When you are listening to a conversation, does it ever happen to you that you hear an expression or phrase as if for the first time? Perhaps the particular expression strikes you as amusing, bizarre or even shocking. Yet you have heard it over and over again and have used it so often in your own conversations. While reflecting about what to say today on this wonderful occasion of honouring St Margaret Clitherow, once a citizen of this great city of York, two such sayings come to mind. They are rather obvious, and are used quite frequently in peoples' conversation - 'Oh, I could die for it'- meaning this is something I really want, I really desire with every ounce of my being, without it I could not live; 'I would stake my life on it', meaning something which is fundamental, right, true necessary, something which cannot deceive or let you down. It is interesting that in an age almost defined by relativism, where it appears hard to proclaim anything as absolute, fundamental and common to all, that we use such graphic and shocking language.
This relativism seems to permeate our world today to such an extent that it is part or the cultural and societal air that we breathe. If we are not on our guard it will taint us and affect us. It is an evil about which our Holy Father, Pope Benedict, has spoken on many occasions. Just listen to a few of his words:
'There is (also) something sinister which stems from the fact that freedom and tolerance are so often separated from truth. This is fuelled by the notion, widely held today, that there are no absolute truths to guide our lives. Relativism, by indiscriminately giving value to practically everything, has made 'experience' all-important. Yet, experiences, detached from any consideration of what is good or true, can lead, not to genuine freedom, but to moral or intellectual confusion, to a lowering of standards, to a loss of self-respect, and even to despair.' (WYDSYD08 Thursday 17.07.08)
And we know this is not something new in our world. Recently I was re-reading the famous 'Biglietto Speech' of Blessed John Henry Newman on the occasion of his elevation to the Cardinalate on 12th May 1879. He says:
'Liberalism in religion is the doctrine that there is no positive truth in religion, but that one religion is as good as another, and this is the teaching which is gaining substance and force daily. It teaches that all (religions) are tolerated, for all are matters of opinion. Revealed religion is not truth, but sentiment and taste; not an objective fact, not miraculous; and it is the right of each individual to make it say just what strikes his fancy. Never was a device of the Enemy so cleverly framed and with such promise of success.'
Margaret Clitherow lived in a very different age, with very distinct values and ideas. We tend to think of this as a very stable, if not staid society. Things remained as they always had been, the 'status quo' was all important. While, in the main, this was true, religion and faith, local and international politics were very turbulent at that time and there was much confusion in peoples' minds and lives. Very much against the flow, Margaret Clitherow chose a path, a way of life which was going to bring her into collision with not only social mores, family and friends, but also with the highest authority in this land.
She felt with all her heart that what was happening around her was neither just, true nor good. On all these things she felt she had to stake her life, literally, for they were things she could die for! So deep was her conviction, her faith in this that nothing could turn her away from the course she had taken, neither death nor life, no angel, no prince, nothing that exists, nothing still to come, not any power, neither height nor depth, nor any created thing.
It perhaps seems strange to us today that someone should give their life for such theoretical, theological niceties. The arguments of our age turn around the fulcrum of whether or not anything can be of such value and certainty that we should give our lives for it. Yet again, while this argument rages, many of our young men and women are giving their lives as a result of armed conflict throughout the world!
St Margaret Clitherow was willing to die for the truths which she held as absolute and sacrosanct. For her they were 'to die for!' However not without fear, not without recognising her human frailty. On receiving the notice of her sentence she said: 'I am according to the Queens Majesty's law judged to die, and while my spirit is willing, my flesh repines. My cause is God's and it is a comfort to die in His quarrel; flesh is frail, but I trust in my Lord Jesus that He will give me the strength to bear all troubles and torments which will be laid upon me for His sake. I shall die on Friday next. I now feel the frailty on mine own flesh which trembleth at the news, although my spirit greatly rejoiceth.'
And it wasn't just she who would suffer as a result of the sentence. John, her husband, almost beside himself with grief cried out: 'Alas they will kill my wife. Let them take all I have to save her for she is the best wife in all England and the best Catholic also.'
Whu honour St Margaret Clitherow, wife and mother, kind neighbour and friend, sincere believer and authentic witness to her faith, even to the point of offering her life in a martyr's death? In a sceptical and suspicious age, the only argument that speaks convincingly is the force of personal witness. We need to know that there are truly things on which we can stake our lives. We need to understand that there are things to die for, even today. And it is us who are called to be witnesses of this; not just for the good of our particular denimination, our chosen creed, but so that all may see and understand that truth and freedom will lead us to genuine joy and hope.
Again, if I may, I would like to finish by quoting from Pope Benedict XVI: 'Empowered by the Spirit, and drawing upon faith's rich vision, a new generation of Christians is being called to help build a world in which God's gift of life is welcomed, respected and cherished - not rejected, feared as a threat and destroyed. A new age in which love is not greedy or self-seeking, but pure, faithful and genuinely free, open to others, respectful of their dignity, seeking their good, radiating joy and beauty. A new age in which hope liberates us from the shallowness, apathy and self-absorption which deadens our souls and poisons our relationships. (Dear young friends), the Lord is asking you to be prophets of this new age, messengers of His love, drawing people to the Father and building a future of hope for all humanity.' (Pope's homily at the Mass at Randswicj Racecourse - WYDSYDO* Sunday 20.7.08).
St Margaret Clitherow, pray for us.