One of the notes of great holiness is its ability to inspire art—and not just “preachy” art, that is, art placed at the service of transparently apologetic aims. The lives of great saints often have a sort of public appeal, such that they can be perceived as beautiful even by those who lie outside the Catholic fold. I would argue that numbered among these great saints would be the North American Martyrs, the seven French Jesuits and one lay companion who were martyred attempting to evangelize the indigenous peoples of New France.
If an artistic legacy be accepted as a valid criterion for detecting the presence of great sanctity, then I would submit as evidence for my claim Brebeuf and His Brethren, the epic poem written by E. J. Pratt. Pratt was perhaps the foremost Canadian poet of the early 20th Century. And, though trained as a Methodist minister in the days before ecumenism was fashionable, Pratt admitted in a radio interview that he considered the North American Martyrs “the most romantic historical thing that Canada had ever encountered.” Their saga cried out to be turned into poetry.
Although whole poem itself extends over ten books (and can be found in full here), I thought I might excerpt just the part for which we have an audio recording from Pratt himself: the martyrdom of St. Jean de Brebeuf. By way of historical background, the passage tells how the Iroquois, motivated by ethnic hatred and contempt for the faith, tortured to death Fr. Brebeuf (though it leaves unmentioned Fr. Gabriel Lalemant and the Huron Christians who suffered the same fate).
I thought it might aid the devotion of all those familiar with these saints. Enjoy.
Now three o’clock, and capping the height of the passion,
Confusing the sacraments under the pines of the forest,
Under the incense of balsam, under the smoke
Of the pitch, was offered the rite of the font. On the head,
The breast, the loins and the legs, the boiling water!
While the mocking paraphrase of the symbols was hurled
At their faces like shards of flint from the arrow heads —
‘We baptize thee with water …
That thou mayest be led
To Heaven …
To that end we do anoint thee.
We treat thee as a friend: we are the cause
Of thy happiness; we are thy priests; the more
Thou sufferest, the more thy God will reward thee,
So give us thanks for our kind offices.’
The fury of taunt was followed by fury of blow.
Why did not the flesh of Brébeuf cringe to the scourge,
Respond to the heat, for rarely the Iroquois found
A victim that would not cry out in such pain — yet here
The fire was on the wrong fuel. Whenever he spoke,
It was to rally the soul of his friend whose turn
Was to come through the night while the eyes were uplifted in prayer,
Imploring the Lady of Sorrows, the mother of Christ,
As pain brimmed over the cup and the will was called
To stand the test of the coals. And sometimes the speech
Of Brébeuf struck out, thundering reproof to his foes,
Half-rebuke, half-defiance, giving them roar for roar.
Was it because the chancel became the arena,
Brébeuf a lion at bay, not a lamb on the altar,
As if the might of a Roman were joined to the cause
Of Judaea? Speech they could stop for they girdled his lips,
But never a moan could they get. Where was the source
Of his strength, the home of his courage that topped the best
Of their braves and even out-fabled the lore of their legends?
In the bunch of his shoulders which often had carried a load
Extorting the envy of guides at an Ottawa portage?
The heat of the hatchets was finding a path to that source.
In the thews of his thighs which had mastered the trails of the Neutrals?
They would gash and beribbon those muscles. Was it the blood?
They would draw it fresh from its fountain. Was it the heart?
They dug for it, fought for the scraps in the way of the wolves.
But not in these was the valour or stamina lodged;
Nor in the symbol of Richelieu’s robes or the seals
Of Mazarin’s charters, nor in the stir of the lilies
Upon the Imperial folds; nor yet in the words
Loyola wrote on a table of lava-stone
In the cave of Manresa — not in these the source —
But in the sound of invisible trumpets blowing
Around two slabs of board, right-angled, hammered
By Roman nails and hung on a Jewish hill.