“Then they will hand you over to be tortured and will put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of my name.” – Matthew 24:9 NRSV
Perpetua and her companions were willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for their belief in the Way of Christ. They were slaughtered in the coliseum at Carthage in 202. Perpetua in particular was wealthy enough that she could have “beaten the rap”. Her father came to her cell on more than one occasion to beg her to recant. She had her family to think of, and an infant child who surely needed her care. Her answer was no. She and her slave, Felicity, died together in a public shaming, wounded by wild animals and killed by sword-wielding soldiers, leaving their children to be raised by others.
In this day and age, in the United States, martyrdom for being Christian is almost nonexistent. We live in a milieu in which religious attitudes of any sort are seen as rather primitive and pitiable. While this acidic atmosphere can make us reluctant to speak about our faith, it isn’t generally life threatening.
My personal martyrdom has not been life threatening either. When it is true to my relationship with Christ, it is a very quiet, inner thing, something that very few people know anything about. It has happened bit by bit over the decades in a sort of crumbling away process. It involves the death of the ego.
Among the sorts of moments I remember as little martyrdoms are forgiving someone who hurt my family badly – a person who did not believe he had done anything wrong. There was also a time of standing up for someone who was being badly treated – and being ostracized in my turn. Or there were incidents when I sat still and listened deeply while someone viciously attacked my character, so that I could try to ferret out the grains of truth amidst the vitriol. Trying to live in the way I believe God calls me, I have sometimes let go of my dreams of wealth – and also, more tenuously and ambivalently, my dreams of power. These sorts of moments when I put myself on the line, with sure clarity that what I am doing is what I need to do to follow the Way of Jesus, are little sufferings. They demand I let go of something valued. It is a kind of stripping away and realigning that put me closer to my own center, the place where God and Love abide. But, nonetheless, something dies.
Of course for every one of those moments there have been dozens, maybe even hundreds, of moments when I didn’t get to that point of knowing what I needed to do and doing it, when the ego ruled the day. And so it feels corny and self-aggrandizing to call the first incidents martyrdom. But I’m going to stick with that way of describing them anyhow. It’s the fact that they cause inner deaths that makes me want to do this. Our suffering needs to be claimed and offered as a gift in order that it lead us to God.
There is about the moments when we make it to clarity and do what we are called to do the knowledge that this is really the most important thing. The instrument we are meant to be gets calibrated this way. We are better able to go forward in service and in love.
O, Holy One of Blessing, make me more and more your instrument as I come to that center within me where I know what you mean. Amen.
Laurie Gudim is a religious iconographer and liturgical artist, a writer and lay preacher living in Fort Collins, CO. See her work online at Everyday Mysteries With others she manages a website for the Diocese of Colorado highlighting congregations’ creative ministries: Fresh Expressions Colorado