This morning my house smells like another animal has died underneath it (really it is terrible, there is a family of armadillos under there and no one can get them out, funny but also not so funny), my daughter has a fever and my husband and I had a
fight disagreement this morning which we have not resolved yet. My face is broken out with acne which seems ridiculous now in my mid 30’s, there is no chocolate in the house and it is too early for a glass of wine. I am cranky and quite sorry for myself.
During my daughter’s nap (the best thing about fevers are the naps, I had a friend tell me that when my daughter was an infant and I was horrified, now I get it and agree) I sit down and read Kathleen Norris’ The Cloister Walk which we are working through in the Liturgy of Life Reading Group.
This week’s reading ends on a chapter about the The Virgin Martyrs. A group of women saints all of whose claim to fame is that they chose death rather than to marry a non-believer or deny their faith. And though this may sound foolish to some, this wasn’t just a short lived trend. Our world continues to produce Christian martyrs by the thousands, about 2,000 last year, mostly in Syria.
When I first began reading this chapter I was annoyed. I wanted to sit and feel sorry for myself but something about reading stories of people who were tortured and died for practicing not just any faith, but the same faith as me, came as a bit of a kick in the pants. I stopped pouting and began imagining how terrible these tortures and deaths were, like somehow I could share their suffering just by thinking about it. And then, of course, I pose the question to myself. Would I make the same choice if I was in Syria today? If someone came in and put a gun to my head would I stand firm?
It isn’t a bad question, but I find myself circling round it, wondering if I would really be brave enough, imagining again the tortures and feeling more and more sure that I wouldn’t.
As I finish the chapter I read a line that strikes me, Norris says,
“But our cynicism blinds us to a deeper truth: a martyr is not a model to be imitated, but a witness, one who testifies to a new reality.“
And I realize that I’ve been asking myself the wrong question, a question that in some ways ignores the truth of what these men and women are dying for.
You see the word martyr means witness, and the reality that Norris is referring to is The Kingdom of God. Our Christian martyrs speak to its actuality, their death proclaims to the world, The Kingdom does exist. Their lives stand as empirical evidence for something that remains undefinable and mysterious. And with their sacrifice they give us courage to hope that life in Christ really does keep on getting better.
Earlier this year in our Reading Group we read Beginning to Pray, in it Anthony Bloom, a bishop in the Orthodox Church, he describes the influence of his father who one day said to him,
“Always remember that whether you are alive or dead matters nothing. What matters is what you live for and what you are prepared to die for.”
Bloom helps me to change up my question. The truth is most of us won’t face persecution like those Christians in Syria. But we will all face death. The question for us then isn’t, “Am I willing to die?” because death is inevitable, willing or not. But instead, “Do I believe in the witness of the martyrs?”
Do I believe that The Kingdom of God that they testify to is real?” And furthermore, “Does my life attest to this reality?”
Or conversely, if you subtracted my faith from my life and took out all belief, would I look or act any different, would I continue to make the same choices?
Right now I am not looking down the barrel of a gun. I am looking at a fussy preschooler, a frustrated husband, a stinky house and a face full of pimples. I want to stuff my head under the blanket where I can’t smell the rotting armadillo and go back to bed. The martyrs witness stands. They implore me to proclaim with them The Kingdom of God not with my death but with my life.