There are, to be sure, many people who facing illness and war, have a very real sense of the first one but the latter is still rare.
Many things have the ability to push us past our limitations and what I can imagine is the despair of that first thing above.
Love, duty and even survival instinct, these can push humanity to incredible feats of strength, willpower, kindness and occasionally desperation- the person who lifts the car to save the child, the person who runs into the flames to rescue a loved one, the many women and men who offer themselves to harms way every single day.
For those who make these split second decisions, to save another at the cost of their own life, to defend the innocent and so forth- we don’t know what they were thinking- we don’t know if they, faced with their own demise, willingly take that one more step into both certainty and certain end for the sake of what they hold dear.
Some though, we do, and this moment is a long time in coming. Those split second choices dominate and shadow it seems, every moment of their life up until that day.
March 18th, 1314.
For seven years, de Molay faced both French and Papal inquisition- under both torture and years of solitary confinement.
Did he break, of that I think it is certain. Wouldn’t you break? Are many of us not broken in some way from the inquisition of life and confinement of so many hopes and dreams by the jailers of fear and difficulty. Now imagine his struggle with the same things that we struggle with, and place all this on top of it.
The physical pain and struggle would be hard enough, and he was not a young man to begin with, but greater I think, would be the knowledge that after many years of honourable service, to see that which he devoted his life to, slowly picked apart and picked over, his friends and comrades-in-arms imprisoned and impugned at the hands of his countrymen and his King. Imagine chewing on that knowledge for years.
Some met their ends with exile from service and imprisonment through confessions, certainly false, others had the ability to see out their sentences and sign on with other religious orders. Who can blame those who took that option, not I, faced with my life, well, I’d probably do that with a kind of screwed-up mix of pain, relief and glee. I am not more courageous or even only as brave as the historical figures we look at right now. I admire de Molay in this moment because I do not possess those qualities myself.
De Molay had in fact confessed at one point- Indeed, I suspect, he saw it as a potential means to end the affair for the whole Order of the Temple, and perhaps keep others out of further pain and trouble.
Two of the men with him on this day, over seven hundred years ago, took imprisonment and were taken away to fulfill their sentence.
Jacques de Molay saw his end, looked it in the face, and chose it, he recanted his confession knowing it meant certain death. It could be that this moment wasn’t as courageous as I paint it here or as we recall it each year or even each liturgy through the Litany of the Sovereign Pontiffs. Perhaps it was simple relief, or acceptance, or any number of things.
We know he had a choice, and he made it.
For at least 150 years year prior, the Order of the Temple had used the seal of two men on one horse. There are many interpretations, the most famous of which being that of it being a symbol of their initial poverty.
At this moment though, I think it was something else, or at least I choose to see it in that way.
The Grand Master, it is said, asked for two things at his demise, that he be turned to face Notre Dame cathedral during his execution, and that his hands be freed that he might pray.
This leader of men, of warrior monks, had fulfilled a different interpretation of their famous seal- with one duty, he faced the world as a warrior, and God as a monk.
We are blessed, as Johannites, as spiritual seekers, as human beings, to have much easier journeys than this Grand Master, but it doesn’t mean that there is nothing here to contemplate on or take to heart in our relative struggles.
We benefit both from looking at the struggle and those who gave it to him- because at many moments in our lives- we stand to be either. Either Phillip the Fair, in our greed, in our pride, recalling the words in the liturgy of the immorality of cherishing things and using people. Or de Molay, in accepting where we find ourselves and making the effort anyway, for its own sake.
Neither are these things exclusionary- sometimes they are successive- sometimes we only get the opportunity to stand up for what is right, when we stand down from that which is wrong- that when we choose to do better by our fellow humanity, we stand up for them and ourselves.
It doesn’t need to be torture and isolation to be wrong- it can be a closed fist, a closed mind, or a closed heart- and it doesn’t need to be one invoking the flames upon oneself to be noble- it can be an open hand, an open mind and an open heart.
We don’t get to know our ends, but we do get to face each moment, and we do get to make a choice.
+ IOHANNES IV
Sovereign Pontiff and Patriarch,
The Apostolic Johannite Church