It is true, I wrote on the same topic last time. But I have more to say. And at least for the present, I am convinced that what I will say needs attention.
My own reading of the Holy Martyrs, from the first centuries, but also from the most recent, persuades me that the saints were happy, and remain so.
They had, gentle reader will admit, a few things to complain of. Each case is its own, but all have in common that the saints in question weren’t very well treated by the world.
We could say that they had, have, some reason for griping – whether or not anyone were listening. Perhaps there were secret moments when they were inclined to cuss. Whether they ever fell into this temptation is another question.
Here we consider not only the “witnesses” who met death, knowingly, but those who survived. In addition to corpses, I think of men rotting in jail, today, in China, in Australia, in America (falsely charged). For some, death would be easier.
But there are no time limits on witnessing. Our bodies can only take so much, and there is no one who can live forever, down here. Prodigies of nature aside, we may all reasonably look forward to relief from worldly suffering.
This would be so even if there were no God; although we, as faithful Christians, know better. We also know, from faith, that we can turn to Him, in moments when our fate seems unbearable. We don’t know how He’ll answer, but we know an answer will come.
In this absolute sense we are “liberated.” We are entirely free of the necessity of whining. It is a comfort to know there are things we needn’t do, and one of them is panic.
“Easy for you to say,” I have been told from time to time. One’s instinct is to fire back. But that is also an unnecessary action, since nothing one might fire back will work. In the end, although the fact is little known, people are not converted by arguments, but by fashion.
I’m using this last word facetiously, to a purpose. So many (we can’t know how many) were converted in this way among the Roman legions, and other persecutors. It was a surprise to their mates. Suddenly the man who is helping to kill the victim announces, “I want to be like him.”
For the victim has set a powerful example, of how to live and die. But there is more to it than that. We guess it, if we think practically.
There are angels, even if we don’t notice them. The martyr has quite certainly called them to his aid. They are “in the room” – in the mysterious, psychic space occupied by the martyrdom. The circumstance is intense.
We speak of “demonic inhabitation,” if we speak as Christ spoke, but what of sudden angelic habitation? One might begin to descry the mechanism, by which the good, true, and beautiful is conveyed, from one person to another.
This is so, generally, in the accounts of saints. Their sanctity is contagious. We cannot predict how it will spread; it is not a flu virus. But the “mysticism” we so easily detect, when we are brought into contact with certain religious people – including those with only local fame, and perhaps little of that – is something embodied.
They are “possessed,” by this analogy. They have, I rather suspect, participated in this possession, by welcoming the spirit in. Saint Paul touches on this in several places; that which was “I” is now in the service of something greater than I. The Christ that one is serving can do things that the “I” never could.
Centuries of attestation confirm this, along with the observation that we have been made new. But it is not we who are new, but God in us.
Something that feels new, and indestructible, has come to replace what felt old, aging, tentative, lost. Yet this is hardly like a diet or an exercise regime; for we know perfectly well that we did not achieve it by our own efforts.
At best we can claim that we opened ourselves, to this new experience – to the divine that was available, in the proximity of our lives. And in doing so, we have learned that it was there all along: the Grace of which we were mostly ignorant, waiting patiently.
In a smaller way, absolution sometimes hints of this – the sense that one’s chains have been broken. We guess that under temptation, perhaps greater temptation, we will sin again. But also we know that absolution is possible. We may not be saints, but we have come to the point where we can know that saints are possible.
This is a major step, for a sinful man. It is, if you will, the moment when “the penny drops” for anyone engaged in the event of learning.
Can you remember when you learned to read, or how to ride a bicycle? They were moments like that; a before, and an after. You did not think it was possible, although you saw others do it. But now it is taking its part within your nature. You can’t imagine how you DIDN’T know.
We live, I’ve been noticing, in apocalyptic times. I needn’t cite biblical prophecies, for I doubt they apply. Or if they do we won’t understand them, for only in retrospect, even in the Gospels, do the prophecies make sense.
Rather, we’ve made up prophecies of our own, like children earnestly trying to scare ourselves. The world is going to end from one cause or another – in fire, flood, pestilence, whatever. Sometimes it does, though it is almost never the fate we were expecting. This means it wasn’t the one we were prepared for.
From a purely practical point of view, however, I recommend Catholic, Christian conversion. It is the one preparation that meets all exigencies.
*Image: The Conversion of Saul by Michelangelo, c, 1542-45 [Cappella Paolina (the Pauline Chapel), Apostolic Palace, Vatican City]