Linden, Va. — About an hour and a half away from the White House, a cloistered nun tells me — from behind the grille that separates her physically from the world (even from a friendly visitor like me) — about what freedom she lives.
Outside, above the Shenandoah Valley, fog envelops St. Dominic’s Monastery as I talk to her downstairs in a meeting room made for encounters with family and friends and inquisitors (usually young women who are discerning a vocation to this way of life).
Her comment brings to mind a favorite devotion of Pope Francis’s (before he was Pope Francis) to Mary, Our Lady, Undoer of Knots. I think, too, of a sentence in Robert Royal’s Catholic Martyrs of the Twentieth Century: “Willingness to die liberates.”
The nun in the cloister has chosen a kind of death to the world, certainly the world in which most of us operate. She does so quite radically. Her choice provides a spotlight on the kind of lives Christians true to the name choose to live, as they believe they are called to live.
Just days before the Independence Day holiday, the Oxford English Dictionary added the word “post-truth” to its mix — an entry to put us on guard about freedom.
Royal also writes about truth in his book about 20th-century martyrs. In part by way of explaining his remark about death and liberation, he writes: “Martyrs do more than entertain various possibilities; they put their lives behind the truth.” He goes on to quote from Bishop James Edward Walsh, a Maryknoll missionary in China who spent nearly two decades in captivity. Walsh asserted:
Christianity is not a private way of salvation and a guide to a pious life; it is a way of world salvation and a philosophy of total life. This makes it a sort of dynamite. So when you send missioners out to preach it, it is well to get ready for some explosions.
The word “martyr,” like religion itself, has had its manipulations. During a week that marked the martyrdom of Saints Peter and Paul and other early Church martyrs, Pope Francis told his weekly Wednesday crowd at St. Peter’s Square that the martyrs are icons of hope. They imitate Christ’s self-sacrifice and love. They are what this world needs, “a witness to the sure hope that faith inspires.”
Religious freedom matters — it’s the greatest gift that does the greatest honor to humanity: restoring its dignity.
“The martyrs who even today lay down their lives for the faith do so out of love,” he said. “By their example and intercession, may we become ever more convincing witnesses, above all in the events of our daily lives, to our undying hope in the promises of Christ.”
Royal wrote the book so that the lives of so many would not go unnoticed — and so that we would see Christianity at its truest, most liberating. The monastery in Linden may not be the best spot for viewing Fourth of July fireworks — you’re not going to find a TV to watch, even in the priest’s apartment. But it is a place to take a few hours away from the constant headline bombardment, including headlines about religious freedom, to consider what it is about religion that we need, and why it’s worth giving a life for it in so many different, radical ways.
It was just about a year ago that Pope Francis was in John Paul II’s native land. In the days before, I went to Auschwitz, accompanied by other religious sisters, the Sisters of Life, some of New York’s finest. They were walking, praying contrasts to the brutality still in the air there, a community of women dedicated to helping all know that they are loved and can live that love and give it to others. That’s why religious freedom matters — it’s the greatest gift that does the greatest honor to humanity: restoring its dignity, like fireworks. An explosion of the kind we need for respite from the kind that plagues us.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is a senior fellow at the National Review Institute and an editor-at-large of National Review. Sign up for her weekly NRI newsletter here. This column is based on one available through Andrews McMeel Universal’s Newspaper Enterprise Association.