Old, Unhappy, Far-Off Things? The Feast of the English & Welsh Martyrs 2017

Long-term readers of this blog will know of my profound admiration for the Carthusian Martyrs and many, but not all, of their contemporaries (see, for example, this blog post). They will also be familiar with my numerous reflections on the nature of martyrdom (see, for example, this blog post). When one is guilty of so many words, it comes as no suprise that some are offended, misunderstand or simply want to argue away the facts on which my opinions are based. The awkward fact is, there was a time when we murdered one another because of our beliefs — or rather, we believed our prospect of heaven or hell rested upon our believing rightly, so anyone who, in our view, did not believe rightly, or whose beliefs threatened the civil order, had to be forced to do the right thing; and if they refused, we had to try to save their souls even though it meant sacrificing their bodies. Or so we told ourselves. Augustine’s compelle intrare has had a long and bloody history in England, as elsewhere, and only someone wonderfully naive would discount the role of personal grudges, old grievances and sheer neighbourly nastiness. We comfort ourselves with the thought that we would not act like that nowadays and leave the brutal butchery of others to IS and similar groups we conveniently label ‘extremist’.

That leaves us with a problem, of course. Can we celebrate with a good conscience the martyrs of former times, or are we obliged to a kind of ecumenical wishy-washyness, which means we never actually admit that we do hold different beliefs in some matters and may even be prepared to die for them, albeit not as readily or bravely, perhaps, as our forebears, because we honour truth and know that it is important? For myself, the answer is clear. I pray daily for the unity of the Church, and have not the slightest hesitation in invoking the prayers of the martyrs of every generation for all the varieties of Christian there are today — Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, Protestant, etc. The Catholic martyrs of the Reformation period tend to be, like the Carthusians, people I know and honour chiefly through the records they have left; those of the later period, the seventeenth century especially, are family and, as such, have a personal claim on me to remember them. It is an act of pietas to ask their prayers. To ignore them, or to play down their role and importance in my own religious history, is unthinkable. The ‘old, unhappy, far-off things/ and battles long ago’ still have power to move minds and hearts. Acknowledging their defects is one thing; to build on them is another, and brighter, prospect altogether.

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5 thoughts on “Old, Unhappy, Far-Off Things? The Feast of the English & Welsh Martyrs 2017”

  1. The Feast of the Forty Martyrs has always had a special significance for me, and I hope you’ll forgive this rather irrelevant comment, but maybe it will bring a smile to your face. Picture a family sitting round the table having just finished the evening meal – all tired after a hard day at work or school. When asked if there was anything special anyone wanted to ask, number 4 in the ranking, (then aged 5) piped up … ‘Why were we praying for Four Tomatoes’? The nuns at his school greatly enjoyed this anecdote ….

  2. Another slight non-sequitur, though it cannot possibly top Elizabeth’s delightful anecdote above! Just that the English martyrs have been much in my mind recently, as last week we visited the Bar Convent in York (founded 1685). Since my last visit over 20 years ago, the convent has installed an excellent little exhibition on Catholic recusancy in Yorkshire in the 16th and 17th centuries. It does make one reflect rather soberly on one’s own beliefs, and whether one could possibly find such courage as those who died for their faith. Heaven forfend that we should ever be put to such a test.

  3. Perhaps one of the English martyrs, Edmund Campion SJ (+1581), has the best line for us this day — at the end of his cheeky challenge to Elizabeth I’s Privy Council known as “Campion’s Brag”, fully expecting the terrible death he eventually got, he “recommend[s] your case and mine to Almighty God, the Searcher of Hearts, who send us his grace, and see us at accord before the day of payment, to the end we may at last be friends in heaven, when all injuries shall be forgotten.”

    No compromise, no surrender, only love …

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