A little bit of research on the web soon showed more than one St Josaphat. The one being honoured in Ukraine was a 16th cy. monk, a bishop who was martyred by members of his own Church because of his desire and commitment to Christian unity. He lived at a time of great enmity between the eastern and western churches but even as a young monk he worked for the unity between the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church without in any way compromising the Eastern Catholic Church’s own traditions. Like many other great people whose commitment to a cause is too much of a challenge to others he was persecuted and finally killed. Again like other great people he was ready to die for his truth “You people of Vitebsk want to put me to death. You make ambushes for me everywhere, in the streets, on the bridges, on the highways, and in the marketplace. I am here among you as a shepherd, and you ought to know that I would be happy to give my life for you”.
“Happy to give my life for you” - in this Josaphat stands in a long line of martyrs and campaigners that reaches to our very day. Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Oscar Romero immediately come to mind. But today the word martyr is used for freedom fighters and suicide bombers whose commitment and willingness to die for a cause cannot be in doubt. What is doubtful in many people’s eyes is the validity of the cause – but not in theirs I presume. Is it the cause that makes the martyr or simply the willingness to die for it? Is every cause worthy of such commitment, especially if it militates against religious freedom or respect for the other? Were Josaphat’s opponents in Ukraine afraid of losing their identity and their own customs? Some of them died defending them. Is the answer not to seek martyrdom (something that could be sought for some kind of personal satisfaction or imagined glory) but to be true to a cause and a belief so that it goes against one’s integrity to deny or be deflected from it knowing that it could well lead to death. This was the dilemma of Thomas More who struggled with the idea that he might be choosing to be a martyr for some kind of personal glory rather than a refusal to compromise his beliefs. Thomas More’s life was not very saintly but he’s recognised as a saint because he was faithful to the integrity of his beliefs. And yet in Shusako Endo’s book ‘Silence’ was the Jesuit Rodrigues right to deny his faith and save not only his own life but that of other Christians? All religions have their saints and martyrs, honoured because they are seen to defend a truth central to that faith. They are brave and courageous and many of us, maybe most of us, know that we would not be able to live up to that ideal. However we can admire it and be challenged by the questions it poses.
The second St Josaphat is a different kind of figure. In fact he has no reality at all. Along with St Balaam he is a legendary figure who was popular in the Middle Ages. He was recognised as a martyr and people honoured him as such for over a thousand years. But scholars tell us that the story of his life is in fact a Christianised version of one of the legends of the Buddha. The name Josaphat itself is derived from the Arabic Yūdhasaf or Būdhasaf which is derived from the Sanskrit Boddhisattva. It’s rather amusing really. Here we have a saint honoured as a Christian for centuries at a time when Christians believed that they alone had the truth and would probably have seen Buddhism as leading to perdition rather than salvation. Were they misguided? Did it matter if people were inspired to honour a good person and encouraged to live a better life? Is Yuval Harari right when he says that much of what we take for reality is in fact imagined and kept alive by the stories we tell?
Religion is a funny, mixed up kind of thing. It likes to think of itself as pure and distinct but it’s good at appropriating aspects of another religion into its own belief system. Hinduism, for example appropriated the Buddha by making him the ninth incarnation of the god Vishnu. Hindus are happy to see Jesus as an incarnation of God though not the only one. Islam has done it by making Jesus one of the 4 major prophets of Islam – not seeing him as the Son of God the way Christians do – but nevertheless making a place for him in their system of faith. Christianity appropriated many pagan practices and festivals and much of its worship practices and beliefs come from its parent faith, Judaism. Religions are as interrelated as everything else in our universe. If only religious people could realise this. What a difference it would make to the way we view our own faith never mind that of others.