Editor’s note: here we continue the serialization of this work by a great saint, which we pray will give souls nourishment and strength for our times. The complete text may be accessed online here or purchased here.
By St. Alphonsus Liguori
The Advantages of Devout Meditation on the Virtues that the Martyrs Practised during their Sufferings Continued
IV. The examples of the martyrs teach us also to have immediate recourse to the assistance of God, by earnest supplication, when we feel ourselves disconsolate or weak under affliction. Thus did the holy martyrs. As their torture increased, they multiplied their prayers and secured the victory. St. Theodore, after a long endurance of his tortures, was stretched upon burning tiles; feeling the pain penetrating to his very heart, he besought the Lord to mitigate the torture, and persevered to the end.
There have, on the contrary, been examples of Christians, who, failing to invoke the assistance of the Almighty, have fallen off from the confession of the faith, and forfeited the glorious crown. An example is found in the acts of the martyrs of Japan. An aged man, having been condemned to a protracted martyrdom, endured the torture for a considerable time, but failing to invoke heavenly aid, denied his faith a few moments before he expired — a startling warning to all, that perseverance in prayer, in times of temptation and distress, is that which alone can insure us the victory.
V. But the most important lesson which we learn from the martyrs is the necessity of the love of God: He who loveth not abideth in death (I Jn. iii. 14). We cannot manifest our love of God so well by a multitude of actions performed for his glory, as by a willingness to suffer for his sake. St. Gordianus replied to the tyrant, who threatened to put him to death if he did not deny the name of Jesus: “You threaten death! but my greatest regret is, that I can die but once for Jesus Christ.”
In a similar manner, St. Procopius exclaimed to the tyrant, who was directing further tortures: “Torment as much as thou wilt, but know that to one who truly loves Jesus Christ, nothing is dearer than to suffer for his sake.”
“And did the saints speak thus,” says St. Bernard, “because they were insensible to torments? No,” continues the holy Doctor, “they were neither frantic nor insensible, but their love of Jesus Christ caused them to esteem it all joy to suffer and to die for his glory” (In Cant. s. 6i). This ardent love of God is certainly the greatest spiritual advantage to be derived from the perusal of the acts of the martyrs; the recollection of their conduct will make us ashamed to repine under the tribulations which divine Providence sends us, and will strengthen us to receive them with resignation.
VI. I add that death, which is the tribute that every one must pay, is the greatest of all our tribulations, and that makes not only sinners but the just tremble. Our Saviour himself as man wished to show the fear that he felt in the face of death, so that he began to pray to his Father to free him from it. But at the same time he teaches us to accept death according to the good pleasure of God by saying: Nevertheless, not my will but thine be done (Mt. xxvi. 39).
The following is the way in which we acquire the glory of martyrdom: It is by accepting death to please God and to conform to his will; for, as we have remarked above with St. Augustine, not the pain, but the cause of death, or the end for which one submits to it, is that which makes martyrs. It follows that he who dies, in courageously accepting death and all the pains that accompany it, to accomplish the divine will, though he does not receive death by the hands of the executioner, dies, however, with the merit of martyrdom, or at least with a very similar merit. It also follows that as often as any one offers himself to undergo martyrdom for the love of God, so often he gains the merit of martyrdom. We have seen above the example of St. Mary Magdalene of Pazzi, who when she inclined the head at the Glory be to the Father, imagined that at the same moment she was receiving the stroke of the executioner. Hence we shall see in heaven a great number of saints doubly crowned with the merit of martyrdom without having been martyred.
VII. Finally, we should be moved to recommend ourselves every day, with great confidence, to the intercession of the holy martyrs, whose prayers are most efficacious with God. When we suffer some grievous pain, or when we desire a special favor, let us make a novena or a triduum in honor of the holy martyrs, and we shall easily obtain the grace. Let us not fail to honor them, says St. Ambrose; for they are our princes in the faith and our powerful intercessors (Serm. 92). If the Lord promises a reward to him who gives a drink of water to a poor man (Mt. x. 42), what will he not do for those who sacrificed their lives in the midst of torments!
Let us here observe that the martyrs, before receiving the mortal blow, without doubt prepared themselves many times for the many tortures and for death, so that when they closed their earthly career they died with the merit not only of one martyrdom, but with the merit of all those martyrdoms that they had already accepted and offered sincerely to God. Hence we may imagine with what abundance of merits they entered heaven, and how valuable is their mediation with God.
A Prayer to the Holy Martyrs to obtain their Protection
O ye blessed Princes of the heavenly kingdom! ye who sacrificed to the Almighty God the honors, the riches, and possessions of this life, and have received in return the unfading glory and never-ending joys of heaven! ye who are secure in the everlasting possession of the brilliant crown of glory which your sufferings have obtained! — look with compassionate regards upon our wretched state in this valley of tears, where we groan in the uncertainty of what may be our eternal destiny.
And from that divine Saviour, for whom you suffered so many torments, and who now repays you with so unspeakable glory, obtain for us that we may love him with all our heart, and receive in return the grace of perfect resignation under the trials of this life, fortitude under the temptations of the enemy, and perseverance to the end. May your powerful intercession obtain for us that we may one day in your blessed company sing the praises of the Eternal, and, even as you now do, face to face, enjoy the beatitude of his vision!
Photo credit: W. D. Flanders.