The Martyrs of Memphis
“Arrived. Streets white with lime; wagon loads of coffins. A sad coming home.”1
So wrote Sister Constance, whom we remember today along with other Episcopal religious and priests who perished in the 1878 yellow fever epidemic in Memphis, Tennessee. Sisters Constance, Thecla, Ruth, and Frances, and priests Charles Parsons and Louis Schuyler were six of the over five thousand people who died between August and October.
At a time when so much of the city’s population was fleeing—fleeing according to the wishes of the civil authorities—these sisters and priests came to the city, into danger, into a “scene of desolation and death.” Over the course of just under a month, this corps of sisters and priests worked themselves to exhaustion nursing the sick, caring for orphans, coordinating and disbursing donations, and celebrating mass.
The drama of this Gospel story hinges on Jesus’ encounter with Satan, demons, and unclean spirits. In our own time and place, these “evil spiritual realities” are largely relegated to Hollywood and to children’s fantasy literature such as the Narnia Chronicles, Lord of the Rings, and Harry Potter. We are products of the Enlightenment, so-called, a culture not schooled in the discernment of good and evil. And yet, you can hardly turn a page of the Bible without encountering the battleground of spiritual forces. Saint Paul writes, “For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but… against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”[i]
The early experience of monasticism in the Egyptian desert gives repeated accounts of the monks being in constant battle between good and evil, and it is we who are being fought over. The fourth-century monk, Evagrius Ponticus, gave the warning: “Stay watchful of gluttony and desire,” he warned, “and the demons of irritation and fear as well. The noonday demon of laziness and sleep will come after lunch each day, and the demon of pride will sneak up only when you have vanquished the other demons.”[ii]