CNS photo/Nathan Layne, Reuters

Hearts on fire

  • May 30, 2014

It can be tough to speak up even when something burns inside you. Especially if everybody seems happiest not saying or hearing it, and you wonder if you’re crazy or misguided, and won’t you look like a fool or a downer if you do say it.

A friend and I helped each other out once. He asked what nobody was asking, and I followed up with another question. He probably wouldn’t have asked had I not been there for the followup, and I probably wouldn’t have raised it without his lead. Afterwards, others (some) thanked us.

What makes it difficult for us to speak and act from the truth within us? Especially we who know (not because we’re smart but because we’ve been shown) the truth is not something but someone? “I am truth,” says that Someone, who lives within us, asking us to bring Him forth, giving us His living flaming spirit to power us up. Still we shush Him, bottle Him up, produce sensible reasons to explain our silence. With good reason; He’s wild, not tame, and safety isn’t always His first concern.

Political parties say we can’t think our own thoughts, only theirs: do we speak or let them speak for us? Government leaders say we must protect our wealth but not the outcast, the foreigner, the unborn: do we reason our way to compliance and suppress the Spirit groaning within us, the Lord’s Spirit who hears the cry of the poor?

Often, we do. “All that’s necessary for evil to flourish is that good people do nothing.” Our increasingly heartless, intolerant, depressed society is evidence of this. The funny thing is, the Lord whom we deny doesn’t deny us in return, but woos, feeds, beckons us, tickles our ears and whispers in our hearts and gives glimpses of His truth in things all round us, from the earth below to the stars above. We’re His witnesses, we who so often fail Him.

The Church has always treasured its witnesses, whom it names “martyrs” (Greek for “witness”). Are they there to make us feel guilty and bad, because they gave their lives for their faith and we find it hard to give a word? No, they’re not witnessing sin and failure. They’re witnessing grace and joy, life beyond death, mercy triumphant. They witness that “the best and holiest dream is true after all,” as Frederick Buechner has it, and that we ourselves are bearers of this truth.

As my brother likes to say, before the “martyrs” were “martyrs,” they weren’t! That is, they were people, living in the same world we live in, somehow coming to see this world filled with the life of Christ. They were people in whom the image of God shone so brightly others could hardly bear to look at it, and tried to put out the flame, but that only made it shine more brilliantly. Martyrdom is a way of life.

They one day found themselves in a tough spot, where speaking truth was risky, and staying silent or speaking falsehood wasn’t. Standing up to Caesar, at a cost. What gave them courage to take the dangerous step? Or the foolhardiness?

We can find out by getting to know them. Justin Martyr, for example, witnessed Christianity to the secular second-century world around him. He’s an “apologist” because he dialogued with people who weren’t Christian to show them that having faith and having intelligence are not incompatible. Justin’s courage in entering this forum surely prepared him for the moment when he faced beheading if he didn’t acknowledge the emperor as god.

We may not face such stark alternatives, yet. But we find plenty of little, hidden occasions when it’s tempting to put power, wealth, prestige, social acceptance, ahead of our commitment to Christ. Social and cultural values increasingly provide such opportunities. Sts. Thomas More and John Fisher, before losing their heads, lost their government positions, the protection of the powerful, the support of colleagues. They didn’t try to be martyrs; they tried to stay alive in their culture without contradicting their faith.

Justin, Paul, Peter, Charles, Thomas, John, they lived long ago and far away from us. The alternative they faced, and the faith that led them to choose love, are as close to us as our next breath. They can help us be ready for whatever comes.

(Marrocco can be reached at