Last week I made up a title for a post (a riff on a made up Jeopardy category) and a couple of readers said they were looking forward to more in the series.
Series? What series?
Well here we go then.
Saints You’ve Never Heard of for 200, Alex
“Greatmartyr Marina” came up in the hymns of the Orthodox Matins service on July 17. Intrigued, I did some research of the kind one can do when one is parenting solo while one’s wife is across an ocean at a conference.
That is to say, I checked some websites.
Marina is not someone I’d ever heard of.
Okay, I’d heard her name: she is one of a long list of saints who are named in a particular prayer at Matins pretty much every day, at least in the Greek church. (The same prayer apparently includes a somewhat different list of names in the OCA and the Antiochian churches, and I didn’t look to see whether she comes up in all versions.)
- The OCA has a really great website for checking out Orthodox saints. You plug in a date, and up pops a list of maybe six or a dozen people who are remembered on that day each year, usually with an icon for each. Click one and you get a distillation of her or his life story. (No links to scholarly sources or translations of early hagiographies, alas, but it’s a great place to start.)
- There are similar resources for Catholic saints. I checked a couple for their take on Marina.
- Turns out Marina is venerated in the Coptic church too. A church that is named after her had a chatty version of her life, with bits of homiletical encouragement woven in.
So everybody loves her. If they know her, that is.
But unlike with your more famous saints, I was not having much luck finding an accessible English translation of the primary sources on her life from the comfort of my living room.
I gathered that she is one of the saints whose life contains some eyewitness material, so I was keen to find it.
Keen in the way one can be while doing research between kid crises.
Anyway, what was fascinating to me was the the way Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, and Roman Catholic versions of her life converged and diverged on the details.
Here’s the gist:
Marina (sometimes known as Margaret) was born late third century — she was fifteen when the emperor Diocletian was persecuting the Church (284-305).
She lost her mother very early in her life. (In some versions she lost her father too, but in others her father was a pagan priest.)
Her father (or whoever was in charge) sent her to be raised by a nanny, who turned out to be a devout Christian.
Young Marina came to faith in Christ, but she had apparently not been baptized.
She got called before the governor who was smitten with her, and asked her to marry him, on condition that she worship his pagan gods.
She refused, having decided already to not marry, but to devote herself to Christ alone.
His affection quickly turned to the most violent abuse, and he had her tortured. The torture was so gross that even the governor who ordered it couldn’t watch.
- The implements of torture included a trident, presumably by association with her name, which has the connotation of the sea.
- She was also burned in a way you might think would kill her.
- In some versions, I think more in Western versions, she is set upon by a dragon and defeats it. It swallowed her, but either the cross she carried or the saint herself upset his tummy and he threw her up.
(The dragon sounds to me like the symbolic embodiment of the tyrannical evil of the governor, combined with an allusion to the Jonah story, but it became a core story element. It seems to be a common feature of her artistic portrayals, along with images of her beating a demon with a big hammer.)
But, in a way familiar to readers of early saints’ lives, she kept getting miraculously healed after each round of attempted murder/martyrdom.
She prayed that God would let her be baptized before her death. The governor overheard the reference to water and decided to drown her.
(One version says he planned to drown her in boiling lead. This, like the dragon, was surely an emotive embellishment on the story. Either way, I’m thinking her decision not to marry this guy was quite sound.)
She survived. A voice from heaven affirmed that this would count as her baptism.
Finally fed up, the governor had her beheaded, possibly with 15,000 others, some of whom had converted to Christ by seeing her faithfulness in suffering.
In one account, the executioner himself was converted by Marina’s testimony, so after removing her head, he cut off his own — entering into the ranks of the martyrs, according by this telling, though it seems surprising in light of Orthodox views on suicide.
The Coptics have her relics in a church in Cairo, though one of her hands is said to be in a monastery on Mt. Athos — though I’m sure I also ran across a reference to her hand being somewhere further West in Europe. Maybe that’s her other one.
I’m still hoping to dig up the source material some day. (If you, gentle reader, know of an online source do let me know.) Her story is pretty shifty-drifty between the various accounts, and I’d like to see how it was portrayed in its earliest version.
But even without that bit of actual research and analysis, Marina is a hero worth contemplating in the 21st century. She’s a great example of the many women of the Early Church who held so closely to Christ that they were able to stand up to oppressive male power figures.
You can ponder whether choosing the life of a consecrated virgin, an early nun, had the potential to give her social mobility and a new kind of power. When a woman’s survival depended on having a male partner, stepping outside of traditional marriage would be a kind of freedom — and scary, and risky.
In any case, in this era of the “#MeToo” movement, a woman who had the courage to decline the advances of a governor is impressive. And costly: her “suitor” could flip the switch from amorous advances to torture and murder.
But the thing to note is that this was courage that came through faith, and a desire to live a new life in Christ that brooked no compromise with the values of secular culture. She wasn’t going to worship what her culture loved or marry someone in power just to get along. She wanted Jesus instead.
In Christ, for Christ, Marina lived in freedom.
And her freedom in Christ, for Christ, included suffering and death.
I’d love to send every new post on these role models of discipleship — along with my other new articles and announcements. Just scroll down to the black box with the orange button to subscribe to my weekly(ish) newsletters and I’ll send them to your inbox.
Viola Duff says
As a Protestant, I do not know a great deal about Saints – but it is wonderful to read about the lesser known Saints. One wonders how they would have managed in this world as it is today.
Would they have been recognized as Saints if they were living today?
But it is great to read about them.