Tales of the Saints, June 19
The feasts of monastics and martyrs dominate June 19—today, a day perhaps to think about the endurance of faith. It’s tempting to imagine martyrdom as a sudden flash, an immediate choosing of sides, an affirmation of belief in the moment of rapidly descending death. It’s tempting to think of martyrdom as quick.
And so, in one of her most famous lines, Flannery O’Connor has her character The Misfit explain of a vain, silly grandmother, “She would have been a good woman . . . if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.” Given the instantaneous choice to affirm God when threatened, to be good in the face of death, to be a saint at the moment of murder, more people than you might think will take the brave path of martyrdom. We believe, and if the cost of that is dying, then so be it—a greater reward waits for us.
There’s a second and more difficulty bravery shown by many of the martyrs, however, and it comes from the fact that death in martyrdom is rarely quick. Rarely quick at all. St. Benildus watched the beheading of the priest Anastasius by the Spanish Muslims in 853 and decided she could not live without her own affirmation. So she marched off to declare her faith and was killed the next day. But for many martyrs—maybe most martyrs—the delay is long and involves both slow torture and promises of rewards for renounced faith.
The feasts of June 19 include two groups of martyrs: those killed by the Romans, and those killed by the English. We know little of St. Gervase and St. Protase, nearly forgotten victims of the early Roman persecutions. But St. Ambrose rediscovered their bodies in 386 and had them brought with great ceremony to the basilica in Milan. The twin sons of martyred parents, they were beaten and then beheaded. And then there are feasts today for St. Ursicinus of Ravenna, killed in the first century. St. Zosimus of Spoleto, taken in the second century. Gaudentius and Culmatius, martyrs of the fourth century. All tortured and imprisoned before their deaths.
Meanwhile, June 19 commemorates four deaths at the hands of the English crown: the Blessed Humphrey Middlemore, Blessed Sebastian Newdigate, and Blessed William Exmew, together with the Blessed Thomas Woodhouse. The first three—Middlemore, Newdigate, and Exmew—were arrested for failure to take the Oath of Supremacy, setting Henry VIII as head of the Church. Leaders of the Carthusians’ charterhouse in London, they were chained to posts for two weeks and then offered again the opportunity to take the oath. Refusing, they were hanged, with their bodies then drawn and quartered, on June 19, 1535.
Blessed Thomas Woodhouse came a generation later, a priest who denied the religious supremacy of Elizabeth I. Arrested in 1561 while saying Mass, he was imprisoned for over a decade, until on June 19, 1573, he was disemboweled alive for his refusal to embrace English Protestantism. “Too long a sacrifice,” as the poet William Butler Yeats once warned, “can make a stone of the heart.” The first bravery of the martyrs comes at the moment of sacrifice, when faith is chosen despite death. The second bravery of the martyrs comes in the long moments before, when faith is chosen despite imprisonment and horrendous pain.
As it happens, June 19 is also the feast day of a number of the builders of religious institutions—and one way to think about their work is to consider the ways that they asked not how to die but how to live. The endurance of faith is still the topic, but now raised away from the context of immediate death and suffering. Now raised without The Misfit’s gun pointed at our heads. The gun that remains is awareness that eventually we will die, must die, and a judgment waits. In the end, as Leon Bloy famously wrote, the only great tragedy is not have been a saint.