Sunday, October 18, 2009

For All the Saints: Justus of Beauvais

Since today is Sunday, we are unlikely to hear much about St. Luke, whose feast is celebrated on October 18. So on day 2 of my new saint-a-day scheme I thought I'd look farther afield. With seven saints to choose from, according to this calendar, my attention was grabbed by St. Justus, surely the youngest cephalophore in Butler's Lives of the Saints.

According to the bio at Catholic OnLine, Justus was born in 278 "and lived at Auxerre, France, with his father. At that time, the persecution of Diocletian was in full force. Justus and his father went to Amiens to ransom a relative. While there, Justus was reported to the authorities to be a Christian magician, and soldiers were sent to arrest him. When confronted at Beauvais, Justus, who was nine years old, confessed that he was a Christian, and he was immediately beheaded. Legend has it that he then stood upright with his head in his hand, at which the soldiers fled."

There are a number of things that jump out at me.  First, this holy card, courtesy of an Italian web site, is not cephalophoric. A cephalophore is someone, usually a saint, who carries his own head in his hands. The saint of the holy card has his head where it should be.

The next thing that jumps out at me is, that's exactly the sort of thing a stage magician would do—carry his head in his hands. I know something about stage magic. For twenty-five years, as I've written previously, I was a member of "the world's largest resident stage magic ensemble." That this troupe is still performing right here in Beverly, Massachusetts, two blocks from my church, St. Mary Star of the Sea, is just one of linkages that makes my life so amazing to me.

For twenty-five years, more than half my adult life, I performed with this troupe, which has been successful enough to earn two pages in Time, ten pages in Smithsonian, and seven trips to the White House. I'm not making this up—although the longer I write this blog, the more unbelievable my own life seems to me. You can still see "Le Grand David," performing every Sunday at 3 p.m. at the Cabot Street Cinema Theatre, although you will not see me!

Butler writes about Justus:

His cult was very popular throughout north-western Europe; in Belgium it was centred on the abbey of Malmédy, where the monks were said to have obtained the martyr's body "for a good price" in the tenth century. In England King Athelstan gave Winchester the martyr's head in 924, but the monks at Auxerre claimed he had only a part of it. 

Monks wrangling over body parts is one of the things I find most endearing about the Catholic Church. But now another voice rises up inside and says, Wow, these people were deadly serious about this! And what—I know it's not likely—but what if it's true? What if a nine-year-old boy was so faithful that he gave himself up to martyrdom, less than 250 years after the death of Our Savior, or about as much time as separates me from Benjamin Franklin? Is it possible to imagine a Christian child doing that today? Is it so inconceivable—I know it's a "legend"—but is it so inconceivable that God could have so loved this child that he made him a sign to the world, giving him the strength to pick up his own head and, according to another account, tell folks where to bury his body?

I find it interesting that the book generally acknowledged to be the first ever published about the performance art we now call stage magic was The Discoverie of Witchcraft, written by Reginald Scot. If you own a first edition of Scot today (there are only a handful in existence), you are a wealthy person. Scot's book was published in 1584, while the Protestant Rebellion was in high season. Luther and Calvin were dead already, and the Council of Trent had concluded its business, but the tsunami of revolt had hardly run its course. At that particular moment in history, a book made its appearance which explained how miracles can be made to appear by human means. The 425 years since Scot have pretty much "demystified" the world, the secular world anyway. The Enlightenment has worked its magic, and instead of transubstantiation at the altar we have the transformation of water into wine on stage. Instead of Justus of Beauvais, we have Penn & Teller, who are the latest step in the demystification of the world. Not only can there be no real miracles in the world of P&T, but heck, even the fake miracles are stripped of the miraculous!

For myself, I prefer to imagine a nine-year-old boy in a Gallic outpost of the Roman Empire so entranced by Christ that he gave his life for his faith. The picking up of his head and the telling people where to bury the body—that's really small potatoes, isn't it?

(Sources for this post:, Butler's Lives of the Saints, Catholic OnLine, and as always, with gratitude, My Life with the Saints, by James Martin, S.J.