Sarah Torbeck catalogues the qualities that will exclude her from the Roman Martyrology.
Today is the feast day of St. Lawrence—you know, the saint who was grilled over coals before telling his torturers to turn him over, because he was done on one side. Yes—THAT St. Lawrence.
Upon re-reading his story, I was immediately inspired to compose a prayer and it went something like this: “Dear Lord, I’m willing to suffer for you—just not like St. Lawrence.”
In case it’s not obvious by now, allow me to clarify: I’m a chicken. I’m a yellow, lily-livered chicken. I’m terrified of pain and suffering, and have endeavored to reduce my risk(s) on all fronts and in all categories throughout most of my life.
This attitude is partly innate, and partly environmental. My formative years were fraught with difficulties, thus enhancing my inherent instinct for survival. So, when I tell you that I have been vigilant for all of my childhood and much of my adulthood, I am indicating that I know how to enter the gauntlet, and successfully reduce my risk. Unfortunately, these misguided attitudes served to reduce the world around me into a convenient, customized cage. I was relatively safe, but in the process of self-preservation, I often sacrificed knowledge of life-skills and talents.
I don’t wish to leave the impression that I still live in this kind of mental and material seclusion. After I became Catholic, I discovered a loving and benevolent God, who healed my brokenness, and allowed me to be the person He intended. (It turns out that I’m a raging extrovert; who knew?)
As a new Catholic, I readily consumed volumes of catechetical information. I’m a voracious reader by nature, so I managed to keep myself immersed in all things Catholic. I remember absorbing every word like a thirsty reed. It seemed as if Christ Himself, had plucked my heartstrings, and I willingly responded with musical reverberations. In fact, everything I read seemed to correspond to an intangible understanding within my soul.
Except for one thing: martyrdom.
As I read about the lives of the saints, the aspect of martyrdom was ubiquitous. Growing up as a Protestant, I had occasionally been exposed to a few of the more spectacular stories of holy suffering and death; but they remained distant from my own sphere, and I paid very little attention to them. “Surely, those were things that happened in the barbaric and uncivilized past,” I said to myself, and I felt little need to examine the idea of martyrdom any further.
And yet as a Catholic, the idea of martyrdom was inescapable. I was surprised (and perhaps even disheartened) to discover that martyrdom was a consistent theme throughout the 2,000 years of Salvation History. I remember the first time I really considered the possibility of martyrdom. “Could this ever happen to me?”
Of course, it should be noted that God rarely requires this type of sacrifice from believers. Most of us will learn to die to ourselves through prayer, penance and the daily offering of ourselves to the Will of God … whatever that may entail. My chances of dying the death of a martyr are slim. Still, could I … would I … willingly suffer martyrdom for the love of God?
The answer is simple, and admittedly human: I don’t know. Of course, I hope that I would be strong enough to stand firm in the face of persecution, but I know my limitations, too. I am weak. I love my own comfort. Surely, I am not the stuff from which martyrs are made.
This self-knowledge gradually helped me to recall a story I had read about Corrie ten Boom—the Christian, Dutch survivor of a Nazi concentration camp. She, like me, had contemplated the terrifying prospect of suffering for God, and expressed her fears to her father:
“‘Daddy,’ she said, ‘I am afraid that I will never be strong enough to be a martyr for Jesus Christ.’
‘Tell me,’ her father wisely responded, ‘when you take a train trip from Haarlem to Amsterdam, when do I give you the money for the ticket? Three weeks before?’
‘No, Daddy, you give me the money for the ticket just before we get on the train.’
‘That is right,’ he replied, ‘and so it is with God’s strength. Our wise Father in heaven knows when you are going to need things too. Today you do not need the strength to be a martyr. But as soon as you are called upon for the honor of facing death for Jesus, He will supply the strength you need—just in time.’” (Corrie Ten Boom in The Hiding Place: The Triumphant Story of Corrie Ten Boom)
I do not wish to imply that I am now ready to suffer the fate of St. Lawrence (or St. Stephen, or St. Peter for that matter.) In fact, my poor little humanity still quakes at the thought of martyrdom; but perhaps my readiness does not depend on my own fortitude. Perhaps it simply depends on a childlike trust that God will infuse me with heroic strength when I need it the most, and not a moment before.
My only task—is to be ready.
Copyright 2022 Sarah Torbeck
About the Author
Sarah Torbeck is a mother, a grandmother, and a widow. She spent her early-adult years immersed in the esoteric religions. Through the Rosary and a miraculous intervention by the Blessed Virgin Mary, she was led into the Catholic Church. She was home! Sarah was a writing teacher, and currently writes about her faith and love for God—for He is merciful, even to His tiniest sparrow.