Originally posted back on September 16th, the Feast of St. Cyprian, I am breaking this post out of the archives again. The recent killings of parishioners at Our Lady of Salvation in Baghdad bring the title of this post into stark relief with the events that transpired there on All Hallows Eve. St Cyprians words do not alleviate the pain, nor do they erase this tradgedy from our minds. But they do point to something larger than ourselves: the truth in the title of this post points to the Truth of the Word Incarnate.
Today is the day we commemorate the fellow you see in the icon to your left. Cyprian was beheaded for refusing to worship the false gods of the Roman Empire.
There was no separation of church and state, see, so the state decided to make an example of Cyprian, and thousands of other Christian martyrs too. The state, the Empire, lost the war against Christianity, and collapsed like the house of cards that it was.
On days like this, when the Catholic Church reveres a martyr, I am struck by a signal truth: the only innocent blood that was shed is that of the martyr. In other words, they didn’t go out with “a bang”, trying to bring as many down with them as possible. To me, that fact alone proves the supernatural Truth of the Way.
As a Marine, I promised to put my life on the line for the safety of the citizens of my home country. I promised to willingly take lives, and perform duties that would facilitate the taking of many lives, in order to fulfill this pledge. I took an oath to uphold the Constitution of the United States, against all enemies, foreign and domestic. The Marine Corps taught “my hands to fight, and my fingers to war.”
I am retired from the Marines now. As such, I am no longer bound by this oath made by men. As oaths go, it is a fine one. But now, my sword has been turned into a ploughshare and my time and talents are no longer to “be exercised any more to war.” Not temporally, anyway.
Below is a letter St. Cyprian wrote to honor those who fell as martyrs, and to encourage those who may fall in the service of Our Lord. The martial symbolism is not lost on me. Nor is the call to spiritual arms. But as you read the letter below, keep in mind that each of these martyrs never lifted a sword against their oppressor. And they each, as Cyprian does, knew who the oppressor really is, and that lifting a sword against a mere pawn of that oppressor was, and still is, pointless.
Sun Tzu once wrote that,
All men can see these tactics whereby I conquer, but what none can see is the strategy out of which victory is evolved.
St. Cyprian saw the strategy, and so does every Christian who dies as a martyr. This is one of the myriad paradoxes of our life of faith. I believe Sun Tzu would understand this since he said,
Confront them with annihilation, and they will then survive; plunge them into a deadly situation, and they will then live. When people fall into danger, they are then able to strive for victory.
If Sun Tzu would have been alive when the missionaries first came to China, I think he would have understood the Way.
Here is a portion of St. Cyprian’s thoughts on martyrdom,
St. Cyprian’s 10th Epistle
Cyprian, to the martyrs and confessors, continued health in Christ our Lord, and in God the Father:
I am exceeding glad, and heartily congratulate you, brethren, most blessed in your great endurance, when I hear of your faith and courage, in which your Mother the Church triumphs. Indeed she triumphed before, when a judicial sentence drove the confessors of Christ into exile, without shaking their constancy. But your present confession is as much more glorious and honorable than that, as the sufferings have been greater, through which it has been maintained. The combat has been greater, and greater has been the glory of the combatants.
You have not been deterred from the contest, but you have been rather the more excited to the battle, by the prospect of torture: and you have returned, firm and undaunted, with an unshaken devotion, to the struggles of the hottest engagement. Some of you, I hear, have already been crowned; some are pressing towards the crown of victory, and stand ready to grasp it; and all the glorious band, upon whom the dungeon has closed, are animated with an equal and mutual ardor to carry on the contest.
This is as it ought to be with the soldiers of Christ in the army of the saints; that effeminacy may not enervate, that threats may not terrify, that racks and tortures may not move the integrity and stability of their faith. Since He is greater who is in us, than he who is in the world; and no earthly infliction has greater power to cast us down, than the Divine help has to support us.Of this we have the proof before our eyes, in the glorious contest of those of our brethren, who were the leaders in this conquest of tortures; and afforded an example of constancy and faith, while they rushed again and again on the battle, until the battle was overcome. In what words shall I proclaim your praises, O brethren, most invincible! With what device of the herald shall I blazon the strength of your fortitude, the endurance of your faith!
You have borne the most exquisite tortures, even to the consummation of your glory; nor have you yielded to torment, but rather torment has yielded to you. Your martyrdom has crowned those sufferings, to which your tortures refused to put an end. The severity of infliction was thus continued, not to the overthrow of a dauntless faith, but that it might transport men more rapidly to their Lord.
The spectators wondering at the celestial contest, the contest of God, the spiritual contest, the battle of Christ, saw his servants standing, with a determined voice, with a mind untainted, with heavenly virtue; without the arms of this world, indeed, but strong in the panoply of faith. The tortured stood more unmoved than their torturers; and the crushed and lacerated limbs overcame the instruments of cruelty. The fierce and often repeated lash could not overcome their invincible faith, although their very vitals were laid open with repeated stripes, and the frequent blow fell not on the body, but on the wounds of the servants of God.
The effusion of blood might have extinguished the flames of persecution, might have assuaged the very fires of hell with its glorious stream. O how noble was that spectacle! In the eyes of the Lord how sublime! How great, how acceptable in the sight of God, that fulfillment of the oath, that pledge of the devotion of his soldiers! Since it is written in the Psalms, the Holy Spirit speaking also to us, Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints.
This is indeed a precious death, which has purchased immortality; which has received the crown as the consummation of virtue. How did Christ then rejoice! How willingly did he fight and conquer in such servants of his; confirming their constancy, and giving to all those who believed in him according to their faith!
He was present, as if the contest were His own: He strengthened, encouraged, and animated those who fought for Him, and for the honor of His name: and He who once conquered death for us, continues to conquer death in us. When they shall deliver you up, says he, think not what ye shall say; for in that hour it shall be given you what ye shall say: for it is not ye who speak, but the Spirit of your Father who speaketh in you.
The present combat afforded an evidence of this truth. A word full of the Holy Spirit broke from the mouth of the most blessed martyr Mappalicus, when he exclaimed, in the midst of his tortures, to the Proconsul, Tomorrow shall you see a struggle indeed! And what he said with the witness of a courageous faith, the Lord himself fulfilled. The heavenly struggle was seen; and the servant of God received his crown in the height of the anticipated contest.
This is the struggle which the Apostle Paul describes, in which we ought to run so as to obtain the crown of glory: Know ye not, says he,
that they which run in a race run all, but one receiveth the prize ? So run, that ye may obtain. And every man that striveth for the mastery is temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a corruptible crown ; but we an incorruptible.
Again, describing his own contest, and in immediate anticipation of being offered up, he says,
For I am now ready to be offered, and the time of my departure is at hand. I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith: henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, shall give me at that day: and not to me only, but unto all them also that love his appearing.
This struggle, therefore, appointed by the Lord, undergone by Apostles, Mappalicus, in his own name and in the name of his companions, promised that the Proconsul should see. Nor did he disappoint the expectation that he had excited: he exhibited the contest he had promised; he bore off the palm which he deserved.
Let me, then, exhort those of you who remain, to follow that most glorious martyr, and the rest who shared in his engagement; who were patient in tribulation, who were victorious over the rack, and stood like soldiers and comrades unbroken in faith.
That those whom the bond of one confession and the walls of the dungeon have already associated, may also be associated in the consummation of virtue and the heavenly crown. That you may dry, by your joy, those tears of your Mother the Church, which she sheds over the fall and ruin of many; and that you may confirm those, who are yet unshaken, by your example of endurance.
When your turn shall arrive, and you too shall be called to the fight, quit yourselves valiantly, and endure with constancy; well assured that you fight under the eyes of the Lord, who is present with you, and that you march to glory through the confession of his name. He is not such a master as to look on his servants from afar; but He himself struggles together with them; with them He advances to the conflict: He himself, in the successful issue, both bestows and receives a crown.
St. Cyprian, pray for us. You can read more of this letter on the YIMCatholic Bookshelf.