By Father John Bayer
Special to The Texas Catholic
One of my favorite musicians, Audrey Assad, once suggested we should be praying “with” the martyrs and not just “for” them. In this way, she introduced a very beautiful song, “Even Unto Death,” which was inspired by the execution of 21 Coptic Christians in Libya in February, 2015. She says she wrote it “to adopt the prayers of the martyrs” and so make them her own. The need to adopt their prayers is an ancient insight, and explains why Christians cultivated so passionately a memory of the martyrs — and especially their way of praying. Just think about how careful Luke the Evangelist was to record the final prayer of St. Stephen before he was stoned to death in the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 7:54-60).
The courage of the martyrs is awesome, and their witness is encouraging; but it is really the interior movement of their hearts as they prepare to go to death for the sake of faithful love that brings us to cherish them. I was reminded of this recently as I read the book, “Abducted in Iraq” by Saad Sirop Hanna, a memoir about the young Iraqi priest who spent about a month in captivity under terrorists in 2006. During his captivity, he was frequently beaten and threatened with death unless he converted to Islam.
Thankfully, he was eventually released. In a chapter titled “Beyond Survival,” Hanna relates the thoughts he had at a critical moment in his captivity. It was the moment he surpassed “that most basic instinct of all living things — survival.”
In that moment he found an unconquerable confidence despite the life-threatening situation in which he stood. The prospect of death had brought him a priceless treasure — courageous contact with reality. Only there can we meet God.
“We live in a world filled with distractions. With petty wants passing themselves off as needs, and fleeting joys masquerading as fulfillment. If there is a gift to be found in the close proximity of death, then it is surely perspective. […] You cannot but ask, who could I have been in this world? And who was I truly? With regret, I stared at the many failures of my life, at the times when I could have done more but chose not to. The people I could have helped but, for whatever unworthy reason, chose not to. The sick, the poor, the lonely. Through the blindfold, I watched a projector play my memories, and found myself too often quick to judge. At times too ready to exclude, too unwilling to understand, too slow to forgive. For me, and for those who believe as I do, the purpose of life is to find a oneness with God. There lies true happiness. And yet the quest for happiness can never be a selfish endeavor, for being one with God means to dwell in the collective and not the singular. Not to believe in heaven, and perform the necessary acts to reach it, but to believe in love and in living a life in accordance with that purpose. […] The shadow of death purifies this belief. It blows away the dust of the unimportant, and though it is neither a controversial nor a novel thought to say that love is the ultimate measure of a life well lived, to stand beside your scales and to weigh the acts of ‘I did’ against the ones of ‘I should have done’ is to learn once and for all that the measure of life is meaning.”
When we pray with the martyrs, we have a chance to enter into their perspective. We wake up from the daze of daily life and see clearly that “only one thing” is necessary (Lk 10:42), union with God, and in him the preservation of all that is worth preserving — love. We learn to detach from every false absolute — all our “petty wants passing themselves off as needs, and fleeting joys masquerading as fulfillment” — and thereby find strength to give ourselves away in love. I believe this vision grants the martyrs an unconquerable peace as they face a violent end. Nothing need stop our own hearts from moving with theirs. We too can wake up, lose our lives in love, and so one day find ourselves preserved into eternity.
Father John Bayer, O.Cist., is a theologian and monk at the Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Dallas in Irving. His column appears occasionally in The Texas Catholic.