Martyrs go straight to heaven. I first heard this when I was about five and, after quickly thinking it over, I decided to ask God to let me die as a witness to the truth. It seemed to me the surest, fastest way to be with Jesus forever. Trekking through the jungle, sharing the good news with a lost tribe, being quickly put to death—it couldn’t be all that bad, right?
Thirteen years later, more realistic about martyrdom but still wanting to be with Jesus forever, I began my first semester at a large secular university. I knew it would be different from the Christian environment I had grown up in at home and in the Christian schools I had attended, but I felt equipped and ready to defend my beliefs to every student, teacher, and colleague I met.
However, after a year and a half of intellectual battles in the classroom, I was troubled. Though I was “winning” many debates, I was not seeing any transformation in the people I was debating. The more I defended my faith, the more I felt I was failing to communicate it. What was I doing wrong?
I decided to change my approach: I would stop talking and start listening. As I did, I began experiencing a different kind of martyrdom, one that doesn’t involve physically dying for Christ.
A New Way to Witness. I went to school so that I could become a social worker and help people who were suffering. The more I used my new listening plan—asking questions and trying to treat each person with humility and love—the more my eyes were opened to the immense amount of suffering in the world.
The pain wasn’t hard to see when someone was openly hurting. It wasn’t so easy when it came masked with anger, defensiveness, or cynicism. To see that suffering and respond with love, I had to push through barriers that I had put up around myself.
One day in class, a student launched into a tirade that began, “Teen pregnancy is on the rise because the Catholic Church is trying to prevent everyone from using birth control!” Feeling personally attacked, I was about to stand up and shut this woman down with an aggressive argument about what the Church teaches. But at the last minute, the Holy Spirit touched my heart and helped me sense the deep hurt this woman must have suffered, that she would lash out like this. Instead of an angry retort, I offered a polite counter-suggestion.
After class I found a chance to talk with the woman alone. “It sounds like you have strong feelings about the Catholic Church.” She broke down and told me about an experience that had left her devastated—a broken relationship with a Catholic.
“You know, I’m Catholic,” I told her. “I feel so sorry that you have experienced that pain. Sometimes there is brokenness in the body of Christ.”
As I gave the woman a hug good-bye, I noticed a quiet healing. How grateful I was that I hadn’t verbally attacked her and pushed her further from the Lord! Instead, as the semester continued, I watched her become more open to God and released from much of her bitterness toward the Church.
Opening My Heart. It costs something to stop being defensive and start listening to people who reject your convictions. Without condoning their views, you open your heart and make it vulnerable to being pierced with pain by their suffering and their distance from God.
This “new martyrdom” is what I experienced as I let myself grow close to some of the young women in my social-work program. Almost every one of them was living a life that I found morally desolate. They came back from their weekends telling me of one-night stands, pro-choice rallies, and experiences that broke my heart. They also shared the excruciatingly painful stories of how they had grown up. Many came from extremely broken homes; some had been given alcohol or drugs before they were even five years old.
I developed a deep love for every one of these women. They knew that I was a committed Catholic and that I didn’t support their behaviors, but they weren’t afraid that I would judge and condemn them. One told me, “I always figured that churches would consider me a slut because I was so young when I lost my virginity. But you look at me as a friend. If churches had that, I think I would want to come back.”
Of course, I explained my beliefs to these friends, but as humbly and gently as I could. This made it possible to discuss topics like chastity, abortion, and prayer. Over time I saw them start to listen, understand, and change their views. As they became open to God’s love, they were able to see the Church as a source of love and healing, not as an enemy.
As Jesus Did. Awesome as it was to see some fruit from my attempts to listen carefully, the experience was also one of my most painful. Although my friends didn’t offend me knowingly, it was very difficult to hear the way they talked about some of the beliefs and values I held most dear. I sometimes came home and wept. And I would think, What if I had just avoided these women instead of getting to know them? If I had kept my defenses up, how much easier life would be!
Then I would think of Jesus, who set the example of loving those who hurt us, not shunning or attacking them. As he hung on the cross, he didn’t just love the people who agreed with him; he felt just as much love for the ones who had shouted, “Crucify him!” and pounded the nails into his hands.
And so today, I ask God for the grace to keep saying yes to this new kind of martyrdom. I ask him to help me take down my defenses and open my heart to people, even the ones who would try to drive nails into it. If I’m going to let them get close enough to see Jesus living in me, I need his help! I want to offer my life as a sacrifice of love, for the sake of sharing the message of Christ.
I have become convinced that our world is not easily evangelized by facts, documents, or teachings. Although these are important, it is love that transforms hearts.
Rose Almeter Dominey lives in Augusta, Georgia.