Around the beginning of his fifth book in Ecclesiastical History, Eusebius claims to insert a chronicle of Christian martyrdom in third-century Gaul (today’s France) drawn from the very words of the beleaguered congregants. These passages are deeply disturbing. They are so first of all, naturally, because of the savage cruelty they detail that was unleashed on a peaceful religion simply for its novelty. Slanderous stories had circulated that attributed the most lurid debauches to the Christian order of worship; sons, for instance, were said to copulate with their mothers as intoxicated gatherings deliriously applauded. Since the Christians themselves denied performing such horrendous acts, they and their relatives and servants were all put to torture. Yet the faith of the true believers saw them through the nightmare, according to these accounts. One report has an old man, burned and torn limb from limb before he was briefly released, re-imprisoned for further “questioning” in a better physical state than he had been upon his first arrest. Another has a woman bringing some of her fellow sufferers back to life miraculously in their common dungeon. Several accounts mention victims being surrendered to ravening beasts in the arena as crowds cheered… then being extracted from teeth and claws and held for execution until another day.
Such narrative overplaying of one’s hand is, in a way, just as disturbing as the tortures themselves; for by infusing the tales of martyrdom with obvious embellishments, the scribes leave one wondering how severe the actual martyrdom could have been. How much of the anguish do we owe to the recorder’s Muse? When a story that takes you from A to M lies about D, G, and L, how do you know that C, F, and H were not also fabricated?
The ecstatic state of mind is prone to such misrepresentation, unfortunately. That’s one reason that accounts of mystical experiences often attract the derision of savvy detractors, and are sometimes silently endured by fellow believers who, however, dread seeing a mature belief compromised by childish fictions. It happens in “secular religions”, too. How many people will patiently hear out the UFO report of a pilot or an astronaut after so many New Age visionaries wearing talismans around their necks have been fouling the air with their communiqués from alien ambassadors?
There’s a final point, too, about the Gallic martyrs that bugs me. Some of them appear to want to be tortured a little too much. Being torn to pieces by infidels is perhaps the easiest escape route if you have failed to figure out how to live the good life in a quotidian context. Are telling the truth, avoiding brutal pleasures, working hard for your day’s bread, and setting time aside to meditate on the ultimate purpose of being just not enough for you? Too tedious—not enough fireworks? Could it be, in some cases, that making one’s exit on a pile of smoking timber is not so very different from touching together the two wires of one’s suicide vest?
Don’t show me nothing but people who died in a blaze of glory for their faith; for death comes in a few hours, or maybe a couple of days, even in the most protracted of tortures. Show me, as well, a few people who lived long and righteously in the shade of worldly obscurity. Of the two, the latter is the tougher act to replicate.