Small Martyrs

I am grateful to the resolute lion in winter clothing, psychologist Richard Beck, for bringing to light a quote by the Catholic social activist Dorothy Day. Here it is in part:

“Martyrdom is not gallantly standing before a firing squad. Usually it is the losing of a job (and so the means to life) because of not taking a loyalty oath, or buying a war bond, or paying a tax…Martyrdom is small, hidden, misunderstood.”

We often mistakenly assume that the big things in life are the important things and that the smaller things are somehow trivial, less important in our eyes and in God’s. Very few of us in early twenty-first century America will lay claim to the label of martyr for our faith in Day’s “gallant before the firing squad” sense. We won’t wind up on a cross, upside down or otherwise. But there are those moments in each day when we find ourselves faced with a choice to do or not do the good and in choosing (either way) we suffer consequences, however small.

There is that moment, standing in the checkout line at the grocery store when an elderly man or woman gets in line behind you. The internal debate begins. Should I step aside and let them get to the cashier before me? Will they be insulted or feel patronized if I defer to them? Will I be doing it out of kindness or simply as a way to prove what a kind person I am, seeking their approval (or perhaps God’s) for my unselfishness? Over-thinking this kind of choice can be paralyzing.

Or how about that last piece of your favorite pie sitting in the refrigerator right now? Your ever-ravenous teenage son would love it—not to mention that it is safe to assume his metabolism can handle it better than yours. But it is your favorite; and besides, the kid’s not around right now anyway. Whatever shall you do?

By comparison even to Day’s small martyrdoms, these decisions seem infinitely less important. Without a doubt, if we do set aside self-interest in those little things but do it with a “woe is me” attitude, then we will have fallen into the kind of martyrdom that the apostle Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 13:3. I’m guessing it would be better to simply eat the pie than to “surrender my body to be burned” (figuratively speaking of course).

We could be forgiven for assuming that those kind of situations are trivialities—small things that don’t matter so much in the big picture. But is that true? Do they matter? Perhaps those seemingly trivial choices are the ones that are most instrumental in developing our character. Maybe the decisions we make in those small choices are like the thin, translucent layers that build up around a grain of sand in an oyster. Maybe they are the raw materials that go into producing a pearl of great value.

And just maybe they are a part of the process that God uses to answer the Psalmist’s prayer, “Create in me a clean heart, O God.” (Psalm 51:10)

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