Pierre Teilhard de Chardin once said something to the effect that we reach moral maturity on the day we realize that, ultimately, we have to choose: genuflect before something higher than ourselves or begin to self-destruct!
Simone Weil had a similar idea. She consistently affirmed that our deepest longing was to find someone or something to be obedient to. Without this submission, she claimed, we inevitably inflate, become pompous and make an idol out of ourselves.
In their view, only adoration of something beyond ourselves can save us from self-adoration.
If they are right, and I believe they are, then, as human beings, we have in us a congenital pressure towards adoration and healthy self-abnegation. Deep inside of us there is a pattern for the health of our souls and, according to that pattern, we only feel right when we make our own grandiosity genuflect before something that is really great. As adults, we only feel right when we are giving our lives away.
There are important implications in this and one of them is that we are built for altruism and martyrdom. Ultimately, we only feel right about ourselves when we are dying to our own needs and, indeed, dying to our very lives.
At one level, this is captured in the rather simple axiom: I defy you to show me a selfish person who is truly happy!
But the early Christians added a further dimension to this. It wasn’t just a question of living unselfishly, it was also a question of dying! For them, we were built for martyrdom. Martyrdom was considered the normal end to a Christian life! To live a true Christian life meant to die as a martyr.
What’s interesting is that they continued to believe this, that we are built for and called to martyrdom, even after the Roman powers stopped persecuting and killing Christians. When the persecutions stopped, their theology of martyrdom remained. They still believed that the normal way to end one’s life was in death through martyrdom. What changed was only how this martyrdom was now conceived. In their mind, you still ended your life through a martyrdom of some kind or you ended it badly!
Our own lives, not just as Christians but even simply as human beings, could be a whole lot healthier and less filled with depression if we understood that. Put simply: we either end up dying as a crucified martyr on one hill… or we end up bitter, inflated, a jerk, on some other hill!
That’s rather blunt, but it conveys the sense of what Teilhard, Simone Weil and the early Christians intuited. Only one thing can save us from infantile grandiosity, from dangerous self-righteousness, from ultimate disappointment with and bitterness about our own lives, and from aging and dying badly, namely, martyrdom.
There is reason for this: We are made in God’s image and the Imago Dei puts inside of us an immense fire—energy for love and creativity, but also nostalgia for glory, greatness and transcendence.
There is deep, restless, insatiable, burning energy inside of us, but it is not, in the end, chaotic energy. It’s configured energy—energy arranged in clear and meaningful patterns. We burn with fire, but it’s God’s fire and therefore it has divine meaning, purpose and direction.
It’s fire to bless others, to fight for others, to teach others, to create delight for others, and to empty itself completely, unto death, for others. It’s fire to act like Christ who was the ultimate Imago Dei. Hence, it’s fire for crucifixion.
In the end, we are hardwired both to live for others and to die for them and we are only healthy and happy when we are about the business of doing that.
Our hearts and souls are like our bodies, they contain within themselves the instinctual patterns for their own health. When those patterns are ignored or violated they send out strong signals to let us know that something is wrong. As well, in our hungers and in our proclivities they let us know what they need to sustain their health.
When we analyze the deepest hungers of the heart we see there the longing for martyrdom. This longing has many disguises—the desire for heroism, the desire to be a great lover and the simple desire to be a great person. In all of these, ultimately, there is the longing to take love to its altruistic end—death in sacrifice for the ones we Jove.
This is the deep instinctual pattern of the soul and it posits that true morality and spirituality (and the absence of bitterness and disappointment with life) lie in ending up stretched truly tall, dying on a cross, in crucifixion.