Not long ago I spent an hour reading a handful of St. Augustine’s festal homilies in praise of the early martyrs. The three dedicated to Ss. Felicity and Perpetua especially stand out as worthy of their subjects, and several passages from these have remained with me over the past few days. I suspect this may mean something, as I find that generally I forget most of what I read almost as soon as I read it.

It needs neither the spiritual nor the intellectual genius of the Bishop of Hippo Regius to discover in the courage of the two great north African martyrs an object of praise. Courage is a cardinal, not a theological virtue, and nearly all of us, Christian and Pagan, Jew and Gentile, can admire without too much difficulty the bravery of a person willing to die for almost any cause to which he has dedicated himself, even if that cause is one to which we feel not the least attraction. A Catholic may find the occasional good word to say for Sir Philip Sidney, as a Protestant may on behalf of Don John of Austria. Courage speaks to all of us with relative ease, and is the most immediately appealing of the natural virtues; and it is probable that the deaths of the early Christians won considerably more converts in the first generations of the Faith than all the epistles, preaching, and apologies of the evangelists, apostles, and their successors taken together. The cheerful inflexibility of the convert thrown to the starved animals in the arena, the resolve of the deacon refusing to surrender the sacred writings to a Roman magistrate-the sight of such things might have made those who beheld them forget their prejudice and loathing of the despised Jewish superstition for which these criminals threw their lives away.

If it is right to speak a word not in disparagement of fortitude, but merely as a caution for anyone easily swept away by the show of it, I wonder if we are too quick to forget that the value of courage should not be weighed without reference to the object that it serves. The unshaken firmness of a Felicity or a Perpetua in the presence of inescapable death is attractive to us; what about the two women themselves? What do we think of them, apart from what we make of the manner of their death? That there is more in the martyrs than bravery was known to St. Augustine, as he also knew that to most muddling, unheroic, selfish, stumbling, mere natural men-that is, to us-there is much in the witness of those who pour themselves out to the last dregs that is strange, incomprehensible, apparently futile, and even offensive. Heroism we all can admire; holiness we often find distasteful. And where we consider the dedication of the martyrs apart from the spectacle of their sacrifice, what becomes of our attitude toward them? There is a sentence of Augustine’s in which appears something that may partially explain why the martyrs and their motives are commonly alien to us: In anteriora se extendunt-they stretch themselves towards that which lies before them; that is to say, towards the end of all their earthly amusements, the defeat of all private ambitions, the severing of all friendships and loves, the dismemberment of their mortal bodies: in our eyes, the martyrs anticipate with unnatural greed the annihilation of every pleasure and of every hope for which most of us live-however little we may admit the truth to others, or even to ourselves. Of many of them we are inclined to believe that, like the poet, they are “half in love with easeful death”, poorly adapted to the conditions under which most of humanity has chosen sensibly to live, and so we explain away, without truly understanding, that other virtue of theirs: hope-which to the natural man means seldom much more than the pathetic longing for some falsely promised good which cannot exist-for if it did, surely we ourselves would have thought to pursue it. Being of generous minds and broad principles, we can praise the conviction and strength with which they go to their ends, even while we shake our heads at the grounds of their confidence, the poor lunatics. For we know better; we know the world, and have encountered in it enough forms of mindless superstition and rabid sanctity that we may suppose, without examining too closely, that theirs is only another such exalted idiocy. God bless them, if He blesses anybody. Maybe in certain moods we would like to share their zeal, if only our education, sense of self-preservation, and more elastic powers of mind did not incline us against it. One man’s love is another man’s lunacy. Christ on the cross is a mystery to us, but we are perfectly able to understand the crowd’s advice to come down from it. Had we been present, we would have said much the same thing. The same obnoxious determination appears in the martyrs. Their nerve, their fearlessness, these are all very fine things, of which we could all no doubt use more, but their stubbornness-is this not frankly asinine, in the truest sense of the word? We can barely stand the company of someone who is forever monologuing about his favorite hobbies and amusements; when we read an account of a life willingly offered for something less real to us even than the stuff of ordinary human preoccupations, we wonder what kind of damn fool would make the bargain: to give everything he has in the hope of something whose very existence most of educated opinion has with a common voice risen to deny. They stretch themselves towards what we cannot see, and this annoys us. We may begin by merely pitying, and wondering at them, but in the end they exhaust our patience. The saints who have chosen to live in this world as dead to it, and have encountered death with the excitement of chronically sick men for whom a cure has been finally found, are, like the poor, always with us, a never-quite-eradicated minority of difficult nonconformists set fortuitously in the world both to win its enmity, and, by dwelling in it as exiles and strangers, to justify its continued existence. And if the last of them ever departed from among us, I think we would notice their absence: for without them the world would be a colder place, and less endurable.