[I promise, in spite of the, lets say, offbeat quality of my writing this essay is not an April Fool’s joke!]
All things being equal, would you prefer 1) to be set upon a torture rack until you lose all strength in your limbs and the pain radiates throughout your whole being, 2) immediately suffer death by hanging and subsequent disembowelment while thousands ogle, or 3) be sentenced to an indefinite prison sentence of solitary confinement in a dank, dark cell infested with rats and food of a quality such that your health slowly declines in a long, drawn out demise while your faith is snuffed out as a candle in the night? This is the question at hand for three priests in Robert Hugh Benson’s novel Come Rack! Come Rope! The men are resident in Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth’s kingdom and by virtue of the fact that they happen to also have souls permanently altered by the sacramental grace of Holy Orders, they are in her domains illegally. In Elizabethan England, a land of revolt by the Crown against the faith and of the pitiless social climbers who ascend by means of torturing the innocent, a priest is liable to a painful death simply by the fact of having been ordained a priest. Merry England has fallen under a shadow.
My own answer to the question, by the way? None of the above. I would swiftly collapse like the comfort-addicted aesthete that I am and make haste to the nearest Protestant prayer service to save my sorry neck. I would explain to myself that there is always confession and recusancy later when the stakes are not so high. A person’s entire body shivers at the situation in which these Catholic priests found themselves. I am in awe of the faith and strength of all of the martyrs and am being quite honest when I doubt that I would have similar courage. Soon after a torture session in the Tower of London, St. Edmund Campion assures his friends that he has not and will not reveal any secrets that would compromise the faith, “come rack, come rope.” His resolve is more powerful than a mighty monarch. God’s honest truth about the salvation of mankind will not be turned into a lie.
There is enduring power in the history of the saints. The martyrs linger under our altars yet and their prayers continue to mingle with our own. The Scriptures assure us that there is no death for those who are gathered into the unity of the Body of Christ, the setting of the story simply shifts heavenward. The story of Campion becomes the story of Christ and this one, limited man sees the expansion of his singular witness into the vastness of the eternal Word. Campion has forever altered the shape of history.
Earlier, as a young student, it was said to be a fine celebration and an honor when he was chosen to deliver a debate before Her Majesty at Oxford. Campion was a rising academic star and it is said that the keys to the kingdom were offered if he would only remain an Anglican cleric. His rhetoric rang off the stone of the colleges and all men stopped to soak in his eloquence. Oxford was at his feet.
It is not enough, and in this Campion judges rightly. Few of us today remember that he gave a lauded speech at Oxford as a young man, fewer of us are aware of the actual content of it, but his choice for faith continues to preach. For the sake of faith he leaves England to join the Society of Jesus. He is not content to remain abroad as an exile but returns home to the Catholic land of his birth where he will either convert the Queen to the Gospel or die trying. If his speech as a young student at Oxford brought the whole of the upper classes to admiration, his masterpiece is his death at Tyburn. As his half-dead body swings from a rope, Our Lord himself is on full display, lifted above the crowds by a slender thread, and the sacrificial nature of God’s love is preached not only in word but with the whole of the man, body and soul. All that is in Campion proclaims a loving Father’s desire for his children, that God never gives up on a land or a people. Perhaps England was in the grip of madness; counterfeit religion was afield and seemingly victorious, but Campion’s triumph at Tyburn says otherwise. His death, along with those of so many other martyrs, is on their own terms and for their own purposes. No one is able to take that away from them.
In the weeks leading up to his hanging, Campion may, at any moment, consent to walk to the nearest Protestant Church and kneel down in submission. Doing so will spare him. His life, however, contains a meaning beyond the physical heart that keeps it tumbling along, or the creature comforts that many of us mistake for success.
Perhaps this is what frightens me so much about the fortitude of such men. It is not so much the courage they show as it is the content of their communication. Here is Gospel truth stripped down of all the niceties. The faith is about love and kindness and little lambs, yes, but it is at heart based upon blood, and sacrifice, and a headlong, maniacal taunt of death. Are we able to embrace the darkness of the faith? Welcome death itself into the soul so that Christ might enter in and completely overcome, not only death but also the soul itself? I quaver at the thought, and yet, I am assured that baptism has accomplished precisely this and that I carry about the sufferings of God himself within me. Further, I am assured that each day at Mass, I eat and drink Our Lord’s death and resurrection and am ever more conformed to his likeness. If this is the case, and I do believe it to be so, it sounds like Good News indeed but there is certainly no accompanying consolation.
Benson’s novel is historical fiction and Campion makes an appearance, but the protagonist, Robin Audrey, who is both priest and impending martyr, feels no consolation, either, at the approach of death. Earlier, it is said that a fellow priest, Mr. Ludlam, died differently. He,
stood by smiling while all was done; and smiling still when his turn came. His last words were “Venite benedicti Dei”; and this he said, seeming to see a vision of angels come to tear his soul away.
But it is different for Robin. No choirs of saints beaming down from the clouds for him, no angels holding out their hands to grasp him, only gaping crowds and the silent pain of his Passion.
Really, all that any of us can do is struggle along and give our best. There is dignity in a slow, daily martyrdom in the little things. If I am not destined to be a great martyr like Campion, all the better, for Our Lord knows of what sort of stuff I am made. Thank God, though, that such men and women exist, whose word is an unanswerable argument that we can, indeed, become like Our Lord in every aspect. I suspect that they do not simply gather the strength to become martyrs out of nowhere, but that their steadfastness is on a continuous line with the way they lived their lives up to that point. They were already in training to become martyrs well before the fact.
Benson relates Robin’s reaction to the murder of three priests who were friends of his:
…and there came on him in that hour one of those vast experiences that can never be told, when a flood rises in earth and air that turns them all to wine, that wells up through tired limbs, and puzzled brain and beating heart, and soothes and enkindles, all in one; when it is not a mere vision of peace that draws the eyes up in an ecstasy of sight, but a bathing in it, and an envelopment in it, of every fibre of life; when the lungs draw deep breaths of it; and the heart beats in it, and the eyes are enlightened by it; when the things of earth become at once eternal and fixed and of infinite value, and at the same instant of less value than the dust that floats in space; when there no longer appears any distinction between the finite and the eternal, between time and infinity; when the soul for that moment at least finds that rest that is the magnet and the end of all human striving; and that comfort which wipes away all tears.
Benson considers each of his fictional priests in turn, how these men have been utterly changed by the Mass, the one is all sporting gentleman outside the chapel but is tamed and humbled at the altar; the other a timid, sensitive soul who is as sharp as a knife in his sacrificial duties. In the Mass, we pull on Christ more closely than the clothes we wear; his identity overlays our own, not destroying it but refining it like a blazing fire reveals a precious metal. As we take Our Lord’s death into our very being, we are ennobled.
As Benson puts so eloquently, the virtue of peace goes well beyond a feeling of well-being, or a state in which conflict is absent. God desires to draw us out through a single moment wherein we experience peace and into the vast heavenly plains, to pour into us not external gifts but to become the very gift inside of us. Not a “mere vision of peace…but a bathing in it.” The gift, like the waters of baptism, overwhelms us. It destroys us. This is the truth for which the martyrs give their lives. In their opinion, they have become forfeit long before the rack and the rope finish the work.
Robert Hugh Benson’s classic novel Come Rack! Come Rope! is in the public domain and a quick internet search will find many copies online for free. I cannot recommend it enough, but prepare to shed a tear or two while reading.