A friend recently shared her discomfort about the way we seem to elevate martyrs; she is much more inspired by the saints who lived long lives in service to Jesus and His Church. I too am inspired by saints such as Mother Teresa who spent decade after decade serving Jesus in the slums of Calcutta, constantly fighting back the temptation to despair amidst all of that suffering. Those "lifers" in God 's service teach us how to be martyrs "on the installment plan" - giving themselves away one piece at a time, day after day. But admire them as I do, I still hold the saints who were killed because of their love and service to Jesus in special esteem. Why is that?
I think it is for the same reason that I can't help but hold a young Marine who loses his life serving our country in Afghanistan in such esteem. He is a hero, a patriot. Did he accomplish all of the things that Thomas Jefferson did during his long life - drafting the Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights, or serving as a president to our nation? No, he did not perform the same number of acts that Jefferson did; rather, it was the quality of that young Marine's act - serving his country with literally everything he had in this world, that sets him apart. We say, "He paid the ultimate price."
I also think of Vicki Soto, the 27-year-old teacher who just weeks ago sacrificed her life for her students. I am blessed to know so many teachers - good, holy men and women who sacrifice themselves for their students daily; I have an incredible amount of respect for them. I look at them and I see Jesus at work. They are inspirations, heroes. And yet, when I think of Vicki Soto's sacrifice my heart screams, "HERO!"
What is it about the sacrifice of our physical lives that evokes this kind of response?
I think the largest part of it is that they have faced down Death. What greater fear do we have than Death? (True, Hell is worse than physical death; but [to our detriment] I don't think we give it much thought anymore.) It calls forth a "make or break" kind of bravery that we simply do not face on a day-to-day basis, no matter how stressful our service to the Lord. My worst fear is that if I were put to the test, if I was forced to choose between torture and death or allegiance to Jesus, that I would falter. I pray every single day that, should that moment come, the Lord will give me the grace to persevere.
I think another reason we esteem those who lay down their lives is because we recognize that their ability to sacrifice themselves did not appear out of nowhere; there was a great deal of preparation. The Marine who loses his life in defense of his country had already made the selfless choice to serve. He was a man of generosity and discipline. He subjected himself to weeks and months of grueling training to become an able protector of others. Vicki Sotto's love for children did not begin on the day of her death; it had been nurtured for a long time.
And the saints who died as martyrs, even those martyred as teenagers, had already made a profound surrender to God. No one dies as a martyr unless they have first died to themselves, to their egos, in a way few of us have even stopped to imagine. It is not the length of their lives or number of accomplishments, but the quality of their love. When put to the test, the ultimate test, they loved Jesus more than survival and freedom from pain. And that speaks to me. It speaks deeply.
I love the saints - all of them. The ones I am personally closest to - the Blessed Mother, St. Joseph, and Therese of Lisieux - were martyrs "on the installment plan." They gave themselves to Jesus through many small "deaths." (And Mary and Joseph are unarguably the greatest of the saints.) But those martyrs who shed their blood ... I cannot help but have a special awe and affinity for them.