Monday, September 20, 2004

Are we martyrs?

The saint featured in my "Daily Lives and Wisdom" book today was New Martyr Hilarion of Crete, who died in 1804.

Sometimes the hagiographies of the new martyrs are more of a shock to read than the ones of the early Church. They don't seem like stylized stories that belong to the same world as the features in a Byzantine icon. They seem unvarnished by whatever embellishments centuries of retelling might have lent to them. The actual martyrdom may not be as graphic, prolonged and elaborate, but you can simply believe that it happened just the way it was told -- 'mere' martyrdom, to use the C.S. Lewis term.

Here is the write-up from "Daily Lives":
Hilarion led an uneventful life until he was accused of embezzlement. Rather than pay his debt to society, he went to his friends. When they would not help him, he fled to the safety of an influential Moslem. Hilarion renounced Christianity for the Muslim faith and was given enough money to live comfortably. However, when his conscience reproached him, he moved to Saint Anne's Skete on Mount Athos. He hoped to atone for his sin before God. His sincere repentance touched all those around him. Still his guilt would not leave him. After many months, he decided to confront the Moslem man who helped him and to deny the Muslim fiath. Once there, he declared himself to be a Christian for all time, and in 1804 he was beheaded.

How little the Muslim world seems to have changed since then. How easy it is to imagine the same story playing out constantly these days in countries under Muslim rule, perhaps so frequently that the Church couldn't even keep up with the new martyrs and recognize them all.

But I don't mean to fasten my attention on the earthly enemy in the story and miss the bigger point. As always, when I read a martyrdom story, I think, "Could I have done what they did?" and then, when (not if) the answer is no, I think, "Where are our martyrs today?"

The world is full of pleasures, distractions and temptations. It always has been, but with every passing generation the volume (so to speak) gets turned up, and the answering clarion call of the True Church gets turned down. If I were to give us in the present day any credit for the kind of spirit that moved St. Hilarion, it would be that we haven't bowed our knee to the hedonism and heterodoxy of the present culture, even when the weight of it forces us down. I'm sure that the concessions we've made would appall earlier Christians -- I think nothing of playing cards or using words like 'karma' and 'zen'. We've learned to take them in stride, because the Christian who didn't pick their battles better than that would have to leave the world entirely, which St. Paul advised against.

But will there come a time for one of us, or all of us, when the battle is suddenly enjoined? In our generation, will we be asked to conform to something -- either from the secular worlds of science and commerce or from a foreign enemy like the Middle-Eastern terrorists -- that virtually denies Christ?

Like the stories from the new martyrs, it's not at all hard to imagine that that's just what would happen.


Blogger Fr. John McCuen said...

Thank you, Grace, for your observations here. I'm not familiar with the book you mentioned; but I can appreciate your comment about how powerful an impact the life of a "contemporary" martyr can have.

A book which I would dearly love to acquire -- alas, it is out of print, and existing copies are closely guarded -- is I. M. Andreyev's Russia's Catacomb Saints. Each day at lunch at St. John of San Francisco Orthodox Academy, it was the practice to read the life of a saint for all present; and this duty sometimes came to me. This particular day, I was asked to read the account of the New Marty Lydia and the soldiers Kyrill abd Alexei. I had not had the opportunity to read it in advance; and its shocking brutality challenged my ability to rewrite it "on the fly" as I read it aloud, so as to spare the little children the horrible details, without losing the essence of the account. I was also moved to tears; and, I think, was truly confronted for the first time with the question, "What would I have done? Would I have responded with the faith shown be these new martyrs of the Russian Church?" I am at once both greatly challenged, and greatly encouraged, by knowing that there are alive today in our midst those who endured great sufferings for the faith; and who knew those who died rather than turn their backs on Christ and His Church.

May God grant us His grace to keep faith with them and with Him should the time of trial ever come upon us.

September 21, 2004 at 8:02 PM  
Blogger Grace said...

What a sobering meeting that must've been. And I identify with the challenge of how to present such things to children without overwhelming them. Sometimes when I read the older hagiographies I conclude that people just plain had more courage then, but (a) I suspect myself of concluding that more out of denial than anything else and (b) it doesn't help when you're talking about the new martyrs, as you said.

BTW, the book I mentioned is "2004 Daily Lives, Miracles and Wisdom of the Saints and Fasting Calendar" -- the length of the name is why I shortened it. It is a spiral-bound book that comes out every year. For every day, it has the fasting rules (New Calendar), a short write-up of a saint or feast of the day, a listing of the other saints of the day, the lectionary readings for epistle and gospel, and a short quote from a Church Father. Call it Big Church 101 for Dummies ;-) It's difficult to find, but if you want to know how to order copies for a church bookstore, e-mail me at

September 26, 2004 at 2:49 PM  

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