Yesterday I was at Mass, and, in his homily, the priest commented on St. Thomas More. It is always very poignant to see any human being, young or old, going through trials and ordeals with strength. ‘Martyrdom’ and ‘the way to martyrdom’ is something fascinating and emotive. Well, I speak for myself at least.
Martyrdom is the highest grace one can receive in a lifetime; it is also the highest rank in holiness. The closest to Christ himself, THE MARTYR par excellence!
Experience, knowledge and discernment tell us that we can see and understand “martyrdom” in a human way, as if it were a matter of personal strength. It resembles an athlete who is in training for years and years. In fact, the image is used by St. Paul in the following instances: Acts 20:24; Gal 2:2; Ph 3,12-14; 1 Tim 4:7; 1Tm 4:8; 1Co 9:24-27. The Olympic Games for instance highlight for us the values of “effort”, “perseverance”, “professionalism”, “achievement”, and hopefully the “Gold medal”.
We can read and interpret the Strength we observe in the Martyr as something of another class. Pope John XXIII, in fact, once said that when he read the writings of the first-time saint, Thérèse, that is, The Story of a Soul, he felt he was reading not the story of the “little Flower of Lisieux” but the story of “a steel bar”. Indeed, her own sister, Céline, the one who later became Sister Geneviève, said that the most prominent “virtue” in Thérèse was: “Fortitude” (la Force).
This, however, leaves us no better informed.
In this light, then, let us look at St. Teresa of Avila who constantly refers to “determination”. Recall to mind her famous expression “determinada determinación” (determined determination). She mentions how this steely determination is important in order to grow in spiritual life. She even dares to say that the trials “contemplative” people, that is, monks, cloistered nuns, face are infinitely greater than the ones “active” ones (religious and people in general) face. Would you believe it? How many times have I heard people saying: “ah these nuns, how happy a life they lead – the cloistered ones!” “You see them always with a smile on their faces!” Do people at large know that these “refined metals” are prepared in a very rigorous “melting pot”?
But it is in Jesus’ words that the closest meaning of “fortitude” is to be gauged: “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force” (Mt. 11,12). What, then, is this “violence”? What is the “violence” required in order to “enter the kingdom”? A “violence” that will make us cross the threshold of the “kingdom”. This in turn brings to mind that there is a “threshold”, a “door” and that this is a “narrow door” : “For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Mt. 5:20) Worthy of remembering, here, is the fact that the righteousness of the Pharisees in putting into practice Moses’ Law was already impressive and very “athletic”: see how St. Paul describes himself as a “Pharisee, son of Pharisees” (Acts 23:6), and as “being more exceedingly zealous of the traditions of my fathers” (Gal. 1:14).
What is this Sacred “threshold”?
We need to become like children in order to enter into the “kingdom”; to go through the eye of the needle. Mt. 18:13: “I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven”.
To change, and become like little children, is an adult choice. One of the most difficult to make. We do not have the trust and the capacity of abandonment towards God that a child has. We lose it while going through our teenage years and early adulthood. The tough world of adults hardens us. But, in fact, this is a weakness, not a strength. Not being able to make a total act of trust, of abandonment, and not being able to entrust ourselves to God, is a sign of weakness, with which most people would agree I think.
When Jesus clearly enunciates, in black and white, the conditions of following Him, we feel we have reached a dead end. Remember the rich young man? Now, if you look carefully, we are all “rich” and “young” – at least “rich” in our desires, – and when Jesus shows him the “threshold” “Jesus looked at him and loved him. ‘One thing you lack,’ he said. ‘Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.’” (Mk. 10:21)
What is the young man’s reaction?
“At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth.”
It does not stop here, for what comes afterwards is the most enlightening teaching ever: “Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, ‘How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!’ The disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said again: ‘Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.’” This is Jesus’ way of saying: “it is simply impossible.” “The disciples were even more amazed, and said to each other, ‘Who then can be saved?’”
“Difficult” or “Impossible”?
At this juncture one has to pay great attention. It is not “difficult” to enter the kingdom, it is simply “impossible”. The last vestige of wealth we have to sell is our “ego” – our tendency to be attached to oneself. Can we get rid of this huge mountain? Move it? Remove it? The reaction of the disciples throws a really huge light on this that encompasses the whole Gospel, because the threshold, the entrance door, that allows us to enter into the Trinity, is simply to put into practice all the advice Jesus gives throughout the Gospel. It is the central point in Jesus’ teaching on “how to enter the kingdom”.
“…who then (under these conditions) can be saved”, who can enter the kingdom? Who can have that Strength, that Fortitude, those “muscles”, that training, that would allow him to enter the kingdom?
Jesus’ answer is staggering: “Jesus looked at them and said, ‘With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.’”
The day we start to become Christians, to understand that Christianity is not only “an amazing religion” (as, for instance, Gandhi described it, together with many others from other religions who have read the Sermon on the Mount), “with a very high ideal” (think of: “love your enemy” … “pray for him/her”, and “do them good”), is when we understand that Christianity is not only “a very difficult religion”, but simply an “impossible religion” to put into practice.
It is simply “impossible” to become Christian, to be Christian! By this I mean: it is impossible with our own strength to really live the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). Do not even dream of attempting to do this, do not illude yourself. If you say it is only “difficult”, then your understanding of “Fortitude”, “the Fortitude of the saints”, “the Fortitude of the Martyrs” is as yet deficient, You are still seeing it from a human angle.
Do we see the conditions to “enter the kingdom” in their true light? Do we apply some make up, or use a paint brush, or a photoshop retouch, in order to adapt them to us, to our aesthetic views or to our understanding? Do we see that they are not only “tough”, “difficult” but mostly and simply impossible for us to achieve with our own strength? Do we really see the difference between: “difficult” and “impossible”?
To help us better comprehend the meanings of these two terms, let us see how they are defined.
– “difficult” means that with “a lot of effort, perseverance, and inner strength” we will get there. “difficult” can also sometimes mean, in our popular understanding of holiness, that some are “born saints” and others are not. Some, for example, think this about saints, like Padre Pio.
– “impossible”, next, means that one needs to let go, one needs to decide, with a tremendous strength, to rely on God (like a child) and ask for His Holy Spirit – because, in effect, He really wants to give us His Holy Spirit.
“Ask and you will receive” is a “proverb” very familiar to us all. This, however, is not just an English proverb, they are Jesus’ words, which open up the Kingdom to us; they help us, as adults, “become like children”. It looks very simple, in fact, so simple that we are not used to this interpretation of it. We prefer to pay our own bills, with our own money, earned by the sweat of our own brow. We do not know this “new language” of “asking in order to receive”. It is so alien to us, that it costs us an arm and a leg to adopt it, and to transform it into a new habit. We prefer to deserve what we receive. We are not used to “free things”, not used to “receive freely”, and even less so to “ask for it”, yes, just to “ask for it”. Heaven is right above our heads, but is might as well have been closed to us for years. We cannot imagine it being that close and, in fact, open, wide open, waiting for us to just – ask.
Are we decided and determined to follow this “impossible” religion?
Or, are we still deluding ourselves with thoughts of a “fantastic religion” … that is never really put into practice? It is not by going to Church every Sunday that we become Catholic, or remain Catholic. Apologies for saying this. It simply requires the whole Gospel being put into practice; it requires the “impossible religion”, the fantastic but impossible “conditions of Christ” to become reality in us. Are we ready for this challenge? To meet this challenge, we should return to the fundamental teaching of Jesus: the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew, Chapters 5 through to 7.
One More Step
– What is the most difficult task the disciples of Jesus had to go through during their lives?
– To follow Jesus in His Passion.
The strong, generous, fervent Peter, the one who was ready to die for Jesus (see John 13), did not really succeed (see John 18). The strongest person on earth at this overwhelmingly stressful, dark, and dramatic moment is simply a woman: Mary, the mother of Jesus, his first disciple, the New Eve.
“Mary, give us your heart, your docile heart, so we can “ask and receive”, so we can be docile to Jesus, to His impossible words. You are the one who believed that all that He says is possible to God, that if Jesus-God says something it is totally possible, by the Holy Spirit, to put into practice. Mary, show us the Way, transform for us, with your prayers, the “heart of stone” into a “heart of flesh”, into the image of yours, you the Archetype of the Disciple, the Mother of the Martyr, Martyr yourself in your Heart. Then, learning to be docile, like you, we will be filled by the Holy Spirit, the Love of God, and then we will be able to follow Jesus, as you did … with Fortitude.”