Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Martyrdom — The Same Then and Now

Main Entry: 1mar·tyr
Pronunciation: \ˈmär-tər\
Function: noun
Etymology: Middle English, from Old English, from Late Latin, from Greek martyr-, martys witness
Date: before 12th century

1 : a person who voluntarily suffers death as the penalty of witnessing to and refusing to renounce a religion
2 : a person who sacrifices something of great value and especially life itself for the sake of principle
3 : victim; especially : a great or constant sufferer
In discussing Mike Aquilina's Father's of the Church over the last two months, our Catholic women's book club has come back repeatedly to the subject of martyrdom.

Partly the issue has been clouded by the new awareness of Muslim martyrs in our lives. This has led to several talks clarifying the difference between Christian and Muslim martyrs. If only we had thought to go to the dictionary. I believe that the first definition perfectly speaks to the Christian model. The second definition also applies to Christian martyrdom and is stretched in an extreme fashion by some Muslims for their own faith. That distinction is vital. A true Christian martyr does not attack others. They are witnesses to their faith, not inflicting it on others, such as those very misguided people who bomb abortion clinics which is very unChristian behavior indeed.

This naturally led to discussion of whether it is better to stand or to run, prompted by St. Cyprian's example, who having weighed martyrdom versus leading his flock from hiding chose to flee. He is a saint and a father of the church, but his example also led to great division among the priests and faithful under his care.

The question that example raised is that if God is always on the side of life, would He want people embracing martyrdom of the "lions in the arena" type, which seemed an unhealthy thing to seek out.

This also brought up discussion of St. Stephen, the first martyr, who was stoned to death. My personal view of St. Stephen is that an integral part of his personality and youth was his great enthusiasm for the truth of Christ. I can see that, again in my own imaginings, he was proclaiming the truth to all as a knight would defend his king. This view was not embraced by all present but I happen to know a number of teenage boys. To me, this fits. I do not think he sought it out or that most martyrs sought it out. It happened because of circumstances, personality, and the necessity of telling the truth.

I, myself, as one might expect, tend to go for the model that does not seek out martyrdom but does not run away either.

In the end, we came down to two exemplars who actually embody both of the qualities we found necessary. One is that no one should deliberately seek to throw their life away. The second is that when put to the test, one must witness for truth.

One such example is St. Thomas More. He wriggled this way and that to avoid having to come down to a final confrontation with Henry VIII. However, when it was unavoidable, he did not run or move his family to France which he easily could have done. He stayed where he was, continuing to do the best he could under the circumstances, and did not shirk the direct witness he was called to give. He paid with his life.

Another such example, and the one that prompted the entire discussion, was St. Perpetua. There are a few "mothers" of the church included in the end of the book and she is one. An educated noblewoman and recent convert in Carthage around 200 AD, she was arrested, imprisoned, and killed. Adding to the strain was the fact that she was a new mother and naturally very worried about her infant who eventually was smuggled to her in the prison for a time. She wrote an account of her martyrdom. In it is her witness to her pagan father, her love and anxiety over her babe, and a vision she had. I found her vision to be very heartening because it so clearly showed God's grace under such terrible circumstances and that if we are willing to stand and do our part, that He gives the strength for the rest.
"Then my brother said to me: 'Lady sister, you are now in great honor-so great that you may well pray for a vision in which you may be shown whether suffering or release be in store for you.'

And I, knowing myself to have speech of the Lord for whose sake I was suffering, confidently promised, 'Tomorrow I will brig you word.'

And I made petition and this was shown me. I saw a golden ladder of wonderful length reaching up to heaven, but so narrow that only one at a a time could go up; and on the sides of the ladder were fastened all kinds or iron weapons. And at the foot of the ladder was a huge dragon or 'serpent' which lay in wait for those going up and sought to frighten them from making the ascent.

Now the first to go up was Saturus, who had given himself up of his own accord for our sakes, because our faith was of his own building and he had not been present when we were arrested. He reached the top of the ladder, and turning, said to me, 'Perpetua, I wait for you, but take care lest the dragon bite you,' and I said, 'In the name of Jesus Christ, he will not hurt me.'

And the dragon put out his head gently, as if afraid of me, just at the foot of the ladder; and as though I were treading on the first step, I trod on his head. And I went up and saw a large garden, and sitting in the midst a tall man with white hair in the dress of a shepherd, milking sheep; and round about were many thousands clad in white. And he raised his head and looked upon me and said, 'Welcome, child.' And he called me and gave me some curds of the milk he was milking, and I received it in my joined hands and ate; and all that were round about said Amen. At the sound of the word I awoke, still eating something sweet.

And at once I told my brother, and we understood that we must suffer and henceforth began to have no hope in this world.
Note that neither of these two sought out martyrdom. Indeed, they had everything to live for in this world. However, when it came down to witnessing to the truth, they could not deny it. Very important to my mind, is that dragon curled around the bottom of the ladder. Dragons or serpents are often imagery for Satan and I can imagine that the temptation to turn aside from offering a true witness may be our natural fears but also could be very strongly pushed from this source.

Mulling all this over this morning, it came to me that the one essential point we had not boiled it down to was the word "witness." Martyrs are witnesses to the truth. Whether the sort of witness we are likely to encounter in dealing with people in everyday life or the more final sort that people face all the time in other countries (there have been more Christians martyrs in the 20th century than in all previous centuries combined or so I have heard ... anyone got facts on that?), we are called to be witnesses and not run away from witnessing what is true. Each of us must weigh what that means in each situation, as with all things, and also in our relationship with God.

I thought at that point to look at the dictionary. Aha.
from Greek martyr-, martys witness
How you are called upon to witness is individual to each of us. Whether we choose to stand or run is also individual and in most cases no one will ever know. Except us. And God.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the nice words, Julie. I discuss martyrdom in much greater detail here:


    Also in my book The Resilient Church.