On July 19, 64, fire broke out in Rome. Historical accounts of the extent of the damage vary, but, suffice to say, a large portion of the city burned, and burned for days. Suffering was found in all corners, and in their anguish and despair, the residents looked for someone to blame. They turned to the emperor, Nero, as the problem, some even suggesting that he started the blaze in order to rebuild Rome according to his designs. To deflect the criticism, Nero blamed the Christians, thus marking the beginning of the first persecution of the Church. Today we celebrate the Feast of the First Holy Martyrs of the Holy Roman Church, a group of about 1000 Christians constituting those who died at the hands of Nero.
Roman Senator and historian, Tacitus, describes the events:
As a consequence, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians [or Chrestians] by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but, even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular. In accordance, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not as much of the crime of firing the city as of hatred against mankind. Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a
nightly illumination, when daylight had expired. (source)
Pretty gruesome stuff, as so often it is for those who serve as scapegoats.
In my last post, I wrote about martyrdom and reflected on one’s ability to stand firm in faith in the face of certain death. There exists, though, another kind of martyrdom, which my once spiritual director used to call daily martyrdom, which requires a different kind of heroic virtue. I call it the virtue of Noah.
We all know the story of Noah – called by God to do what appeared crazy – build an ark on dry land. Noah obeyed. Scorn and ridicule ccompanied every blow of the hammer. People thought him nuts, but Noah ignored them and did what he knew was right by God. Neither humiliation, contempt, nor hardship could deter him. He believed in the faithfulness of God.
So it is with many of us as Catholics. Whether it’s saying yes to another baby, or to chastity, or to traditional marriage, or saying no to contraception, or abortion, or inappropriate language, media, or dress for ourselves or our children, we’ve all experienced it – from strangers and family alike. A dying to self accompanies each act of scorn and ridicule.
Daily death to self occurs in the small and seemingly insignificant moments of our day: getting up with a sick child; reading yet another bedtime story when you’re the one who wants to be tucked in; holding your tongue when you want to lash out; extending courtesy when driving even though you’re in a great hurry; giving someone the benefit of the doubt in spite of the recording going off in your head. The practice of this daily, even moment by moment, death is what forms us in the virtue of Noah and gives us the courage to quietly witness publicly to Christ and the Church.
Virtue is the habit of doing good. As Christians, that habit is rooted in the teachings of Jesus, allowing us to unite our own moments of mortification with His ultimate moment on the cross. Love of God and love of neighbor compel us to do so. When we live the daily death, God gives us the courage and faith to build an ark.
So today, I invite you to offer up every instance of your daily death to Lord to use for His purposes. Surrender the moment to His love and, in the words of Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, “you can make it something beautiful for god.”
Holy Martyrs of Rome, pray for us! Anne