There are important respects in which any martyr is important for our time. But are there some more relevant than others? If so, which are most relevant – and why?
You may be familiar with the fascinating passages in Veritatis Splendor where St. Pope John Paul II teaches that false views of ethics are refuted by the witness of any martyr:
The unacceptability of “teleological,” “consequentialist,” and “proportionalist” ethical theories, which deny the existence of negative moral norms regarding specific kinds of behavior, norms which are valid without exception, is confirmed in a particularly eloquent way by Christian martyrdom, which has always accompanied and continues to accompany the life of the Church even today. (n. 91)
This great pope, who had seen many martyrs to Communism and Nazism, taught the essential connection between life in Christ and martyrdom – and warned the Church to be prepared (in the right way) to give witness to the faith in death.
And yet it seems that some martyrs are more relevant than others. The North American martyrs are more relevant to us because they’re close to us: their Our Lady of Martyrs Shrine is a stop on the New York State Thruway. Lawyers and politicians rightly find St. Thomas More highly relevant. St. Maria Goretti and the early Roman virgin-martyrs will seem relevant whenever a Christian must accept sacrifices rather than go along with an eroticized culture.
But these are examples of martyrs for special places, circumstances, and occupations. What’s the standard, common, and perduring situation of a Christian today? Considered historically, surely, it’s being embedded within modern, secular societies, i.e., “liberal regimes.” For someone so situated, arguably the most important martyrs for us, are the sixteen Carmelite sisters from Compiègne, executed by guillotine in 1794 in the Place de la Nation in Paris, during the Reign of Terror of the French Revolution.
At least, so it has been argued by Christians of the highest religious and artistic sensibility. I mean Gertrud von Le Fort, in her novella, Song of the Scaffold. And Georges Bernanos, who wrote a play based on the novella, entitled Dialogues des Carmélites, and Francis Poulenc, whose 1956 opera of the same title is based on a libretto by Bernanos. (I was privileged to see a fine production of the Houston Opera last weekend. The magnificent, recent Metropolitan Opera production may be viewed in HD with a free trial on their website.)
Almost every account of martyrdom is graced by details that are deeply moving if they come to light. In the case of “the Martyrs of Compiègne,” the Prioress stood at the base of the scaffold, holding a small statue of Madonna and Child, which each sister kissed, before the exchange: “Permission to die, Mother?” – “Go, my daughter!”
One elderly nun, Sister Charlotte, unable to walk without a cane, was thrown roughly from the cart by a guard: she lay face down, it seemed dead, but then stirred and, getting up, gave thanks that she was still alive, able to die as a martyr with her sisters.
The nun who went first, one of the youngest, Sister Constance, as she approached the guillotine broke out into song with the Salve Regina from Compline. The other sisters joined in, as if in choir. Next the Te Deum and Laudate Dominum, with the sound trailing off as the sisters fell, one by one. The mob gathered there, usually shouting obscenities and curses, this time was completely silent.
More than a year earlier, in September 1792, the sisters at the initiative of the Prioress had made an act of consecration of martyrdom, “so that peace may be restored to the Church and the state.” The fact that, only ten days after their execution, the Reign of Terror came to an abrupt and unexpected end, was taken even then as a sign that their wish had been generously granted by God.
But as I said, these details, astonishing as they are, do not set apart this martyrdom as being especially relevant for us, because all martyrdoms are like this. Rather, one needs to view this martyrdom interiorly and spiritually, not neglecting its political context.
And this is the great service which Von Le Fort, Bernanos, and Poulenc provide us, in their exploration of how entire societies may be manipulated by fear, and of what is required for acting with dignity in the midst of widespread fear. Is fear something we should show contempt for, or embrace? Are there different kinds of fear, such that one kind, which is good, helps drive out others, which are bad?
Von Le Fort wrote in 1931, when the clouds of Nazi totalitarianism were beginning to gather; Bernanos and Poulenc, in the ruins of World War II and its camps. They agreed in finding the witness of the nuns prophetic – warning that the ideals of liberty, equality, and fraternity, if accompanied by irreverence and hatred of religion, can easily be transmogrified into their opposites.
To explore fear, Von Le Fort placed at the center of her novel a fictional sister dominated by fear, Sister Blanche, whom she contrasts with a courageous sister (Marie of the Incarnation) who acts with heroism, sometimes almost recklessly it seems, in contempt of fear. Le Fort clearly believes that the way for a Christian in a “post Christian society” is to be united with Christ in the precise fear he showed in the garden.
“My friend, fear is a great emotion,” a character says in her novel, looking back at the Terror. But then she adds, strikingly, “Not one of us was sufficiently afraid! Society should be afraid. A State should know fear. Governments should tremble. To tremble is to be strong. These things I am writing of have taken place and may reoccur at any moment!”
What Von Le Fort feared – she, almost alone among Germans – did indeed reoccur. It recurred from a lack of the requisite fear. Have we learned her lesson? Do we even look to where we might learn it?
You may also enjoy:
Anthony Esolen’s Our Fear of the Real
Francis X. Maier’s A Candle for Roger