“This is the thing. You’re always in exile. To be with Christ is to be in a place of precariousness. We don’t get to have it our way. We don’t get to be secure. We’re always in exile.” – Heather King
Some heavy lifting on a fall Friday.
This may seem a dark topic to some but it was brought about by something I wrote this morning for a Facebook status involving a meme that’s been going around whereby you write an assigned number of random things no one knows about you.
One of my favorite examples of strength and perseverance in the face of adversity is that of Ignatius of Antioch, who after being summoned to Rome to be devoured by lions by the sadistic Emperor Trajan in 107AD said “I am God’s wheat and I shall be ground by the teeth of beasts, that I may become the pure bread of Christ.”
Perhaps it’s because I’ve read so many reports of the Christian’s slaughtered in Syria and the rest of the Middle East. Or maybe it’s due to the feast days just observed of All Saints and All Souls. The subject of martydom and/or dying for something you truly and deeply believe in has come to the forefront of late and is the subject of my Friday Five.
— 1 —
First up: a documentary recently completed in England that is about the English martyrs. Filmmaker Christian Holden writes:
Many Catholics today have forgotten the stories of the English martyrs. We know the famous names like Thomas More, John Fisher and Edmund Campion, but how many remember the stories of Francis Bell or Thomas Maxfield? For me, one particular story really stuck in my mind and made a big impression. It was the story of Roger Wrenno from Chorley. He was condemned to be hanged at Lancaster for the crime of harbouring a priest. On the day of execution, as he was hanging, the rope suddenly snapped. After a few minutes he regained his composure and knelt to say his prayers. He was offered a reprieve if only he would take the Oath of Supremacy. He refused. When a new rope was attached to the gallows, Wrenno ran up the ladder! Asked why he was in such a hurry to die, he replied: “If you had seen that which I have just now seen, you would be as much in haste to die as I am now.”
Making the film was a fascinating journey. I discovered where these brave Catholics lived and worked, and visited the places where they laid down their lives for the sake of the faith. Along the way we got a glimpse the human side of each of these heroic figures, their struggles, their faith and their great courage in facing death. Working on this project has been an inspiration for me and I hope the film will have an impact on those who view it.
Today, when Christianity is facing new challenges and increasing hostility in all corners of the world, the courage of the martyrs and their profound faith will continue to give strength and inspiration to those who strive for truth and holiness.
— 2 —
The monument above is on the grounds of the Institut Catholique in Paris and marks an event that occurred there on September 2, 1792. The plaque reads in Latin, “Here they fell.” The “they” were over 100 priests that died that night behind the convent of the Carmelites. (H/T Rod Dreher)
Of that night British historian Christopher Hibbert wrote:
The same afternoon another small gang of armed men burst into the garden of the Carmelite Convent off the Rue de Vaugirard where about 150 priests who had been held prisoner for the past fortnight, were gathered under guard, several of them reading their office. The men advanced upon them, calling out for the Archbishop of Arles. One of the priests went forward to meet them, demanding a fair trial for himself and his fellow-prisoners. A shot was fired and his shoulder was smashed. The Archbishop, after praying for a moment on his knees, then went towards the men himself. “I am the man you are looking for,” he said, and was immediately struck across the face with a sword. As he fell to the ground a pike was plunged through his chest. At that moment an officer of the National Guard appeared and managed to get the priests away to the nearby church where they gave each other absolution. While they were saying prayers for the dying, the armed gang broke through the door and dragged the priests out in pairs to slaughter them in the garden. After several had been killed a man with an air of authority arrived at the church calling out, “Don’t kill them so quickly. We are meant to try them.” Thereafter each priest was summoned before a makeshift tribunal before being executed. He was asked if he was now prepared to take the constitutional oath and when he said that he was not — as all of them did — he was taken away to be killed. Some bodies were removed in carts, the rest thrown down a well from which their broken skeletons were recovered seventy years later.
There’s more on the September Martyrs at Tea At Trianon.
Amy Welborn visited this very spot in 2012 and posted photos and her thoughts as well.
— 3 —
Just two years later the slaughter continued at the monastery of Carmelite nuns in Compiègne in northern France in 1794. In 1956 this piece of French Revolution history was reborn as a French-language opera of three acts that was first performed at La Scala in 1957: Dialogues des carmélites (Dialogues of the Carmelites). It was recently performed at the Metropolitan Opera and reviewed in HuffPo:
One of the most harrowing final scenes in all of opera is the ending of Poulenc’s “Dialogues of the Carmelites,” when the nuns condemned by the French Revolution walk one by one to the scaffold, singing a gradually thinning chorus punctuated by the slashing sounds of a guillotine.
So emotionally drained was the audience at Saturday afternoon’s performance at the Metropolitan Opera that silence lingered in the house for several moments after the curtain fell. Only then did tumultuous applause erupt for the terrific performance that had just taken place.
That chorus they are singing is the Salve Regina (Hail Holy Queen). The finale may be seen here and yes, it’s very powerful:
— 4 —
When you read about historical facts like these and consider the hundreds of thousands and even millions of people who have died for their faith over the past two thousand years you do pause to ask yourself a few questions:
- Why on earth would I or anyone want to be a Christian and face such hostility and the possibility of martyrdom?
- If I come face to face with the reality of my own martyrdom, how will I react? Will I have the strength, faith and fortitude of an Ignatius of Antioch, Thomas More, Roger Wrenno or the martyrs of the Reign of Terror?
I’m not the only one who has asked himself during the process of converting to the Catholic Church and seeing just how hated, mocked and ridiculed it is by the world “Why on earth am I doing this? And how will I be able to ask my children to face the same fate by raising them as Catholics?”
Sparing the long and arduous details of my own journey I will say simply that it involves faith and reason. When combined after much research, introspection, study and meditation, I reached the only conclusion I could before me. So that answered question one. As to question two that is a something I will never know unless the time should come. But immersing oneself in history and its players does in a sense help prepare you for the situation with examples of courage, faith and perseverance.
— 5 —
Among the examples I can give of non-martyrs who help strengthen my faith as well as appeal to my reason are those such as the following by Flannery O’Connor. Both bring to mind the fact that we are called to live our lives in imitation of Christ in all things. The Beatitudes are inseparable from the crucifixion.
“…the only thing that makes the Church endurable is that it is somehow the body of Christ and that on this we are fed. It seems to be a fact that you have to suffer as much from the Church as for it but if you believe in the divinity of Christ, you have to cherish the world at the same time that you struggle to endure it. ” – Flannery O’Connor, The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor
“What people don’t realize is how much religion costs. They think faith is a big electric blanket, when of course it is the cross. It is much harder to believe than not to believe. If you feel you can’t believe, you must at least do this: keep an open mind. Keep it open toward faith, keep wanting it, keep asking for it, and leave the rest to God.” – Flannery O’Connor, The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor
Recalling that “catholic” means “universal”, once you look see the world and creation as a whole containing an order to things, you see things as the novelist Walker Percy did. Or as Heather King explains, all things from different walks of life are part of the light:
Someone once asked the novelist Walker Percy why he was Catholic. He replied, “What else is there?” That’s the way I’ve come to feel as well. You can subscribe to Jungian thought with its archetypes, symbols, and dreams: all utterly valid and part of the light; you can detach from your thoughts through meditation: part of the light; you can experience the healing power of nature: part of the light; you can see and rightfully rail against the ways that we sometimes appropriate “religion” and ideas and belief systems to our own ends, and worse, try to impose [those ends] on others: part of the light; you can unearth the ways your childhood has shaped and wounded you: part of the light. But you will never get to the truth, and become your most authentic self, without seeing your own incredible propensity for darkness and sin; without acknowledging the ways that you have hurt, or are capable of hurting, others. “The operation of the church is entirely set up for the sinner,” wrote Flannery O’Connor, “which creates much misunderstanding among the smug.”
In the words of Pope Francis the Church is a field hospital after a battle where wounds need to be treated and healed.
— Postcript —
O’Connor wrote one more quote that stirs knee-jerk reactions from those who do not slow down to consider what she is saying and instead flip out when they see a word too-often abused in American politics today: liberal. This in turn “creates much misunderstanding among the smug”. Again in The Habit of Being she wrote:
“One of the effects of modern liberal Protestantism has been gradually to turn religion into poetry and therapy, to make truth vaguer and vaguer and more and more relative, to banish intellectual distinctions, to depend on feeling instead of thought, and gradually to come to believe that God has no power, that he cannot communicate with us, cannot reveal himself to us, indeed has not done so, and that religion is our own sweet invention.”
Some Catholics are guilty of doing the same as they mold Christianity into something that makes them feel secure in the world. If our faith and our religion (and here I am defining religion as one’s “belief in and reverence for God”) are reduced to vague poetry and feel-good platitudes that focus on ourselves and not on the Creator of All then one would not see courage, strength and perseverance in the examples given above. This would hardly inspire anyone, and the heroic offering of one’s life to such vagueness would be an empty gesture of futility. A waste.
This life is not a waste. It is not my own and it is a gift from God. But it is hardly a waste.