St. Denis, Beheaded

Stunning statue of St. Denis in Virginia Museum of Fine ArtSt. Denis was beheaded by pagan priests 1756 years ago today, at the top of Montmartre in Paris. He picked up his own head and then walked six miles to a cemetery, which is where the magnificent basilica of St. Denis now sits.

Countless statues depict St. Denis holding his own head in his hands, including one from the 1400s which is kept in the Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond.

Among other things, a St.-Denis statue reminds us of man’s grim capacity to do violence to man. When I was growing up, I remember hearing plenty of people dismissing such things as relics of a barbaric past now vanished forever. Such ugliness has been conquered by our modern enlightenment!

But we have learned that man still has the same capacity for inhumanity to man. 2014, the year that has given us the iPhone 6, has also given us plenty of public beheadings.

The malice of the fallen human race does not die. But there’s a difference between beheading people, on the one hand, and letting yourself be beheaded on the other—in order to bear witness to the good news of Jesus Christ.

The great moment of ‘enlightenment’ for the human race does not occur when “all great religions accommodate devout faith with a modern, multicultural world,” as President Obama put it at the UN last month.

No, the great moment of enlightenment for the ugly and violent human race came when God became man and died on the cross.

If we, as a race, think we can cross the river from barbarity to civilization by ourselves, without divine aid, we fall into a dangerous fantasy. The only boatman Who can get us from the darkness of beheading our enemies to the light of loving and praying even for those who would behead us—the only boatman to a world of light is Jesus Christ crucified.

St. Denis and Fr. Serdieu

1,755 years ago today, the missionary bishop of pagan Paris was beheaded on Montmartre during the persecution of Diocletian.

In Shakespeare’s Henry V, the king prays to St. Denis for help in speaking French. Considering Fr. Seridieu’s imminent arrival here,* we might want to do the same. St. Denis, ‘be our speed’ in giving Father a warm welcome and a good time with us.

Stunning statue of St. Denis in Virginia Museum of Fine Art
Stunning statue of Saint Denis in Virginia Museum of Fine Arts

…We pray. We say our Our Fathers. We pray the Holy Mass. We believe that the omnipotent Lord hears our prayers through Christ our High Priest.

And He cares. God’s heart is moved by our prayers. We do not waste our time or energy by praying. To the contrary, prayer is the most prudent of all deeds.

But we learn from the wisdom of the saints what we can legitimately pray for. St. Denis and his companions “disdained prosperity in this world.” I can’t legitimately pray a novena to get a Lexus.

No. We pray for mercy. We pray for the Kingdom of God to come. We pray that God’s will be done. We want to be happy, yes. But we know that our true happiness lies beyond our present view; it lies in an unknown realm. Most of us don’t know what life is like in Haiti. Fr. Serdieu can teach us a little bit about it. But what we don’t know about life in Haiti is nothing compared to what we don’t know about life in heaven. Life in Haiti is very close to our experience, compared to life in heaven.

The saints have reached that realm of our true happiness. They know all about it. And so they pray for us.

Be our speed, St. Denis! Be our speed, holy saints of God! Pray that we might receive the divine grace to step forward today with patient love and kindness.

* Pastor of our sister parish in Trianon, Haiti!