Feast of Stephen

The item below, draughted in a hurry, has since been revised and extended. It still doesn’t please me, but for the usual reason: that it leaves so much more to say.


I should like, if possible, to avoid being martyred. I don’t think I am unusual in this. I’ve thought it through fairly carefully, yet even if it came down to instinct alone, the avoidance of death would be “indicated.” (I love this lawyer’s term.) Martyrdom isn’t suicide, but in the popular, post-Christian imagination it is, so let’s start from there. I’ve met several people who once, or twice, attempted suicide, in the course of their funny little lives. (Apology to Wodehouse.) Needless to say, they didn’t pull it off: the fact I got to meet them attests to their powerful “animal spirits.” (John Maynard Keynes.)

For it can be downright physiological. A lady taking pills — she had laid in several bottles of them — told me that after downing a dozen or so, her stomach started to rebel. She decided that the pills could not be good for her, and so stopped taking them, calling for an ambulance instead. It was touch and go for her, however, when it came to those animal spirits, intersecting with the human: for she said her embarrassment at the public spectacle had almost overcome her fear of a painful death. She was (and remains, to my knowledge) a nice conservative middle-class lady, who doesn’t like a fuss.

In their purest form, I once encountered these animal spirits in a squirrel. This was as a boy, when I noticed one crossing something called Edith Street. He had, as squirrels sometimes do, miscalculated the trajectory of an approaching car. As ill-luck had it, he went under a front wheel, even as it swerved. This cost him the back half of his body, but the front was, barely, still alive. He was trying to crawl. I was horrified by how he must be suffering. It happened in that moment I had a bucket with water, and a garden spade. As an act of mercy, I collected him on the spade, to drown him in the bucket. He was perishing; he did not at first resist. But as he touched water, he came back to life: and I shall never forget how he splashed and struggled, in those last seconds before he went limp.

Now, a squirrel is unlike a middle-class lady, at least in this: that he does not care whether he’s making a scene. A student of squirrels over some decades, I can confidently claim that they are, as a familia, shameless.

Humans are not squirrels, though the euthanasia activists would have us treated as if we were, to be put down in our misery. Our nature exceeds the squirrel nature, dimensionally. It is true that we share some instincts with squirrels, which sometimes frustrate the doomers’ best efforts — when trying, for instance, to talk some poor geezer, occupying an expensive palliative bed, into “death with dignity.” (Trademark.) Note the exploitation of that human quality: the dislike of making a fuss, a spectacle, of being a public nuisance. Granted, the old guy’s “quality of life” has nose-dived; but something tells him to hang in. It might just be his animal spirits. Alternatively, at the back of his mind, there might be an alarm that no squirrel ever considered: that dying is bad enough, without going to Hell.

We should not forget that, even when we are surrounded by devils in human flesh, angels are singing those wonderful words, from all the way back in Deuteronomy: “Choose life.” And in the end, choose life everlasting.

When it came to the brink, quite literally in the case of one gentleman, who intended to leap off a cliff, he suddenly remembered some paperwork he’d neglected: that he owed a letter to his mama. That totally scrood up his plans: for how was he to know that at the same time, the same mama had been desperately praying for her “bi-polar” son? He had to go to the brink to be cured of that condition: which never afflicted him again.


I write this apropos Stephen, our first Christian martyr; and thus, the second in history to die, praying for his executioners. (Jesus was, I should think, the first.) It was the liturgical genius of the Church, to fix the Feast of Stephen upon the first day after Christmas. And it is feast not fast, as every day in the Christmas Octave: today blowing away the usual Friday abstinence.

We might reasonably assume he had those animal spirits, and also the human capacity for shame. He was in the full enjoyment of manhood, not old and tottering towards his end. There was nothing suicidal in his personality. He was an astute and trusted member of his Church, assigned to look out for the interests of the Greek widows. He had useful work to do in this world.

This Stephen, of whom we read in the Acts of the Apostles, was among the first deacons the Apostles appointed to help spread their load. They knew him immediately for one of their own, nay probably better than themselves, for Stephen had great natural courage as well as wisdom. Not only was he our first martyr, but our first model for the Imitation of Christ: “Full of grace and strength.” He took upon himself, unflinching, the task of disputing with … the sort of people we’ve been disputing with for the last two thousand years, in witness of Christ Jesus. And from what we can read, Stephen was very effective; which is why his enemies and ours had to frame him with lies, stitch him up with a capital charge of blasphemy, and have him stoned outside the walls of Jerusalem.

Humans have these animal spirits, and it is not only the stoned-to-death fate that we are naturally inclined to avoid. I can think of several other final scenes in which I’d prefer not to participate, much as Saints might recommend them. Under normal circumstances, these are easy to avoid. Even in abnormal circumstances, safety is usually available. The trick is to keep your head down, and your thoughts to yourself; to stay a discreet distance from the action; or should it get too close — cry with the wolves, when the wolves are crying. Most of the human race aren’t heroes; it seems eleven of the original twelve Apostles, as typical bishops, happened to be busy on the day Christ was crucified. (Judas, being dead, had the best excuse.) I don’t think that proportion has changed. It was only after He rose from the dead, and came back, as it were, to haunt them, that they were prepared to “get with the script.” But Stephen understood it from the first reading.

Agreeing to be martyred, when it is the only alternative to denying Christ, is for heroes. The rest of us will be busy that day. But sometimes, one is called, as Peter found on his way out of Rome, when Christ had to tell him, yet again, that the old cock was still crowing. And so he turned back, to his own execution, in his capacity as our first Pope. Martyrdom was among the perqs of the job, for most of our early Popes. Stephanos — which means “crown” in Greek, in the sense of the victory wreath — had taught them how to obtain that Crown, and how to wear it; and as we know, Christ gives reminders. He has also the knack for being there, when He is needed.

Full martyrdom is hard, and not to be recommended for spiritual novices, as Holy Church has taught these last twenty centuries. It is very different from suicide, or more precisely, “self-murder.” Likewise it is not to be set up for others: for that is “murder,” plain. To speak of the Crown of Martyrdom, is rightly to imply there are lesser stations. There are little martyrdoms along the way, little acts of self-abnegation to be mastered — quietly, and with no outward show, for courage can be opposite to bravado. The man or woman who likes to “play the martyr,” in everyday life, is a plague and tyrant. I’m sure we have all met one of those, and some of us have had to live with one.

Nor, of course, are Muslim psychopaths, who blow themselves up in crowds, martyrs in any possible way. Those who think Allah (“God”) would order any such thing, have certainly confused Him with Satan. They err, I think, on the side of bravado.

By their fruits ye shall know: Saint Stephen died, praying for his executioners. As the rest of us may guess, from our acquaintance with the “normal” human condition, that might be harder than accepting death. (I fear that, in Stephen’s situation, I might die uttering some vile epithets.) Stephen could talk, elegantly and convincingly, but he was more than talk. In our saying, both silly and profound, which refers surely to the Via Dolorosa, he could walk the walk.

Christ was Christ, we might say. He had “secret powers.” Heretics have often thought: perhaps He was cheating when He went to the Cross. Or, when He was sweating blood in Gethsemane. “It must be easy when you’re God.” (We’ll deal with them another day.)

To be sure, Stephen wasn’t God. He was just a Christian, taking the example of Our Lord seriously. And this, not only to death, but to what is better than death: earnestly praying for his worst enemies. Among the witnesses was the young Saul, later the Apostle Paul. In fact, he was doing coat-check at the stoning, convinced that Stephen got what was coming to him. Count Paul among the enemies for whom the condemned man prayed: Saint Stephen pray for us.