collective gaze on that which we wish to be or to possess, to cast our eyes askance from that which repulses us while somehow still being intrigued by it, and to argue away the genuinely challenging from our horizon of vision.

Thus, it remains all the more imperative that we fix our eyes firmly on Christ, that we “look upon him who was pierced” (Zec 12:10). For many in our world today look but choose not to see the distasteful and repugnant; they undoubtedly hear but choose not to listen to cries of anguish and despondency. With Saint Lucy, let us seek the light of consolation in situations of gloomy desolation, and authentic vision in a world of sightlessness.

Collingswood native Michael M. Canaris, Ph.D. teaches at Loyola University. Chicago.