Monday, August 13, 2007

August 13

For Catholics, today marks the annual feast of St. Cassian, a teacher of young boys who was beaten and stabbed to death by his own students more than 1600 years ago. Cassian, who had previously served as Bishop of Brescia, was driven from his diocese during the persecutions that had commenced either during the reign of the neo-pagan Emperor Julian (around the year 360) or during the Diocletian persecutions roughly seven decades earlier. Relocated in the city of Imola, Cassian found a new calling as a teacher, a profession he believed could help bring new souls into the Church.

Unhappily for Cassian, he was before long denounced as a Christian and hauled before the governor, who insisted that he offer sacrifice to gods in whom he did not believe. Meeting with Cassian’s stout refusal, the governor sentenced him to be executed by his own students. According to Alban Butler’s Lives of the the Fathers, Martyrs and Other Principal Saints (1866)
He was exposed naked in the midst of two hundred boys; among whom some threw their tablets, pencils, and penknives at his face and head, and often broke them upon his body; others cut his flesh or stabbed him with their pencils, sometimes only tearing the skin and flesh, and sometimes raking in his very bowels. Some made it their barbarous sport to cut part of their [assignment] in his tender skin. Thus, covered with his own blood, and wounded in every part of his body, he cheerfully bade his little executioners not to be afraid; and to strike him with greater force . . .
In death, Cassian became the patron saint of shorthand -- a skill he taught to his students before they pecked him to death.

Centuries later, Cassian would also be recognized as the patron saint of Mexico City. Known to the Mexica empire as Tenochtitlan, this enormous and sophisticated urban complex was home to hundreds of thousands of people when Spanish troops under Hernan Cortes -- aided by several hundred thousand warriors from disgruntled tribes from within the empire -- surrounded it in May 1521. Culled by a smallpox epidemic and forced into starvation by the 80-day siege, the survivors were eventually reduced to eating wood, leather, and bricks. According to a poem written during the last days of Tenochtitlan,
Broken spears lie in the roads;
We have torn our hair in our grief
The houses are roofless now, and their walls
Are red with blood.

Worms are swarming in the streets and plazas,
And the walks are spattered with gore
The water has turned red, as if it were dyed
And when we drink it,
It has the taste of brine

We have pounded our hands in despair
Against the adobe walls,
For our inheritance, our city, is lost and dead
The shields of our warriors were its defense.
But they could not save it.

We have chewed dry twigs and salt grasses:
We have filled our mouths with dust and bits of adobe.
We have eaten lizards, rats and worms
When we had meat, we ate it almost raw.
By the time the city fell to Spanish on August 13, 1521, as many as 250,000 Aztecs had perished. Cuauhtémoc, the last ruler of the Mexican empire, was captured during an attempt to escape the city. Handing Hernan Cortes ahis knife and asking to be killed, he surrendered Tenochtitlan to the European invaders. Rather than fulfill Cuauhtémoc’s request, Cortes instead tortured him, demanding to know where the empire’s treasure was hidden. Although Cuauhetemoc’s feet were roasted over an open flame, he did not satisfy Cortes’ demands.

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