LEARNING ABOUT FAITH FROM THE WEXFORD MARTYRS


In 1992, Pope John Paul II beatified seventeen Irish men and women who had died for their faith in the 16th and 17th centuries. The liturgical feast day of these Irish Martyrs is June 20th. Among the beatified was a group of Wexfordmen – a baker named Matthew Lambert, and sailors, Robert Tyler, Edward Cheevers and Patrick Kavanagh.

Along with a group of five sailors (two of whose names are lost to history), Matthew Lambert had arranged for safe passage from Wexford for Viscount Baltinglass (James Eustace) and his Jesuit chaplain, Wexfordman Robert Rochford. The plot was foiled; Lambert and his fellow conspirators were imprisoned. In subsequent interrogations, they were questioned about matters of faith. In response to his accusers, Lambert said: ‘I am an unlettered man. But I speak for my friends accused here with me. I do not understand these matters you ask me, and I believe in the faith of my mother, the holy Catholic faith.’

The accusers were unimpressed. Lambert and his companions were found guilty of treason. They were hanged, drawn and quartered in Wexford, in the year 1581.

Lambert’s striking defence speech both raises and answers profound questions regarding the nature of faith. To begin with some questions: Why would an unlettered man, with little understanding of his faith, put his life on the line for it? Why would a man who, by his own admission, was unable to account for his faith, be so insistent? Lambert could not marshal a single argument, other than to insist: ‘this is what I believe.’ To his accusers, Lambert must have seemed insanely fixated. If it were operating in our enlightened age, the court might well have sought a psychiatric evaluation.

Was the apparent courage in fact rooted in cowardice? Were Lambert and his companions under the thumb of the clergy? Were they experiencing unbearable social pressure? Had reason been indoctrinated out of them? In an age in which the very idea of ‘martyrdom’ has been hijacked, at times quite explicitly, some people find fanatical attachment to ideas to be a satisfactory explanation for the willingness to disregard one’s life. But there is a better and more coherent explanation for the course chosen by the Matthew Lamberts of this world.

Lambert’s words, and his readiness to die rather than deny his faith, are perplexing only when one reduces faith to a matter of propositions or concepts. The word ‘reduce’ is crucial here, because Lambert’s speech makes it clear that propositions are important: he accepts, on principle, the propositions of the Catholic faith. But he knows something more, something deeper. He knows that his life has been enriched by the experience of faith. That knowledge is not merely, or even primarily, conceptual. It is a knowledge that is diffused right through his way of living. It is a knowledge, mostly tacit, of faith’s effects, and precisely because it is diffused through his life, forming the contours of his living and his thinking, that knowledge is not thrown into crisis by Lambert’s inability to marshal arguments in support of his position: I am an unlettered man… but… That little word ‘but’ carries a rich cargo of meaning.

The starting point for the ‘New Atheism’ is a demand that the propositions of faith be proven in advance. This generally condenses into a demand for proof of the existence of God, before the believer can be taken seriously. And since the existence of God cannot be conceptually proven (this itself being a truth of faith, if one takes the evangelist’s words, ‘No one has ever seen God’ [Jn 1:18] as referring to intellect as well as sight), the New Atheist claims a victory. And rightly so, on his own reductive terms.

But in reality, faith is not simply a matter of facts. It is also about the will, the affections, the heart; it is about one’s alignment with the world; it is about one’s sense – mostly tacit – of meaning. Blaise Pascal, born some forty years after the martyrdoms of 1581, gives a profoundly adequate gloss on what happened in the dock in Wexford: ‘The heart has its reasons of which the reason knows nothing.’[1] Lambert was motivated by something he could not articulate; moreover, the power in his life of that ‘something’ did not derive from a capacity to articulate it.

Pastorally, this is gold-dust. How liberating it would be for many Catholics to know that they need not feel burdened by an inability to defend everything they believe; to realize that it is eminently reasonable to live by truths we are unable to prove; and to have the confidence that the truth of our beliefs is borne out by their effects in our lives.

As we have seen, Blessed Matthew Lambert’s stance does not licence an anti-intellectual or fideistic approach. Theology and philosophy, with their carefully reasoned propositional content, are necessary to the life of the Church, but they are not necessary in the sense of being a direct, explicit and immediate foundation for the lived faith of each believer. To use an analogy – albeit a partial one – Matthew Lambert and his companions walked securely on a bridge whose engineering subtleties were far beyond them. Today, let us by every means teach the faith; let us form capable apologists. But as an integral part of that enterprise, we need to make it clear that the life of faith is just that: a life, rather than a set of propositions which much be proven prior to engagement with the kind of life to which they call us.

Blaise Pascal’s slightly earlier contemporary, René Descartes, was wrong to divorce knowing from loving and willing. His fundamental error was to imagine that there was available to weak and fallible human beings an unmoveable cogito, a point of total, neutral, non-dogmatic certainty, prior even to faith itself. Descartes was wrong. Lambert was right. He as much as explicitly acknowledged that he could not prove his faith from first principles, but his life pointed to the power and effectiveness of his beliefs.

‘By their fruits you shall know them.’ If our beliefs produce good results, if they cohere in a life well lived, in a sense of peace and of personal flourishing despite life’s many burdens and obstacles, it is not unreasonable to see those fruits as a post hoc confirmation of the reasonableness of our beliefs. Not a propositional proof, but a validation after the facts. That is the kind of validation we find in Lambert and his companions.

It can hardly be stressed enough that religious faith is not a theory, but a way of living; not an avoidance, but a way of engaging with reality. Clamouring for proof in advance can pose as the more intellectually rigorous stance, but true intellectual rigor must examine the full reality, which is more than intellectual. A refusal to engage with anything beyond the propositionally provable can be, and sometimes is, a manifestation of timidity rather than courage. As American philosopher Martha Nussbaum puts it: ‘to try to grasp love intellectually is a way of not suffering, not loving – a practical rival, a stratagem of flight.’[2] The same can be said of attempts to grasp faith on exclusively intellectual terms.

To the extent that Blessed Matthew Lambert reasoned about his faith, it is safe to say that his reasoning was dialectical rather than deductive. Clearly, he did not start from propositions and plot out his life in accordance with them. Equally clear is that the faith he had received (‘the faith of my mother, the holy Catholic faith’) was a conversation partner, guiding and being validated by his lived experience. For Lambert, in other words, there was a dialectical rather than intellectual relationship between faith and life.

Once again, Pascal offers a key to the relationship between faith and reason, as we see it working out in the life and heroic death of Matthew Lambert: ‘Reason’s last step is the recognition that there are an infinite number of things which are beyond it. It is merely feeble if it does not go as far as to realize that.’[3] Blessed Matthew Lambert recognized the limits of his own capacity to reason, but for all that, there was nothing credulous or feeble about his faith.

[1] Cf. also Pensées 423. See also Pensées 382: ‘I freely admit that one of these Christians who believe without proof will perhaps not have the means of convincing an unbeliever… but those who do know the proofs of religion can easily prove that this believer is truly inspired by God, although he cannot prove it to himself.’

[2] Martha Nussbaum, Love’s Knowledge: Essays on Philosophy and Literature (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990), 268-269.

[3] Pensées 188.

Fr Chris Hayden is editor of Intercom magazine. This article appears in the June edition of the magazine and is reproduced here with his permission. The full June edition is available to download free on the link below:

https://www.catholicbishops.ie/2020/05/20/june-issue-of-intercom-magazine-available-now-as-digital-download/

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