Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira
Like Saint Peter, Converted by a Gaze
Saint of the Day, Saturday, June 12, 1971
The name of the saint we are going to comment on today is none other than Guchiatazade, martyr. His biography is very unusual and extraordinary. It is taken from the book Les Saints Militaires [Military Saints], by Fr. Profillet.
“The Catholic religion was preached successfully in Persia by St. Matthew and St. Bartholomew. Christians in that country were deeply convinced. Thus, King Sapor II made countless martyrs as he began terrible persecution against any subjects who did not adore the sun as he wished.”
Sun worship is the immemorial religion of the Persians. They have worshipped the sun from the times of prehistoric Persians and King Cyrus, the first historical king of Persia. Sapor II wanted to have Catholics worship the sun as well.
For this end, the sovereign had Bishop Simeon imprisoned. The prelate was a friend of Guchiatazade, a palace eunuch who held a high position and was highly regarded in the kingdom. However, fearing persecution, he had abjured his faith. When being led to prison, Simeon passed before the eunuch, who greeted him, but in order not to see the apostate, the holy bishop turned his eyes away in horror. This silent rebuke deeply touched Guchiatazade, making him cry for days on end, saying to himself: ‘If a man who was my friend has conceived such indignation against me, what will God’s, whom I betrayed, be like?’
With that in mind, the eunuch abandoned his sumptuous clothes and covered himself with mourning, appearing at the palace in that attire. His attitude filled everyone with astonishment. The sovereign immediately called him to his presence to ask why he was casting ominous omens over the kingdom. To which the eunuch replied: ‘I have mourned for my double perfidy against my God and against you. Against my God, because I have violated the faith I had sworn, preferring your favor to the truth. Against you, because, compelled to worship the sun, I did so hypocritically, and my heart inwardly protested against my conduct.’
Guchiatazade dismissed Sapor II’s threats and remained unchanged in his position. He was sentenced to death. However, before his execution, he asked the king for one last favor: ‘You have always praised me for the zeal and devotion with which I have always served you and your father. Now I beg you to grant me the mercy of having a herald shout to everyone that Guchiatazade is not being put to death because he betrayed the king’s secrets or was involved in some conspiracy but because he is a Christian and has refused to deny his God. My apostasy is known throughout the city, and perhaps my weakness has affected many. If now they learn about my execution and ignore its cause, it will not serve as an example to the faithful. On the contrary, if they learn about my penance and that I die for Christ, I will strengthen them; their souls will be firmer and their ardor rekindled. The herald’s voice will be like a war trumpet that gives the athletes of justice the sign of combat and warn them to prepare their weapons.’ So it was done. Saint Guchiatazade was killed on Holy Thursday in the year 342.”
It is a beautiful biographical note. The saint’s strange name actually promised something beautiful. You are familiar with the barbaric system contrary to Catholic doctrine adopted in many pagan countries and antiquity and general. They mutilated certain boys in their early childhood so they would become impotent and could take care of the harems where the various wives of the kings lived, without the kings having to worry about it. This alone shows the weakness of ancient institutions, which some historians want to present as very strong. Those monarchies were established exclusively on fear or coercion. The king’s wife could only be safe from castrated men. If she had unmutilated men in her vicinity, the king, for all his power, could fear everything from both his wife and his servant.
You understand the climate this breeds in a civilization and the dismal repercussions on all its political, social and economic institutions. In contrast, when we study the Middle Ages, we see that the bond of fidelity unites and coordinates the constitutive elements of medieval institutions. It is point of honor for both parties, inferior and superior, to observe mutual obligations in such a way that to invade someone’s right is much more shameless for the violator than for the harmed one. If it is disgraceful to a man for his wife to cheat, it was rightly considered far more disgraceful to cheat his lord or vassal by robbing him of his wife. You can see how Catholic civilization was very elevated and what a quagmire of baseness the ancient world had sank into.
It so happens that these mutilated men were very likely to come into contact with the kings and sovereigns because of the intimacy of the palace. Since they often, but not always indulged in orgies or common disorders, they read much more, were more studious and often much more intelligent than others. As a result, they were very often promoted to the highest posts of state as confidants of kings, provincial governors, and famous generals with great prominence in their respective countries.
Such is the case of this man who, under these conditions, became an eminent personage of one of the greatest empires of antiquity, the Persian empire. He was a Catholic who had converted because of the presence of St. Bartholomew in Persia. Once converted, he began to practice religion. But King Sapor issued a decree condemning all Catholics to death, and he renounced his religion for fear of being executed. That other saint, a bishop who had been his friend, passed by him and turned his horrified eyes away. Guchiatazade, the apostate, greeted him, but the martyr averted his eyes and continued on to martyrdom.
See how different the ways of grace are. Our Lord met Saint Peter and cast a look of kindness on him, converting Saint Peter forever and ever. One could say that this holy bishop should imitate Our Lord and look at that apostate with kindness to convert him.
But the Holy Spirit suggests different attitudes according to the different ways He has to lead this or that soul. It so happened that as the apostate passed near the saint, the latter was filled with horror and turned away his eyes in indignation. Instead of revolting, the apostate was touched by grace and thought: ‘If this man, who was my friend, despises me and hates me so much for the evil I have done, what will God say as I appear before Him?’ Then he decided to change his life.
Here, a first observation concerns the variety of God’s ways through which He touches souls and inspires each person’s apostolate. To some, He gives contagious, penetrating love that leads to union with Him through kindness. To others, He gives sacrosanct, sublime wrath that purifies like fire and attracts souls that are the object of this wrath.
Here you have a beautiful and very profound conversion like Saint Peter’s, although his soul was touched differently. Like St. Peter, he wept deeply over his sin; like St. Peter, he walked to martyrdom, although by different paths.
How did he do it? The episode has that beautiful and picturesque theatricality of the East that I like so much. Usually, in Western terms, he would write the king a letter saying, ‘You know where I live; if you want, you can send for me.’ Or he would leave a note at home and run away. In the ancient world, it was relatively easy to do it because the police had much more difficulty moving around, and a criminal or rebel had a relatively easy life. He could have perfectly entered some hermitage or gone to another country where the Catholic religion was already established, taking riches along and living a peaceful life.
Instead, he decided to face martyrdom. Instead of writing a letter, he felt in his Eastern soul the need to express through symbols what he said in words. He, a mighty man, appears before the king dressed in mourning. I do not know what a Persian’s mourning would be like or if it would be in black, violet, or any other color. His appearance, all dressed up in mourning, was theatrical and meant to produce a theatrical effect, which it did. The people who saw him asked in astonishment: Is the empire’s greatest dignitary, the great Guchiatazade, mourning? How so?
You can imagine him with a sincerely contrite face. Theater is not always hypocritical but often is a beautiful, splendid manifestation of the truth. With eyes sunken with grief and sorrow, he solemnly says: ‘I want to speak with the king.’ He is introduced before Sapor. We can imagine him walking through various rooms, slaves bowing before him, etc. He looks at nothing, having only before his enraptured eyes the sublime fury of his friend’s gaze before going to the gallows. Fascinated by that look of blazing and dazzling anger, he arrives at the king’s room. The king says, ‘What is this? Are you prophesying mourning in your king’s empire? That is also a beautiful theatrical oriental exclamation, instead of our ordinary ‘What’s new?’
It is beautiful to see this said from the height of a throne, with a singing voice, to a man presenting himself in an attitude of mourning a few steps down, in a magnificent room with slaves holding flabelli, a flute player with a serpent in front and, further on, rising incense. I can assure you that is much more beautiful than plastic. You can imagine how the poetry of that environment would be broken with a telephone ringing. Silence. Then you have a courtyard with those bulls, not winged bulls in the manner of the Assyrians but more or less like those used by the Persians, with lions, etc., a fountain a gurgling, and the great tranquil silence of the imperial palace. Farther on, the buzz of an antechamber where people waited to be summoned by the emperor. Then there’s the dialogue.
In front of stunned slaves, he says, ‘I have erred. I have sinned against You, my God, but also against you, Emperor, because I lied to you when I worshipped the sun; my whole heart rejected that worship.’ Can you imagine Sapor’s anger? The emperor condemns him to death; he accepts the sentence with all serenity, dignity, and placidity.
You can imagine with what poetic attitude he said: ‘O king, I still have one request for you. The king trembles with rage, but he does not tremble at the king’s hate; he trembles at that reproaching gaze from eyes that no longer saw and from a heart that no longer beat. He trembles with enthusiasm at the sublime intransigence of the man who had repudiated him.
‘I have a request to make,’ he said to the king.
It was a magnificent request. He did not ask for his life or anything. He recalled his longstanding allegiance and showed he had done nothing against the emperor or the empire; he had loyally served also the emperor’s father. He asked only one thing: that heralds go through the whole city of the capital, Susa, to proclaim that he was dying because he was a Christian. In this way, he wanted to undo the scandal his apostasy had caused among many Christians because he was the joy and honor of his brothers and occupied the front pew when Holy Mass was celebrated. Despite all his rage, the emperor grants that request. Guchiatazade walks to his death and is torn apart.
Moments later, the city of Susa hears the heralds proclaiming everywhere: ‘The mighty minister is dead, the support of the throne has been overthrown because he persevered in his Catholic religion and refused to adore the sun, which we all worship.’
You can imagine Catholics amid the crowd enraptured by the event, looking at each other and arranging appointments to comment on this new triumph of the grace of Our Lord Jesus Christ, to feed on his example and become martyrs themselves in the certainty that the Catholic religion would not die as grace raised up invincible heroes even from the weak clay of apostates. You can imagine the excitement that must have aroused.
My dear friends, here is a more immediate application: Even in the saddest situations and facing the greatest weakness of the human soul, there is always a remedy; there is always help from grace as long as we ask for it. Our Lady certainly prayed for this man, who had fallen into complete apostasy and had so many ties binding him to the world. He was a mighty minister and enjoyed numerous advantages in the governance of one of the greatest empires on earth. He, who was so far from Our Lady, was converted by a prayer.
His encounter with the martyr walking to the ultimate sacrifice evidently was prepared by Providence for him to receive that look. That martyr’s reaction was inspired by grace to touch and do him good in his situation. You can see how one gaze was enough to regenerate a man who had abused so many previous graces. You see him suddenly transformed into a saint of the Catholic Church from a miserable apostate who had aroused horror until recently.
Therefore, we must have in our spiritual life an unshakable trust in the mercy of Our Lady and the omnipotence of Her supplications. In this way, we, members of the Group, will always keep ourselves cheerful and persevering, as the Scripture says: ‘I would fight on even though a thousand should fall on my right and ten thousand on my left.’
In a spiritual sense, that means: I would still confide even if a thousand apostatized on my right and ten thousand apostatized on my left.
In our case, confide in what? Confide that, at a particular moment, Our Lady will pray, and the aroma of contrition and perfect praise to God will rise again from souls that gave us disappointments, sorrows, and frustrations. In this way, we should walk toward our future joyfully, calmly, and confidently.
We do not know what tomorrow has in store, what trials and battles it will bring. We do not know whether we will have disappointments on our right or left. We do not know if we will be called to martyrdom. One thing we know: we will be called to expose our lives more than once.
Let us not be afraid of our fear. It is a mistake to be scared of fear. We should be frightened of not praying. We must be fearful of not having recourse to Our Lady. If we pray and turn to Our Lady, we will be supported, protected, and fulfill our duty. Our only real fear is not to be united with Her.
A beautiful plea to stave off that fear applies entirely to us. I have spoken of this supplication here more than once: “Anima Christi”: Soul of Christ, sanctify me; Body of Christ, save me; etc. At one point, it says, “Do not allow me to be separated from You: Ne permitas me separare ad te.
‘Do not allow me to separate myself from You means, ‘My Mother, I know that I am so weak that, left alone, I would end up separating myself from You. But I know that You are so unfathomably good and powerful that You can, as it were, prevent me from separating myself from You. So, my trust in being faithful, my Mother, results essentially from the fact that You will never allow me to separate myself from You. I am sure that, as it has never been known that someone who fled to your protection and implored your help was left unaided, neither will this prayer of mine.’
The closer we get to the Bagarre, the more we feel dangers piling up around us, and the more we must say to the Immaculate Heart of Mary: Do not allow me to be separated from You. She will heed us and never allow us to separate from Our Lord Jesus Christ, to Whom She binds us.
That is the conclusion we must draw from this manifestation of the power of grace. Our Lady did not allow this saint to separate from Her. He apostatized, but she called him at a certain point, and he now shines in Heaven among the saints, canonized by the Holy Catholic Church. More than preaching to all inhabitants of Susa through his penance, he does so by his example and confidence that Our Lady will be merciful to everyone for as long as the world exists. Let us ask him to pray for us so that, when we get to Heaven, we will find him united to Our Lady in the splendor of her glory. May we, in union with him, love Our Lady and Our Lord Jesus Christ for all eternity. That is my suggestion as we close this Saint of the Day.