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The Joy of the Martyrs

  • ANTHONY ESOLEN

Who can hold out against the father of lies, without the grace of God?


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smith

Winston Smith, drinking oily gin in a drab little tavern called The Chestnut Tree, hears a song over the television that reminds him of something — what was it again?  — that happened to him in a dungeon, in the bowels of the Ministry of Love:

Under the spreading chestnut tree, 
I sold you and you sold me;
There lie you and here lie we, 
Under the spreading chestnut tree.

Yes, that was it.  They had gotten inside him, prying open his heart.  They had let loose the rats and spiders of his nightmares.  They had made him betray Julia, the woman he loved.  She had betrayed him also.  Now all that was left of their love was like the cauterized knob of an amputated limb.  His eyes welled up with tears, as the waiter brought him another bottle.

He had wanted to be a witness to the truth, but he had failed.  If Big Brother said that two and two made five, then you had to think your way into agreeing with it.  You had not merely to lie, but to believe your lie.  Winston Smith was now too weary to go over it all again.  They had won.

And now they jeered from the screen.  Smith didn't know it because poetry had been buried many fathoms deep under the sludge of all-in-all government, but the song was itself a parasite.  A poet named Longfellow, many years before, had used that first line to honor a simple hard-working Christian man, a man of hope and integrity, who would sit among his boys on a Sunday in church, and hear his daughter singing.  These were its first words:

Under a spreading chestnut tree. 
The village smithy stands,
The smith, a mighty man is he, 
With large and sinewy hands,
And the muscles of his brawny arms 
Are strong as iron bands.

But who can hold out against the father of lies, without the grace of God?  George Orwell's defeated "hero" in Nineteen Eighty-Four had no faith.

Another Dungeon

The scene is almost two thousand years ago.  A fiery preacher from the desert sits in chains in a dank and vermin-ridden cell, beneath the palace of a puppet king.  Years later, a man named John who once followed him would write that he, also named John — God is gracious — had come as a witness, to bear witness to the Light.  The word he used was martyria: witness, testimony, and, in the end, what we know as martyrdom.

The accused man has been beaten bloody.  He owns nothing in the world but the clothes on his back.  Behind the procurator stand all the colossal and bullying symbols of Roman authority.

Sounds of the flute and tambourine, and dancing in sensuous abandon reach him from above.  Consider the contrast.  In the halls of Herod Antipas we have wealth, good repute among the Roman occupiers, rich food and drink, and a young woman dancing before her stepfather, while her mother looks on, calculating.  Below, the nearly naked John the Baptizer, and filth.  It seems like all the world to nothing.

Not to the mother Herodias, though.  Her husband, the brother-in-law with whom she is guilty of incest, fears John because he bears witness to the truth.  She hates John for the same reason.  So when the weakling king, ingratiated by the girl, promises her anything she desires, the girl, instructed by her mother, says, "Bring me the head of John the Baptizer on a platter" At which point truth and justice yield to face-saving and vengeance.

Down below, John hears the heavy door swing open, and knows it is time.

He need not have told a lie to save his life.  All he had to do was to stop telling the truth.  If you had collared a Roman soldier or even a priest and held a knife to his throat, he'd have abjured the whole pantheon of pagan gods in a heartbeat.  Why, the gods themselves were traitors and liars when it suited them.  Not the God of Israel.

What is Truth?

It is a year later.  The man for whom John came to witness, the true Light that enlightens everyone who comes into the world, is being tried for insurrection.  The charges are baseless.  They are lies.  The Roman procurator, an intelligent but ruthless and cunning man, knows very well that they are lies.

"Are you a king?" he asks, not suppressing a smirk.

Again the contrast is stunning.  The accused man has been beaten bloody.  He owns nothing in the world but the clothes on his back.  Behind the procurator stand all the colossal and bullying symbols of Roman authority.

"Are you the king of the Jews?"

The man replies.  He is a king, but his kingdom is not of this world.  "So then you are a king?" says the procurator, wavering between contempt and fear.

He had been hoping for a decent night's rest.  The last thing he'd wanted was to have to deal with these Jews and their mad religion, their mad belief in the one true God.  He had thought he could dispose of this matter without having to think.  Thought is dangerous.  Thought can bring you to the door of truth.  There are all kinds of reasons for wanting that door to stay shut.  Men cannot endure the light.

"You say that I am a king," says the accused.  "For this reason I was born and came into the world," he says, speaking the common language of the east, "hina martyreso tei aletheini," that he might be a witness, a martyr, to the truth.

Without truth to witness to, there is no martyrdom.  Without God to give us the grace and the courage, there is no martyrdom, because on our own we have no strength to hold out against the lie.

"What is truth?" asked Pontius Pilate, washing his mind before he washed his hands.

We are Martyrs to the Resurrection

It is a few weeks later, at Solomon's portico.  Many thousands of Jews from all over the world have come to Jerusalem to celebrate the feast of Pentecost, the fiftieth day after Passover — the great jubilee day.  It is a feast of gratitude and rejoicing.

But a sudden wind has swept the city, and people are shouting and crying out in their many tongues — What has happened?  What is going on?

A man of broad shoulders, in the ordinary clothing of a workman, stands forth on a balcony above.  He is speaking.

A man of broad shoulders, in the ordinary clothing of a workman, stands forth on a balcony above.  He is speaking.

There was a night when he did not speak.  His master had been arrested and put on trial for his life.  On that night this man, Simon, christened "Rock" by the master in one of his moments of sublime command or irony or both, had refused to witness to the truth.  "I tell you," lie snapped at the serving woman, trying to muffle his Galilean accent, "I don't know the man!" Cunning strategy, that.  But Jesus glanced his way, and "Rock," Peter, left the area and wandered into the night, weeping bitterly.

Now he stands and speaks.  "Men of Israel, do not be amazed," he cries.  For the promised Messiah had come, and they had put him to death, the Lord of life, but God has raised him from the dead, "and of this we are martyres!"

Thousands of repentant sinners would be baptized on that day, says Saint Luke.  But Peter knew what kind of final witness, what martyrdom, awaited him.  The risen Lord had told him there would come a time when men would bind him and take him where he did not want to go.

He would be crucified upside down, on the Vatican hill, outside of the walls of Rome.

God is the Ultimate Witness

The history of the Christian faith is the story of that great cloud of martyrs which surrounds us all.  Some of them, like Saint Sebastian, his body riddled with arrows, died violent deaths at the hands of Roman persecutors.  Others journeyed into pagan lands, like Saint Boniface, and toiled to bring the truth, knowing that eventually it would cost them their lives.  Others, like Saint Damien of Molokai, accepted a permanent exile from their homelands — for Damien, imprisonment in a colony of lepers, to bring to his fellow men healing in body and soul.

But to set your very life on the line for truth, to be slaughtered like a lamb for truth — well, what the pagan world got from Socrates, the history of the Church has gotten from hundreds of thousands of ordinary men and women and even children, and in our supposedly enlightened time more than ever.

Sometimes the father of lies is not so bloody.  Then our martyrdom may be the laughter and scorn of the world; for who but a fool would live in the alleys of Calcutta, or who but someone obsessed and mad would shut himself up in a cave in Egypt, to spend his life in prayer?

But in the end the same question is posed to everyone.  And it is a question the world never has really understood.  The world may kill, and often does kill, for glory or wealth or ambition or vengeance or fear.  But to set your very life on the line for truth, to be slaughtered like a lamb for truth — well, what the pagan world got from Socrates, the history of the Church has gotten from hundreds of thousands of ordinary men and women and even children, and in our supposedly enlightened time more than ever.

These bear witness to the world, against the world, for the sake of the world, and the world, because its ways are evil, stops up its ears against the truth that would set it free.

None of this could ever come to pass, except by faith in the ultimate martyr, the God who will stand witness for us.

"Martyro ego," says the Lord to John at the end of his mysterious and resplendent vision: He shall bear witness to all who hear the words of truth.

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Acknowledgement

Magnificat Anthony Esolen. "The Joy of the Martyrs." Magnificat (March, 2016).

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The Author

esolen54smesolen7Anthony Esolen is professor of English Renaissance and classical literature at Thomas More College of Liberal Arts, in Merrimack, New Hampshire. He is the author of Defending Marriage: Twelve Arguments for Sanity, Life Under Compulsion: Ten Ways to Destroy the Humanity of Your Child, The Beauty of the Word: A Running Commentary on the Roman Missal, Reclaiming Catholic Social Teaching, Reflections on the Christian Life, Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child, Ironies of Faith: Laughter at the Heart of Christian Literature, The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization, and is the translator of several epic poems of the West, including Lucretius' On the Nature of Things: de Rerum Natura, Tasso's Gerusalemme liberata, and the three volumes of Dante's Divine Comedy: Inferno, Purgatory, and Paradise. He is a graduate of Princeton and the University of North Carolina. Anthony Esolen is on the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.

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