How Lows Become Highs: Memorial of Pope St. Martin I, Martyr

2 Timothy 2:8-13; 3:10-12

In C.S. Lewis’s brilliant work The Screwtape Letters, the senior devil (Screwtape) teaches his apprentice what he calls the “Law of Undulation.” In a nutshell, this is the idea that people experience highs and lows in their relationship with God. The “highs” are those peak times when we feel especially close to God, while the “lows,” are the times when we feel dry, uninspired, and God seems far away. The “wise” demon waits out the highs and strikes during the lows.

Of course, the genius of this is that we can all relate to it. Think back on times, perhaps a Mass or contemplative moment, when you felt a spiritual high. It felt as if God was all around you; a time of almost indescribable joy. Then think of those other times, the lows; you felt alone, your prayers dry, your faith stagnant.

In a sense, this is part of what it means to be human. In friendship, marriage, and work, there are times we feel close to people or the job and times we don’t. It’s only natural that in our relationship with God we would experience the same thing. But as Lewis notes, sometimes those with evil intent manipulate this law to drive us away from God.

Such was the case with Pope Martin I. His reign came at a tumultuous time; it was the 7th century, and for over 600 years people had struggled to understand the persons and natures of Christ. Was he only human? Only divine? A mixture? Did he have a human will, a divine will, or both? There were as many opinions as there were people.

Then as now, some opinions mattered more than others, especially when it was the opinion of the highest civil power – the Emperor. Unfortunately, his opinion was heretical. Like many inside the Church, he believed that Jesus did not have a human will, or that if he did it was completely absorbed into his divine will like a drop of water in the ocean. Pope Martin disagreed, publicly and in council, holding the Church to the truth we profess to this day, that Christ had both a human and a divine will.

Angered, the Emperor had the pope hauled to Constantinople and ordered to endorse the “official” position or face a charge of treason. When Martin refused to obey, he was imprisoned and starved for several weeks. Again he was ordered to obey, and again he refused. When it became clear that the pope would never agree, he was sentenced to death for treason. Stripped of most of his clothing, he was mercilessly whipped, then dragged in chains through the streets. The abuse he suffered was so horrific that even the residents of Constantinople, accustomed to violence, were disgusted. Eventually the sentence was commuted and Martin was exiled, where he was neglected and starved.

When we think of the Holy Father’s situation, it seems ripe for the kind of spiritual low that demons would relish: Cut off from his flock; in prison; in chains; beaten; humiliated; vilified; starved; exiled; neglected. Who would blame him for turning inward, giving up, and spiraling down? Yet his letters written from prison and exile read like someone moving toward a spiritual high. The pope prayed not for himself but for his flock, especially the heretics, that they would repent and return to the one true faith. When he did write of himself, it wasn’t to bemoan his own suffering but to glorify God in it; he spoke of his abandonment to the will and mercy of God, and his hope that Christ would come soon to bring him home. Finally, after two years, Martin was delivered from the starvation and neglect of exile. He is the last pope (to date) to die a martyr.

In the first reading St. Paul wrote to Timothy, If we have died with him we shall also live with him; if we persevere we shall also reign with him (2 Timothy 11-12). This reminds us not only of the glorious destiny of Pope St. Martin I, but of the need for us to pray for and practice the virtues of fortitude and perseverance. Both the spiritual highs and lows are gifts from God that are meant to be used. Although we want to hold onto the highs and treasure them, they provide the grace we need to look beyond ourselves and see how we might strengthen others, and to look within ourselves to see where we need strength, where God is working in our lives, and where he may be calling us. And if God feeds our virtues in the highs, he tests them in our lows. But again, as St. Martin shows, we don’t run from those times; rather, we persevere through them by focusing not on ourselves but on others and not by complaining about our suffering but by uniting it to the suffering of Christ for the sake of his body, the Church. To paraphrase St. Martin, throughout the highs and lows, remember that Christ is at hand, and hope in His mercy.

Pope St. Martin I, pray for us.

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