Many years ago when I was in high school I struggled with a class, partly because we had a terrible teacher and partly because of the resulting mental block I formed concerning the subject. The teacher was a brilliant woman, but she was not cut out to be an educator. She was fired after one semester, and while the new teacher was really good, by then I felt like the material was impossible to understand. My older brother tried to help me, but at that point all I wanted was an easy way to learn without doing the hard work of really applying myself. I lacked the patience to accept that the only way to get the subject under control was to spend some time being tutored and to study, study, study. Thankfully I began to see that I had to put in the effort if I wanted to improve. There was no easy road: I had to do the work which required some ‘blood, sweat, and tears’ - (a lot of the latter, unfortunately) - in order to grow in mastery of the subject.
While we all try to find shortcuts from time to time, the truth is that there is no easy road if we really want to grow. This is especially true about our faith. The Scriptures teach us that the road is not easy, but that if we put in the effort and trust in God, we will prevail and spend eternity in Heaven with Him. That was the entire purpose of Jesus' coming: that we would be redeemed and that we would spread the Good News to others so they, too, can enjoy Heaven. However, the way to attain this is to work at keeping up our relationship with God even though eternal life has already been promised to us. Baptism is not a one way ticket that ensures an end: we have to use the graces we have been given and not let them grow cold. We need to walk the narrow path that leads to Heaven, which means living as authentically as we can. We are to live the values Jesus has taught us which include compassion, mercy, generosity, kindness, trust in God, and over all of these, love. To do this, that is, to live our lives with as much love as we can, is downright heroic. It is nothing less than the road to sanctity to which we are all called.
For each one of us this will be a bit different since each is called in different circumstances. No matter what vocation we choose, or in what situation we find ourselves, we all have the call to do everything we do in word and deed with as much love as possible. Even if we are in what seems to be an insignificant job, the call is to do what we do with love. This is because every person we meet is sacred in God’s eyes, which means that we are to love them as best we can whether they love us back or not. Remember that love does not necessarily mean 'like' or warm, fuzzy feelings. It means doing what Jesus would have us do, going the extra mile, forgiving the one or ones who have wronged us, working for justice by doing the right thing, praying for peace in the world, and making choices that are appropriate for those of us who follow Jesus.
For most of us the difficulty will lie in doing the day-to-day tasks of our lives with love. But there are also those among us who have the more dire choices to make. These are the ones who are called to martyrdom such as James Foley, the journalist who was recently killed in Syria. While he did not die overtly for his faith, his Christianity seemed to be what drove him to risk his life in order to discover and make known to the world the truth of what was happening in that region. And his faith is what sustained him in his last days, a message that has not been lost on many who have followed his story.
Giving one’s life for a cause is not new, of course. In the Acts of the Apostles we see that persecution began soon after the birth of the Church at Pentecost. Some apostles were arrested for healing a man (Acts 4) and shortly thereafter a deacon named Stephen gave his life for professing the faith. Not long after St. Stephen's death it became 'de rigueur' to arrest and punish anyone who simply believed whether they were actively evangelizing or simply living as Christians. None of the martyrs took the easy road. These were people who could have simply eaten a morsel of meat which has been sacrificed to a false god, said a few words in denunciation of Jesus, and then walked away to live a full life. Instead they chose to remain faithful and witness to the power of love over death. That is, they chose life eternal while glorifying God over preserving their earthly lives. It is not an easy choice, but for them it was a clear one.
Most of us will not have to make such a choice as did St. Stephen or even James Foley, but history is filled with people who chose to do the right thing in the most challenging of circumstances. Many, such as Holy New Martyr John Karastamatis, died unjustly simply for being who they were, living and dying obscurely because their very existence bothered some regime or those with evil intentions. Others are names that we know, such as St. Maximilian Kolbe. That evil is trying to eradicate good is not news to us. But neither is it news to those who believe that good will prevail because the Lord will completely triumph in the end. Jesus has already triumphed over sin and death, but the battle is not going to be over until the end of time when He returns. This is why the martyrs are important to us. Not only do they give their lives as witness and as the ultimate prayer for those of us left behind, but they continue to intercede for us to be strong in the battle.
For those of us not called to give our lives in some gruesome and obviously heroic way, I contend that we are all called to give our lives for Christ. If we have been baptized and are members of His Body, then we are indeed called to both live our lives for Christ and give our lives for Christ. Is not dedicating our lives to live faith, hope, and love a giving of our lives for Christ? Is not standing up for what is right in any particular circumstance giving our lives for Christ? Is not reaching out to someone who is poor, lonely, marginalized, ostracized, alien, widowed, ill, or orphaned giving our lives for Christ? Is not tending to our children as they grow giving our lives for Christ? We could all be doing other things which are selfish and self-serving, neglecting our duties and responsibilities. Or we could do those seemingly unnoticed acts of love which mean that instead of doing what we would rather be doing, we roll up our sleeves and do what we are called to do, often forgoing pleasure for a time so that we can care for the other. This is called ‘dying to self;’ it is a type of martyrdom which is freely chosen. That is what love does.
The point of all this is that there is no easy road to sanctity in life. Any task we undertake requires work. That is not to say there are no rewards. In fact, the beauty of it all is that doing what we do brings joy. We may or may not feel that joy while we are in the midst of the struggle and pain of our hard work and sacrifice. But if we really do what we do in love, there is joy. There is the joy of knowing we made someone's life better even if only for an instant. There is the joy of knowing that we are building the Kingdom and that God is with us, loving us into holiness. And there is the joy of seeing the fruits of our labor, hearing the voice of Jesus within our hearts saying: "Well done, good and faithful servant." No one suffers for the sake of suffering, not even Jesus. We suffer the tasks and challenges of life, offering it as prayer, because of the joy of knowing we ‘placed even one brick in the foundation of the Kingdom,’ knowing that in the end God will triumph and all shall live in joy with Him forever.
Many great saints said that we should do everything, no matter how insignificant, with great love. It is not the size of our gesture that is important; it is the love with which we do it. It is the love of the parent up in the night, it is the love of the person who gives a few dollars to the one ahead of them in line who cannot pay for their groceries, and it is the love of people who give their lives to reveal truth, like James Foley, that builds the Kingdom and which bolsters those of us who really need the help. This is not the easy road, but it is the road to Heaven.
May we follow the road that leads to Heaven through our trust in the Lord who leads the way! May we be willing to make the sacrifices it takes to live Gospel values! May we find the witness of the martyrs to be an inspiration when we are tempted to take the easy road! May we find joy in knowing that we are guiding others by the small and large sacrifices we make! And may we cling to Jesus, who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life! Peace!
©Michele L. Catanese
The photos at the beginning and end of the entry are mine. The first was taken on Copper Mountain in Colorado. The other one was taken in Biloxi, Mississippi. I chose the pelican because it is said that a mother pelican will strike its own breast and feed its chicks with her own blood, thus choosing a type of martyrdom.
The icons are the work of Fr. William Hart McNichols. The first is Holy Protomartyr Deacon St. Stephen and is found at http://www.fatherbill.org/all-categories/product/110-holy-protomartyr-deacon-st-stephen.
The second icon is New Martyr John Karastamatis of Santa Cruz which can be found at http://www.fatherbill.org/all-categories/product/300-holy-new-martyr-john-karastamatis-of-santa-cruz. If you want more information about him, go to http://orthodoxwiki.org/John_Karastamatis_of_Santa_Cruz.
Heart Speaks to Heart