Big M/Little m

 

When I was a kid, I wanted to be two things: a virgin martyr and a nun.

(I was a weird kid.)

For most people I’ve asked, to fulfill their childhood dreams, all they need to do is be successful in careers that they have college degrees in, hit a big break, or complete what they’ve spent hundreds of hours working at a skill for.  To fulfill mine, all I have to do is wait until my husband dies, join a convent, have reconstructive hymen surgery, and preach Jesus nonstop to whoever it is that eventually won’t be able to take it anymore and will just quiet me down, already.

At least, I used to think that way.

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Today is the feast of Sts. Perpetua and Felicity, who were martyred in about the year 203 in Carthage.  They were both young women (St. Perpetua was a new mother and was a noblewoman; St. Felicity was pregnant until just before she was martyred, and she was a slave) who fell in love with Jesus and sacrificed their entire lives in order to be public believers.

I think about this a lot more than I did when I was a little girl, because when I was younger I was just full of zeal.  If God wanted me to be a martyr, I would, no question. But it was all zeal, no reality.  These days, I think more and more about martyrdom, and about how it just really flies so flagrantly in the face of reason.  People, for the most part, who are mentally well, do not want to die.  We are built to survive; it is in our DNA to thrive and want to live.  It is a sickness when we do not.

And yet, they exist: men and women, scores of them, who have died (and who continue to die) for a God they have encountered so deeply – they must have! – with an experience that is strong enough as to override that immensely deep desire to just survive.  “Big M” martyrs.

But back to Perpetua and Felicity.

A few things: they were both mothers.  Perpetua’s baby was an infant and she was still nursing; Felicity had just given birth when they went to their deaths to be gored at the games.  No mother I know (and I am a mother, too, so I include myself here) would willingly leave her child – especially her brand new, days old child  – for a reason like this.  Their whole selves, any shred of reason they would have had in their bodies must have been calling out to them to stop, for the sake of their children, and take back their belief.  And yet, they kept on.

They entrusted their children to those who would carry on their faith for them, when they could not survive on the Earth to do so.  And that is another death for them, too – to have to die to their desire to be with their children.

Jesus knew this.  He said it when He spoke,

“Truly I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mothers or fathers or children or lands for My sake and the Gospel’s sake, will fail to receive a hundredfold in the present age…and to receive eternal life in the age to come.” (Mark 10:29-30)

In short, it has to be God, above all.  Above all.

In the end, the women were beaten, scourged in front of a crowd and gorged by a wild cow.  When they didn’t die from that, they were killed by the sword.  Perpetua’s executioner was new at it, and couldn’t stop shaking enough to get a good angle, and so Perpetua took his hand and guided him through it.

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So I ask myself, would I still be willing to die for Him? I hope so.  (Yep, still weird.)  But even if most of us are not called to be martyred for Him the way many people still are, paying with their entire lives to believe, we are called to continue to hold God above all we have in our lives.

And so we are called to a different kind of martyrdom, “Little m” martyrdom: that kind of non-bodily dying that is still incredibly painful.  Lost friendships because of faith.  Exclusion.  Marriages torn apart.  People who don’t understand you, who no longer want to talk to you, associate with you, think about you. It happens, and it’s painful.  Is it on the same level of those in so many countries around the world who are being decimated for being Christian? No.

But it will be rewarded, too.  The last part of the Mark quote: “…[none of these] will fail to receive a hundredfold in the present age, and to receive eternal life in the age to come.”

God is not the kind to take everything and keep it selfishly, requiring every exact ounce and returning nothing.  He gives back.  Immeasurably.  More than we could ever give Him.

Getting to Work.

One of the things I love best about the saints is how hardworking they were, even if some of them were too sick to do much else than lie in a convalescent’s bed and stare out the window.  Prayer is really hard work, even if it doesn’t look like it is.

I mean, think about it.  Mother Teresa didn’t bum around the convent all day.  Don Bosco was too busy getting his pupils the spiritual and mental education they needed to turn them into upstanding men to just do nothing.  St. Francis nearly walked his wealthy-born feet down to the nubs in order to proclaim the Gospels and minister to the poor.  St. Benedict’s motto, “Ora et Labora” translates to “Pray and Work.”  And so on and so forth, all the way down the Sainthood line.  No matter what charism you embrace, what spirituality fits you best, you’re going to find that the men and women that pursued holiness were the ones who got to work.

Today is the Feast Day of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, foundress of the Sisters of Charity and of Catholic education in America.  She was the first American-born saint, she had five children, and she faced a lot of discrimination for converting to Catholicism at a time when women who had money and position (which she did) just plain didn’t risk all of that social standing to enter into the Church.

St. Elizabeth Ann Seton was a worker.  (And even if she didn’t do any of the founding of things, even if she was just a mom of five, she would have been a worker.  I have a few friends who have at least five children, and I was at Aldi once when a mom with five kids was there, and all of their examples showed me that five kids at once anywhere is the textbook definition of work.)

So we honor St. Elizabeth for her steadfastness and her willingness to roll up her sleeves and do what needed to be done.  If I think about what I would have done in her position, widowed with five children, I don’t know that I’d convert to Catholicism.  I like to think I would, but I’d probably just mostly spend my days making sure I looked pretty while searching around for new rich husbands, because hello five children.  I pray for her intercession to want to work hard on days like today, when the weather is crazy cold and all I want to do is plant my children in front of the TV and read online celebrity gossip articles all day long.

But I know that God’s plan for us is not laziness, it’s work.  God put Adam to work right out of the gate, naming all the animals and figuring out what went where in Eden.  He made our bodies to work, He gave us an innate desire to produce things.  Don’t believe me? Try not having a job for more than a week (with no idea where the next job will come from), and get back to me.

What is God’s work for us? I don’t know what He wants you to do, specifically.  I do know that He wants you to do something, though.  We’re all called to bring God’s message of love to each other and He wants us to serve our neighbors and those in need.  And there are plenty of people in need.

When I worked at a coffee shop some years ago a favorite saying among the supervisors was “If you got time to lean, you got time to clean.”  Which, in our tradition of faith, might sound something like, “If you got time to Netflix, you got time to help your neighbor who doesn’t have any food to eat although you have plenty, so…no Netflix.  Or at the very least, rummage through your pantry for food to donate while Netflix is on in the background.”

Or something like that.  I don’t know what He wants for you, personally.  Shoot, I barely know what He wants for me, most days.  BUT! I do know that if you ask Him, He’ll tell you.  So if you want to know what He wants, ask Him.  (My favorite thing to do is to ask God what He wants from me, then to remind Him about thirty times in that prayer that I am more obtuse than most people and really need VERY LARGE HINTS about what I should be doing.)

But here’s the other thing.  You probably know people like this, who confuse doing God’s work with doing God’s job…which are two different things.  Doing God’s work: helping people, righting wrongs, feeding the hungry, comforting the sick and dying, being available to those in prison – those are all good for us to do, and we should do those things as often as we can.  But when you think about trying to save people, or change them, or make them do what we want them to do, no matter how good our intentions are…well, that’s not for us to do.  That’s not God’s work.  God has the ability to change those people, but that’s between them and God.  We’re supposed to pray for them, lift them up to God, and pretty much leave it alone.

All of that is incredibly hard to do, of course.  Being a saint is also an incredibly hard thing to be.

But it’s a gift that we — all of us — are given the grace to achieve, if we want it.

So today, pray for us, Elizabeth Ann Seton! Pray that we’ll be given the insight from God to know what we should do, and the patience, energy, and desire to do it.  Help us get to work!