Friday, October 19, 2012

"The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church." (To surrender one's life to a vision and an ideal is the only way to truly live. Reflections on the Feastday of Saints Isaac Jogues, Jean de Brebeuf, and Companions, Martyrs)

"They tore out his heart after having tortured and killed him; they then ate his heart, hoping that the courage they had seen in him would be theirs". 

These are lines from an account, gruesome and gory for sure, of the martyrdom of Jean de Brebeuf, one of the Jesuit missionaries to North America whose feast we celebrate today.

“Unless the grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies it remains a single grain; but if it falls to the ground and dies, it bears much fruit...For whoever seeks to save his life shall lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake and for the sake of the gospel shall save it”.

Jean and his companion, Gabriel Lalemant, were tortured by the Iroquois to whom they sought to bring the message of the Gospel. The two, the story continues, were fastened to stakes, scalped, subjected to a “mock-baptism” by being doused with boiling water, then had burning hatchets hung around their necks before they were further mutilated and finally killed. And all throughout the ordeal, Jean de Brebeuf not once cried out; this was what made his torturers marvel at his unusual courage and wished that it too could be theirs.

Isaac Jogues and the other members of the group were likewise subjected to similar tortures. In an account of his ordeal, written before he was able, with the help of Dutch Protestants to escape and temporarily head back home to Paris, Jogues wrote:

"We were made to go up from the shore between two lines of Indians who were armed with clubs, sticks, and knives. I was the last and blows were showered on me. I fell on the ground and thought my end had come, but they lifted me up all streaming with blood and carried me to be tortured some more."

Worse was to follow. The Mohawks cut off two of Jogues’ fingers, and Pope Urban VIII had to remove the canonical restriction in order for him to celebrate Mass when he returned to Paris where he stayed but a short time, for against the wishes of many in his home country, he returned to Canada to resume the missionary work he had begun and for which he suffered tremendous physical pain.

It was on this return that he was finally martyred, killed by the people to whom he had sought nothing more than to bring Christ and his Gospel. Like de Brebeuf, the natives developed a grudging respect for Jogues, calling him, “Ondessonk”, the “indomitable one”; he was not only fearless, he was also relentless in the his pursuit of the mission he believed God had given him.

What allows one to endure such hardship and pain in the name of something he so profoundly believes in? What consumes a person to lay down his or her life, surrendering it all for the sake of a cause to which he or she totally commits? The “North American Martyrs” Isaac Jogues, Jean de Brebeuf, Antoine Daniel, Noel Chabanel, Jean Lalande, Gabriel Lalemant, Charles Garnier, and Rene Goupil, belong to a long line of martyrs stretching all the way back to the early days of Christianity, when men like Ignatius of Antioch gave their lives in absolute surrender to an ideal, a vision of faith and of life that had totally consumed them.

“Let me be food for the wild beasts”, Ignatius wrote, “through whom I can reach God. I am God’s wheat, and I am being ground by the teeth of wild beasts that I may prove to be pure bread.”

“The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church”, so goes an ancient saying. But perhaps we can even say that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of humanity itself. The Greek word marturein, simply means “to bear witness”, to live one’s life in such a way that those who see it are themselves led to the light of the vision and ideals one believes in; in the case of a Christian, of course, that vision, that ideal, is none other than Jesus himself.

And for as long as there are those willing to put themselves, and their lives on the line, those willing to take the risk of letting go of theirs fears, worries, and anxieties, in order to bear witness to an ideal of goodness, of truth, and of love, no matter how seemingly insignificant this might seem in the eyes of the world, there will be hope for humanity. For as long as there are those willing to give of themselves completely, to generously spend their life rather than hoarding it, the work of spreading the “Good News” will continue.

“Unless the grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies it remains a single grain; but if it falls to the ground and dies, it bears much fruit...For whoever seeks to save his life shall lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake and for the sake of the gospel shall save it”.

God gave us life to spend and not to keep. If one were to live too cautiously, always thinking first of one’s own profit, ease, comfort, security, if one’s sole aim were to make life as long and as trouble-free as possible, if one will make no effort except for oneself, he loses life even more. And that is perhaps the greatest paradox of all; the great paradox that encompasses the lives and martyrdom of Isaac Jogues, Jean de Brebeuf, their companions, and countless others like them. For if one spends his life for others, if he forgets health and time and wealth and comfort in his desire to do something for Christ and for the men and women for whom Christ died, one is in reality, winning life and gaining it even more.

Imagine what would have happened to life if everyone had wished for nothing but to remain comfortably at home, and there had been no such person as an explorer or a pioneer. What would happen if every mother refused to take the risk of bearing a child? What would happen if all people spent all they had upon themselves? What an awful world this would be if no one ever took a risk to make it better, if no one ever chose “to witness” to an ideal.

The very essence of life is in risking life and spending it, not in saving it and hoarding it. True, it is the way of weariness, of exhaustion, of giving to the uttermost, even of finally laying down one’s life—and yet, in the end, it is better any day to burn out than to rust out, to die for something than to live for nothing, for that is the way to happiness, that is the way to true glory, and it is the only way to God.

If you get the chance, see the film “Blackrobe”, or read about some of the more recent martyrs of the faith, and marvel at the courage of those whose blood was shed in order for the Church to continue its work of bearing witness to Christ. And the next time you find yourself wanting to run away from a difficult task, a personal problem, or even a tough day—ask yourself: “If the martyrs were willing to give their lives and shed their blood for the what they so totally believed in, what about me? What do I believe in? What am I willing to give?”

"The Kingdom of Heaven is a condition of the heart." (Friedrich Nietzsche)