Happiness and the Lesson of the Martyrs

If you know why a priest would kiss the ladder and climb to an inhuman death with notable joy, you know what will make you happy

Father Nicholas Garlick and two other Catholic priests stood waiting for their executioners to prepare the fire that was to burn their entrails. It was 1588 in Elizabethan England, and Fr. Garlick had been arrested for preaching the Catholic faith and was sentenced to being hanged, drawn, and quartered. Under this most horrific punishment, the victim would be hanged until almost dead and then disemboweled, with his entrails tossed into a fire. Finally, the victim would have all four limbs severed and then suffer decapitation. Often, the limbs and head would be preserved and set in a public place as a warning to others.

As he awaited this butchery, Garlick found the fortitude to preach a sermon. He told all who were gathered about the one, true faith of Jesus Christ and that they should care for their souls. When the time came, it is said that Garlick perceived the priest in front of him starting to hesitate and, being worried that his brother priest may recant his faith, Garlick skipped him in line, kissed the ladder, and went up to his eternal reward. There exists a pious tradition that Garlick’s head received its due burial in a churchyard, but to this day, that final resting place has never been found.

Why would Fr. Garlick, now Bl. Nicholas Garlick, kiss the ladder and climb toward an inhuman death with notable joy?

In Greek, the word martyr means “witness.” To what is a martyr’s death witnessing? St. Thomas Aquinas tells us that martyrdom is the greatest sign of charity, the love that comes from knowing God (ST II-II.124.3). The martyr chooses to give witness to the reality of God over his own life.

The juxtaposition of a man who would skip in line to undergo a horrific death invites us to question our own priorities. We all pursue various goods in life. We seek health, pleasure, wealth; we enjoy good meals, friendships, family, and various things. Yet we naturally have to prioritize these goods. We seek some for the sake of others and prioritize one over another. A man may work fewer hours to spend more time with his family or eat foods he does not enjoy for the sake of his health. And what drives us to seek these goods and to arrange one over the other? It is happiness. The attainment of a good is happiness. When we have that first cup of coffee or a walk with a good friend, it makes us happy. We delight in the good we attain. All of us have a natural desire to be happy, and we move from one good to another seeking happiness.

Yet though we may all seek happiness, we do not all agree on what causes happiness. Sometimes what we perceive as a good is not truly good for us. We fall into the trap of what our tradition calls apparent goods. Most often, these apparent goods take the form of seeking pleasure. A man who engages in pornography and self-abuse is saying these “goods” are better for him than his own virtue or the good of his marriage. The perceived happiness they bring is more important to him than the happiness of virtue or the happiness of a holy marriage. Though, at times, our intellect may know that something is not truly good for us, our actions reveal how we have truly prioritized the goods that matter most to us.

Ultimately, in each person’s life, there is one final good over which he prioritizes all others—a single goal to which he orients his entire life. It is to this good, this final good, that all of our actions are arranged.

Martyrs are a witness to the greatest good for humanity: God. Fr. Garlick prioritized God, our ultimate good, over all others—even the good of living. He understood that God is unlike any created good in this life. A cup of coffee is good, but whatever happiness it brings eventually ends. The happiness that comes from knowing and loving God is different. God is the uncreated good. He is eternal, infinite; thus, unlike the cup of coffee that is exhaustible, the goodness of God is inexhaustible. The delight God brings can never end. Moreover, God is the universal good. Each particular good makes us happy in a particular way—the happiness that comes from drinking coffee is distinct from the happiness one has at the birth of a child. Yet God is the universal Good. He makes us happy in all ways.

In this life, we move from good to good, seeking happiness. It can cause in us a certain restlessness, as we ultimately feel unsatisfied and empty. Even in this life, however, we can come to know and love God. Grace can elevate our natural desire for happiness. Though the happiness we experience in God in this life is imperfect, it can help us cultivate rest and temper our desire to find happiness in created goods. A catechesis on happiness helps illuminate St. Augustine’s famous line: “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” In the next life, we can experience perfect happiness. We can rest and delight in God for all eternity.

Martyrs are signs of authentic happiness. Bl. Nicholas Garlick, my ancestor, skipped in line to undergo a horrific death because he knew that it was the portal to his eternal happiness. The death of a martyr invites us to re-examine how we have prioritized the goods in our life and ask: would I be willing to sacrifice all that is good, even the good of living, for the sake of the Good, God?

Recall that Bl. Garlick, facing his own death, gave a sermon exhorting the people to care for their own souls. He had made his choice, and he desired that those gathered there would choose eternal happiness as well.

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