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Friday, November 03, 2006

"You have to Suffer for What You Love"

Lately I've been thinking a lot about martyrdom. It's such an abused word, often used in secular culture to refer to a whiner. Or used in derision in reference to the terrorists who chose to murder thousands of people in the name of "Allah". The terrorists use the word themselves, calling the men who flew planes into buildings "martyrs" for their act of mass murder. It's no wonder that this word has taken on such a bad connotation in popular culture. No one wants to be a "martyr" because to be so is a bad thing all around.

When we Catholics use the word in connection with the Saints and in reference to our history, we understand it clearly...we understand that "martyrdom" is the horrible death or tortures suffered by Christians who willingly submitted and left this world by spilling their blood in union with the suffering of Jesus Christ, while praying for the souls of those who have passed the sentence. We know that the blood of martyrs were the seeds of the Church, and this week, we honored the martyrs and all the other Saints, and we thank them for their witness, their sanctity, and their willingness to spill their blood so that the Church may have continued life.

Yet, all of us, in the back of our minds, think to ourselves, "I could never do anything like that. I could not suffer like that."

I would suggest that maybe we should all reconsider the concept of martyrdom through the eyes of faith, and take another look at what it really means.

This last summer, I attended a conference during which I had the opportunity to hear a wonderful talk given by Mother Assumpta of the Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist. She repeated a couple times throughout her talk, "You have to suffer for what you love."

I wrote it down because it struck me, knocked me over, and continued to resonate. Yet I couldn't put my finger on what it WAS about that line, so over the last several months my mind has continued to return to her words, over and over again, turning them over, savoring them, then letting them rest on my heart.

Today, though, I was suddenly stricken by the deep meaning of Mother Assumpta's words. A couple weeks ago I wrote about the suffering brought about by love; without love, there is no suffering. Without love, there is no grief, no meaning, no martyrdom.

We have all heard the stories of martyred saints, and have often shuddered in repressed terror or revulsion at the thought of their agonizing sufferings. My Confirmation saint was St. Christina--there were several, but I chose St. Christina the Astonishing, specifically. The legends surrounding her spoke of the tortures she endured; she proclaimed the Gospel, and was rewarded via the viscious removal of her tongue. She continued to preach more clearly and eloquently than before. They cut out her eyes, but through God's grace, she could see more clearly than anyone else. The tortures went on, and I think they finally burned her alive, still proclaiming the Gospel message with the tongue she no longer had.

St. Bartholomew was flayed alive. St. Peter was crucified upside down. St. Stephen, the first martyr, was stoned to death. Have you ever considered such a death? Slow, pelting...let your imagination run and offer your heartache to Jesus.

St. Jeanne d'Arc was burned at the stake and called a heretic.

I have considered the sacrifices made by these martyrs and those suffered by thousands of Christians, those average, everyday lay people torn apart by lions and tigers in public arenas in ancient Rome. I have considered their bravery, and I have likewise considered the actions of some of those eventual saints who were offered the cup of martyrdom, over and over again, some of which refused, rejected Jesus, ran away...then kept returning, trying again only to finally be tortured and killed, finally able to remain strong with Jesus as they breathed their last. Even they, in my consideration, are likely much stronger than I would ever be. I'm not at all certain that I would be strong enough to endure the described agonies, nor would I be brave enough to try again. I would be a miserable Christian. Or should I work more on placing trust in God's grace?

I have often asked myself, "Could I really be so willing to suffer so harshly for Jesus Christ?"

I've always thought not. But today, I realized that God's grace is always sufficient, for we are all weak, poor, fragile and lowly human beings, so within our greatest weakness, the Lord displays His strength.

Back in 1995 I was in Law Enforcement Skills training, a 10 week summer program which focused on the physical element of my overall 4 year degree. It was like boot camp for future cops. And it was run by an ex-Green Beret who believed it was his duty to force us to make friends with pain. The other instructors, many of them ex-military as well, were completely on board with this idea, and when we were approaching the most dreaded event, dreaded by many, they emphasized that they wanted to be sure we got our money's worth in that training.

What am I referring to? Tear gas, CS gas, and pepper spray.

As we approached the date of this particular exercise, and then sat through the pre-instruction on the morning of, I think I wore my dread on my sleeve. I wasn't sure I'd make it. I knew what it was about, and as we sat in class that morning studying it, learning how to "assist" our partners through their experiences with the various tortures, my heart was in my throat. I couldn't even eat my lunch that day. It was only so much sawdust. I was terrified that I would not be able to withstand the pain, or that I would run away. I'm not sure which idea frightened me more...cowardace or pain.

But I knew that if I was going to be a cop, I had to swallow my fear and go through with it. After all, others had done so...I must, as well. The rewards were greater that the temporary pain, no matter how unbearable.

The first was tear gas, which reacts with any moisture on your body and your mucous membranes. It causes your eyes to tear, your nose to run, and if it's a hot day, any areas with sweat on them will cause a burning sensation. You might swear you were burning alive. Our instructors made sure that we all got a good "whiff" of the stuff...we were not allowed to leave the gas chamber until they saw smoke go into our noses and out our mouths. No cheating allowed.

The next torture was CS gas...and it was a step higher on the scale of extreme discomfort. Same routine, but this stuff packed a punch. I remember that my skin was burning for the fourth time that day for it was a hot day, hotter in the gas chamber, and I was near the end of the of the last to suffer. I remember removing my mask, breathing in deeply as instructed, thinking that maybe it wouldn't be so bad, exhaled...took one step out the door and doubled over, gasping for air. My eyes were running and I won't describe the other physical manifestations of the chemical. I was suddenly grateful that I hadn't been able to eat lunch. My partner had to drag me away from the chamber as I gasped for air, stumbling because I couldn't stand and I couldn't walk.

The last torture was the worst. Pepper spray. As before, we had partners...girls with girls, guys with guys. Luckily my unit had even numbers. As it had been all day, my partner went first...we'd had to draw straws, and she "won". I wanted to get it over with just as badly, because watching someone else suffer somehow made the anticipation that much worse. I was in the last group. Consider what that does to one's psyche.

The group lined up at one end of the gym. At the other end of the gym were hung 2 dummies. The objective was to be sprayed, then get down to the end, without assistance, and strike the dummy, which was a simulated attacker. Only one blow was necessary. The exercise was all about understanding the pain and the loss of an important sense, and working within it, building survival instinct.

One by one, slowly, I watched all these big, tough guys being hit in the eyes with the pepper spray, I watched them clutch their hands to their faces, scream in pain and double over before wandering down to the dummies and on to the showers, their final relief from all of it. Throughout all of it, my dread continued to build.

I assisted my partner through it, got her into the shower room and turned on the water, where I directed her eyes into the stream. She commented that if she were given the choice between suffering that or childbirth again, she would choose childbirth. (Incidentally, the thought of that experience has always terrified me beyond words). Her comments did not help me try to mentally prepare for this.

Next door in the guy's locker room, we could hear them all screaming and pounding on the walls. Oddly, the women's room was far quieter...there was no pounding, only urgent calls to "Hurry up! Turn on the water!" with the occasional word of profanity.

Finally, it was my turn for this final test. I remember standing there as directed: hands behind my back, clutching the baton. Standing on my tip-toes. Eyes wide open, unblinking. Waiting. The pepper spray being used was orange, so we could all see it coming. They had warned us that if we closed our eyes and tried to fake it, they would take us down, sit on us, and spray us using force if necessary. No cheating. No mercy. No relief. Take it and deal with it. Go voluntarily or we will make it a thousand times worse.

So I stood, watching that orange arc of chemical come towards my precious eyes, willing mightily that I would not blink. I would not be taken down by force...I must go willingly into this experience. I didn't even breathe. I tried not to think of all the big tough men screaming in pain when they were hit.

The instructor somehow nailed my right eye directly, glanced my left and sprayed my left ear. He could see that I could still open my left eye and yelled at me to stop and look at him. Obediently I did so...and watched that arc coming at me again. You will never know what it cost me to stand there and watch again, this time knowing what was coming. Already in agony, wanting to scream and double over, too.

I remember not screaming. I remember that the agony was horrible...yet somehow I realized that screaming wouldn't deaden the pain. So I only took that baton and slowly made my way down the gym toward the dummy, stopping occasionally to pry my eyelid open, looking blurrily through bits of orange fire. I thought I was close enough, finally, and struck out as hard as I could, only to hear my poor partner cry out in pain (sorry!) and the low chuckle of the instuctor. I swung again...and again...finally hitting the dummy before finally, my partner reached through my agony, took my hand and lead me out of the gym, down the hall, and into the showers.

Oh, that blessed water, washing away that terrible, awful burning! Oh, the glory of sight, the beauty of the wind once I got outside, blowing the rest of the chemical away!

Maybe you're wondering what this has to do with martyrdom? Do I think that the above experience made me a martyr? Indeed not...but today I realized the lesson they taught us that day had more impact than simply to train me for a career I no longer have.

It taught me about pain. It taught me that even though we often think we can't do something, deep within us, God gives us the grace, and He gives us the ability to persevere. I had been terrified of this step, but my strong desire to get through training forced me over this hurdle. Ultimately, I had to sacrifice my fear and experience suffering in order to obtain the final goal.

This is what the martyrs did...but on a much, much, MUCH grander scale. The martyrs knew what they were doing, and they weren't doing it for a degree, for a certification, for accolades, or even experience. What I suffered via chemical force was not suffered out of love, but out of a need to complete a task, and it earned me nothing on the path to Heaven other than some understanding which has struck me 11 years later.

The Holy Martyrs suffered, they willingly called themselves "Christians" for only one thing; for love of God. They were motivated by the love of the cross of Jesus. They suffered, and they died for what they loved...because Jesus Christ had loved them more and by His sacrifice, they knew that their eternal lives were the ultimate goal. In order to get there, they had to die...and they were willing to suffer the most extreme tortures through the knowledge that such a path lead to eternal union with Jesus Christ.

Maybe we are not all called to be martyrs of this sort. We are not all called to be pepper sprayed, either, but that does not diminish the lessons in our everyday sacrifices and sufferings which may ultimately lead us to that final test--that of being willing to die for Jesus Christ.

We all suffer for what we love, and a simple bit of introspection teaches us this. Have you not suffered for your family or for your friends? Mothers? Did you not suffer extremely to bring a new life, a new beloved life into this world? And was it not worth it?

The martyrs knew what so many of us do not understand; suffering is temporary. Suffering is done for love, and alone, they could not have done it. It was God who bore them up and gave them the great gift of being able to die with the name of Jesus Christ, and the prayers for forgiveness of the souls who took their lives, uttered in a final breath. They had to die for what they loved, and it is those things for which we suffer the most that tell us where our priorities and our love truely lies.

You have to suffer for what you love...and if you really love God, you have to be willing to lay it all down for Him, as He laid it all down for us.

God's grace is sufficient, and in our weakness, He is our strength. Should we be called to be martyrs for our faith, all we need to do is to keep our eyes on Jesus and remember that this world is only temporary...but the love of God is eternal.


Anonymous said...

Interesting that you post this today as I have been contemplating John 12:24-26.

Adoro said...

John 12:24-26:

Truly, truly I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. He who loves his life loses it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. If any one serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there shall my servant be also; if any one serves me, the Father will honor him.


nicole said...

Very well-written and challenging. As a mother to 4 kids I often think of the suffering of our Blessed Mother and remember that the small things I have given up and that I suffer are nothing compared to what God calls some of his saints to endure. I also remember that we suffer only what we can bear with God's grace and that we shouldn't discount our own sufferings, even if they pale in comparison to others.
Anyway, excellent essay. Your writings are very challenging.

Kelly Thatcher said...

Your passionate shines through in your writing. Great job.

It was the disciple Stephen who was stoned. He was the first martyr. The Pharisee Saul approved of the stoning, which served to drive the apostles and disciples out of Jerusalem, thereby forcing them to spread the Good News in other areas. Too, Saint Stephen prayed for his murderers in an imitation of Christ. As one of the Early Fathers noted, without the prayers of Stephen, there would be no Saint Paul..

Anonymous said...

Wonderful post and a message I feel, in this age of immediate-self gratification where it seems we all seek our comfort first and foremost, even at the expense of other people, we all need to hear.
Thank you for the reminder!