One of the students who died in the massacre at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, was a seventeen year-old girl named Cassie Bernall.
Soon afterwards a story began to circulate about her death. Several classmates who had been in the room with her when she was shot said she was visibly praying when the gunmen entered. The gunmen asked her whether or not she believed in God. Then, here’s how he described what happened: “She paused, like she didn’t know what she was going to answer, and then she said yes. She must have been scared, but her voice didn’t sound shaky. It was strong. Then they asked her why, though they didn’t give her a chance to respond. They just blew her away.”
But that story was soon disputed: One story claimed that this never happened; another said that it did happen, but not to Cassie; and another claimed that she did give some kind of witness to her killers, but not exactly in the manner just described. To set the record straight and to try to come to grips with her daughter’s death, Cassie’s mother, Misty Bernall, wrote a book, entitled, SHE SAID YES – THE UNLIKELY MARTYRDOM OF CASSIE BERNALL.
The book met mixed reviews: Sections of the secular press considered the story of Cassie’s faith-testimony before her killers as pious fabrication, made up by members of her faith-community to help them deal with her death. Certain sectors of the religious press rushed to canonize her as a martyr. What’s the truth?
There’s an axiom that says that at the moment we die, history stops and myth begins. That’s true for everyone, not just Cassie Bernall. Death washes our lives clean and lets others see us in a clearer light, one which highlights more what is best in us. But this doesn’t change the facts, it merely highlights their essence. Myth is not “Alice-in-Wonderland” fantasy, it’s a painting, an essence under a spotlight.
Misty Bernall’s story of her daughter, Cassie, is this, an essence under a spotlight. She doesn’t sugar-coat her daughter to make her angelic, but shows us a confused, lonely, insecure, often alienated and sometimes bitter, young woman. On the other hand, she doesn’t over-do the negative parts either, so as to make her conversion some miraculous rebirth and her faith’s credibility dependent upon its distance from a former degradation. She paints a picture of a teenage girl with a good heart and a talent for bad luck. Insecure about her appearance, socially mostly on the outside, Cassie falls in, for a time, with a very bad crowd and this feeds her bitterness and alienation almost to the point of rage and insanity. Eventually she pulls herself out of this, not overnight and not miraculously, but through a combination of being loved, finding faith, and being (underneath it all) a pretty exceptional person.
And that she was! Cassie Bernall was an exceptional soul and her story speaks of something more important than technical martyrdom. More important than her affirmative answer to her killers’ question, was her struggle and eventual victory over some of the worst forces of darkness that exist on the planet, loneliness and rejection. She said yes to God and to love on the day of her death because she had already, after a monumental struggle, said that yes in the months and weeks before.
There’s a powerful irony in her story that shouldn’t be missed. The two young students who killed her had cause for their bitterness. They were unpopular outcasts, lonely rejects, considered “losers” by their peers. This experience drove them to an anger and hatred so deep that it eventually led to mass murder and suicide. Cassie Bernall, by her own description of herself, wasn’t much different. She was also an outsider, lonely, “a loser without a date for the prom”. And. indeed, at a point, she was strongly tempted to the same kind of anger, hatred, and bitterness as her killers.
Yet, how different her life ended from theirs. Her killers died angry, hysterical, mad with rage. She died, not unlike Jesus, praying, refusing bitterness, loving, even as she could taste the exact same loneliness as her killers. It’s interesting that in describing the death of Jesus the gospels don’t emphasize his physical sufferings, which must have been horrific, but instead focus on his loneliness, his rejection, his being the outcast, unanimity-minus-one.
Both Cassie Bernall and her killers knew the taste of being unanimity- minus-one and the temptation to bitterness that this brings. But in Cassie’s case the good won out, she died in a fashion remarkably similar to Jesus. She may or may not be a martyr in the technical sense. It doesn’t matter. Like Jesus she died refusing bitterness in the midst of rejection. Not bad for a seventeen year-old! Not bad for anyone for that matter!
Martyr or not, Cassie Bernall is a patron, a saint, someone who, like Jesus, shows us the path beyond bitterness.