The Eyes of St. Lucy

In iconography, there are different tokens, called “attributes,” that help to distinguish between different saints. Attributes can be common objects, or more unusual ones. For example, St. Peter has a set of keys, St. Jerome is dressed as a cardinal (even though he wasn’t one), and St. Catherine of Alexandria is distinguished by a wheel.

Today is the feast of St. Lucy, which brings to mind the first time I saw an image of her, along with her “attribute.” She was holding two eyes, on a plate. No, that’s not a typo. Two eyes. On a plate.

In a word, it was grotesque. In several more words, it was unpalatable, impolite, bizarre, and disturbing. Of course, I wasn’t naïve enough to believe such things never happened—Byzantine history provides plenty of examples—but why would anyone be so crude as to commemorate it with a statue?

It’s said that, after St. Lucy was blinded, God miraculously restored her sight. But it’s also fairly likely that this is only a legend. After all, neither the blinding itself nor the miraculous healing is mentioned either in the thirteenth-century Golden Legend or in earlier works.

Perhaps it will be helpful to go to the Gospels:

The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is sound, your whole body will be full of light;  but if your eye is not sound, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness! (Mt 6:22–23)

Christ points out the limits of our vision. In one way or another, we are all blinded to our faults. Incidentally, this passage comes right after Christ’s condemnation of hypocrisy. We can all look great in our own eyes, and we can all rationalize anything that gets in the way of our self-deception. But we have been warned, on good authority, not to embrace this way of seeing:

And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and throw it away; it is better for you to enter life with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into the hell of fire. (Mt 18:9)

And so, the unsettling image of St. Lucy starts to make a bit more sense. More than just a legendary accretion, her story is a call to the profound reevaluation we must make if we are to see clearly.

St. Lucy was martyred during the persecution of Diocletian, but, before she was killed, the Roman authorities tried to humiliate and disgrace her by condemning her to a house of ill repute—to put it more plainly, a brothel. When the judge sentenced her, she replied,

If you were to lift my hand to your idol and so make me offer against my will, I would still be guiltless in the sight of the true God, who judges according to the will and knows all things. If now, against my will, you cause me to be polluted, a twofold purity will be gloriously imputed to me. You cannot bend my will to your purpose; whatever you do to my body, that cannot happen to me.

St. Lucy could see something that the judge could not. But preaching the faith to him was like trying to sell the Brooklyn Bridge to a Manhattanite—a hard sell if there ever was one. His worldly way of thinking might be summed up in Mark Twain’s charming but cynical definition of faith: “believing that which we know not to be true.”

Charming, perhaps, but wrong—dead wrong. Such “faith” does not produce martyrs. St. Lucy, like other saints through the ages, saw through the outward appearance of respectability, comfort, and peace that is offered by the world. These items were off the table for her, because she caught the glimpse of something far greater.

Fulton Sheen once remarked that humor results from the ability to see through things. Slapstick, irony, even puns are only really funny when they point beyond themselves. The Church exhibits her sense of humor in this way by placing the feast day of St. Lucy, whose name means “light,” at the darkest time of the year. It’s not such a great one-liner, of course, and it won’t get as many laughs as Mark Twain. But then it’s a different kind of humor—the sort that doesn’t go stale.

C.S. Lewis gives his own charming description of faith in his second Narnia novel, Prince Caspian. One day, the youngest child in the story—Lucy Pevensie—encounters the lion Aslan, whom she hasn’t seen in a long time; but, much to her dismay, she soon realizes that her siblings cannot see him, even in broad daylight. Then she notices something else:

“Aslan,” said Lucy, “you’re bigger.”
“That is because you are older, little one,” answered he.
“Not because you are?”
“I am not. But every year you grow, you will find me bigger.”

As we grow older, does our faith, like the faith of St. Lucy and little Lucy Pevensie, allow us to see Christ “grow bigger”? Or is there a need to rub our eyes, in the event that we are missing something important? Getting to the bottom of these questions will probably take more than one Advent, so it’s a good idea to get started now.

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared on Dominicana, the blog of the Dominican students of the St Joseph Province and is reprinted with kind permission. 

image: Griffoni Polyptych: St Lucy, by Francesco del Cossa/ Wikimedia Commons


Br. Leo Camurati entered the Order of Preachers in 2011. He is a graduate of Cooper Union in New York, where he studied Mechanical Engineering. Prior to entering the Order, he worked to administer an Engineering Standards Committee.

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  • JMC

    In this day and age, when many of us are being forced to do things against our will, these words of St. Lucy are a major comfort. Perhaps that is why God, in his omniscience, inspired her to say them.
    More to the point, however, is the whole concept of the eyes as lamps. “If your eye is not sound, then your whole body will be full of darkness.” This brings me to the concept of “custody of the eyes,” which seems to be lost among most people today. Even many Catholics don’t understand why some avert their eyes from certain sights. They think those people are being “quaint” or “old-fashioned;” they say that these things are “part of life” and not to be tuned out. They think the fact that some won’t look points to something wrong with *them* that makes them unable to appreciate something so essential to living today.
    An Advent hymn learned a few years ago begins with a quote from the Bible: “The people who live in darkness have seen a great light.” We are those people living in darkness; we have seen the great Light in Christ, and we are deliberately tuning it out. Darkness cannot bear the light of day, and darkness seems to be ruling this day. We pray for the light every bit as earnestly as the ancient Israelites prayed from the coming of the Messiah; yet, like those Israelites who failed to recognize the Messiah when he came, we fail to recognize the light shining right in front of us.
    There’s a New Age expression that I find particularly dangerous. When they express that they are good, not evil, they say they are “serving the Light.” There’s only one problem with that statement: The name Lucifer means “Light-Bearer.” There’s also a quote from the second Indiana Jones movie that echoes that same thought, when the old man refers to Pangkot Palace as a place of the “dark light.”
    Food for thought.

  • chaco

    I’ve got another way to look at differences in light; When negative is crossed with positive, light is created ie; the filiment in a light bulb. It is a form of friction similar to that created when a “Falling Star” / space rock lights up when rubbing against our atmosphere. I compare this to the “Positive Image of God” in us rubbing against “Negative Sin”. Thus, the way certain celebrities who have abandoned their more innocent youth & upbringing seem to shine in the eyes of many; imitating Lucifer’s attraction. There is another kind of light that doesn’t destroy itself; This light can be compared to the moon reflecting the light of the sun. I see the Mother of God/ our Mother as being the most perfect example of this light. This comparison can also remind us that, like Her Son being surrounded by darkness on the Cross, She can be a light of consolation as darkness seems to envelop our lives.

  • rosebud

    “..and in my hour or of darkness she is standing right in front of me…” (line from Beatles song; “Let it Be”)

  • NYer

    We also have the example of St. Rafqa, a nun. Rafca suffered for seventeen years as a blind paralytic. Only God knew how much she had to endure. Her pain was continuous night and day, yet the other sisters never heard her murmuring or complaining. She often told them that she thanked God for her sufferings, “…because I know that the sickness I have is for the good of my soul and His glory” and that “the sickness accepted with patience and thanksgiving purifies the soul as the fire purifies gold.”

    One day, mother Ursula noticed that Rafca seemed to be suffering much more than usual and, touched by pity for the poor sister, asked her, Is there anything else you want from this world? Have you never regretted the loss of your sight? Don’t you sometimes wish you could see this new convent with all the natural beauties that surround it–the mountains and rocks, and the forests?”

    Sister Rafca answered simply, “I would like to see just for an hour, Mother–just to be able to see you.”

    “Only for one hour?” asked the Superior. “And you would be content to return to that world of darkness?”

    “Yes,” replied the invalid.

    Mother Ursula shook her head in wonder and began to leave Rafca’s cell. Suddenly, the paralyzed nun’s face broke into a beautiful smile and she turned her head toward the door. “Mother,” she called, I can see you!”

    The Superior turned around quickly and saw the glow on Rafca’s face. That alone was enough to tell her that her daughter was not teasing, but she wanted to be certain that the phenomenon was actual and not just a trick of the mind of the poor nun who had been blind for so many years.

    Desperately trying to conceal her emotions, she walked back to the bedside.

    “If it is as you say,” she queried, “tell me what is lying on the wardrobe.” Sister Rafca turned her face toward the little closet and answered, “The Bible and the Lives of the Saints–she could hardly contain her excitement. But, she reasoned, perhaps Rafca knew that these were the only two books in her cell as she had no need for others and the sisters who read to her usually only used these two titles–knowing that the invalid loved them best.

    Another test would have to be tried and this time, witnesses were called in the testify to the miracle.

    There was a lovely multi-colored cover on Rafca’s bed. Mother Ursula called her attention to it and began to point to the colors one by one, asking the newly-sighted nun to call out the names of the colors as she pointed to them. The three sisters who assisted the Superior in the test verified that Sister Rafca named each color correctly.

    As she had requested, though, this new sight lasted only for one hour during which time she conversed with Mother Ursula and looked around her cell, at her siters, and through the window to catch glimpses of the beauties outside.

    After this time, she fell into a peaceful sleep.