7 May 2009

English Martyrs

A huge advantage of seminary life is you hear homilies (or post communion reflections) from guys who have a real talent for using words. I quote, here, one such reflection given on the feast of the English martyrs on 4th May. Though, eastangliaseminarians did write about the stone at Tyburn, these words evoke, for me, the horror of martyrdom, but also the compelling draw of the Faith which these gentle folk engaged within. You know who you are, but thanks for your words. Inspiring, I think you will agree:

“Look Meg! These blessed Father’s be now as cheerfully going to their deaths as bridegrooms to their marriage!” So spoke Saint Thomas More on 4th May 1535 to his daughter from the window of his cell in the Tower of London.

The blessed Father’s were 3 Carthusian priors, Saint’s Augustine Webster, John Haughton, Robert Lawrence, a Brigitine priest Saint Richard Reynolds and another priest John Hale and all of them were the first martyrs of the English Reformation. They died witnessing to the truth of the Catholic faith. For all had refused to sign the oath of Supremacy naming Henry VIII as “the only supreme head of the Church in England.

The blessed Fathers, wearing their white religious habits, were tied to boards and dragged through the filthy streets of London, in full public view, to the gallows at Tyburn. There, they were hung, one by one, disembowled, dismembered and in a final humiliation their body parts were displayed throughout London. When Saint John Haughton was having his intestines drawn out he said “O Jesus, have mercy on me!” and when his heart was being cut out his last words were “Good Jesus, what will you do with my heart?”

“What will you do with my heart, good Jesus?”

Herein lies the mystery of martyrdom for the blessed Fathers and the many other Catholic martyrs of the Reformation, young and old, rich and poor, religious and lay, men and women, did not intend to be killed. Priests training in Valladolid and Rome went back to England and Wales to serve, trying to avoid capture, aided by people who themselves did their utmost to foil detection. How do their deaths serve when their intention to service is snuffed out?

The answer lies in God’s eminence and the Kingdom of Heaven.

God’s eminence is found in Jesus’ own words in the Gospel: “I have come so that they may have life and have it to the full”.

In the ordinary existence of human life, it’s triumphs and defeats the Blessed Trinity’s extraordinary divine superabundant fruitfulness is permanently communicated. Jesus says “I am the gate of the sheepfold” and he means, as with his other statements “I am the Good shepherd”, “I am the true vine” that He, God, is the source of all that is life-giving for Jesus’ “I am” statements are simply statements of “God is” – “God is spirit”, “God is love”. So where there is justice there is God. And even when there is injustice, when men and women are murdered for their faith, God is there too. He fills the void – in peoples eyes they recognise what is true, loving and holy. And this is how God’s extravagant fruitfulness is communicated to the lives of others.

They come to see the Kingdom of heaven being made present now – God reigning in the lives and deaths of those who are witnessing to him. They can see the salvation of the kingdom of heaven coming in power through the martyrdom of Jesus’ disciples. They can recognise the brigands and thieves who come to steal, kill and destroy. The sheep hear the voice of the good shepherd and see the true sheepfold.

God spoke and there was life – Each and every word of God is a deed of fruitfulness – Each and every deed of God is a word of fruitfulness – Each and every martyr speaking through the deed of their death is a word and deed of God and is fruitful.

And yet the English Martrdoms ended in 1680. What of testimony, through death, in our own times?

It requires a speaking and doing in our lives which mirrors the death of the martyrs – the primary Christian witness or so-called white martyrdom whereby one dies to those things that obscure God. Things that obscure God are the empty attractions and affections of selfishness, self-aggrandisement and cynicism. Our own modern day oath of supremacy. Dying to these attractions and affections are like tiny knife cuts – they cause wounds that hurt. This dying takes a courage that is only possible for the friends of Jesus who offer, as Pope John Paul II said, “the gold of their freedom, the insence of their ardent prayer and the myrrh of their most profound affections”.

In other words it means making Saint John Haughton’s prayer ones own: “Good Jesus, what will you do with my heart?” In doing so God’s eminence floods the kingdom of heaven such that others may perhaps say of us in hope: “Look! Those blessed fathers be so cheerfully going to their deaths as bridegrooms going to their marriage”.

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