Self-denial or dying to self are common themes among martyrs honored by the Church. In fact, our Gospel reading today has been used for The Martyrs of Japan, Blandina and Her Companions, John Coleridge Patteson and his Companions, and, Saint George, dragon slayer. In what way could these examples of suffering and pain, stories of self-denial, cross bearing, and loss of worldly life teach us more about the way of Jesus? Well, I’m inspired, especially, by the stories of Saint George and Blandina, because they show us two helpful ways of understanding Jesus’ words, and two ways of dealing with the fear we might feel in response to Jesus’ call. First, we’ll look at Saint George.
Saint George was a compassionate and loving Christian, known especially for being a warrior of unmatched courage who gave his life for his faith. He’s typically portrayed as the patron saint of soldiers, and although many Christians today might not be soldiers, we still have a spiritual battle to fight. We can remember the words of Saint Paul when he writes that “our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”
From a contemplative point of view these rulers or cosmic powers of darkness are the demons lurking within us, hard at work convincing us that we’re separate from God, from others, and our own True Selves. This spiritual battle is deceptively simple, because although it comes down to making a single choice, making the right choice can seem very difficult.
It’s a battle unfolding within us and in each moment, taking place between heart beats, in the space between thoughts, in the pause between breaths. It’s the struggle to choose between submission to God’s will or relying on our own willfulness. Ultimately, choosing submission brings us to rest in the eternal life of God’s Kingdom, however it also requires a radical denial of all our worldly attachments including our attachment to the worldly identity we create and sustain.
To avoid this denial of self we often succumb to the many distractions this world has to offer, including the stories playing inside our own heads. In fact, Saint Anthony of the Desert, when he fled the noisy city for the silence of the desert, discovered that those internal demons were by far the worst culprits.
Our egos will truly do anything, even subverting the nature of the battle itself, to avoid being dissolved in union with God’s infinite Love. Also, our egos just plain hate to lose, especially in our culture where winning is everything, and so it might seem impossible to wage a war where the only way to win is to lose.
This profound act of self-denial, especially early in our journey, is almost always very painful, and so making the right choice in our spiritual battle may indeed cause us to undergo great suffering. Without the gift of courage, we may, like Peter resist the necessity of this painful dying to self before we rise with Christ in resurrection.
The story of Saint George reminds us of the importance of the gifts of perseverance and courage needed to follow Jesus. In the face of our fear of dying to self, courage helps us make the most important choice of our lives, and, of course, to choose wisely.
Next, we turn to the story of Blandina which offers us a different way to counter that fear, namely by realizing that in truth there’s nothing to fear at all. Blandina was the slave of a family living under Roman occupation in the 2nd century. She was a devout Christian, and in the year 177AD, when Blandina was about 15 years old, she and some fellow Christians were arrested, imprisoned, and given the chance to renounce their faith. She was tortured mercilessly, and eventually killed as a martyr.
When reading her story there were two details that stood out for me. First, she’s reported to have felt tremendous joy through all the pain and misery. And second, her torturers were so baffled by her reaction that, by one account “…they did not know what more they could do to her.” They were at the end of their rope in terms of causing her to suffer, and they did not know what more they could do to her.
It’s as if all the torture, humiliation, and pain stripped Blandina of her worldly, human needs, everything that could be harmed or taken away from her, until her mind was set only on the divine reality of her oneness with God. She found the one thing at the very center of her being that could not be harmed by mere torture or even death. One thing that allowed her to rest in the conscious awareness of her union with God through Christ, a place from which, she naturally experienced no fear.
Our founder, Richard Meux Benson, referred to this abiding in union with God as a kind of habit we develop through patience. He writes: “By patience the soul acquires a special habit of communion with God, by the very fact of thus accepting the divine will in contradiction to its own natural impulses. The acceptance of the divine will becomes a real habit which identifies the higher self with God, and loses all consciousness of existence outside of God.”
If, like Blandina, we come to know our higher or True Selves, and lose any sense of a separate existence between us and God, then the need to protect our worldly selves will fade, leaving us, too, with no fear. The Desert Fathers of the Church might have called this Oneness with God deification. Referencing their wisdom, Saint Maximus the Confessor, a 7th century Christian monk and theologian, put it this way: “The [person], having by deification become God, no longer displays any energy other than the divine, so that in everything from now on there is only… God…”
If, by God’s grace, we follow the path of Blandina, we’ll no longer need the courage of Saint George. Instead, without fear, we can more easily make that one crucial choice waiting to made in each moment, the choice to surrender everything so to simply let God’s will be done. In fact, living in union with God may cause the choice to feel so effortless that it stops feeling like a choice at all, and more like God’s will manifesting through us in the world as we rest in Christ.
Jesus said “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” At first, this might not sound like a very generous offer, but we learn from Saint George’s and Blandina’s example that denying our false selves and losing our identification with our worldly lives does indeed bring us the peace and joy of Christ, as we find our True Selves eternally resting in God’s Kingdom. Taking up our cross of living a human life with all it’s happiness and beauty, but also pain and loss, can seem a burden, but once we realize our identity in Christ as in the world but not of the world, the cross suddenly seems very, very light, and not much of a burden at all.
Let us pray:
Dear Lord, in this season of Lent, help us overcome the fear of denying ourselves, taking up our cross, and losing our attachment to these worldly lives.
We pray for courage, like that of Saint George.
Courage to surrender all to God; courage to forgo worldly distractions and so be fully present for your loving grace; courage born of an unquenchable desire for You, Oh God, a thirst overcoming our fear.
We pray also, that, like your servant Blandina, we might come to rest in that place where there is no fear.
We pray to find rest in the awareness of who we truly are in Christ as everything false is stripped away, living in union with You, Oh Holy One, letting your will be done in all things.
And we pray, oh Lord, that by your grace, as we die to our worldly self, rising in Christ’s glory within Your eternal Kingdom, that we may gladly bear our cross in the way of Jesus, sharing the Peace and Joy of Christ with the world.
Please support the Brothers work.
The brothers of SSJE rely on the inspired kindness of friends to sustain our life and our work. We are grateful for the prayers and support provided to us.