By Presvytera Melanie DiStefano
“Anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.”
When I was a young adult, and newly zealous in my faith in Christ these words of Christ’s did not seem hard to me. There was no one I could perceive loving more than Him – even my parents whom I cherished. I was quite idealistic - anti-war, anti-death penalty - and even had a disdain for the honor often given to veterans and law enforcement officials for serving their country and fellow citizens. In my “black and white” mindset I wondered how we could pay homage to people whose professions often obliged them to take the life of or maim, other human beings. My favorite Saint was St Seraphim of Sarov whose extreme meekness in response to violence is one I still admire: upon being attacked by a group of bandits outside his forest hut when he was chopping wood (with an axe!), he allowed them to beat him so terribly that they broke his back and he nearly died. For the rest of his life he walked severely bent over at his waist. In my naïve heart I imagined that if faced with a similar attack, I could respond like he did… like Christ did.
I recall a handful of years later when my son was a toddler and my husband was out of town for a few days, noises I heard at night got the best of me. I starting planning for possible intruders, imagining what piece of small furniture I could bash over their heads if they tried to harm my child. I knew I could make the switch from docile priest’s wife to vigilante “Ninja Mom” in an instant if my child was in danger. I also kept my phone next to me in bed in case I needed to call the police. The law enforcement officials I had once not given due respect, had now become my treasured protectors.
I’m not alone in this maternal transformative experience. A close friend of mine who strives to live every detail of her life in obedience to Christ’s words in the Gospel once told me, “Motherhood changes you. When I had my child I realized I could kill another human being if needed, to protect her.” It seems as if women have a dormant protective gene in them, activated by child-rearing hormones. At the first sign of their child being harmed, “fight mode” overcomes them entirely.
In light of this protective instinct, I have often reflected upon the life of Saint Sophia with incredulous awe. This widowed mother of three was forced to watch her daughters Faith, Hope and Love, as they were tortured for professing belief in Christ. The tyrant Hadrian was aware that the protective instinct of mothers is a power of the human being rarely rivaled by reason or any other force known to man, “for the people of this world are more shrewd… than are the people of the light”(Luke 16:8), and so he used this in attempts to force Sophia to act like she believed what he believed. He likely expected her to deny Christ at the first hint of her young daughters aged 12, 10 and 9, being in pain. What he had not expected was the powers at work in her even superior to her maternal instincts – her unwavering Faith in, Hope for, and Love of, Jesus Christ.
Rather than put a stop to the tortures, she encouraged her children to endure every pain inflicted in order to win heavenly crowns. The young maidens had been properly prepared by a life of prayer, and they confessed Christ even in the midst of torment and consecutive beheadings:
Realizing that they would be taken before the emperor, the holy virgins prayed fervently to the Lord Jesus Christ, asking that He give them the strength not to fear torture and death. When the holy virgins and their mother came before the emperor, everyone present was amazed at their composure. They looked as though they had been brought to some happy festival, rather than to torture. Summoning each of the sisters in turn, Hadrian urged them to offer sacrifice to the goddess Artemis. The young girls remained unyielding.
These young girls endured horrific tortures, yet Sophia’s life was “spared”. She was found dead three days later upon her daughters’ graves. Having buried their remains she mourned and prayed there, apparently dying from a broken heart. Any mother could imagine the spiritual anguish she must have suffered in her last hours as the Accuser whispered confusing “second thoughts” in her mind about what she encouraged her children to endure. A mother’s feelings are so intricately entwined with all that her children experience. The Church wisely and fittingly counts St. Sophia as a Martyr – the psychological torture she experienced on par with and leading to physical death.
So, what are we to do with this extreme example of St. Sophia whose actions seem so contrary to our natural parental instincts? The Church would suggest, we are to follow her lead. Valiant holy ones like her show it is possible to transcend any earthly power – even maternal protective instincts – out of love for Jesus Christ. She harnessed all her motherly love and instinctive powers and directed them to raising her children with a singular focus: God’s eternal Kingdom and righteousness. She taught them to transcend their fears and desires for ease or temporary happiness.
On close examination it becomes clearer to me that she did not deny her motherly instincts at all! Rather, it seems they had become sanctified. She was in fact protecting her children from danger – that of the eternal kind. Saint Sophia wanted a true, everlasting life for her daughters in the Resurrection of the Just. Neither she nor they were willing to trade that promise for a counterfeit, comfortable, temporary existence this side of heaven if it meant forsaking the One they loved.
Saint Sophia’s witness has gifted loving mothers throughout the ages with a special Wisdom to emulate: loving Christ more than the temporary happiness of our own children is actually loving them more. Through her and her daughters' sacrifice we can be strengthened in our resolve to live out our daily lives for the sake of Someone and Something more than ourselves – Jesus Christ and His eternal Kingdom.