Many great saints speak of undergoing a martyrdom of self, a purification of humility in which we deny our own will and submit fully to God. The life of St. Therese was a shining example of this, and she conveys with resonant detail in her writings the spiritual journey she took in order to reach a place of great humility. And of course, Jesus Himself told us, “He who loves his life will lose it” (John 12:25). The wisdom of the Church shows us that there is much to be gained through sacrifice, and we have to die to self before we can be reborn in God.
But sometimes, due to our limited understanding and often imperfect intentions, instead of orienting these sacrifices toward God, we focus them inward toward ourselves. We tell ourselves we are sacrificing for God’s sake when really we are following our own will, choosing the burdens we’re afraid to give up instead of the ones He would choose for us.
Martyrdom of self means choosing the good of others in every circumstance. It does not mean broadcasting all the ways in which I’ve been wronged. It does not mean enabling problematic behaviors in others because I am too afraid to correct them. It does not mean cleaning up other people’s messes without teaching them to take care of themselves. It does not mean making others dependent on me, and it does not mean forming unhealthy dependencies on others. It does not mean trying to help others without letting them help me back or acknowledging the gifts they have to offer me. It does not mean chastising everyone else for their sins and ignoring the plank in my own eye. It does not mean being silent when wrongs are committed because I am afraid to speak up for the truth. It does not mean lying to others about their faults to make them feel better. It does not mean assuming that my own problems are more difficult than everyone else’s and that no one else could possibly begin to understand. It does not mean wishing others would give me a break instead of realizing that they are dealing with their own crosses, too. It does not mean thinking everyone’s out to get me and perceiving my endurance of their endless slights as some kind of sacrifice. It does not mean allowing my ego to become overinflated, and it does not mean allowing my self-confidence to plummet. It does not mean making everything about me.
It does not mean choosing my own unhappiness, or choosing suffering for suffering’s sake instead of for love’s sake. Sometimes it takes more humility to acknowledge that we can’t handle the rougher path than it does to forge ahead down a way we are ill-prepared for. It is only when we acknowledge our weakness that we feel the strength of God supporting us, and we know that without Him we would be helpless. For as long as we stubbornly insist that we can do it ourselves, He will let us try.
So what does martyrdom of self mean? It means acknowledging that I have limited strength and need all the help I can get. It means remembering that we are all fearfully and wonderfully made, called to a great purpose, and we need to remain close to God in order to fulfill that purpose. It means realizing that I am called to live in community, to care for my brothers and sisters and allow myself to be cared for by them. It means sometimes doing hard things that are for the ultimate good of others, even when they don’t fully understand. It means willing the good of others more than wanting to be liked. It means forgiving seventy times seven times, always keeping in mind how many times I myself have been forgiven. It means giving others the benefit of the doubt and knowing that their own invisible crosses may well be heavier than mine. It means believing that everyone is capable of growing in goodness while acknowledging that I might not be the one to help them there. It means constantly checking myself to ensure that my convictions are rooted in truth and not in my own desires or fears. It means not wanting to be a burden upon others, knowing that that doesn’t mean distancing myself from them or refusing to ask for their help (which might rather be an insult)—it can often mean baring my weakness and embracing a loving attitude, trying to bring joy to others despite my difficulties. It means knowing that in the eyes of Love, no one is a burden, no matter how young or old, sick or weak, loud or quiet or prickly. It means not denying anyone the gift of my love out of fear it will be snubbed or that my imperfections will be exposed. It means allowing myself to be vulnerable to others and opening up to them. It means sharing my struggles and weaknesses with God, owning up to my fears before the One who directs my steps, instead of whining to everyone else. It means becoming absorbed into the beauty of God’s love, losing myself in Him and loving others for love of Him. It means becoming so transfixed by Him that I forget myself entirely.
When we step out and forge our own way, we often begin by thinking ourselves so noble that we will endure every difficulty without complaint. But if our decisions are not rooted in God’s love, we will inevitably feel an ache of abandonment when we realize that we have sacrificed everything and yet receive seemingly no credit for our actions. We might have said at the outset that this was not about receiving praise, but when our works are ignored, we will crave praise. We are like St. Peter, who thought himself incapable of denying God—until he did. Because we ignored our relationship with the God who is infinitely bigger than we are in order to seem big ourselves, because we are not tuned in to His tender love for us, we will feel an emptiness that no human being or worldly thing can satisfy. But we will try anyway to satisfy an unsatisfiable ache with people and things; we will use and abuse them for our own purposes, and we will ache more than ever. Even if we attain that elusive praise, even if we gain every award and accolade, it will not be enough. It is only when we turn our gaze toward God in humility, truly acknowledging both our littleness and His goodness, that we will find peace.
This is why we must be so careful in discerning those things which affect our everyday environment. You might find yourself living in a day-to-day situation where you are miserable. Just because you have to suffer on a daily basis in that situation does not mean you are called to suffer in that way forever. When I’ve gone through difficult periods, I was called to hold my head up and keep going for the time being instead of just ignoring my responsibilities or not showing up (as much as I would’ve liked to just hide myself away), but I had to discern whether I should stay in that situation long-term or go elsewhere. Discernment was important because I had to figure out if my discontent was being caused by my own faults, by a short-term problem that I could wait out, or by long-term circumstances which would mean it was just the wrong fit for me. Before I left, my daily sufferings had meaning to God, and if I had stayed, they still would, but I had to ask if being drained in that way every day was the best use of my time and talents. Daily, I still had to suffer, but I started asking big-picture questions about whether these specific sufferings were good for me personally in the long term, whether they would make it more or less difficult to cultivate virtue. Ultimately, I discerned that I should leave, and I found something new. I still suffer in different ways, but the overall structure of my life does not point toward fruitless toil as it once did—rather, it points toward fruitful toil, work toward something that matters. I can see the fruits of my labor in my life, whereas before I felt powerless to accomplish anything with lasting effects. This is a sign that my current situation is oriented toward the good while my old one was disordered, because I was working against the grain of the gifts God gave me. Some sufferings come and go, but with suffering that is built into our everyday life, we do have to be very prayerful about what we’re called to take on. It didn’t mean I was rejecting God’s call to suffer—in fact, only when I began to truly attempt to bear the daily sufferings with grace did I realize that I wasn’t meant to do so forever. When I was shrinking from the full weight of my responsibilities, it was easier to convince myself that I could keep going along the path I was on instead of going back and starting anew. But by taking on the little sacrifices that I could, trying to do the right thing even when it was unbearably difficult, God led me through that stage and on to something new.
There’s a difference (and sometimes a fine line) between accepting the sufferings God hands to us and seeking out our own sufferings out of pride. We are all called to suffer, but there are many ways to do so, and no person’s path looks the same. In saying yes to one form of suffering, we are saying no to another, so we need to choose our “yes”es wisely. It’s okay to say, “This path of suffering is not for me; I need a different way to suffer,” so long as we understand that there are no options that involve zero suffering. It’s just a matter of figuring out which obstacles we are best armed against. While choosing something that we’re poorly armed against would be a greater challenge and thus force us to develop our weaknesses, the truth is that there will be lots of surprise obstacles along the way which will do just that. If we’re already straining to manage our regular load of burdens, we won’t be prepared to take on more when the time comes. We need to recognize and appreciate the way we’ve each been designed and orient our lives to reflect our particular gifts. We also need to understand that we are not the plan-makers of this world, leave room for God to step in, and be prepared to expect curveballs to come our way.
If I begin to think of myself as a martyr, odds are I’m failing at true martyrdom of self.