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January 2nd, 2004

A Century’s Bravest Believers

Stunning Tales of the Ultimate Sacrifice

 
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Martyrs: Contemporary Writers on Modern Lives of Faith

Martyrs: Contemporary Writers on Modern Lives of Faith
Edited by Susan Bergman, HarperSanFrancisco (1998), 333 pages.

Bad martyr vibes

It used to be that when I thought of martyrs,
I immediately thought of a book from my childhood, Miniature Stories of the Saints . It had a picture of the young Saint Catherine of Alexandria holding the spiked wheel with which she was to be tortured to death; the image had burned itself into my youthful mind.

So when a friend gave me Martyrs: Contemporary Writers on Modern Lives of Faith, a 20 essay collection of the lives of 20th century martyrs, I was in no hurry to delve into it.

My mistake.

More faith, less masochism
Martyrs
is an amazing volume chronicling
the lives of people responding to their own innermost urgings and faith, and to the social and political disasters in which they unhappily find themselves immersed.

The book covers both the century and the globe, in reverse chronological order from the 1993 murder of the Russian Orthodox priest Aleksander Mann to the missionaries killed in the 1900 Boxer Rebellion in China. It addresses a century of worldwide wars and countless struggles for justice.

Some of the names and stories are well-known, such as that of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., or Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador. Others are more obscure, as with Etty Hillesum , a passionate 20-something Dutch Jew with a grand capacity for love. She was murdered at Auschwitz.

The voices
It’s not just the life histories that makes Martyrs a worthy read, but the variety of writer voices which keeps a freshness throughout the book and makes these martyrs’ lives accessible to a large cross-section of readers.

While the majority of the accounts are straight journalistic essays, three stand out as distinct in their style. Gerald Early’s thesis-like approach to the life of Martin Luther King, Jr., structured in three mini-chapters with extensive footnotes, will appeal to the academically-minded reader.

Amidst unimaginable suffering
Opposite of that is writer Paul Mariani’s introspective and raw telling of the life of Maximillian Kolbe , a Polish Franciscan priest who offered his own life in exchange for that of another prisoner while at Auschwitz. Mariani’s emotions first come through when listing the vast quantity and variety of those who perished across the planet during World War II, “No group escaped… certainly not the Germans, many of whom must have known that what Hitler and Goebbels were propounding as a new world order was shit.”

Likewise in his conclusion on Kolbe’s life and terrible death, “He [Kolbe] is there as a sign to read as we can…until the mind, the unrecalcitrant, stymied mind of a bottom feeder like myself…looks up trembling into the impossible windswept flame of that love.”

Dad the martyr
One of the most powerful accounts is by writer Steve Saint on the massacre of his father, Nate Saint , and his fellow missionaries in 1956 Ecuador. Not only is the personal relation heartrending—how often are martyrs referred to as “Dad”?—but there is also to consider that the author, a pilot, and his own family now live and work among the very people who killed his father.

Scary title, simple task: remember
The biggest and maybe the only drawback to Martyrs is that it’s simple but scary title might keep people from picking it up to read. The power of the profiles as well as the way they offer us real human beings brings faith and love alive so that one can almost taste it.

These martyrs have given their bodies and their blood.

Remember them.

 
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The Author : Elizabeth Bonwich
Elizabeth Bonwich writes from New York City.
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