Saturday, June 22, 2013

Reluctant Martyr is a Saint for Our Times

A week or so ago we read the inspirational letter of St. Ignatius of Antioch, written as he approached--with longing--the day of his martyrdom. As you recall, he was the one looking forward to being ground like wheat by the teeth of the lions.

Today, the Office of Readings  has another letter of a saint facing death. A much more reluctant saint, who did his best to avoid martyrdom. There's a line in "A Man for All Seasons", which was probably made up by the screenplay's author, Robert Bolt, but which fits well with what we know of St. Thomas More. Early on in the film, as he was discussing the increasing controversy over Henry VIII's marriage to Anne Boleyn, and its implications for men of conscience, he tapped his chest and said something like, "Don't worry. This is not the stuff of which martyrs are made."  Thomas More's intent was to use silence, and the support of English legal tradition, to keep himself out of trouble if at all possible.

But that is not what happened. Thomas was drawn, inexorably, reluctantly, down the path that ended in martyrdom.
Do you ever wonder whether you could face martyrdom? Do you ever think--in these days of rapidly expanding threats to Christian faith by our government--that the "what if" discussion might become more than theoretical in the next decade or so? I do.

As a child, inspired by stories of St. Agnes and the other virgin martyrs, I used to ask God for the grace of martyrdom. A decade later, immersed in the joys of marriage and motherhood, I recalled that childish prayer with horror, realizing clearly that I was not the stuff of which martyrs are made.  I  let God know about this: "By the way, Lord, you know that silly request I made as an ignorant child with no conception of the goodness of this life nor of what pain and death really were? Um... you knew not to take that prayer seriously, right? Ha-ha!  No sense in paying any attentions to that clueless little kid! Right, Lord?

So I think that, however much we admired the courage and zeal of Ignatius of Antioch earlier this month, we might find a more realistic patron in the relatively modern St. Thomas More. His letter to his daughter Margaret, written while he had been imprisoned for quite a while, reveals a mind that has wrestled with the possibilities of long term imprisonment, torture, possible martyrdom, or possibly falling prey to fear and submitting to taking the oath of supremacy in order to save his life. In his humility, in his grasp of human nature, he admits that fear might overcome him, just as it did St. Peter on several occasions. But this letter was written after the agonizing was finished. Even though Thomas is still not sure whether he can hold out and bear witness to Christ right until the end, he has reached a place of complete trust and abandonment to God's will. It's a remarkable letter:

I will not mistrust him, Meg, though I shall feel myself weakening and on the verge of being overcome with fear. I shall remember how Saint Peter at a blast of wind began to sink because of his lack of faith, and I shall do as he did: call upon Christ and pray to him for help. And then I trust he shall place his holy hand on me and in the stormy seas hold me up from drowning.

And if he permits me to play Saint Peter further and to fall to the ground and to swear and forswear, may God our Lord in his tender mercy keep me from this, and let me lose if it so happen, and never win thereby! Still, if this should happen, afterward I trust that in his goodness he will look on me with pity as he did upon Saint Peter, and make me stand up again and confess the truth of my conscience afresh and endure here the shame and harm of my own fault. 

And finally, Margaret, I know this well: that without my fault he will not let me be lost. I shall, therefore, with good hope commit myself wholly to him. And if he permits me to perish for my faults, then I shall serve as praise for his justice. But in good faith, Meg, I trust that his tender pity shall keep my poor soul safe and make me commend his mercy.

And, therefore, my own good daughter, do not let your mind be troubled over anything that shall happen to me in this world. Nothing can come but what God wills. And I am very sure that whatever that be, however bad it may seem, it shall indeed be the best.
(Read the rest of it in today's Office of Readings)

St. Thomas More is such a fitting patron for the Fortnight for Freedom being observed in the United States these next two weeks, starting today. Please ask St. Thomas to intercede for us as we face whatever challenges lie ahead. And go to the US Bishops Website to find ideas for observing the Fortnight for Freedom. It's not too late to get your pastor to do a bulletin insert (offer to be the one who stuff the bulletins if that is an obstacle), or to get  permission to gather a few friends for a couple of holy hours/rosary recitations/whatever.

Our parish did tons of stuff last year: speakers, literature tables, bulletin inserts, special sermons. This year we're going to be more low key, but on July 3rd we will have public recitation of all 5 liturgical hours, and our pastor is giving a short reflection related to religious freedom  at each one.

Anything going on at your church?