When I taught ESOL in China, the first thing that struck me was the English first names the students had assigned themselves for the purposes of the class. They’d chosen them some years ago, when they first began studying, and were already quite attached to them. I can only assume they were inspired by their British textbooks, published in the 1960s, and apparently edited by scholars who’d been born in the reign of King Edward VII. Nothing else could explain why, at any given hour of the workday, I found myself staring across a desk at more Lucys and Harrys and Edwards and Lizzies and Berts than I have ever met in my life.
Reading the names of the Chinese martyrs, you can see evidence of the same imprecise, almost haphazard mixture of cultures. There’s a St. Peter Wu, a St. Joseph Zhang Dapeng, and a St. Augustine Zhao Rong. What received ideas, I wonder, did these people have to unlearn in order to get religion properly? In the year I taught there, I never began to get a handle on Chinese culture. Could it be that 19th-century Confucians were closer, philosophically speaking, to the world of the Gospels and the early Church Fathers than a 20th-century Freudian like me? It’s a hard call to make, but the names, no less than the fact of their owners’ martyrdom, hint at lives lived against the grain.
One Chinese martyr whose story I find more familiar than the rest is Mark Ji Tianxian, who chose to die at the hands of xenophobic Boxers rather than renounce the faith. St. Mark was canonized by Pope John Paul II in 2001, as part of a group of 120; he is, in that sense, a product of the so-called “Saint Factory.” Possibly for that reason, it’s hard to find a thorough hagiography — probably none has been written. Nevertheless, two details jump out to distinguish him from the rest, and quite possibly, from every other saint on the calendar:
1. He was a notorious opium addict; and
2) He hadn’t received Communion in 30 years.
These details raise so many intriguing question: What made him get into opium so late in life, and so long after the negative effects of the drug were generally known? Did he convert before or after he’d picked up the habit? What sorts of inner turmoil did he experience as his conscious religious convictions condemned his bondage to this uniquely will-destroying drug?
It should go without saying that I identify with St. Mark as one substance abuser to another. But I was luckier than he was in my choice of substances. Unofficially at least, drinking is the Catholic’s great consolation prize. Perhaps we can’t masturbate or cohabit or use rubbers or the pill, or divorce and remarry, or be gay, but by golly, we can drown our sorrows. On paper, the binge drinker may commit the sin of gluttony or omit the virtue of temperance, but these matters are left to his own conscience. As an opium user, Mark was, so to speak, a marked man, a walking — or more likely, reclining — scandal. He couldn’t have received even if he’d wanted to.
What doesn’t strike me as the slightest bit unlikely is the fact that Mark chose to die rather than apostasize. Say what you like about self-medicators — we’re people who earnestly seek heaven. To say that we do it wrong wouldn’t be wholly correct. From time to time, various religions have permitted the faithful a chemical boost. The Assassins of the Isma’ili sect of Islam got higher than kites on hashish, both in order to prepare themselves for the special-ops missions of this world, and to anticipate the rewards of the next. While on retreat, members of the Native American Church eat peyote to help them with discernment. Hasidic Jews were said, at various times and places, to tie one on in order to give the Sabbath Queen the joyful welcome she deserved.
The goals of the garden-variety tippler, smoker or snorter may be less lofty generally, but not always. In his memoir, Closing Time, Joe Queenan recalls the long, tearful conversations his alcoholic father would carry on with Jesus from the dregs of his cups. Not infrequently, after taking my own snootful, I felt an urge to surf YouTube for hymns. “St. Patrick’s Breastplate,” always a favorite, seemed somehow appropriate to my condition. Or else I’d watch DVDs of the sappiest faith movies. There must be a simple neurological reason for this, but some things — Christ’s dual nature, the Real Presence in the Eucharist, the glamorous Jennifer Jones as the stunted, sickly St. Bernadette — are easier to buy wholeheartedly when you’re fucked up.
This might be romantic garbage I’ve picked up from listening to the Velvet Underground, but I always had the idea that people who used opium derivatives were especially otherworldly. That is, I imagined they were more eager even than other drug users to escape their bodies and their minds, and melt away into some Dionysian oblivion. Hopefully, St. Mark’s actual reward so exceeded the highs he’d chased that it made the small pains of the scaffold, and the great pains of existence, finally feel worthwhile.