I once read a novel that I actually hated quite a bit, but it did give me a bit more realistic view of martyrdom. When we think of the martyrs, we often think of that crowning moment of their execution, or moments before their execution. From our vantage point, Heaven is so close for them, that we almost don’t feel sympathy for their sufferings. We are instead amazed, and happy. And no doubt we should be. Martyrdom is a pretty messy business, but to celebrate their victory is a happy occasion.
However, unlike the martyrs, we don’t actually know what they felt, at least not from their point of view. Many of the martyrs were not just martyred on the spot, but had to go through various trials, and even multiple attempts on their lives before they actually died. What about those hours, days, weeks, months, and even years that led up to it? The confines of a prison cell are meant to be a form of punishment. The Gospels tell us that St. John the Baptist was in prison, but we don’t know for how long. His schedule was probably all over the place – sometimes his disciples would come see him, sometimes Herod wanted to hear him speak. Maybe Herodias came down to taunt him from time to time. It’s possible that his jailors respected him, but it’s also possible that they didn’t! Whatever the details, it wasn’t an ideal setting for keeping up one’s prayer life.
And yet he didn’t quit. He continued his ministry, although restricted by his imprisonment – pointing his disciples to Christ, fulfilling his role as a prophet by speaking the truth to Herod, and ultimately suffering martyrdom for it. Did he think of himself as a martyr? Did he feel like one? Did he resent his imprisonment? While it’s possible that he carried on an ordinary prayer life, or at least as ordinary as his circumstances would have permitted, it is also possible that he underwent spiritual trials as well during his imprisonment. I came across a quote from St. Thérèse which was a “rose” she gave to me from the heavenly gardens in answer to a prayer recently when I was feeling nothing in particular for a couple days during a retreat. For most of us, in our weakness, God gives us regular doses of spiritual consolations, and we have no problem serving Him in those times, and even enjoying it. But for those times when we feel absolutely nothing, or even like there isn’t even a point to what we are doing, it’s an encouraging observation she makes even if it’s not the actual dark night of the soul or even the dark night of the sense as St. John of the cross describes but just some spiritual dryness, we can be encouraged by this quote. Our serving God, carrying out even the most tedious the duties of our state in life, in absence of motivating feelings can become an act of faith. God, I don’t feel it, but I trust you.
“It is so sweet to serve God in the dark night. We have but this life to live by faith” – St. Thérèse of Lisieux
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