Santa Magdalena of Nagasaki, the Perfect Bride

News: Commentary
by Luke O'Hara  •  •  October 19, 2019   

Japanese martyr sang beautiful songs to her executioners

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In October of 1634, throughout a fortnight of hell, she hung in the pit, singing hymns and blessing her God: no-one else ever withstood the torturers' cruelties so long. In the end, though, it was not those cruelties that ended her life: it was God's gentle hand that took pretty Magdalena home.

The orphaned daughter of Catholic martyrs, Magdalena of Nagasaki was a bilingual prodigy who consecrated her virginity to Our Lady of the Rosary and became an Augustinian tertiary at age 15. She worked tirelessly for two Augustinian friars until their arrest in November of 1629. They would die by "slow fire," a protracted torture designed to procure public apostasy.

The Lord whom I adore preserves me and holds me up. I feel a paternal hand touching my face, and my body is lightened so that I don't suffer.

Slow fire wasn't working, though; something more demonic was in order. Enter Takenaka Uneme. In 1629, the Shogun Iemitsu installed him as governor of Nagasaki with orders to expunge the Catholic faith from that staunchly Catholic town. Soon, Uneme went to work devising the ultimate torture: "the pit."

St. Magdalena of Nagasaki

The victim, bound in coils of rope, would be hung upside-down in a hole containing human waste or other filth. A two-piece wooden lid with cutouts in the center would be clamped around the victim's waist, cutting off his circulation and shutting out fresh air. It felt like his head was going to explode; his mouth, nose and ears would soon start oozing blood.

This would kill Magdalena's next two pastors, both Dominicans: Fr. Domingo de Erquicia, who described Uneme as "man dressed as demon, or devil incarnate," and Fr. Giordano Ansaloni. Upon Fr. Giordano's arrest, Magdalena marched into Uneme's lair in her religious habit to declare her love for Christ and her right to die for Him.

At first, taken by her beauty and refinement, Uneme tried to dissuade her, but when she stood firm, he ordered her jailed: "She entered with great happiness, shedding tears of joy."

To dampen her spirits, the torturers jammed sharpened strips of bamboo under her fingernails. Seeing blood pouring from her wounds, Magdalena reveled, "With what rubies have you adorned my hands!" When they ordered her to scratch furrows in the earth with the bamboo strips, she obeyed, undaunted.

Next, they tried a water torture, pouring gallons down her throat, throwing her onto the floor and loading stones onto her so that water gushed out through her mouth, ears and nose. Though they repeated this torture time and again, beautiful Magdalena was unmoved.

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They hung her by her arms on ropes, raised her high and dropped her, dislocating her shoulders, to no avail — still she clung to Christ.

Defeated, Uneme condemned Magdalena to the pit along with 10 other Christians. They were paraded around the streets of Nagasaki with Magdalena at their head on horseback, a rope around her throat like a garrote and her wrists bound fast behind her.

A sign on her back proclaimed her sentence — "CONDEMNED TO DEATH FOR REFUSING TO ABANDON THE LAW OF THE CHRISTIANS" — yet her eyes showed no terror, but glowed with joy as she preached to onlookers all along the way.

Finally, the procession climbed the steep slope called Nishi-zaka to the execution-ground overlooking Nagasaki Bay.

There, Magdalena was cocooned in rope, slung by her heels from a gallows and lowered into the reeking pit of horrors. The lid clamped her waist, shutting out all light and fresh air. Perhaps, as usual, blood began to drip from her ears and mouth and nose. François Caron, head of the Dutch trading post in Japan, wrote, "This extremitie hath indeed … forced many to renounce their religion; and some of them who had hung two or three days assured me that the pains they endured were wholly unsufferable, no fire nor no torture equalling their languor and violence."

Yet Magdalena uttered neither groan nor plaint nor squeal; instead, she sang sweet songs in Japanese to Jesus, her spouse in Heaven.

This went on for nearly 14 days. The guards would hear her ask, "Would you like to hear a song?" and on their answering "Yes," Magdalena would break into song, singing "a thousand canticles of praise to God our Lord in the Japanese tongue." Accounts abound of miracles attributed to Magdalena during that October fortnight of 1634, but it was miracle indeed that she survived without food or water through that hellish ordeal.

Perplexed, the torturers' overlords ascended Nishi-zaka to see for themselves just what was going on. They were sure that the guards had been suborned, that some Christian misfits were slipping her food and drink. This the guards denied, and Magdalena backed up their words when they opened the lid.

"Don't be surprised if I don't die in this ordeal,” she told the incredulous officials. "The Lord whom I adore preserves me and holds me up. I feel a paternal hand touching my face, and my body is lightened so that I don't suffer."

That was enough for Uneme's minions. They told the guards to club her unconscious, orders they must have obeyed with bitter reluctance, having been soothed for nearly 14 days on end by Magdalena's angelic songs — songs "in praise of her husband [sung] with singular melody and sweetness, so much so that they said it couldn't be a human voice."

Their dirty work done, those men must have closed that lid with leaden stomachs and searched their souls for some relief, something like that soothing hand that had caressed that lovely maiden's face throughout her earthly hell. Perhaps they felt a hint of that relief when Heaven opened her floodgates that evening, drenching them as they stood at their posts atop Nishi-zaka, looking down on benighted Nagasaki, home of so many martyrs, and trying to make sense of the horrors they had to stand watch over.

Then, come morning, there was perfect silence: no heavenly joy, no sweet, angelic songs, for they saw Magdalena's hole filled to the brim with Heaven's cleansing rain, and pulling her out, they found that she had drowned; her Lord and husband had finally, and ever so gently, taken her home.

Pretty Magdalena, holy Magdalena: the perfect bride for Heaven's earthborn king.

Luke O'Hara became a Roman Catholic in Japan. His articles and books about Japan's martyrs can be found at his website.


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