“Take the case of courage. No quality has ever so much addled the brains and tangled the definitions of merely rational sages. Courage is almost a contradiction in terms. It means a strong desire to live taking the form of a readiness to die. ‘He that will lose his life, the same shall save it,’ is not a piece of mysticism for saints and heroes. It is a piece of everyday advice for sailors or mountaineers. It might be printed in an Alpine guide or a drill book. This paradox is the whole principle of courage; even of quite earthly or brutal courage. A man cut off by the sea may save his life if we will risk it on the precipice.
He can only get away from death by continually stepping within an inch of it. A soldier surrounded by enemies, if he is to cut his way out, needs to combine a strong desire for living with a strange carelessness about dying. He must not merely cling to life, for then he will be a coward, and will not escape. He must not merely wait for death, for then he will be a suicide, and will not escape. He must seek his life in a spirit of furious indifference to it; he must desire life like water and yet drink death like wine. No philosopher, I fancy, has ever expressed this romantic riddle with adequate lucidity, and I certainly have not done so. But Christianity has done more: it has marked the limits of it in the awful graves of the suicide and the hero, showing the distance between him who dies for the sake of living and him who dies for the sake of dying.”
-G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy
“For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and that of the gospel will save it.” -Mark 8:35
Jesus calls us to a life of radical discipleship, a life in which we must so fiercely cling to the Gospel that we are willing to die for it. How are we to develop that kind of reckless abandonment to God’s will, that kind of courage that indicates a “strong desire to live taking the form of a readiness to die?”
The answer lies in fidelity to God in prayer and in the development of virtue. The closer we get to the light of Christ, the more we become aware of our own sin and weakness. This is wonderful news, because it means that we are finally able to recognize our need for a savior. We can finally internalize and live out St. Paul’s words – “when I am weak, then I am strong” – by completely relying on the Holy Spirit and thus accomplishing His will in the world. (2 Corinthians 12:10)
Countless Christians throughout the last 2 millennia, known and unknown, have lived this life of radical discipleship, demonstrating immense courage. As a matter of belief, we can expect that every single one of them had a deep prayer life, a history of serving others, and a habit of following God’s will in the small, everyday actions of their lives.
Who are these incredible men and women? Allow me to introduce you to just a handful:
St. Maximilian Kolbe
St. Maximilian was a Franciscan priest who had a deep, contemplative prayer life and fierce devotion to Our Lady in the Rosary. Early in his life, he had a vision of the Virgin Mary offering him two crowns: the white crown of celibacy or the red crown of martyrdom. He chose both, becoming a priest who would later be martyred at Auschwitz when he stepped out of line to take a stranger’s place in the starvation chambers.
St. Agnes was an early Christian martyr who, out of fierce love for Jesus, refused to renounce Him and marry a pagan. For this, she was put to death. Witnesses, however, observed that as she walked toward her execution, St. Agnes looked as beautiful and joyful as a bride on her wedding day, because she knew that she was going home to Jesus.
Father Mychal Judge
Father Mychal was a Franciscan priest who served as a chaplain for firefighters in New York City. He also served the poor in his community – those suffering from AIDS, the homeless, the lonely, the outcasts. On September 11, 2001, he boldly rushed into the lobby of the North Tower of the World Trade Center, blessing the dead and ministering to the dying. When the South Tower collapsed, he succumbed to the debris and smoke, becoming the first casualty accounted for on that tragic morning – Victim 0001.
St. Clare of Assisi
St. Clare had a strong prayer life and reverence for the Eucharist. When hordes of soldiers approached and were bent upon attacking her convent, St. Clare held up the Blessed Sacrament, asking Jesus for protection. The soldiers fled.
After praying the Our Father and reciting Psalm 23 with Lisa, a telephone operator, and together with his fellow passengers, Todd Beamer courageously sacrificed his life to take out the terrorists on Flight 93 who were en route to attack our nation. He saved countless lives and heroically defended the country and people he loved.
Not one of these people suddenly performed such heroic acts. Rather, they had developed the habit of saying “yes” to God in their everyday lives. St. Maximilian promoted the rosary in defiance of the Nazis. St. Agnes worshipped Jesus Christ during a time when doing so meant certain death. Father Mychal Judge served his neighbors in New York. St. Clare founded the Poor Clares and taught her sisters how to live in poverty and love Jesus. Todd Beamer, a 32 year old Christian father of three, cultivated a love for Holy Scripture and loved his wife and children on a daily basis. He chose to take a morning flight on September 11, 2001 because he opted to spend the previous night with his family rather than flying out that night for work. All of these heroes had that “strong desire to live [that took] the form of a readiness to die.”
What separates these Christian martyrs from those prepared to die for their faith in other religious traditions? Do not those people also have a strong desire to live that takes the form of a readiness to die?
The Christian martyrs had a holy indifference to death – an attitude of “if I live, it is the will of God. If I die, it is the will of God.” They never sought out martyrdom, and they would certainly never seek the destruction of another human life. St. Maximilian prayed the rosary while in the starvation chamber, surviving for two weeks with no food or water. He was ultimately killed by lethal injection. How would he have responded if the Allies had liberated Auschwitz while he was praying in the starvation chamber? Would he have clung to death? No. He would have calmly accepted that God still had more work for him to do here on earth. In his own words, “For Jesus Christ, I am prepared to suffer still more.”
What about Todd Beamer? If he and his fellow passengers had successfully detained the hijackers, would they have intentionally crashed the plane, choosing to leave this world for the next? No. They would have done their best to safely land it, respecting and preserving the gift of human life.
St. Agnes would have gladly continued to worship Jesus Christ in the catacombs with the other early Christians had her execution been stayed. St. Clare, who was not killed by the approaching soldiers, calmly returned to her life of poverty, leading her sisters to a deeper love of Christ. She had the attitude of a martyr, “[combining] a strong desire for living with a strange carelessness about dying.” Father Mychal Judge would have continued ministering to the wounded in the Twin Towers. Filled with the love of Christ, they did incredible things. When we fill ourselves with the love of Christ, we too can do incredible things.
Will Christ call us to martyrdom? Maybe, but probably not. He will, however, call us into a deeper relationship with him. He wants us to trust Him, to abandon ourselves and our wills to Him, so that the Holy Spirit can achieve His will in the world through us. Jesus wants us to have the attitude of the martyrs – a complete abandonment to the will of God – that manifests itself as that strange indifference to death.
A Christian “must seek [her] life in a spirit of furious indifference to it; [she] must desire life like water and yet drink death like wine.”
Let’s strive for that martyrdom mentality in our daily actions. Let’s recklessly love Jesus by doing the duty of the moment. Let’s desire life like water and be willing to drink death like wine. Do not be afraid. In the final words of Todd Beamer, “let’s roll.”
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Emma is a dual-citizen of the U.S.A. and New Zealand who works in government healthcare consulting. She graduated from UCSD with a B.S. in Biology & a minor in Spanish Literature, and then from GWU with an M.P.H. in Environmental Health Science & Policy. She loves God, caffeine, her husband, and her family, not necessarily in that order.