Radical Practices: Witness – Br. James Koester

Br. James Koester

1 John 1: 1 – 4
Psalm 96
Luke 24: 36 – 53

There are a few of us in the community who will remember, and there may be others of you who will have heard the story, probably countless times, of how our brother Tom, when he was the Superior, used to pray at the Mid-Day Office for the gift of martyrdom to be given to our community. Some of us were quite ready to grant him his prayer, and make him the first official martyr of the Society. (As an aside, I say official martyr, because while the African martyr Bernard Mizeki was not a member of our community, he was certainly a product of our Society, as he was: introduced to the Christian faith; prepared for baptism; trained as a catechist and sent out on mission where he was later martyred, by members of our community in South Africa. Because of that, I like to think of him as our martyr.)

We say in our Rule of Life in the chapter on Life Profession that the grace to surrender our lives to God through our vows has been given to us in Baptism whereby we die with Christ and are raised with him. It is the same grace that gives strength to martyrs to submit gladly to death as witnesses of the resurrection. From the beginning monks and nuns have been encouraged to understand their own commitment in the light of the freedom and trust that enables martyrs to give up their lives to the glory of God. The witness of the martyrs should never be far from our minds as we go forward in the vowed life day by day.[1]

It is no accident then, that many of the feasts which we keep as a community during the year are feasts of martyrs. Nor is it an accident that the language of martyrdom holds resonance for us and our self-understanding as a monastic community. But the language of martyrdom that we use, indeed which the Church uses, is not the language of death. A martyr is not a martyr because they die, although some do. A martyr is a martyr because they witness to the truth of God with their lives. The word martyr simply means witness.

You will perhaps know that the Church for centuries has spoken about different kinds of martyrs. The most common arered martyrs, a term that is reserved for those who shed their blood as witnesses for Christ. St. Stephen is of course the first red martyr and those Coptic Christians beheaded on the beach in Libya two years ago are among the most recent. Christians continue to die today as witnesses to the power of their faith in Christ’s life, death and resurrection.

Another term which the Church uses is white martyr. St. Jerome uses that term to mean those such as desert hermits who aspired to the condition of martyrdom through strict asceticism.[2] Some of the great desert saints of the early days of the Church, like St. Antony are white martyrs.

The Church also uses the term green martyr. This latter involves the denial of desires, as through fasting and penitent labors without necessarily implying a journey or complete withdrawal from life.[3] Although Brother Tom was, I am pretty sure, praying for the gift of red martyrdom, the most common kind of martyrdom is green martyrdom: a life of denial, penitence and withdrawal. This is the kind of martyrdom that includes most monastics, such as ourselves, and countless ordinary Christians who by living faithful lives, bear witness to the power of God and the person of Jesus. This is the kind of witness that we hear about in our first lesson: we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.[4]

It is important to remember that martyrdom of whatever colour is not a signification that life is not worth living, and so we must shuffle off this mortal coil[5] as quickly as possible, as Hamlet put it. Nothing could be further from the truth. Martyrdom is LIFE written in capital letters. The life of witness, of a martyrdom, to which all of us have been called, is not the kind of life we see in today’s world gone crazy. The kind of life we are called to live is not the chest thumping, insult breathing, put down making, me first life that has gripped the imagination of this country and so much of the world. The kind of life we are called to live, the kind of witness we are called to give, indeed the kind of martyrdom to which we are pledged by our baptisms, is the witness of a love which is prepared to lay down its life for another. ‘This is my commandment, Jesus tells us that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you.[6]

In a world where me first is supreme, the witness of a community of ordinary people living in communion and mutuality, rooted in the image and likeness of God, whose very being is a community of reciprocal self-giving and love[7] will seem strange. As the values of the world shift to the opposite extreme, the life of the baptized community which lives not for ourselves alone but for one another, will become more eccentric. We will be pushed further and further to the margins by the culture around us. Our life will seems strange to others, as we seek to hold a sacred space where the Baptismal Covenant of [respecting] the dignity of every human being[8] is truly honoured and lived. This will be our martyrdom. This will be our death. This will be our witness, for such a life rooted in baptism, will be a life of denial, penitence and withdrawal, not from communion, mutuality and respect, but from the fallen self-centred, me first ways of the world.

If such a life of faithful witness to the baptismal covenant is our martyrdom, our death, our witness, so too will it be our joy; because a life lived in community and communion, where ensuring each-others’ dignity is our aim,is the life of God. It is the life of heaven. It is the life for which humanity was created and is thus of divine appointment[9] as Father Benson, the founder of our community teaches.

We have been called by God as the baptized community to bear witness, indeed to be martyrs, because we have been called to lay down our lives for one another in witness to the power of God. We do that by living ever more fully into the Baptismal Covenant whereby we promised to continue faithful in the apostles’ teaching a fellowship; to resist evil and repent of our sins; to proclaim with our lives the Good News of God in Christ; to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbour as ourselves; to strive for justice, peace and dignity for all people; and to safeguard the beauty and wonder of creation.[10]

As the People of God, we have pledged in our baptisms to live in communion and mutual respect with one another in a way that the world is forgetting, and indeed perhaps has already forgotten how to do. And for that reason I believe that the witness of our life as Christians is critical. The world needs our witness more than ever.

To be a witness to something so contrary to the ways of the world is not easy, but the call of God to live in communion and mutuality is urgent. And that call is nothing less than to manifest the divine life of the Triune God to a fallen, isolated, alienated and selfish world and to remind men, women and children that life is full of meaning in union with God.[11] Our life as the blessed company of all faithful people is nothing less than the gate of heaven, and it is that life of heaven to which we bear witness and for which we die, sometimes literally, mostly figuratively. And that death, that martyrdom, that witness happens when we choose to live the Covenant we made at Baptism.

As Christians we are commended to give an account of the hope that is in [us].[12] We do that by what we say and how we live. Speaking and living we bear witness to the life bestowed upon us at baptism which, like Christ’s, is prepared to lay itself down for another. As witnesses, indeed as martyrs, to the truth that life is full of meaning in union with God, our witness will be our joy, for such a life lived unselfishly, is very gate of heaven because it is a life lived completely in God.

The call to be witnesses, indeed martyrs to the life of God is urgent, because the world urgently needs to know the truth that there truly is no greater love, then to lay downs ones’ life for another. This is our life, our witness, our martyrdom, because it was first God’s.

[1] SSJE; Rule of Life, Life Profession, chapter 39, page 79

[2]Michael Driscoll; J. Michael Joncas (2011). The Order of Mass Study Edition and Workbook, Chicago, IL: Archdiocese of Chicago Liturgy Training Publications

[3] Ibid

[4] 1 John 1:3

[5] Shakespeare, William;Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 1, Line XX

[6] John 15: 12 – 14

[7]SSJE;Rule of Life, The Witness of Life in Community, chapter 4, page 9

[8]Book of Common Prayer, 1979, page 305

[9]Benson SSJE, Richard Meux;Instructions on the Religious Life, Second Series, Life in Community, pages 19ff

[10] Op. cit., page 304 – 305

[11] SSJE; Rule of Life, The Word of God in Preaching, chapter 19, page 39

[12] 1 Peter 3: 15


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