Monday, February 18, 2019

What does white martyrdom look like?

In the long history of the Roman Catholic Church, there have been many brave souls who have died for their faith, especially during the times when the faith was under severe and direct persecution.  Their courageous stories have been regaled in the pages of Church History, and many of them may have been embellished for good measure, perhaps. Saints like St Agatha, one of the early martyrs, heroically died for her faith because she refused to give in to the overtures of a potential suitor.  She had earlier vowed to live a chaste life, giving her entire life to Jesus her spouse.  However, this didn’t deter her pagan suitor who felt spurned and tortured her to death.  Some accounts of her torture were rather gory, to say the least.  Hers is just one of the many stories that fill the pages of our Church’s history, where heroes of our faith literally shed their blood for Christ, which is why on the feast day of martyrs, the liturgical colour Red is used to remind us of how the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.

Is martyrdom something that only belongs to a bygone era?  Not at all, as we do have martyrs who have died gruesome and bloody deaths in our time and recent memory.  Names like Oscar Romero, and the heroic Trappist monks in Algeria who were kidnapped and then beheaded come readily to mind.   But is there another type of martyrdom that doesn’t so much require the shedding of blood, but the dying to the self?  Yes, and it’s called white martyrdom.  This is a real thing, and not something conjured up, but the real challenge lies in the fact that there isn’t much either written about such lives of heroism, or that there isn’t much talk about them either.  Who are these martyrs, and what does a white martyrdom look like?  

A martyrdom that requires the shedding of one’s blood leading to the giving up of one’s life is not usually something that stretches over a long period of time.  After all, there’s only that much blood one can physically shed before going into serious cardia ischemia, which is when the blood flowing to the heart is insufficient, causing all sorts of problems to the other organs. 

In white martyrdom, the dying isn’t physical.  Our Christian spiritual language has the phrase “dying to oneself”, and it has a certain pain involved, though not necessarily one that is physical.  It is that pain that one enters into, and experiences, whenever a choice or decision is made that sees the person living counterintuitively.  With Lent coming around the corner, this ‘dying to oneself’ is often translated to mean refusing to do things that one delights in and enjoys. That typical giving-up of things like sugary treats and chocolate readily come to mind, but while these are examples of a ‘dying to things that delight’, they hardly come close to martyrdom, whether red or white.

In martyrdom, one clearly makes a choice to do what one does because it directly impacts one’s belief that Jesus Christ is Lord.  That he is Lord necessarily means that what he teaches and instructs and commands are fundamental and not to be toyed with, not to be side-stepped, and not to be cast aside.  In white martyrdom, it is because one wants to adhere to gospel values that then causes one’s life to take on a darker shade, and as a result, one then enters into a Gethsemane as well, with the difference that this Gethsemane lasts longer than just one night the way it did for Jesus.  

What do these choices look like?  For many, these choices will be moral choices, where one chooses deliberate and consciously to live in a way that shows one’s life parallel closely to the gospels.  In the light of the current wave of the LGBT movement that is sweeping the world by storm, it could look a bit like this – that a person has same-sex attraction (SSA) and admits of this to himself or herself, and is conflicted because as a Catholic, there are strong and clear teachings about the need for chaste living, whether one is single or married.  No one gets a pass from this need to live a chaste life. However, the LGBT movement flies as its banner the belief that love is something that should be freely celebrated (which is not untrue) and that this ‘love’ ought to be expressed in a physically sexual way (which is true only in marriage), and because of that, ‘marriage’ ought then to include those who have SSA (again, not true).  

When the conflicted SSA Catholic is clear about these, the cross or the opportunity for white martyrdom becomes clear.  To choose to live chastely as a single, to not demand to want ‘marriage’ despite having SSA feelings and sentiments, and seeing the world around you living it up and appearing happy and contented is going to cause a certain death within. It’s probably going to feel worse than being nailed to a cross, because even Jesus only lasted three hours on that infamous gibbet and died.  Your choice to live chastely in response to Jesus’ love for will be a daily death, and if your family knows of your heroic choice, and bears this cross with you in prayer and Christian esprit de corps and mutual sacrifice and love, your entire family undergoes white martyrdom as well.  

We need to believe that this kind of sacrifice has huge positive repercussions in the way that a stone cast onto a still body of water sends ripples in an outward direction. Your sacrifice won't just purify your love for God - it will also save souls.  You have no idea of the way this purifies the church and  purifies the body of Christ, but it does - in the same way that a bloody martyr causing a physical death purified and continues to purify the Church.  

I took pains to elaborate and give flesh to one example of a white martyrdom, but there are so many others as well.  Staying in a loveless marriage, enduring some physical pain or affliction that doesn’t seem to end, living with a handicap and despite that, living with great joy and hardly any bitterness.  Our opportunities for white martyrdom are endless, if you think about it.

But these only make any sense at all if we are of the understanding that our lives are not about us.  Only if we see our lives as the canvass on which God’s love, beauty and sovereignty are manifested to the world, does any martyrdom make sense, regardless of whether it be a white or a red martyrdom.

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