Foxes’ Book of Martyrs tells us the story of Telemachus, a Christian monk who, in 391 AD, went on a pilgrimage to Rome. While there he noticed crowds flocking to the Coliseum to see gladiators do battle. He followed them in, only to witness a sight that repulsed him.
Emperor Honorius was celebrating his triumph over the Goths. Gladiators armed with spears and swords reenacted the battle. After their reenactment the bodies of the dead were dragged from the arena and its bloodied surface covered with a fresh layer of sand.
In came a new series of gladiators. Some were armed with swords and spears, others with nets. The crowd watched with excitement as they sought to outdo each other. When a gladiator was wounded, his opponent would loom over him, waiting for the crowds verdict on whether to slay him or let him live. So great was the bloodlust that at times wealthier spectators would climb down to get a better view of the execution.
Telemachus watched with horror as people died, battles raged and the crowds cheered. Prompted into action this bald headed, robed figure found his way onto the arena floor. He ran toward two gladiators locked in battle, grabbed one of them and pulled him away. He exhorted the two gladiators to abandon their murderous sport. He appealed to the crowd to not break God’s law by murdering.
The response was anything but favorable. Angry voices drowned out Telemachus’, demanding that the spectacle continue. The gladiators prepared to do battle again, but Telemachus stood between them, holding them apart, urging them to reconsider. Driven by the anger of the crowd and their rage at Telemachus’ interference, the gladiators cut Telemachus to the ground, as the crowd threw missiles at him. Telemachus was killed.
Legend holds that when the crowd saw the little monk lying dead in a pool of blood, they fell silent and then began leaving the stadium, one by one. Because of Telemachus’ death, three days later, the Emperor by decree ended the Games.
In this brief history we can see the work of a saint, but what struck me today was the crowd. Most, I would hope, were opposed to the violence of war and murder. However, having entered into the arena they were swept up in the event. They cheered on the violence and encouraged the murder of the innocent monk. They voluntarily subjected themselves to witness these horrors, they engaged a temptation, and in the process became complicit in then sin.
In our Gospel reading today, Jesus makes several statements where he ups the standard, “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, `You shall not murder’… But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment.” He speaks in a similar manner with regard to adultery, lust, swearing and more. Like the crowd in the arena, these are offenses that we voluntarily subject ourselves to. We walk into them knowing full well what we are doing. Someone might anger us, but they don’t cause that anger to swell into a rage. I may see a pretty girl walking down the street, but she is not the cause of lust rising up in me. However, like those in the crowd, when we engage with a temptation instead of immediately walking away, then we may fall into sin.
St. Josemaria Escriva put it this way, “Do not enter into dialogue with temptation. Allow me to repeat: have the courage to run away and the moral strength not to dally with your weakness or wonder how far you can go. Break off, with no concession!”
When temptations arise in your life, do not entertain them. Do not consider the “what ifs.” Immediately set the temptation aside, not giving it the slightest edge. In this way we can all live holier lives.