Most families would say that teenagers can be rebellious and stubborn. They have usually come to this conclusion after numerous disputes over homework, cleaning of rooms, clothes, friends, hair styles, body decoration…. Parents realize that this period of rebellion and stubbornness is a temporary state – one that will pass with age and maturity, responsibilities and, especially, with leaving home.
But imagine a time when the stakes were much higher, when adolescent rebellion could take the form of devotion to a revolutionary new religion that was stronger than any familial ties, devotion that sometimes led to martyrdom.
There were many such cases in the early centuries of the Christian Church, as belief in the old pagan gods of the Roman Empire was being cast aside, even by young people desiring to follow Christ, no matter the cost. St. Barbara, martyred around the year 306, was one of these.
Barbara’s father, Dioscuros, was an important official, a pillar of the community, and a staunch devotee of the traditional Roman gods Jupiter, Mercury and Apollo . He was also devoted to his only child, Barbara, but in a distorted way that caused him to want to control everything about her life. Dioscuros’ fatherly desire to protect his daughter from the dangers of the outside world led him to build a tower for her on his estate, and Barbara was required to live in an apartment in this tower. Her father’s paranoid fear that she would be influenced by outside forces meant that he sent in teachers whom he trusted and young girls of his choosing to serve as her friends. (The next stage of his plan would have been to betroth his daughter to a man of his choosing, one who would continue to watch over and protect her as her father was now doing.)
As a dutiful daughter, Barbara followed her father’s instructions and managed to thrive in this atmosphere, despite its restrictions. According to God’s plan, one of Barbara’s friends became a convert to the new religion. She began telling Barbara about Jesus, his life and teachings, his miracles and good deeds, his Resurrection and promise of eternal life for his followers. With much time to think and without the usual distractions of a teenager’s life, Barbara began to believe with all her heart in the truth of Christianity. She asked her friend to send a priest for her instruction and baptism and so, while her father was away on business, the young girl was baptized in a newly-constructed pool in her tower. She put up a cross over the pool as a sign of her life-changing decision.
When Dioscuros returned, he discovered the cross, confronted his daughter and heard of her commitment to Christianity. Barbara tried to convey to her father the joy she had found in this religion of love and hope, but he would hear none of it. In his fury, he dragged her away to the authorities hoping, no doubt, to teach her a lesson, as one of the numerous sporadic persecutions of Christians was in progress at the time. But, even in the presence of the powerful state authorities and despite all their efforts to persuade her to “come to her senses”, Barbara was resolute: she would not deny Christ and worship the Roman gods.
Eventually the young woman was tortured and thrown into prison; she escaped, but was followed by soldiers and her father. It was he who, in a terrible rage, raised the sword that beheaded his beloved daughter. Dioscuros was immediately struck by lightening and also killed. The violent end to this young saint’s life has caused her to be called a patron of those in danger of sudden death (such as soldiers and miners). She is often portrayed in iconography holding a miniature version of her tower.
It was this unique form of adolescent “rebellion” – a persistent turning away from her pagan upbringing by St. Barbara and others like her that helped to spread Christianity throughout the Roman Empire and the world. May God be praised for the witness and example of his saints, and may St. Barbara pray for us.