Words on the Word

Sts John Fisher & Thomas More

The word ‘martyrdom’ is bandied about quite a bit in public discourse, religious and secular. In certain settings martyrdom has become an ambiguous accomplishment. The title is at times claimed on behalf of people we’d be more inclined to see as perpetrators than as victims.

Who’s to say who is, who isn’t, a martyr?

The problem isn’t new. St Cyprian, who lived among rival claims to martyrdom in third-century Carthage, passed on a maxim that still holds: Martyrem non facit poena sed causa. It isn’t death as such that makes a martyr but the cause for which death is endured.

No ‘witness’ is self-referential. A faithful witness displays the integrity of that to which witness is borne. In the ordinary sense, to ‘bear witness’ is to frame a statement about truth; to speak that which is.

Adam’s task of naming the animals in Eden was not restricted to a Linnéian classification of species. As king and priest he named his fellow creatures for what they were, blessing them. The words we employ to engage with the real are not erratic constructs. God, making us in his image, made us capable of speech so that our many words might echo his one Word in antiphonal response.

The Greek Fathers loved to say that man is λογικός, that is, capable of λόγος. To be human is essentially to be of the Word. That is how the Word could be incarnate. Now, it does not take more than a bout of ‘flu to remind us that we’re dust, subject to decay. Yet our spirit is fit to conceive of and utter words with a bearing on eternity. Hence the need to recall that what we say, and don’t say, matters — at times more than all else.

Today we honour two martyrs we are proud to claim as ours. Their lives took different courses. Their characters were various. Yet they had this in common: their speech was ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; and no threat of terror could make them substitute one for the other.

They resolved to die because they held truth dearer than life itself. They were canonised for this love of truth. To know the truth is one thing. To love it is another. Love is conquered over time. Only slowly does it flower into fortitude.

John Fisher and Thomas More practised the ascesis of love in public life. In speaking, study, and statesmanship, they maintained the integrity of words. Finding it imperilled, they spoke.

We, too, are called to bear witness to the truth in a world seduced by phantasms, sometimes by outright lies. Who knows what account we may be called upon to give in our times, our so strange times? May our martyrs help us to revere the truth. May we be consecrated in the truth, graced to suffer and, yes, even to give our lives for love of it. Amen.