Gabriel has an educative and interesting post on the recently killed Coptic martyrs. I'm not going to go after the (perhaps? a bit?) neo-jansenism of The Josias kids - they mean well. And I've been there, looking for clear and hard lines everywhere. We all need a bit of that, no doubt, in an age of no lines.
There is a story circulating of late, about the man portrayed as having darker skin in the icon of the martyrs found on the Coptic Church site. It goes like this:
He was a Chadian Citizen who accepted Christianity after seeing the immense faith of his fellow Coptic Christians to die for Christ. When Terrorist forced him to reject Jesus Christ as God, looking at his Christian friends he replied, “their God is my God“so the terrorist beheaded him also.
In other versions of this story he is from Ghana. I have also read from sources not citing anything that he may have been an Eastern Orthodox Christian from the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Alexandria from either Ghana or Kenya.
But this story (and all we have at this point are unsubstantiated narratives) of the man from Chad (or Ghana) who claimed, in his last moment, the God of his friends captures me.
To bring this back, a bit, to the Josias and their concern for the parameters of the Church -- as I have written many times now, I can't really make heads or tails, intellectually, of where the true Church is exactly. Unless we have amazing intellectual faculties, we hedge our bets.
I believe, without equivocation, that if God actually intended for there to be visible and sacramental unity among Christians (don't quote me John 17, things are rarely that simple), then the see of Peter is the plausible place of unity in Christian history and in meta-Christian experience and in the logic of scripture and tradition for that unity to occur. It so happens that events like the killings of these Copts, and their friend, compels me to hope that God did intend as John 17 would suggest at first reading.
But when it comes to my intellect, to that sea of difficulties (a thousand of which, according to Newman, does not equal one doubt, but I flirt with despair far more than he did, it seems) I must say, if I am honest, that there is no Christian communion that does not elicit from me an intellectual-guttural "there is no way in hell that can be true" response. With regard to Roman Catholicism, it is not universal papal jurisdiction, or papal infallibility, per se, but rather the teaching on contraception that is incomprehensible to me, from an intellectual perspective. Even the annulment process/praxis, which kept me from Rome for so many years, does not bother me really, not anymore. Every Christian body has its bureaucracies, and most of us moderns have to pass through some of the inane and the fine print to get to Christ, if we can get to Him at all.
I won't list my "difficulties" with other communions. Just trust me that they are there.
When I joined the RCC on the feast of St. Francis in 1998 I did so despite many intellectual difficulties. My sponsor, and dear friend, Chris Lentz, once told me to stop giving myself a "mind fuck" - I think of that admonishment often. I joined the Church because I loved the people who had held me up in a very dark time - especially Chris, and Henry, and Danny. And the Loomes who fed me and housed me when I was sick, and taught me and gave me work. And the folks around that world, the John Boyles and the Larry Hundersmarcks and the Fr. Hughs and and the Fr. O'Rourkes and the Louise Zwicks and all those folks.
I remember, when I told my parents that I was converting to Catholicism, telling them that I felt like Ruth - "Thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God."
I would later remarry, and leave the community I was in then, and end up leaving those people, and their God, as it were.
I never felt right with that.
When my wife and I were trying to have children, we decided that we had to settle down religiously. We went to many Catholic and Orthodox parishes, and a few Prot ones. We did not feel comfortable in any of the Orthodox parishes, but one Sunday we were at a Catholic parish (something close to a big box one, even though it was in the city), and the priest spoke about how the closest thing he had ever experienced to Pentecost was being in Texas Stadium when the Dallas Cowboys rushed onto the field. That day that priest lost a soul for a decade+.
He wasn't the only reason. I was away from those people whom I had loved so much, and I was lost. And I was young and intoxicated by the exotic.
But I can say without hesitation that during those years I was at Loomes and living in that Catholic community of sorts I would have died with those people and for their God. Their witness to me was one of such great love and friendship, such life and hope and fellowship. I've not experienced anything like it since.
There is a line from Dom Marmion, before he was a made man, that I cling to:
I prefer the hearing of confessions to any other duty. I never found any difficulty as yet although I have a great many penitents, even from other parishes & from Dublin. I believe that very much less “geny” is required than is generally thought; great kindness & patience are everything & the principle sacramenta propter homines ( et mulieres) : of course you must know that if a man steals a pound he must restore it, & that murder, drunkenness etc, are sometimes mortal sins; beyond this, you very seldom get a “casus.” …
"sometimes mortal sins" - God I hope Marmion meets me at the gate, and doesn't think me as smart as I think I am.
I have occasion to attend Mass at times at the mental health institute I work at. There are folks there who have murdered and done other horrific things. I don't know nor do I guess much regarding their culpability - though mitigations seem pretty apparent. There is something liberating about going to Mass with "crazy" people. There is a very heightened sense that we are all here desperate, and massively fucked up. It is quite a different experience than one gets at a suburban big box RCC parish, the new GOP at prayer, since ECUSA has gone to the Dems.
I think of this man from Chad, or Ghana. He knows nothing of the Pope - the Coptic Pope or the Roman Pope. But before you Orthodox get your spiritual willies wet neither does he know (presumably much of) anything about ecumenical councils, or iconography, or liturgy, or asceticism (until that moment, perhaps). He knows that his friends love. He knows that their faith creates meaning. He knows, somehow, that their Christ is a name to cling to in death.
There are all sorts of ways to parse a martyr, or would-be martyr. There is the ontology of martyrdom. The epistemology. I don't know that we should leave it to just that. There is also the aesthetics - the form of it, right or wrong or muddled. And the telos. Copts (at least from what I have experienced of them), seem to me especially suited to the aesthetics of a Christian death. I have seen it in the resignation of their wonderful hospitality. In the simple dance of their manners. In their brightness and love without guile. One does not see this sort of form in Mormon martyrdom, or in Islamic ones, or in the colonial martyrdoms of 19th century Protestantism. The dying we see in the infamous video is a liturgical and sacramental dying - it is an apostolic form.
And then the telos. That man from Chad or Ghana, if he did claim the Christ of his friends, first, at his last moment, ends his life in the bosom of the faith of Peter, and Andrew, and especially (by form of death) Paul, and all of Christ's disciples. He is another happy thief, another lucky spiritual bastard adopted at the last.
Working, and sometimes worshiping, with people very sick in mind, has led me away, little by little, from my previous aggravations that most people understand little about the faith (or lack thereof) that they profess. Knowing your faith is such a crapshoot. The vast majority of people in this world will never read the theology, or a tenth thereof, that most of the readers of this blog have. At best they will need to be to be reminded of basic tenants. Even the damn American middle class, for all of its entertainment addicted decadence, generally doesn't have the intellectual capacity to understand a solid explanation of Palamas' energy-essence distinction, nor will they remember the difference between what went down at Vatican I and what went down at Trent ten minutes after you describe both to them. That is a poverty, to be sure, but one we live with, whether we like it or not.
Many of these patients at the Masses at my institute, I believe, would die with their friends, and perhaps for their friends' God, given the chance.
And so, perhaps, in these increasingly violent times it will come to who dies with the most compelling form. And who makes the most genuine friends. I don't know. Perhaps not.
I know that I have been to Mass with folks who cannot possibly understand an iota of the Baltimore Catechism, or of most any homilies (save some of the priest who serves at our chapel, a man of some sanctity, it would seem), but who, if the occasion arose, would say, some of them, I'd bet, "me too" if the madmen came to kill those who claimed Christ. If that day comes, God grant us all a cruciform form; that of Peter, and his friends.