Last week the church celebrated the feast day of St. Alban the Martyr. I don’t think I knew anything about him before, but I learnt he was a Roman soldier who gave refuge to a Christian priest from the authorities who wanted to kill him. He had been convinced of Christianity by the priest. So when the authorities came to arrest the priest, he dressed up as the latter and basically took his place, refusing to recant his new faith. He was beheaded. Also beheaded was the first man who was to have been his executioner, and who on hearing his story refused to do the deed. So was the priest, who found out too late what Alban had intended and rushed to the scene. So all three were beheaded at the site of what is now St Alban’s Cathedral, England.
Essentially, it seems to me, while Alban and the first executioner died for their beliefs, the priest seems to have died for martyrdom. So it’s appropriate that his name is unremembered. (Important to remember that the church forbids people to seek martyrdom. If it comes to you, all well and good. But don’t run into the arena with the lions; wait till they toss you in.)
But, I’m thinking about what it takes to face death unafraid. I actually don’t think it has anything to do with faith. I think it has more to do with self respect and dignity.
Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar says: ”It seems to me most strange that men should fear; seeing that death, a necessary end, will come when it will come.”
Even though Shakespeare makes Caesar sound terribly pompous in the scene, I wonder if it’s not that realization–the necessary end–that causes the unflinching that we see at some deaths and makes us call men and women heroes, or martyrs, as we choose.
Saddam Hussein, not anyone’s idea of a hero, refused to be blindfolded at his hanging, but looked his executioners in the face and refused to respond to their taunts. I read recently of some eight generals in Greece who in 1922 were tried and convicted of treason after the war between their country and Turkey. They were scapegoats, really, for the Greek defeat, but they faced their death bravely, not one taking the blindfold. Similar stories are told of the aristocrats going to the guillotine, even the dignity of Marie Antoinette herself. There are lots of other examples from divers walks of life.
So, was it faith in an afterlife, or in a loving God, or something else?
I think it was simply that though we shun and fear death when we don’t know when it might come, and where it may lie before us on our path, when “the necessary end” stares us in the face, we want to stare back at it with dignity, and say: come do your worst, you can’t kill me, the essential me.
Again, Shakespeare–my favourite philosopher!–has Malcolm say of the traitorous Thane of Cawdor: “Nothing in his life became him like the leaving it.” Even “cowards” can die well.
Instinctively, perhaps, we want to remain unbowed to the last, no matter our faith or our beliefs, or even the course of our lives.
Humans. We are really intriguing.