Forty We Shall Be

by Jessica Hickey, (c.) 2010

Wednesday, 10 March 2010

"Breast high in ice that froze their blood,
Against the midnight sky they stood
Those forty soldiers brave.
Shiv‘ring with cold but not with fear,
They looked without a moan or tear
Upon their awful grave.
 . . . .The whole night long the martyrs prayed,
Their pains increased, but undismayed
Still rang their voices sweet:
‘Let us, O Lord, still forty be
When we shall stand in front of Thee
Before Thy judgment-seat.’”
(From “The Forty Martyrs of Sebaste,” in A Legend of St. Dismas and Other Poems, by A. H. Enid M. Dinnis, ed.)

Today, we mark the memorial of the Forty Holy Martyrs of Sebaste. These forty men were soldiers as well as Christians, and were condemned together in Armenia under the orders of Emperor Lycinius in 320. Accounts of their death attest to their courage and steadfastness, and to their will to remain united, even in death. Imprisoned, beaten about the mouth with stones, they were at length stripped to the skin and driven out upon a frozen lake one night, either to adjure their Christianity or perish by exposure. Steaming baths were maintained nearby to encourage them toward desertion.

The accounts tell us that they raised together one prayer: that God would permit them to enter Heaven as a corps of forty: “"Lord, forty of us have begun to run the race. Grant that all forty may receive the crown; do not let anyone be missing at the end.”

Before this trial was over, one of the company faltered, and unable to bear the cold any longer, left his companions and died in his flight to the baths. However, God did not permit the prayer of the company to go unanswered; the watchman whose task it was to see them to their end was moved by their example to embrace the faith, and, declaring himself a Christian, removed his clothes and took the place of the fortieth man on the ice.

Two points of reflection may arise from this story. The first concerns the Christian as witness, and the second deals with the salvation of others in God‘s Providence.

Blaise Pascal, in his desire to share the Faith with the skeptical and unbelieving men of his generation, made his famous argument, his “Wager,” in which he urged people to live as though they believed, for they had nothing to lose by so doing, and everything to gain:

“What harm will befall you in taking this side? You will be faithful, honest, humble, grateful, generous, a sincere friend, truthful. Certainly you will not have those poisonous pleasures, glory and luxury; but will you not have others? I will tell you that you will thereby gain in this life, and that, at each step you take on this road, you will see so great certainty of gain, so much nothingness in what you risk, that you will at last recognize that you have wagered for something certain and infinite, for which you have given nothing.”

Perhaps Pascal’s proposal was a fair one for those seventeenth-century rationalists whose consciences and souls he wished to aid. And it may be that the effort of “living as if you believed” would indeed pave the way for genuine faith to develop in an unbeliever, rendering him more receptive to the movements of grace and ultimate justification.

I don’t wish to be too hard on Pascal, who, after all, rendered service to the Faith during a difficult era. Yet, I have always been slightly dissatisfied with this aspect of his attempt. Against the backdrop of the Incarnation and the supernatural character of the Church, with its undying passion, resilience and confidence, the Wager seems somewhat anemic. It feels like too great a concession to a skeptical world that the best we could say to it is, “Why not enjoy salvation? It’s free; please have some.” It reminds me a little too much of the sample vendors one sees at the grocery, who urge us to take a Dixie cup of this or that to see how good it is: “And it doesn’t cost you anything!”

Even our would--which the poet Claudel lamented as “so horribly heedless, so stupid, so appallingly deaf!”-- realizes that everything worth having does indeed cost us something in the end. This is why the appeal to simple self-interest, as reflected in the Wager, will never be as effective as the genuine witness of a Christian before the world.

The world may ask for proof of God, and the proof is there before them, not just in rational & historical evidence which the sincere man must not overlook, nor solely in God‘s revelation preserved in the Church, but also in the living testimony of the Christian--in our own lives. “This evil and faithless generation seeks a sign,” said Jesus, “but no sign will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah.” The sign of Jonah, of course, is the Paschal Mystery, God’s ultimate proof by means of His suffering, death, and resurrection for love of men. We read in this sign the simple truth by which the saints and martyrs have lived and continue to live: Love risks something; love risks everything.

The term martyr is derived from the Greek word for witness, one who is able to testify from his own experience and knowledge. We often employ the title only when speaking of those who have accepted death for Christ, yet we are all, by virtue of the Sacrament of Confirmation and its attendant obligations and charisms, called to be witnesses. We must each have the heart of the martyr, the fulsome generosity of spirit that sees and gives and bears witness to truth as Christ did.

All this we see in the faces of the Forty who died on this date at Sebaste. To be good men, good citizens, good soldiers--this was a given. But in the end, the crown offered to them required much more. It required that there be within them a sanctuary where a flame of love burned without ceasing, even if that meant that the outer temple had to give way.

Love enables us to bear a great deal, and this is why the martyr, though he does not seek out persecution or punishment, can accept it if it comes, and be the better for it. “A man may well lose his head and yet come to no harm,” wrote Thomas More. There is an unbreakable connection between love and suffering, as Pope Benedict observed, and we find that suffering can make us more human and more capable of love:

“Today what people have in view is eliminating suffering from the world. For the individual, that means avoiding pain and suffering in whatever way. Yet we must also see that it is in this very way that the world becomes very hard and very cold. Pain is part of being human. Anyone who really wanted to get rid of suffering would have to get rid of love before anything else, because there can be no love without suffering, because it always demands an element of self-sacrifice, because, given temperamental differences and the drama of situations, it will always bring with it renunciation and pain.

When we know that the way of love–this exodus, this going out of oneself–is the true way by which man becomes human, then we also understand that suffering is the process through which we mature. Anyone who has inwardly accepted suffering becomes more mature and more understanding of others, becomes more human. Anyone who has consistently avoided suffering does not understand other people; he becomes hard and selfish.” (From an interview with Cardinal Ratzinger by Peter Seewald)

This is one of the reasons that, for the Christian, suffering has merit and value. God’s compassion--literally, His desire to ‘suffer with’ us--saves us. God showed us that there are things worth suffering for, worth the risk and the cost. People who bear their suffering in love are like Him in spirit, worthy to be called His friends. St. Teresa of Avila observed, “We always find that those who walked closest to Christ were those who had to bear the greatest trials.” Perhaps, knowing this will help us find the courage to bear the costs of whatever God asks of us in our particular situations.

Our second point of reflection centers on the Providence of God in the salvation of others. We learned in the story of the Forty Martyrs that one man was lost. Under the duress, he renounced his God and left his brethren. It seemed that their number would not be complete; there appeared an element of loss, of failure. Yet, by their witness of fidelity, another soul was gained that night, all unexpectedly. Forty were crowned in Paradise after all.

This seems to hold a lesson for those who evangelize or who work and pray for the salvation of others. We know that, in all essentials, the work of conversion is God’s own work within the soul, yet it is difficult to wait in hope, to wait to see if those we care about will come fully to Christ. We may carry this concern for members of our families who have strayed or for those we know who are searching, still trying to find their way.

God wishes to save all. This is what He has told us, quite simply and bluntly and of His own accord. The French poet Charles Péguy describes this revelation from the Scriptures:

“What an opening up, what a shock of hope. What a crushing.
The words are there.
There's nothing to analyze, what an entry into the thoughts of God.
Into the will of God.
Into the intentions, (the ultimate intentions), of God.
Abyss of hope, what an opening, what lightning, what thunder,
what a passageway.
What an entrance.
Irrevocable words, what an entry into the very Hope of God.
God deigned to hope in us. Hope for us.
Revelation, what an incredible revelation. Sic non est, Thus it is not.
Incredible hope, unhoped-for hope Thus it is not
Voluntas ante Patrem vestrum, the will before your Father,
Qui in caelis est, Who is in heaven.
Ut unus. That a single one
Of these little ones. De pusillis istis.
Pereat. Should perish.”
(Excerpted from Charles Péguy, The Portal of the Mystery of Hope, English translation of the 1986 critical edition.)

Our hope for the salvation of others--however great, however heart-rending--is dim and pale before God’s Hope for them. What a surprise it is, as Péguy declared, a shock, a thunderous opening up of God‘s desire, when we realize this. If our hope moves us to seek, to suffer, to bring the truth to others that they might be saved, what will God’s own Hope accomplish?

As His hope, so also His work, His watchfulness, His care. Gerard Manley Hopkins, in his poem “A Lantern Out of Doors,” offers a description of this:

“Sometimes a lantern moves along the night,
That interests our eyes. And who goes there?
I think; where from and bound, I wonder, where,
With, all down darkness wide, his wading light?
Men go by me whom either beauty bright
In mould or mind or what not else makes rare:
They rain against our much-thick and marsh air
Rich beams, till death or distance buys them quite.
Death or distance soon consumes them: wind
What most I may eye after, be in at the end
I cannot, and out of sight is out of mind.
Christ minds: Christ’s interest, what to avow or amend
There, éyes them, heart wánts, care haúnts, foot fóllows kínd,
Their ránsom, théir rescue, ánd first, fást, last friénd.”
(Gerard Manley Hopkins, “A Lantern Out of Doors“)

We walk with others often for a short time, until “death or distance buys them quite.” People pass out of our lives or our sphere of influence; they move away, we lose touch; perhaps they pass away. We may feel we cannot see them or help them along their way any longer. We find we cannot even keep them in our mind’s eye as much as we might like. We wonder what will become of them.
Hopkins reminds us that, however much we might care, they have yet a better Friend:

“Christ minds: Christ’s interest, what to avow or amend
There, éyes them, heart wánts, care haúnts, foot fóllows kínd,
Their ránsom, théir rescue, ánd first, fást, last friénd.”

The work of salvation is God’s. He gives us a place, working beside Him, to teach, to witness, to suffer and to love. This we must do faithfully, carrying others by our deeds and our prayer as long as our life and strength lasts.

But when our limitations begin, the story does not end. He follows on foot, His care “haunts” that soul. No one who desires Him will be denied. He, that first, fast, best Friend, will find a way: “Forty we will be.”



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