Br. Will Owen, n/OHC
Proper 10 B – Sunday, July 12, 2015
|Christ seduces us and then draws us on to martyrdom|
Martyrdom often confounds us, even repulses us. Or we may look at martyrs—like Oscar Romero, for instance—as deified persons who possess a kind of holiness we ordinary people lack. And, of course, there are the ridiculous examples of martyrs. Take, for instance, the group that Brother Bede likes to refer to who claims to have as a relic the head of John the Baptist as an infant. But however we do so, we dismiss martyrdom to our own detriment. It is at the very heart of the Christian story of redemption and new life. Before Jesus is raised from the dead, he is martyred on a Cross. And he makes it perfectly clear that if we are to follow him, we must share that fate.
Christ seduces us and then draws us on to martyrdom.
Martyrdom rests on our obedience to the Word speaking in our hearts, and it is by the light of Christ that we walk the road that leads to our own death. Obedience has as its root the Latin word that means more simply to listen, and the kind of obedience that Christ asks of us is at its heart a deep listening to the Beloved speaking within us, calling us forward, whispering our name. The Beloved’s voice is often seductive. It claims us, names us, strips us like a lover. In his chapter on Obedience, Saint Benedict points out this dynamic:
It is love, therefore, that impels [obedient persons] to pursue everlasting life; therefore, they are eager to take the narrow road of which the Lord says: Narrow is the road that leads to life (Matt 7:14). They no longer live by their own judgment, giving in to their own whims and appetites; rather, they walk according to another’s decisions and directions, choosing to live in monasteries and to have an abbot over them. […] Almost at the same moment as the master gives the instruction, the disciple quickly puts it into practice […]; and both actions together are swiftly completed as one. (RB 1980, 5:10-12, 9)As Benedict points out, the impetus for obedience and martyrdom is love, and its aim is union with the Beloved. As we listen to the voice of the Beloved, we fall in love more and more with Christ. And with that love as our foundation, we find ourselves eager to follow. We begin to find freedom in giving ourselves—our bodies and our wills—to Christ, in joyful obedience. That foundation of love is absolutely essential if we are to progress in the Christian life, but it is only the beginning, and it’s the easy part.
Christ seduces us, and then draws us on to martyrdom.
With our love for Christ as our focus, and conversion to Christ our one aim, we start down that narrow road that leads to life. And we find that it is, first of all, the road that leads to death, the death of the false, ego-driven self. The death of all our resistance to God’s in-pouring of grace. The death of our exporting of evil and hatred. If we follow Christ long enough and faithfully enough, we must eventually encounter the darkest parts of ourselves. We must face our own hatred, jealousy, and willfulness, our own lust, idolatry, and desire to kill the Other. Most of all we have to confront the ways we have lied to ourselves, the ways we continue, daily, to lie to ourselves.
The recent killings in Charleston have put flesh on this road to martyrdom for me. It would be so easy, especially if, like me, you’re a liberal white person, to condemn the killings as acts of hate, and to see their source as the evil of white supremacy taken root in a lost young man. Even as we might acknowledge and repudiate the racist history of America and the systems of white privilege and black disenfranchisement that history has produced, and even as we might rightly name and mourn our part in perpetuating those systems, we miss something essential, and essentially Christian.
As long as we can point outside of ourselves to the source of evil, be it Dylann Roof, white supremacy, slavery, white privilege, easy access to guns, or any number of other horrors in this world, we excuse ourselves from the difficult and painful process of confronting our own hatred, our own violence, our own disgust. I don’t mean that there are not important lessons to learn about racial hatred in America from the Charleston killings. There absolutely are. And the killings also provide us with another opportunity to follow the voice of the Beloved beckoning us down the road toward martyrdom.
Most of us—I hope all of us—will never enter a church and kill people out of racial hatred. But we share more in common with Dylann Roof and other white supremacists than we want to own up to. We all have hatred within us. I mean real, hot, burning, bubbling hatred. We all have the impulse to kill, maim, and annihilate. Probably that hatred doesn’t come out as wanting to do violence to black people. But maybe it comes out as wanting those we live with to disappear utterly, entirely and violently when who they are seems anathema to who we are, maybe it comes out as a venomous clinging to our own will in the face of those who are different from us, maybe it comes out as seething rage at our impotence in the face of the world’s or our own intractable shortcomings.
Sometimes those forces are turned inward, too. Sometimes rather than wanting to kill or maim someone else, we crave our own annihilation. We seek to merge with another to the point that we disappear. Or we loathe and abuse ourselves. As surely as there are forces of light within us—and there are—there are depths of violence and hatred as well.
Deep listening to the voice of the Beloved eventually takes us to these places. With the light of Christ shining in our darkness, we are given the opportunity to see ourselves. I mean really, truly see ourselves. See the wounds and the pain, the hatred, the resistance, and the love, too. And when we do see in this way, something shatters. Our images of ourselves break apart. We break apart. It’s well known that we cannot look on the face of God and live. But neither can we look on our own truest face and live, at least not the way we’ve been living.
The encounter with self in its fullness, at this level, is its own martyrdom. In meeting the depths of our darkness, we join Christ on the Cross. The 20th-century mystic Simone Weil calls this encounter with the self “affliction,” and sees in it the gateway to union with God:
It is in affliction itself that the splendor of God’s mercy shines, from its depths, in the heart of inconsolable bitterness. If still persevering in our love, we fall to the point where the soul cannot keep back the cry “My God, why hast thou forsaken me?” If we remain at this point without ceasing to love, we end by touching something that is not affliction, not joy, something that is the central essence, necessary and pure […]: the very love of God. (Simone Weil, Waiting for God, trans. Emma Craufurd, p. 44)When we are crucified on the Cross of our own hypocrisy, hatred, and violence, the life born in us is Christ’s life, the very love of God. Weil goes on to describe this love. It fills the whole universe, she says, and becomes the bird with golden wings that pierces an opening in the egg of the world. After that, such a soul loves the universe, not from within, but from without; from the dwelling place of the Wisdom of God, our first-born brother. Such a love does not love beings and things in God, but from the abode of God. Being close to God it views all beings and things from there, and its gaze is merged in the gaze of God. (Weil, p. 50)
When we are crucified and reborn with Christ in this way, our life, Christ’s life, is the life of and in all things, and that means that we are in all things and all things are in us. Then we see that there truly is no way to hate another without hating ourselves, or to kill another without killing ourselves. And having already died and been born into Christ, physical death holds little fear.
Finally, we see, that the way of martyrdom, the way of the Cross, is the way of seduction. Drawn on by the caress of the Beloved’s voice, we obey, we die, and we are made one body with Christ and with all the world.