Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Valerian, Confessor under the Vandals

One of the greatest tragedies to befall Christendom is the entire loss of the Church of North Africa, or of the Maghreb - "the Occident" - to use the Arabic term (the Copts and the other Christians of Egypt still hang on by a thread, despite cruelties daily perpetrated against them, as just last year - to attack the livelihood of the poorest - the slaughter of their pigs on the pretext of swine flu; or, far worse, the rapes of young women thereupon carried off into forced marriages and forced conformity to Islam).

It is true to say that the North African Church arose in martyrdom, flourished for a time despite all heresies - its native Donatists, addicted to martyrdom, active and passive! notwithstanding - suffered Arian persecution, came to a second lesser flowering - not without struggles - under the Byzantines, and then was worn down to nothing in a third age of dhimmitude.

One of the great glories of these churches, ere their slow agony of extirpation under the Muslim yoke (having been overrun by 700, some eight hundred years later, when the Spanish briefly reoccupied Tunis, only a few Christian families were found, and Arab writers refer to a few Christian villages remaining till that age), was their Second Age of Martyrdom under the Vandals (c. 430 - c. 530).

For the Vandal period, I make reference to Victor of Vita's History of the Vandal Persecution, written largely in about 484, while yet it raged. I refer to it, because - upon consulting the '62 Martyrology for to-day, an Advent feria, I found listed Bishop Valerian of Abensa (c. 380 - post 460), whose praise I render thus:

In the same area [(Proconsular) Africa (now Tunisia)], of St Valerian, Bishop, who, when being more than eighty years of age, in the Vandalic persecution, under King Genseric the Arian, called upon (conventus) by him that he should hand over the appurtenances of the Church, and constantly refusing the same, he was commanded to be banished beyond the city in a singular manner [or by himself (singularis)]; and since command was made that no one should permit him to dwell either in house or field, for a long time he lay in the public street naked under the sky, and, in confession and defence of Catholic truth, he completed the course of his blessed life.

(The modern Martyrology says the same, making some verbal alterations.)

It must be remembered that to be a traditor, literally a betrayer and traitor, to be one who would hand over to the ungodly the sacred vessels, the books of Scripture, and the like necessities of the Church, was the very worst sort of apostasy, especially in the eyes of North African Christians. It was death to refuse to be a traditor under the Romans; but those who gave in merited their own damnation.

Victor of Vita adds his eyewitness testimony to this: "I was privileged despite my unworthiness to be able to pay my respects to him while he was undergoing such an exile" (Book I, 40). It appears he is styled Confessor, rather than Martyr, because he was not directly put to death, albeit condemned to expire alone and unsheltered due to exposure - much as, through harsh and evil usage, St John Chrysostom died while being hurried into exile, but is not accounted a martyr thereby.

In such sufferings, one may add, the holy Bishop imitated the example of our Blessed Saviour, Who said of Himself, "The foxes have holes, and the birds of the air nests; but the Son of man hath not where to lay his head" (St Matthew viii, 20; & St Luke ix, 58), when "it came to pass, as they walked in the way, that a certain man said to him: I will follow thee whithersoever thou goest" (St Luke ix, 57): brave because strengthened by God is he who could bear to keep his word in such a case!

As the Apostle wrote of himself (I Cor. iv, 13 & 9), Valerian was treated as the utter scum of the earth, and made a public spectacle - but with an outcome far from that intended by that Herod of a king: for thereby the saint was proved as silver is tried.

Indeed, St Valerian was as those "being in want, distress, afflicted: of whom the world was not worthy" (Hebrews xi, 37b-38a). Truly with blessed Job he could say: "Naked came I out of my mother's womb, and naked shall I return thither: the Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away: as it hath pleased the Lord so is it done: blessed be the name of the Lord" (i, 21).

As for his Arian oppressors, deniers of Christ and enemies of God's saints, of suchlike false religionists and evildoers it was well written: "They send men away naked, taking away their clothes who have no covering in the cold: who are wet, with the showers of the mountains, and having no covering embrace the stones" (Job xxiv, 7-8). The death of such sinners is the worst, because being but the entrance to everlasting hell!

Of course, Our Lord was stript of all things when at length He offered the Propitiatory Sacrifice upon the Cross, setting the supreme standard for all, to take up the Cross and follow Him. For the servant is not greater than his Master, but follows in His steps.

I am minded to subjoin in extenso the following pericope from the Epistle to the Hebrews (xii, 1-14), as fit for meditation given this saint's trials as set before us, and as a passage of Scripture whose tenor and conclusion is especially appropriate in this season of Advent as we make paths straight for the coming Lord:

And therefore we also having so great a cloud of witnesses over our head, laying aside every weight and sin which surrounds us, let us run by patience to the fight proposed to us: looking on Jesus, the author and finisher of faith, who having joy set before him, endured the cross, despising the shame, and now sitteth on the right hand of the throne of God. For think diligently upon him that endured such opposition from sinners against himself; that you be not wearied, fainting in your minds. For you have not yet resisted unto blood, striving against sin: and you have forgotten the consolation, which speaketh to you, as unto children, saying: My son, neglect not the discipline of the Lord; neither be thou wearied whilst thou art rebuked by him.
For whom the Lord loveth, he chastiseth; and he scourgeth every son whom he receiveth. Persevere under discipline. God dealeth with you as with his sons; for what son is there, whom the father doth not correct? But if you be without chastisement, whereof all are made partakers, then are you bastards, and not sons. Moreover we have had fathers of our flesh, for instructors, and we reverenced them: shall we not much more obey the Father of spirits, and live? And they indeed for a few days, according to their own pleasure, instructed us: but he, for our profit, that we might receive his sanctification.
Now all chastisement for the present indeed seemeth not to bring with it joy, but sorrow: but afterwards it will yield, to them that are exercised by it, the most peaceable fruit of justice. Wherefore lift up the hands which hang down, and the feeble knees, and make straight steps with your feet: that no one, halting, may go out of the way; but rather be healed. Follow peace with all men, and holiness: without which no man shall see God.


Anonymous said...

There are still some active Catholic dioceses in North Africa (in Libya and Algeria)and also some Coptic and Protestant Christians in those countries. (See the Wikipedia articles on "Christianity in Algeria" and "Religions" under "Libya.")


Joshua said...

True - but these cater solely for non-natives: everyone knows it is death for a Muslim to convert.

The Catholic dioceses in these parts date from the days of European colonization and settlement: remember that Algeria had 1 million European settlers (the "Pieds-Noirs") until the end of the Algerian War for independence, when nearly all those 1 million people left for mainland France.