Orthodox America

  The Courage of the Martyrs

In reading the exploits of the martyrs, we marvel at the extraordinary courage they displayed in enduring the various forms of bestial torture to which they were subjected: submerged in boiling pitch, sawn asunder, pierced with nails, buried alive, cast to the lions, dismembered, their eyes gouged out... Clearly, in times of persecution courage is one of the most notable -- and essential -- traits of a true Christian. Seldom, however, do we associate courage with the "ordinary" Christian life. In fact, it is no less essential to us today than it was for the martyrs.

      Our spiritual lives are often stunted by fear: we are afraid of appearing foolish, afraid of humiliation, afraid of what others might think, afraid of missing out on life's pleasures -- should we seriously and wholeheartedly commit ourselves to the Orthodox Christian way of life. I am reminded here of a booklet by a Serbian priest, Fr. Mateja Matejic, a brief explanation of what it means to be Orthodox, which he aptly titled, Orthodoxy: Courage to be Different, Strength to Remain the Same. 

    The divinely wise Fathers say that courage is one of the four general virtues, along with wisdom, temperance, and justice. It is a function of the "spirited" or "incensive" power of the soul, while wisdom pertains to the rational power, temperance to the appetitive, and justice to all three of the soul's powers. While Plato saw these four virtues as the "chief" virtues, the Holy Fathers, in light of divine revelation, call them simply the "general" virtues and see them as a pre-condition for the highest, truly spiritual virtues of faith, hope, and love (See "Plato's Legacy in the Hellenic East," a lecture by Dr. Constantine Cavarnos, in The Hellenic-Christian Philosophical Tradition.)

      Courage, then, is a pre-condition of faith, hope, and love, and therefore of salvation itself, which can only be attained by those who possess the evangelical virtues. We had better learn what it is and how to acquire it.

      Remember that courage flows from the "incensive' power of the soul, that energy or function of the soul which characterizes the warrior. This is the power of the soul which energizes us to fight, to strive, to "hustle" as American athletes say. This is the power of the soul we must train to do as the Apostle instructs: "hate what is evil, cling to what is good." We are motivated to do so when we remember the "high prize" of our calling -- life on high with Christ Jesus our Lord.

      We must therefore take in hand this incensive power of the soul and train it to do what God intended when He created man. In our fallen, contra-natural state, this power of the soul is turned against other men in the form of sinful hatred, anger, ambition, backstabbing, unhealthy forms of competition, and the like. In man's natural state, on the other hand, it is turned to healthy forms of ambition and laudable striving which result in defending and providing for our Church, homeland and family by just and reasonable means approved by God. In the state of the soul which is grace-filled, deified, "above" nature, the incensive power is manifested as the courage to fight tenaciously our age-old enemy the devil, to trample manfully on the desires of cur fallen nature, and to defy boldly the demands of the world, in order to cling to Christ alone as the source of life.

      This is what the holy Bishop Ignatius Brianchaninov says in The Arena (Volume V of his Ascetical Treatises, chapter 7):


      The Lord orders the complete renunciation of fallen nature, and hatred for its motives and impulses, not only for those that are obviously evil, but for all without exception, even the apparently good. It is a great disaster to follow the righteousness of fallen nature. This implies and involves rejection of the Gospel, rejection of the Redeemer, rejection of salvation. Whoever does not hate his own life cannot be My disciple, said the Lord.


      Precisely! -- hatred of our fallen nature! This is the foundation of truly grace-filled courage, the attitude of the spiritual warrior: hatred of our motives, desires, needs, everything. We cannot acquire this all at once, of course. As with the acquisition of every virtue, we must proceed with discretion, basing our actions on prayer, reading of the Father, and spiritual counsel. And we must allow our salutary self-hatred to take forms appropriate to our station and responsibilities. But we must start, today.

      As one form of that holy self-hatred (which is the only true self-love), a form available to everyone every day, let us consider hating our desire to be approved by others. Remember, as the Prophet David sings, God will crush the bones, of man-pleasers.


     Today, more than ever before, and increasingly, as the times of Antichrist draw near, we Orthodox Christians are asked to compromise our Faith in order to be approved by society, other religions, and even leaders of our own religion who have elected to betray our Faith. It is very tempting to agree openly with those who deny the truth (the path of those stamped with the seal of Antichrist on the forehead) or to acquiesce by silence (the path of those stamped on the hand). It takes courage to stand up like the little boy in the story and say that the Emperor has no clothes. It takes the willingness to deny even the legitimate demand of nature to be loved by family, kinsfolk and friends. But without this courage, we will end up not for Christ, but against Him. Therefore we must daily and insistently 1) confess our lack of courage and admit to the Lord that only He can give it to us, 2) beg the Lord for this virtue in prayer, 3) read the lives of holy martyrs and confessors, especially the new martyrs of our own time, to be inspired by their example, and 4) practice "little" acts of courage in our personal lives, so that when the big opportunities come in public, we will be used to denying ourselves.

      These little acts include disciplining our fallen nature by fasting, getting up early for prayer, getting out of the shower a few minutes earlier than we should like, giving up money we usually spend on ourselves in order to give more alms, attending vigil services instead of relaxing at home on Saturday nights, etc. Like athletes training for the contest or warriors for the field of battle, we must be merciless to ourselves in order to fit ourselves to deal courageously with the foe at the moment of truth.

      This "moment," for all of us, is closer than we think May the Lord grant us to face it with the courage of the martyrs.

Priest Steven Allen All Saints of Russia Church, Denver

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