Tuesday, June 1, 2021

Saint Justin "Martyr" Witnesses to the Truth of Jesus Christ

My "Conversion Story" in the January 2014 issue of Magnificat was dedicated to the saint we honor today, known to history as "Saint Justin Martyr." It was a long time ago ... a phrase which applies in more than one way here (relatively speaking). 

For Justin, it was nearly nineteen centuries ago. He is the first Christian philosopher, and one of the first Church Fathers to pass on a substantial body of writing, as an apologist and as a descriptive witness to the already “traditional” liturgical and sacramental practice of the second century Church. His writings give further support to our conviction that the Church of Jesus was “Catholic” from the very beginning.

Clearly, Justin was an ancient Christian witness. He comes to us from “from a long time ago.” But, as I said above, there is another sense of a “long time ago” connected with the article I am presenting below. January 2014 has started to feel (in the context of the brevity of a single lifetime) like it was a long time ago. So much has happened in life since then. Still, there are things that remain consistent. Among them is the fact that I still write this monthly column of conversion stories for Magnificat - nearly a hundred have been published thus far, about people from every place, every historical period, every cultural background, people diverse in every way but all sharing a common humanity and all encountering the same Person, Jesus, from whom they received the fullness of life.

After nearly eight years of writing this column, I still find these stories fascinating and enriching.

Here is the conversion story of Saint Justin:

Saint Justin Martyr gives us a personal account of his conversion in the second century. He shows us that from earliest times, the appeal of Jesus corresponded to the most urgent desires of human reason and the human heart. In the first chapter of an authentic second century account called The Dialogue with Trypho, Justin gives his testimony.

Justin was born around the year 100 in Syria, from pagan ancestry. At an early age, he dedicated himself to the task of philosophy. To become a philosopher in late antiquity was not an academic exercise. It meant a dedication of one’s self to the search for truth. The young Justin perceived in the depths of his soul the need for the ultimate truth, the desire to lay hold of “the reason which governs all.”

He followed several different philosophers, but found that none of them understood the meaning of life. Then the Platonists awakened him to the possibility of a Mystery that transcends material things. He concluded that the meaning of life could only be found by escaping from the physical world and raising the mind to the contemplation of Divinity.

And then something completely unexpected happened to the young philosopher. It was his custom to walk alone by the sea so that he could devote his mind to the solitary effort of finding God. But on one of these walks, he met a Christian. This encounter would change Justin’s whole life. The Christian convinced him that the human mind could never know the mystery of God by its own power. The truth was that God had spoken, and revealed and given Himself in human history.

What is striking is that not only was Justin convinced by the discussion (which he represents in some detail in the Dialogue). His heart was drawn through this encounter with the Christian. He perceived, by grace, a way of understanding and living that was new: “But straightway a flame was kindled in my soul; and a love of the prophets, and of those men who are friends of Christ, possessed me” (Dialogue 1).

It is also clear from another of Justin’s works, the Second Apology, that the Christians had already touched him by their witness of martyrdom, even before his decisive encounter with the man by the sea. Here he tells us that while he was still a Platonist, he heard many false accusations about the Christians, such as the common charge that they killed people in rituals and ate their flesh. But then he saw how the Christians had no fear of death or any other tortures, and he concluded even then that Christians couldn’t possibly be evil (see II Apology, XII). He was struck with wonder by the freedom of Christians, and their attachment to Christ even in the face of death.

Thus, Justin embraced God's gift of Himself in Jesus Christ and joined the “friends of Christ,” the Church. He went to Rome, where he proclaimed Christ as the true philosophy. The philosophers of the past had only fragments of truth. Jesus revealed the whole truth in Himself, and thus fulfilled the human search for wisdom and happiness. Saint Justin’s writings preserve precious testimony to the life and worship of the second century Church, and he earned his surname through his martyrdom in the year 165.