February 9th, Feast of St. Apollonia
Many of the martyrs speak of their desire for death with a greater zeal than we desire life – for they would suffer untold torments in order to achieve their death, but far too often we would rather die than suffer greatly in order to live.
And yet, without intending any dishonor to the martyrs, we may wonder: How is martyrdom different from suicide? Indeed, many of the ancient martyrs longed for death and even put themselves in harm’s way in order to achieve martyrdom – is this not, in some respect, similar to suicide?
The case of St. Apollonia (whose memory is commemorated this day, though not in the general calendar) will give great insight into this question – she voluntarily threw herself into the fires which her persecutors had prepared for her.
The story of St. Apollonia (from the Roman Martyrology)
The ninth of February, at Alexandria, the birthday [into heaven] of St. Apollonia, Virgin and Martyr, whose teeth were first of all pulled out by her torturers under Decius; then, when they had build and kindled a pyre, they threatened to burn her alive, unless she would utter impious words with them; but she, after a moment’s deliberation, suddenly sprang from their wicked hands, and of her own accord leaped into the flames which they had prepared, being inflamed within by the greater fire of the Holy Spirit. And so the very authors of this cruelty were themselves terrified, since a woman was found more ready to meet death than were her persecutors to inflict it.
|The tooth of St. Apollonia|
venerated in Porto, Portugal
St. Apollonia probably died late in the year 248 or early in 249. Her story is handed on to us through St. Dionysius the bishop-theologian of Alexandria (247-265). She is particularly interesting insofar as she probably served as a deaconess – however, we recall that the “deaconesses” in the early Church had almost no liturgical role. They could not distribute communion, touch the sacred vessels, approach the altar, or even proclaim the readings. One thing is clear: In the early Church, only the heretics allowed women to minister at the altar (and hardly any even from among the heretics went as far as we have gone in the Church today). So, the “deaconesses” were really nothing like modern day deacons.
On account of the terrible sufferings endured in having her teeth extracted, St. Apollonia is the patroness of dentists and of all suffering from toothache.
Martyrdom or suicide?
St. Augustine touches on this question, considering the fact that many of the early martyrs did indeed voluntary hasten to their death. In the case of St. Apollonia, it would seem that she inflicted the death upon herself, since she was not thrown into the fire but voluntarily jumped into the midst of the flames.
However, we must recognize that martyrdom is nothing like suicide. The two actions are completely different at every level. The acts themselves, the intentions, and the circumstances are all radically diverse.
Hear St. Augustine: “But, they say, during the time of persecution certain holy women plunged into the water with the intention of being swept away by the waves and drowned, and thus preserve their threatened chastity. Although they quitted life in this wise, nevertheless they receive high honour as martyrs in the Catholic Church and their feasts are observed with great ceremony. This is a matter on which I dare not pass judgment lightly. For I know not but that the Church was divinely authorized through trustworthy revelations to honour thus the memory of these Christians.” (City of God I.26)
Let us then not pass judgment lightly, but consider well the difference between a martyr and a suicide.
Is it martyrdom or suicide? A test
Now, the difference between martyrdom and suicide cannot merely be a matter of the intention of the individual – they are two different acts, regardless of the intention. Thus, we must consider the acts and the ends toward which the acts themselves are directed (and this is different from the intention of the individual).
Here is a simple test: Is the act in doubt ordered to the voluntary death of the individual or not? Is the act a “success” or a “failure” if the individual lives?
In the case of suicide, the act itself is ordered to the death of the individual. Whatever further intention the person might have (for example, “to end the suffering”) the immediate end or goal of the act is to bring about the death of the individual (and through this death “to end the suffering”).
Now, in the case of martyrdom, the act itself is not ordered to the death of the individual. For example, when St. John the Beloved was thrown into the boiling oil and was delivered alive, this was not a failure on his part, but a success. So, although it is true that one is not a martyr unless he has died, nevertheless, the act itself of accepting martyrdom is not suicide because it is not ordered necessarily to the death of the individual. Rather, the goal (not only of the individual but of the act itself) is to glorify God. Hence, St. John glorified God by surviving, just as St. Peter glorified God by his death.
Thus, we consider the case of St. Apollonia, who threw herself into the flames. This was not an act of suicide because the goal of that action was not to bring about her death, but rather to bring glory to God. If she had lived (by a miracle), she would not have failed, but would have still succeeded because she would have given glory to God through her miraculous preservation (just as the three young men glorified God in the midst of the flames). Therefore, not only in terms of her personal intention, but even according to the very nature of the act itself, St. Apollonia did not commit suicide.
However, in the case of a suicide, the act itself is ordered to the death of the individual. If a man attempting suicide shoots himself and lives, he has “failed” (insofar as the attempt at suicide did not succeed). However, if St. Apollonia had lived, she would not have failed but still would have succeeded – because the act itself was not a suicide but a martyrdom, and was not ordered directly to her death but rather to the glory of God.
Suicide and 9/11
This same test can prove helpful when considering other matters. We take for an example, two cases form the September 11th attacks.
The Muslim suicide bombers did indeed commit suicide. They are worse than simple murders, but they are suicide killers. If they had somehow lived through the attack, they would have failed. Even if they could have ejected from the planes just a moment before the wreck, they would not have done so, because their death is essential to their attack. It was not enough for them to kill innocent men and woman, but they also had to commit suicide.
Take, on the other hand, certain men and women who jumped from the towers after the attack. At first, it may seem that they were committing suicide – but this is not necessarily the case. There was a great deal of fire inside the buildings and also the people knew that they needed to get out. Now, if a man jumped from the building (falling to his death) in an attempt either to escape the building or to get away from the fire, it is not necessarily a suicide.
Consider our test: Imagine if a man jumped from the building trying to get away from the fire and, by some miracle or coincidence, somehow lived through the fall. Would he have “failed” by living? Of course not! It would be a success, because the act was not really an attempt to die, but rather an attempt to get away from the flames (even though, by double effect, it was clear that he would almost certainly die from the fall).
Thus, while the hijackers did not merit martyrdom, neither are those who jumped guilty of suicide.
St. Apollonia, Pray for us!