As we begin Holy Week, we remember how “Jesus walked this lonesome valley” to the Cross. The old hymn, “Lonesome Valley”, goes on to say that we, too, will face our trials.
You must walk this lonesome valley
You have to walk it by yourself
Oh, nobody else can walk it for you
You have to walk it by yourself
But do we walk this lonesome valley alone? If God should call us to give our lives, as Jesus did, would He then leave us to our own devices? This question came up just this weekend.
My wife and I participate in a group called “Catholic Classics”. The members are current or former homeschooling parents. We read and discuss articles, books, poems, or movies that are actually Catholic classics, or at least should interest committed Catholics.
This last Saturday, we discussed the account of the martyrdom of Sts. Perpetua and Felicity and their companions (http://web.archive.org/web/20031206113609/http://www.bu.edu/religion/courses/syllabi/rn301/perpetua.htm). The account is remarkable for several reasons. It is a very early document, from 203 AD. St. Perpetua wrote much of it herself, just before her martyrdom under the Roman emperor. (Eyewitnesses completed the account.) Equally striking are the youth and steadfastness of the two women martyred. Perpetua was 22 years old, Felicity 19. Perpetua was still nursing an infant. Felicity gave birth a day or two before her martyrdom.
Our discussion naturally drifted to how we thought we would hold out if threatened with martyrdom. One person wondered if to deny Jesus under extreme duress was actually sinful. Perhaps to confess Christ under threat of torture or death was an act of heroic virtue not required of all. Another said that if so, denying Christ would be a venial rather than a mortal sin.
A third noted that during the most severe early persecutions of Christians, many denied their faith. The persecuted weren’t required to utter such words as,”I renounce Christianity.” But they had to offer incense to a statue of the Emperor in a public ceremony. This was recognized as an act of worship to a god. After many apostatized (denied Christ), the Church had to deal with whether such a sin could ever be forgiven. It eventually settled on a three-year period of rigorous penance after which apostates could be restored back to communion with the Church. A fourth pointed out that the Church obviously regarded apostasy as very grave, if it was at first seen as unforgivable.
Regarding the question of “heroic virtue”, another person said that sometimes the only choice we have is between a heroic act and a wrong act. He used the example of a soldier abandoning the field of battle. War is frightening and dangerous. Nobody wants to die. But we don’t commend the soldier who runs away. “There but for the grace of God go I”, etc. – but it is an act of cowardice.
We then talked about the distinction between an objectively sinful act and the culpability of the person committing the act. Someone brought up Silence, the recent movie based on the brutal 17th-century persecution of Christians in Japan. In the climactic scene, a number of Christians are being tortured. They will die slow, horrible deaths unless the Jesuit whom the persecutors are harassing denies Christ. The priest hears what he takes to be the voice of Christ. The voice tells the priest to apostatize, in order to save the people’s lives. The priest does.
Should he have? To deny Christ to save my own life may be clearly wrong. But to save another’s? One member made the point that the greater act of faith was to leave those lives in God’s hands. He said that the priest bought into an illusion of control over the torture victims’ earthly and eternal destinies. Suppose they were killed anyway? Suppose they were spared, but lost their faith and their salvation due to the priest’s apostasy? Nobody can see all ends. And to continue living, the priest was required to prove his apostasy over and over again until the end of his life.
I chimed in that apostasy was always gravely evil. Jesus’ words on this are clear: “Whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven” (Mt 10:33). If I, known to be a faithful Christian, deny Christ under duress, that may weaken others’ resolve. I may damn myself and lead others to damnation. If I remain faithful instead, it encourages and strengthens others to do so. Wasn’t that why we were still reading about Perpetua and Felicity’s wonderful witness seventeen centuries later?
I pointed out that individual culpability is a separate issue. Only God can read hearts and pass judgment. But when the Evil One tempts me to sin, his strategy is predictable. Before I sin, he tells me, “Oh, God is merciful. It’s not such a big deal. He understands. He’ll forgive you”. This is the temptation toward presumption. After I sin, he tells me, “Look what you’ve done, you lousy sinner! God can never forgive you.” And that’s the temptation toward despair. Sure, God will forgive me if I deny him and then truly repent. But that’s because his mercy is infinite, not because the sin is not grave. How sincere will any subsequent repentance be, if I sin deliberately while presuming on God’s mercy?
One person wondered if God always gives the necessary grace to resist denying Christ. He may have been confusing condemnation of the act of apostasy with condemning the apostate – again, “There but for the grace of God go I”. Someone quoted 1 Corinthians 10:13: “God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your strength, but with the temptation will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.” Another added that if I focus on my own strength to face torture and death, I’m probably going to fail. I need to focus on the Lord’s power. Apart from the Lord, I can do nothing. But with Him, all things are possible (cf. Jn 15:5, Mt 19:26).
It all comes down to: Do we indeed walk this lonesome valley by ourselves? Did Jesus walk this lonesome valley by Himself? Just before Gethsemane, knowing all He was to suffer, He told His disciples, “I am not alone, for the Father is with me” (Jn 16:32). God never, ever abandons us. What good father would? If He calls us to martyrdom or some lesser sacrifice, He will assuredly give us the grace to persevere. He doesn’t give us the grace now – because we don’t need it now. He will give it at the moment we need it. He will indeed deliver us from every evil.