Today in our Honors class, we discussed the letter from St. Ignatius of Antioch to the Romans, a letter expounding passionately on his soon-to-come martyrdom. Most of the class agreed that the letter was disturbing to an extent–how could anyone be so joyful in the face of torture, suffering, and death? How could someone seemingly actively desire it?
Then one guy jumped in and shocked the entire discussion with these words: “I have no problem with this! I hope I would be this joyful if I were about to be martyred.”
Forgive me for sounding crazy…but I agree with him.
Some of you probably just closed this page; some of you are probably wondering how mentally stable I am. But for those of you still reading, allow me to defend my own sanity, the truth of this guy’s statement, and the beauty of this letter by St. Ignatius.
The very center of our faith is love: God Himself is Love, Christ died on the cross out of love, the Holy Spirit is the personified love between the Father and the Son. We are called to love our neighbor, love our enemies, do little things with great love, live in love. Most importantly, we are called to love God. The love of God for us is passionate, extravagant, unfathomable. We, even in our fallen humanity, are given the capacity to strive to love Him as He loves us: passionately.
Is it any wonder then that there are so many stories of martyrs going joyfully to their deaths, even smiling and singing? When a person is in love, they want nothing more than to be with the object of their love. The deepest of loves is all-consuming, and at the prospect of being with the object of our love, ecstasy is the only way to describe what we feel. Is it any wonder that St. Ignatius speaks so joyfully, that he waxes so poetic from his usual logical thinking? The love of the Lord is more passionate than we can conceive; to be madly in love with Him in return creates such ecstasy that people even levitate or bi-locate. Is it any wonder?
Very well, the class concedes the joy of martyrdom. Yet they are hung up on one particular phrase he uses when speaking of his martyrdom: “And if they are still reluctant, I shall use force to them.”
MADNESS! How could he say this? Actively forcing his martyrdom? IT MAKES NO SENSE! IT’S WRONG!
And yet I ask you, my brothers and sisters, is this statement any less insane?
“You want the moon, Mary? I’ll throw a lasso around it and pull it down for you!” (It’s a Wonderful Life)
Love makes promises. Ridiculous promises. The moon, the stars, my heart–literature and culture are riddled with ridiculous promises made by lovers in the heat of the moment. In their passion, their desire to express just how extravagantly they love the other, language fails, and such promises are the closest they can come to expressing their ecstasy, because IT MUST be shared with the other, IT DEMANDS to be set free and pour out joy. The other MUST know how great this love is.
Why should this case be any different?
St. Ignatius, I believe, is a passionate lover of Christ. There is nothing he desires more than to be with Him forever in Heaven, to look on the face of his beloved and have the Lord look on His face and say, “My Beloved.” His devotion to Christ is obvious in His other letters; it just so happens that in his letter to the Romans, he becomes consumed with ecstasy at the thought of his coming birth into eternal life. Does he truly mean he will use force? No. He is so overwhelmed with love and joy that he has to share it and cannot find the words. He makes a ridiculous promise.
Perhaps because he is in the unique position of being able to actually prove the one most common, most heartfelt promise all true lovers make: “I am willing to die for you.”
Others may believe what they wish about this letter. They may think this a mere weakness or flaw in his otherwise beautiful legacy, and welcome.
But forgive me if reading this letter makes me see St. Ignatius as a role-model.