Sunday, August 27, 2006

Thinking about martyrdom...

The Trappist Martyrs of Atlas.

In today's news the two journalists who had been kidnapped by Hamas were released without apparent harm. Reports are that they were forced to convert to Islam at gunpoint. It caused me to reflect upon martyrdom. If these men were religious, perhaps they would have refused and witnessed to their faith through martyrdom. In thinking about it, the idea seemed ridiculous - what is wrong with pretending to accept another faith while your own is hidden in your heart, in order to stay alive?

The world and secularized culture cannot understand that there would be anything wrong with pretending to convert, especially to save one's life. Yet that one, seemingly innocuous little compromise may perhaps determine one's eternal salvation. Nearly every martyr in history has been offered the ultimatum to chose or reject Christ in the circumstances of their martyrdom. Granted, those such as Edith Stein and the martyrs of the holocaust would not have been given their life back if they had apostatized; their initial intention and offering of their life is what more or less constituted martyrdom in their cases.

The seven monks of Atlas, in Algeria, anticipated martyrdom by their monastic profession, and more especially considering the mounting violence surrounding them, they prepared for it. Martyrdom is a Divine grace, it is rare that one unprepared to face death for Christ, would be able to accept it. Prayer and fasting and the devout practice of the Catholic faith are the normal and necessary means to be found worthy of it. (Perhaps this is the meaning in the ongoing apparitions of Our Lady at Medjugorje, with the repetitive messages...maybe Our Lady is showing us the way to prepare for martyrdom?) At any rate, a secularized culture and the individuals within it cannot fathom the meaning of martyrdom. It is exactly why we in the West cannot comprehend terrorists and suicide bombers, who imagine their suicides to be martyrdom.

Here is the last testament of the monk Dom Christian de Cherge written a year before his martyrdom with his community. It was not discovered until 1996.

Testament of Dom Christian de Chergé (opened on Pentecost Sunday, May 26,1996)

Facing a GOODBYE.... If it should happen one day - and it could be today - that I become a victim of the terrorism which now seems ready to engulf all the foreigners living in Algeria, I would like my community, my Church and my family to remember that my life was GIVEN to God and to this country.

I ask them to accept the fact that the One Master of all life was not a stranger to this brutal departure. I would ask them to pray for me: for how could I be found worthy of such an offering? I ask them to associate this death with so many other equally violent ones which are forgotten through indifference or anonymity. My life has no more value than any other. Nor any less value.

In any case, it has not the innocence of childhood. I have lived long enough to know that I am an accomplice in the evil which seems to prevail so terribly in the world, even in the evil which might blindly strike me down. I should like, when the time comes, to have a moment of spiritual clarity which would allow me to beg forgiveness of God and of my fellow human beings, and at the same time forgive with all my heart the one who would strike me down.

I could not desire such a death. It seems to me important to state this. I do not see, in fact, how I could rejoice if the people I love were indiscriminately accused of my murder. It would be too high a price to pay for what will perhaps be called, the "grace of martyrdom" to owe it to an Algerian, whoever he might be, especially if he says he is acting in fidelity to what he believes to be Islam.

I am aware of the scorn which can be heaped on the Algerians indiscriminately. I am also aware of the caricatures of Islam which a certain Islamism fosters. It is too easy to soothe one's conscience by identifying this religious way with the fundamentalist ideology of its extremists. For me, Algeria and Islam are something different: it is a body and a soul. I have proclaimed this often enough, I think, in the light of what I have received from it. I so often find there that true strand of the Gospel which I learned at my mother's knee, my very first Church, precisely in Algeria, and already inspired with respect for Muslim believers.

Obviously, my death will appear to confirm those who hastily judged me naïve or idealistic: "Let him tell us now what he thinks of his ideals!" But these persons should know that finally my most avid curiosity will be set free. This is what I shall be able to do, God willing: immerse my gaze in that of the Father to contemplate with him His children of Islam just as He sees them, all shining with the glory of Christ, the fruit of His Passion, filled with the Gift of the Spirit whose secret joy will always be to establish communion and restore the likeness, playing with the differences. For this life lost, totally mine and totally theirs, I thank God, who seems to have willed it entirely for the sake of that JOY in everything and in spite of everything.

In this THANK YOU, which is said for everything in my life from now on, I certainly include you, friends of yesterday and today, and you, my friends of this place, along with my mother and father, my sisters and brothers and their families - You are the hundredfold granted as was promised! And also you, my last-minute friend, who will not have known what you were doing: Yes, I want this THANK YOU and this GOODBYE to be a "GOD-BLESS" for you, too, because in God's face I see yours. May we meet again as happy thieves in Paradise, if it please God, the Father of us both. AMEN !

Algiers, 1st December 1993 Tibhirine, 1st January 1994 Christian +

(Go to this link to read the complete story of the Trappist martyrs of Atlas.)

Mary, Queen of Martyrs, pray for us that we too may be made worthy of the promises of Christ.


  1. There was a British (I think) priest who pretended to convert in order to avoid martyrdome several times, converted back to Catholicism each time, with much consternation regarding his denial of Christ, and in the end, he was finally martyred. I forget his name but he is now a canonized Saint.

    It is killing me that I can't remember who he is!

  2. Adoro - thanks for your comment - I can't remember his name either. In the Spanish Civil War there were similar instances, as well as in the ancient persecutions. God does give us a second, a third, maybe more, chance.
    Thanks for your comment.

  3. Lady Fett7:44 PM

    And yet perhaps He doesn't. We should not presume on such things, presumption itself being a sin. For the same reason the Church does not encourage putting off Baptism like Constantine did. We do not know the hour as our Lord tells us.

  4. Presuming upon the grace of martyrdom - or rather, the unpreparedness for it -
    would seem to be the point in the post.

    However, the experience of the saints whose apostasy would have precluded the grace of martyrdom, and while afterwards recanting, would seem to give greater glory to God, who in his mercy, accomplished that which was humanly impossible for the temeritous soul.

    Those who expect the justice of God will indeed find it; while those who hope for the mercy of God will indeed not be dissapointed and will find themselves rewarded.

    martyrdom is a supernatural grace that is totally unmerited.

  5. One more point - God gives us such saints who at first sought to spare their lives and later presented themselves as martyrs for our edifcation and to bolster our confidence in His mercy.


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