The seventh chapter of the second book of the Maccabees recounts the martyrdom of a Jewish family. Seven brothers and their mother were arrested and tortured by a tyrant. Finally, they were forced to choose between death and violating Old Testament law by eating pork. The book records their high degree of devotion to God’s law, and their confidence that God would bring justice and restoration in the future, even after their deaths.
If St. Ignatius were to read this story, perhaps he would be amazed by that family’s humility. In his famous Spiritual Exercises, the great saint directs his retreatants to pray for three degrees of humility. The first degree, which is necessary for salvation, involves humbling oneself so as to obey God’s law, and never consenting to break that law by committing a mortal sin. The second degree of humility is more perfect than the first, and it entails humbling oneself so as to obey God’s law, and never consenting to break that law by committing a venial sin.
When we read stories of Jewish martyrs, such as those found in the book of Maccabees, and when we read about the great Christian martyrs, whether of antiquity or of today, we may sometimes feel uncomfortable about whether we have as much resolve and fortitude as they did. St. Ignatius’s great insight was that we can use that feeling as a spur or a stimulus to seek greater humility. May God provide us with that humility, and may his grace strengthen us whenever we are put to the test.