As He Died To Make Men Holy

On the Christian ways of living and dying

This mother’s name is Simone Barretto Silva. She was praying in church in Nice this week when a Muslim fanatic burst in and began to slaughter Christians. He stabbed her repeatedly. She fled, and made it to a nearby shop, where her final words were, “Tell my children I love them.”

According to Christian practice and tradition, she is a martyr, which means, instantly a saint. Pope Francis should immediately declare that she and the two other Catholics murdered by that Muslim to be saints.

St. Simone’s case is an unusual one, of course. Most Christians in the world today will not die as martyrs. Relatively few of us will have to suffer in any meaningful way for our faith. We can’t even conceive of it. No doubt Simone could not have imagined such a fate for herself when she entered into Notre Dame cathedral that morning in Nice, dipped her fingers in the holy water font, and made her way to prayer. But martyrdom came for her all the same.

As readers of my latest book and my blog know, I am deeply concerned — almost pre-occupied — with the idea of the consequences of the inability of American Christians to suffer for the faith. I believe that …

Joe Gerber’s Front Porch Republic review of Live Not By Lies contains this paragraph:

Lastly, Dreher gets downright pugnacious in his condemnation of the Christian embrace of therapeutic categories and calls on Christian dissidents to embrace suffering instead. This is one of the most important chapters of the book because it is the one that Christians so desperately need to hear. He serves a warning to Christians that their pursuit of happiness at all costs will ultimately end in people who not only welcome soft totalitarianism, but who actually embrace it: “these are the young churchgoers who have little capacity to resist, because they have been taught that the good life is a life free from suffering. If they have been taught the faith at all, it has been a Christianity without the tears” (185). That is, the totalitarianism we face today is much more Soma-driven as in Huxley than it is fear-driven as in Orwell. Until the members of the holy catholic and apostolic church embrace the call to suffer well for the sake of a higher and eternal calling, there will be very little resistance to the forces of evil arrayed against the church. The Christian church must abandon the Moralistic Therapeutic Deism that Christian Smith identifies as the core of American Christianity and embrace a healthy, conservative ecumenism that embraces the path of suffering as a means to the sanctification of the faithful.

All that is true. But for me, and, I think, for the overwhelming majority of US Christians, this is all in the future. The near future, I hasten to add, but still, it’s not happening just yet. As Christians we can, and should, speculate on how we would make out individually and collectively under persecution — things like suffering job loss, institutional shutdown, and social ostracism, as well as more serious forms involving physical violence or imprisonment. That’s one of the goals of my book Live Not By Lies — to provoke that kind of individual and communal self-examination, and repentance. You know that if you read my blog, so I won’t go into it further here.

What interests me in this post is considering how we meet suffering now, under ordinary conditions. I say “ordinary,” but of course there is nothing ordinary about Covidtide. It has been a test for the Church (by which I mean all the Christian churches), to see how resilient we are in the face of relatively minor disruption and privation. The word “relatively” is doing heavy lifting in that sentence. This hasn’t been minor for the elderly, the immunocompromised, and those whose lives and families have been struck by illness. Nor has it been minor for all the people who have lost their jobs or their businesses from the Covid-related economic downturn.

I’m talking, though, about people like me: folks who have been able to work from home, and who have had to suffer from a dramatic change in social connections, and from a couple of months of not being able to go to church, but who otherwise have not been hit as hard as others. For the first few months of Covid, I did that Stoic thing in which I shamed myself for my frustration and unhappiness, telling myself that it could always be worse, and that I had no right to complain. That worked for a while … until it didn’t.

What helped me was to think more deeply into the lessons I learned from studying the experience of Christian dissidents under Soviet bloc totalitarianism. In particular, the memoir of Dr. Silvester Krcmery (kirch-merry), a young Slovak Catholic physician who was imprisoned for a decade or so, beginning in the early 1950s, for his work with the Catholic underground. In the book he wrote as an old man, after Communism ended, Dr. Krcmery detailed the strategies that got him and his Christian comrades through the agonies of prison, which included torture. I won’t detail them all here — some of this is in Live Not By Lies, but I really hope that a publisher will bring out a reprint of the English translation of Krcmery’s memoir, This Saved Us.

The key insight of the doctor’s that spoke to me this summer was his bedrock conviction, asserted internally when he first entered prison, that he would not pity himself, but would rather regard himself as “God’s probe” in that prison. That is, he would accept whatever happened to him as both sharing in Christ’s passion, but also as a kind of researcher meant both to serve and to learn in this condition. He knew that he was guilty of nothing, but he did not meditate on the injustice of his situation. Rather, he accepted it as something allowed by God for a reason. This is key: Krcmery did not try to figure out the reason. He simply accepted it with resignation. He could not think his way out of this; he could only surrender in faith.

Krcmery talks about how he strengthened himself with regular prayers and mediations. He had to keep his mind occupied, and fixed in a routine, or he wouldn’t make it. He also writes about how knowing that he wasn’t suffering alone, that so many others in that prison were also Christians who had done nothing wrong, gave him strength. Here, from his memoir, is an interesting observation:

I noticed that crises seemed to arise much more frequently when a prisoner enjoyed relatively good physical conditions, that is, when the quality of food improved, when he was able to sleep peacefully or was physically fit. At the height of his suffering, a prisoner did not usually encounter such crises. Then, the human spirit’s and body’s only objectives were centered on holding out just a little while longer.

Why do you suppose that is? I think it must have something to do with what Adm. James Stockdale discovered during his POW experience in Vietnam. He told the author Jim Collins that the “optimists” were more easily broken by prison, because they would put so much hope on assuming that their suffering would end by a certain time, and that they would be home in time for Christmas, or some other date. Then Christmas would come and go, with them remaining in prison, and they would fall into a deep pit of depression. It was better, said Stockdale, to be confident that ultimately you would prevail over your captors, but that you also had to be realistic about your situation. That was the hope that got you through. I don’t know whether Stockdale was a religious believer, but he was a philosophical Stoic — in fact, a follower of Epictetus.

In my own case, I found that ceasing to think about whether or not this Covid crisis would end by Christmas, or by next spring, or by any date at all, was helpful. I found it less stressful simply to quit speculating. More crucially, I have been trying to think of myself as God’s probe through this endless Covid crisis. Most of the Christians who lived under Soviet bloc Communism never went to prison. They endured the endless daily grind of life in a totalitarian state — and though they were confident that Communism would end one day, almost none believed that they would ever live to see it. How did they manage? It occurred to me this summer that Covid could be training for developing long-term patience — especially in the matter of being separated from our churches and religious gatherings.

What if God was giving us an opportunity to experience the absence of normal church life, and community life, as a prompt to look into our own hearts and see what we lack? Dr. Krcmery used his prison experience for that kind of introspection and repentance. Maybe that is a way to redeem this unhappy time. Maybe that is a way to prepare ourselves for the hard road ahead. We may think of ourselves as like the girl in Flannery O’Connor’s short story (“She could never be a saint, but she thought she could be a martyr if they killed her quick”), but nearly all of us are called to develop the boring steadfastness of a saint. It is no bad thing to reflect on the suffering of those who died as martyrs, or who suffered as confessors (the word for Christians who bore great suffering for the faith, but who were not killed), and to ask if we have what it takes to endure those trials. But the truth is, learning how to be bled white by banal, tedious suffering is what most of us are going to face. The quiet holiness of the prayerful widow who bears up under loneliness, or of the young man struggling with chronic illness — that’s what it’s going to be like for us. The trials we think we are prepared for may not be the trials we get.

I learned so much from the agonizing experience of having my Catholic faith torn out of me, like a prisoner whose torturer pried off his fingernails. It was the worst experience of my life, but even to this day, I try to allow God to redeem it by learning from it. I remember visiting Rome in those Catholic years, before the abuse scandal broke, and praying at sites hallowed by martyrs. In Rome in late winter 2001, I knelt in front the the reliquary-mounted skull of little St. Agnes, martyred in 304, and prayed for the strength to endure what she did for the faith, if ever I had to. It was on my mind because I was in the city as a New York Post columnist to cover the elevation of New York’s Archbishop Edward Egan to the cardinalate. In his public address at the ceremony in St. Peter’s Square, Pope John Paul II told the new cardinals:

It is precisely the red color of the robes you wear that reminds you of this urgent need. Is that color not the symbol of ardent love for Christ? Does that bright red not symbolize the burning fire of love for the Church which must nurture within you the readiness, if necessary, to bear the supreme witness of bloodshed?

The day might come when I would have to suffer for the Church. I thought about that a lot that day in Rome, after listening to the Pope’s words. What never once occurred to me was that the day would come — and in fact, it would come within the year — when I would have to suffer from the Church. I was in no way ready for that, and after several years of wrestling with it, circumstances eventually broke me spiritually.

(A friend who is a military officer had a similar thing happen to him, during the Iraq War. He had been trained to fight and die for his country, but nothing prepared him for the discovery that his superiors were flat-out lying to the public about the situation in Iraq. That was harder than combat, he said, because it was an assault on the foundation of his vocation as a soldier.)

It has been fifteen years since I left Catholicism, and those wounds have long since healed. I do my best now to try to be a bridge-builder among conservative Orthodox, Catholics, and Protestants, not out of any squishy ecumenical vision, but because I have experienced how bloody hard it is to be faithful in these post-Christian times, and I know in my bones how much we need each other. The triumphalism in which I reveled as a Catholic was crushed right out of me, and whenever I see it manifest in Orthodox, Protestants, or Catholics, I go the other way. In the spirit of “God’s probe,” though, I try to look back on that excruciating experience of losing my Catholic faith as a severe mercy, because of what it taught me about suffering. As an immature Christian, I had built defenses against suffering that were like a Maginot Line: arrayed against the aggressor I was psychologically and spiritually prepared to resist. But the enemy simply came at me the back way, and I was undone.

This could happen to any of us — and I believe it will. You may imagine that if the secret police came to your door and asked if there were any Christians in the house, that you would say yes, and be hauled off to prison with your head held high. And maybe you would! But there are ten thousand more minor but nevertheless meaningful ways you will be more likely put to the test, ways you aren’t thinking about now, because they are scarcely conceivable. What will you do then? What will you do when you are not offered a kill-you-quick martyrdom, but rather the prospect of a diminished life, one filled not even with pain, but serious discomfort without end? What if your suffering for the faith takes the form not of physical pain or hardship, but of exile from the career you love, or your church, or your friends, even your family?

Is it easier to die (if they promise to kill us quick) or to abide? I used to think I knew, but I don’t. Simone Barretto Silva may never be formally canonized, but in her few minutes of terror and pain, endured because she was a prayerful Christian hated by an enemy of God, she won paradise. Now her children must learn to abide without their mother. At least they know that she loved them. Sorry, loves them; I believe Simone is in heaven praying for them. That is a priceless gift she left for them — as is a faith that teaches them that their mother’s sacrifice, impossible to make sense of by earthly reckoning, has ultimate meaning. They weep for their dead mama, as Christ’s mother wept for him. Christianity without tears is no Christianity at all.

I want to thank you all for signing up for this newsletter. As I finish today’s letter, we are closing in on 750 subscribers, all in the first day. I don’t expect every letter will be so somber. A long meditation on death and suffering is not most people’s idea of uplifting reading, I guess, but if you’re like me, nothing is more depressing than happy-clappy expressions of Christianity whose purpose seems not to redeem tears, but to banish them through therapeutic denial. That’s cheap grace, denounced by Dietrich Bonhoeffer as “the deadly enemy of our Church.”

Last night I read the chapter in Kristin Lavransdatter, Sigrid Undset’s gorgeous trilogy about a woman in medieval Norway, about the death of the title character’s father, Lavrans. He was a righteous man, and died at home, surrounded by family, and attended by his priest. Here’s an excerpt from that long passage:

Kristin saw at once from her father’s face that death was now very near. The skin around his nostrils was snowy white, but bluish under his eyes and at his lips; his hair had separated into sweaty strings lying on his broad, damp forehead. But he had his full wits about him and spoke clearly, although slowly and in a weak voice.

The servants approached the bed, one by one, and Lavrans gave his hand to each of them, thanking them for their service, telling them to live well and asking for forgiveness if he had ever offended them in any way; and he asked them to remember him with a prayer for his soul. Then he said goodbye to his kinsmen. He told his daughters to bend down so he could kiss them, and he asked God and all the saints to bless them. They wept bitterly both of them; and young Ramborg threw herself into her sister’s arms. Holding on to each other, Lavrans’s two daughters went back to their place at the foot of their father’s bed, and the younger one continued to weep on Kristin’s breast.

Erlend’s face quivered and the tears ran down his face when he lifted Lavrans’s hand to kiss it, as he quietly asked his father-in-law to forgive him for the sorrows he had caused him over the years. Lavrans said he forgave him with all his heart, and he prayed that God might be with him all his days. There was a strange, pale light in Erlend’s handsome face when he silently moved away to stand at his wife’s side, hand in hand with her.

Simon Darre did not weep, but he knelt down as he took his father-law’s hand to kiss it, and he held on to it tightly as he stayed on his knees a moment longer. “Your hand feels warm and good, son-in-law,” said Lavrans with a faint smile. Ramborg turned to her husband when he went to her, and Simon put his arm around her thin, girlish shoulders.

Last of all, Lavrans said goodbye to his wife. They whispered a few words to each other that no one else could hear, and exchanged a kiss in everyone’s presence, as was now proper when death was in the room. Then Ragnfrid knelt in front of her husband’s bed, with her face turned toward him; she was pale, silent, and calm.

That’s not quite the end. Lavrans’s final words — I don’t dare reveal them here — almost made me gasp. He is a prosperous farmer, and a righteous, godly man. The beauty and the … the harmony of his manner of leaving the world is breathtaking. It is not easy to portray goodness, and to make it captivating, but in this noble old Norseman, Undset has given us one of the most memorable characters in modern fiction. At least I think so. This evening I lit the first fire of the season in our hearth, and am about to return to medieval Norway. It’s hard to imagine a better book to read fireside than Kristin Lavransdatter, but you have to make sure you get the contemporary translation, by Tiina Nunnally. It makes all the difference.