Among all the classifications of "saints," I suppose that the martyrs are the most difficult to emulate. This difficulty has to do not only with the pain of martyrdom, but also with the fact that martyrdoms themselves are a bit tough to … well, to arrange. Other Christian deeds are relatively easy by comparison. I mean, if I have in mind to follow the example of some famous Bible teacher, I simply take the steps necessary to become a Bible teacher. If my soul is deeply moved to imitate some saint in works of charity and outreach, I just go and work in a soup kitchen for the poor. This taxes neither my imagination nor my strength. If I would emulate a missionary, I find some way of getting myself sent to a mission field. These things can be difficult, of course, but they are not insuperable.

But how in the world can I emulate the martyrs? I suppose I can run off to some place where Christians are being persecuted and martyred, but that sort of venture seems seldom to have recommended itself to the Christian conscience. (A mid-third-century exception was the young Origen of Alexandria, whose mother hid the boy's clothes when she discovered that he intended to go out and get himself martyred!) Moreover, did not Jesus say something about fleeing from persecution (Matthew 10:23)?

Notwithstanding these difficulties, many Christians over the centuries have felt an urge to emulate the martyrs. In fact, among the most important literary sources for early Christian history are the various Acts of the martyrs—vivid and detailed accounts of their suffering and death, written to be read at liturgical services on the anniversaries of their passing. Much of the material comes from the testimony of eyewitnesses, ...

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