Monday, August 31, 2009

Aidan of the Holy Isle (c. 590-651)

"Augustine was the Apostle of Kent,
but Aidan was the Apostle of the English."

Bishop Joseph Barber Lightfoot
Theologian & Bishop of Durham

"Whether in town or in the countryside, [Aidan] travelled on foot, never on horseback unless compelled by some urgent necessity. And as he walked along he stopped and spoke to whomever he met, both rich and poor: if they were heathen, he invited them to embrace the mystery of faith, and be baptised; and if they were already believers, he strengthened their faith, inspiring them by word and action to be good and generous to their neighbours." (From Celtic Fire: The Passionate Religious Vision of Ancient Britain and Ireland, ed. Robert Van De Weyer, 1990)

Some people have that wonderful gift of not meeting a stranger. My son has always had it. My good friend, Fr. Ray Maloney, has it. I don't. In the years I've known Ray, I doubt that there's ever been a dog or baby we've passed togther -- here in the U.S. or in England -- that hasn't been patted on the head and blessed! The sheer artistry of the ability of folks like Ray and Andrew to connect with people never fails to inspire me every time! It's the stuff of true evangelism. Yes, I dare utter that word so dreaded by uptight Episcopalians!

And speaking of evangelism: "The proof of the pudding is in the eating." When King Oswald took command of the kingdom of Bernicia (the territory of England extending along the shore of the North Sea between the border of Scotland and the river Tyne) in 633, he asked Abbot Seghine of Iona to send him a bishop to evangelize the people. Seghine sent Corman, who proved to be as crusty and severe as his name sounds! After returning some three years later, all he had to say was that the English people of Bernicia behaved like "savages" and had a "stubborn and barbarous disposition". Possibly true, but one wonders if the good Corman might have been self-projecting a bit.

Seghine, wise abbot that he was, calls a conference of all the monks to hear Corman's report and to help him discern who might be more suited to answer Oswald's request for a bishop. An Irish monk, Aidan, apparently related to the great Brigid of Kildare, a humble and simple man, had the courage to speak up and remind Corman that by "giving them first the milk of religion before its meat", one might better win these people over to Christianity. It proved to be an "Aha!" moment for the abbot and the Iona community. They immediately sensed that Aidan was someone who grasped how evangelism might be effectively done. And so Aidan came to Bernicia where, within a year, Oswald gave him a whole island -- Lindisfarne, just off the coast and near the king's fortress at Bamborough!

But before Aidan could embark on his big "E" campaign, he had to first learn to speak Scottish. Fr. John Julian writes: "Since there was initially a language barrier, and since King Oswald had learned the Scots tongue during his exile,
the king himself served as Bishop Aidan’s translator during his first year in Bernicia. And one of Aidan’s first acts was to consecrate and anoint King Oswald, using—for the first time in England—the rites and ceremonies still used in the crowning of the British monarch today.
" (Stars In a Dark World)

From then on Aidan simply kept to his monastic regimen of prayer, study, simplicity, and poverty, and by his example he taught both royals and commoners the enduring lesson of God's love in Christ. The great historian Venerable Bede, practically our only source of information on Aidan, relates a number of moving stories about Aidan's preaching of the Gospel, sometimes, as Francis of Assisi would say later, "using words".

Aidan died in 651 as simply as he lived, under a tent-like awning fixed to the buttress of the church building. Aidan had been an ardent supporter of the Celtic vs. the Roman traditions in his day. Thirteen years after his death, in 664, Aidan's friend, Abbess Hilda presided over the Council of Whitby, where, unfortunately, the Celtic traditions gave way to the Roman traditions in church practice. Bishop Colman of Lindisfarne, as many other Celtic leaders did, left England in the wake of this decision, carrying with him some of Aidan's bones back to Iona. The history of the disposition of the rest of Aidan's remains is, at best, conjecture as far as I can determine. Here is what Brittania, an online tour and travel guide has to say: "...The monks of Glastonbury claimed that they held the bones of St. Aidan of early as the 11th century. We know that this was not his whole body, as it was accepted that half of it lay at Iona in Scotland, and some relics were also claimed by Durham Cathedral. As only a partial saint and the earliest recorded, it seems likely that Aidan may have been the only Northern relic brought south by Tyccea, though not apparently because of the Viking threat..."

As mentioned above, Bede the Venerable is virtually our only source of factual information on Aidan. Betraying his own "slant" on church matters, here's his final word on Aidan:

...I have written thus much of the person and works of the aforesaid man, in no way commending or approving what he imperfectly understood in relation to the observance of Easter; nay, very much disliking the same, as I have clearly shown in another book; but, like an impartial historian, simply relating what was done by or through him, and commending such things as are praiseworthy in his actions and preserving the memory thereof, for the benefit of my readers: namely, his love of peace and charity; his chastity and humility; his mind superior to anger and avarice, and despising pride and vain glory; his industry in keeping and teaching the heavenly commandments; his diligence in reading and watching; his authority becoming a priest in reproving the haughty and powerful, and, at the same time, his tenderness in comforting the afflicted and relieving and defending the poor. To say all, in a few words, as near as I could be, informed by those who knew him, he took care to omit none of all those things which he found enjoined in the apostolic or prophetic writings, but to the utmost of his power endeavoured to perform them all in his actions."

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Cuida Bien Tu Corazón

"...They noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them..." (Mark 7:2)

In the year (a long time ago) when I taught religion to high school seniors at Bishop McGuinness High School in Oklahoma City, I was privileged to work alongside a wonderful colleague teacher, Maxine Stank. She and her husband, Joe, had several kids, among whom was their 7 or 8 year old boy, Tommy. Maxine shared the story of how she'd asked Tommy to wash his hands before dinner one evening. After he did so Maxine did the "mother thing" and checked on them, only to find that Tommy's hands were still a bit grimy. She sent him back for a rewash, explaining that dirt carried germs and that germs could make him sick. Tommy's response: "Jesus and germs: that's all you hear about, but you can't see either one of them!"

Most of us parent types surely have had similar situations. In fact, how many times did we hear it ourselves before becoming parents?! Surely Jesus and his disciples weren't questioning the validity of the venerable Mosaic tradition of washing hands before eating. Think, for example, of how many people in the world today have to carry enough water miles and miles in order to take care of their life's simplest needs. To be sure, in many cases the water which they bring home is used for much more important things than for washing their hands.

In the Gospel Jesus is trying to teach his hearers the art of discerning what is essential in life. He wants us to think seriously about our priorities. And so Jesus dares to call "hypocrites" those who, making it their business to keep tabs on other people's failings, interrupt his teaching, questioning his disciples', and undoubtedly his own, practice. How easy it is to pay lip service to God in order to be respected in society, and at the same time, in our hearts, to glibly pass judgment on others! How easy it is to observe the "tradition of the elders", all the while forgetting love! Our forebears have told us: "Take good care of your heart." The same heart out of which come jealousy and greed, hatred and evil thoughts, also has the capacity to bestow love and blessing.

When I look into my heart, am I moved to repent? to profoundly reconsider my priorities? to change?

"Cuida bien tu corazón. -- Take good care of your heart."

(A translated paraphrase of "Vigésimo Segundo Domingo del Tiempo Ordinario" by Macrina Wiederkehr, OSB, in Un Añ0 de Domingos: Relexiones de los Evangelios, 2009, Estudio Biblico de Little Rock)

Friday, August 28, 2009

Squeezing Through the Narrow Door

Arca di San'Agostino
San Pietro in Ciel d'Oro,
Pavia (above)

Earliest picture of
St. Augustine
St. John's Lateran,
Rome (right)

Some 25 or more years ago now I received a flyer in the parish mail, an invitation -- a sincere one, and I'm not trying to poke fun -- to a luncheon at which someone was to share a "testimony". What caught my eye was the sentence: "This will be a time to bring an un-saved guest for Lunch!!" Throughout the Church's history there have been instances of this kind of unfair, inappropriate, judgmental and dangerous attitude, presuming to tag certain people as "unsaved", or conversely, as "Christian" or "spiritual". Whatever our sincere motivation or good intentions might be, we must be very careful, I think, never to arrogate to ourselves the Holy God's authority and right to judge another as to their moral or spiritual status before God.

Luke 13:22-30 is such a warning. Perhaps the questioner asked, "Lord, will those who are saved be few?" from a sincere concern over many who appeared to set God outside their daily lives. But it's also highly possible, given humankind's religious history, that the question was asked from the smug assumption that the questioner was among the "saved", the "few". Notice that Jesus doesn't answer the question directly, but rather challenges the questioner: "Struggle to enter by the narrow door." Many, he says, will try to enter but not be strong enough. Merely striving to enter isn't enough.

Jesus goes on to tell the story of a banquet already in progress. The hearer is placed among those outside, banging on the door: a challenge to the questioner's assumption, if that were the case, that he/she is one of the "saved". The householder replies to those outside, "I don't know where you come from", i.e. where you belong. Hard words for Jewish people, chosen people, living in the Promised Land: "church" people, "saved" people. Such folks not only seem to know where they're from, where they belong, but take great pride in it!

Jesus says further that the reign of God will be full of surprises. The religiously smug will find themselves outside looking in; even worse: these chosen people, now outsiders, will see others, even Gentiles, the "unsaved", coming from all over and sitting at the Lord's table. The protocol of God's reign reverses priorities based on heritage, pride, and self-righteousness. "Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord', will enter into God's reign."

Which brings us finally to St. Augustine. Augustine was a small town boy from an average family. His father spoiled him rotten. Augustine had the run of the house and was free to come and go as he pleased. His mother tried to advise and control him, but to no avail.

Augustine was, to all appearances, a normal boy who liked to play ball rather than study, which he hated. He resented being forced to study, though he later admitted that he'd have learned nothing unless he'd been forced. He also later admitted that he'd lied, cheated, stolen from his parents, and given himself over to every lust. It's not surprising that, at 16, he dropped out of school!

He fell in with a street gang and was looked up to as a leader. He and his "homes" roamed around, bored and idle. They'd been involved in some petty thefts and vandalism, mostly on a neighbor's property, just for "kicks", as Augustine was to muse later, just "to enjoy the actual theft".

When Augustine was 17, his doting father, at some sacrifice, sent him off to a large metropolitan city to school, mainly to get him off the streets. Augustine took a year of "college" there and majored in what could be called "liberal arts". Soon, however, he became intrigued with Eastern philosophy.

In his spare time Augustine quickly learned where the "action" was. He had lots of friends who, morally speaking, were jaded, corrupt, selfish, and self-absorbed: people with an unhealthy dose of "attitude". Neither Augustine or they had much interest in or respect for matters Christian, much less for religious practice. Although...Augustine was brazen enough to "hit on" a young lady and arrange an affair right during the celebration of the sacred mysteries. Eventually, he dumped the few religious convictions which he had.

Still barely out of adolescence, Augustine met a young woman, whom he never identified, with whom he lived together for the next 14 years. During that time he fathered a son with her. Later he left her and sent her back to her home, even though she was crushed and maintained that she'd never have eyes for any other man. Part of this was motivated by the fact that his mother, Monica, was trying to arrange another marriage for him. He became engaged, but since the wedding was delayed for two years because of his age, he took up living with another woman!

To make things worse, his father, Patricius, died, and Monica was left alone, increasingly disgusted with what Augustine was doing with his life, yet wanting so much to help him.

Augustine, too, was becoming more and more frustrated and dissatisfied with his life's meaninglessness. By this time he'd become a professor in Milan. After much nagging by Monica, Augustine went to talk with Bishop Ambrose, no slouch as a leader or intellectual himself. He actually enjoyed their discussions together on philosophy and theology. Though he remained unconvinced of much of what Ambrose shared, there was this deep unrest gnawing away inside him.

To make a long story short, after two or three years of agonizing and soul-searching and struggling within himself, a perplexed Augustine, had an odd spiritual experience in his backyard. He heard a child's voice in the distance sing-songing over and over, "Tolle, lege; tolle lege -- Take and read, take and read". Hurrying into the house and went to a book of Paul's Epistles. He happened on a random passage in Romans 13:13-14: “Let us walk becomingly as befits the day; no drunken orgies, no sexual debauchery or excesses, not in strife or jealousy! But put on the Lord Jesus Christ; give your flesh no opportunity for its lusts.” Bam! the lights went on, and Augustine was ready to make the jump and be received into the Church.

A year later he, a friend, Alipius, and his illegitimate son, Adeodatus, by now a teenager of 14 himself, were baptized by Bishop Ambrose at the Easter Vigil. As a side-note, imagine the cheekiness of Augustine (or was it a quirk of divine Providence?!) naming his son "Adeodatus = "gift from God"! Sadly, the young boy died not long after his Baptism. Yeah, I think I'll vote for "divine Providence" over "cheekiness"!

Augustine turned out to be one of the most pivotal figures in history. His homiletic and literary output was absolutely phenomenal. The Confessions is one of the greatest testimonies of Christian faith and humility, in which he reflects on his life, especially his familial and personal relationships, but most of all on his relationship with God: "...strange in His deed...alien in His work."

God, termed by Francis Thompson the "Hound of Heaven", pursued Augustine for some twenty years. I wonder how many of us, in our self-righteousness and smugness, would have written this young man off as "unsaved" or "unChristian", had we met him on a university campus or in the public park or at a party. Yet Augustine was the one who wrote the Confessions, as he himself says, for "...a people curious to know the lives of others, but careless to amend their own..."

Once Augustine the outsider had squeezed through the "narrow door", once he'd come to know Jesus the Christ and to realize what he'd almost lost, he could exclaim:

Too late have I loved You,
O Beauty so ancient and so new!
Too late have I loved You.
And lo, You were inside me and I outside,
and I sought for You there,
and in all my unsightliness I flung myself
on those beautiful things
which You have made.
You were with me, and I was not with You...
You touched me and I am aflame for Your peace...

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Catching the Conscience of the Hearing

Thomas Gaulladet Henry Winter Syle

For some years now, I've had trouble with my right ear. I had an auditory test about 15 years ago, and was told that I had some diminished hearing. Though I've not done further testing, I know that the hearing continues to deteriorate in that ear. It's very difficult to hear conversations in a crowded, noisy restaurant. I can't imagine what it must be like to have no hearing, not just in one ear, but in both!

A movie which deeply moved me back in 1986 was Children of a Lesser God, starring Marlee Matlin, deaf from the effects of scarlet fever since she was 18 months old, and William Hurt. It's an amazingly tender story and certainly not far-fetched in depicting something of how it must be to be hearing-challenged. The movie was Ms. Matlin's first, though she'd been acting since she was five. She was the youngest actress to win an Oscar that year. On May 18, 1987 Marlee Matlin was awarded a degree of Doctor of Humane Letters by Gallaudet University, Washington, D.C. In presenting Ms. Matlin for the degree, Provost Catherine Ingold said: "...Hearing impaired from measles at the age of 18 months, educated in the Chicago-area public schools, and a criminal justice major at William Rainey Harper College, she has, as her goal, 'Fighting for the rights of deaf people.' In Hamlet, Shakespeare uses the device of a play within a play to change the course of the action. 'The play's the thing,' says the unhappy prince, 'wherein we'll catch the
conscience of the king.' Gallaudet University recognizes that Children of a Lesser God--both as a play and as a film -- has caught the conscience of the hearing audiences who have seen it, opening their eyes and their minds to the world of deaf people, the beauty of sign language, and the issues the drama presents. Now released in over 57 other countries, the film is reaching people around the world with its message. Your role, as Sarah Norman, has advanced the cause of deaf people in a major way, bringing to the attention of the nation and now the world, the abilities of deaf persons and the problems of being deaf in a "hearing world." Your success is a culmination of the work of the many deaf actors and actresses who have gone before you. It is also a foundation on which other deaf persons, in the field of entertainment and in other professions, can build. For sharing the message that deaf persons are individuals who have pride in themselves, their accomplishments, and their deafness, Gallaudet University is proud to recognize your achievements and excellence by conferring on you the degree of doctor of humane letters..."

Gallaudet University is named after The Rev. Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, who founded the first institution for the education of deaf persons in the U.S. in 1817 in Connecticut. Originally called the "American Asylum for Deaf-Mutes", it is now known as the American School for the Deaf. In 1864 Edward Miner Gallaudet, Thomas' son and Thomas, Jr.'s brother, founded the first college for the deaf, which was renamed "Gallaudet University" in 1986.

Ms. Matlin is only one in a long line of non-hearing people to benefit from the incredible efforts of members of the Gallaudet family and many other pioneers in the ministry to the deaf, including Thomas Gallaudet, Jr. (1822-1902) and Henry Winter Syle (1846-1890).

I urge you to consult Fr. John Julian, OJN's comprehensive book on the saints, Stars In a Dark World, available from, for his thorough description of the life of Gallaudet and Syle. You will be struck by the brilliance and astounding accomplishments of these two Episcopal clergymen in their ministry to the hearing-challenged. They are far more than I could ever recount on this blog.

The Episcopal Church has long had a commitment and ministry to the deaf. Fr. John Julian notes: "It is interesting to note that by 2002, the Episcopal Church had ordained 47 deaf people to the priesthood, vastly more than any other church." Thomas Gallaudet summed up the spirit of that ministry in a hymn which he wrote:

Jesus, in sickness and in pain,
Be near to succor me,
My sinking spirit still sustain;
To Thee I turn, to Thee.

When cares and sorrows thicken round,
And nothing bright I see,
In Thee alone can help be found;
To thee I turn, to Thee.

Should strong temptations fierce assail,
As if to ruin me,
Then in Thy strength will I prevail,
While still I turn to Thee.

Through all my pilgrimage below,
Whate’er my lot may be,
In joy and sadness, weal or woe,
Jesus, I’ll turn to Thee.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

St. Louis of France (1214-1270)

O God, you called your servant Louis of France to an earthly throne
that he might advance your heavenly kingdom, and gave him zeal
for your Church and love for your people: Mercifully grant that we
who commemorate him this day may be fruitful in good works, and
attain to the glorious crown of your saints; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Where's Bartholomew, a.k.a. Nathanael?!

I'm sure you're familiar with British illustrator Martin Handford's children's series, Where's Waldo? Nailing down the identity and activities of St. Bartholomew is about as difficult as finding Waldo in an illustration.

St. Theodore the Studite, 8th-9th century Byzantine monk and abbot of the monastery of Stoudios in Constantinople, and who had a great devotion to
Saint Bartholomew, addressed this prayer of praise to him:

"Hail, O blessèd of the blessèd, thrice-blessed Bartholomew! You are the splendor of Divine light, the fisherman of holy Church, expert catcher of fish which are endowed with reason, sweet fruit of the blooming palm tree! You wound the devil who wounds the world by his crimes! May you rejoice, O sun illumining the whole earth, mouth of God, tongue of fire that speaks wisdom, fountain ever flowing with health! You have sanctified the sea by your passage over it; you have purpled the earth with your blood; you have mounted to heaven, where you shine in the midst of the heavenly host, resplendent in the splendor of undimmable glory! Rejoice in the enjoyment of inexhaustible happiness!"

Not much there to shed any further light on Bartholomew, but it surely piques our interest!

What we do know is that Bartholomew is identified only in the three Synoptic Gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke, as one of the Twelve. His name is literally Bar + Talmai = son of Talmai. Talmai, King of Geshur, was the father of Maacah, a wife to King David of Israel, and mother of Tamar and Absalom (2 Samuel 3:3). John's Gospel alone, not the others, identifies a "Nathanael" (Jn 1:45 ff.), brought by his buddy, Philip, to meet Jesus and, after several snarky comments to Philip about Nazareth, to become one of the Twelve. Bartholomew and Philip are also side-by-side in the scriptural listing of the Apostles. So, tradition has, understandably, figured that probably Bartholomew and Nathanael are one and the same: probably Nathanael Bar-Talmai, Nathanael, son of Talmai. Nathanael is also part of the gang, including Peter, Thomas, James and John (interestingly, all the "at-risk children" among the Twelve!), and two others, unnamed, who joined Peter on the beach of the Sea of Tiberias for a little post-resurrection fishing jaunt. Jesus appears on the beach just after daybreak and points out that they seem to be having a bad fish day. They acknowledge it, then Jesus suggests that they "cast the net to the right side of the boat". They do so and , voilà! -- the net becomes so full -- 153 big ones! -- that they can barely haul it in. Jesus, meanwhile, grabs a few filets and prepares an astounding beach breakast, complete with charcoal for cooking, the fish on it, and some bread, though John doesn't elaborate on how Jesus came by all the supplies.

Beyond that there is no reliable information as to what Bartholomew/Nathanael was up to in the years after this. The historian Eusebius (4th century) says that St. Pantaenus of Alexandria. about a century before Eusebius, claimed to have seen a Gospel according to Matthew in "India", "left by Bartholomew, one of the Apostles". Since Greek and Latin writers used to describe places such as Arabia, Ethiopia, Libya, Persia, or the land of the Medes as "India", and other sources speak of Bartholomew's presence in Mesopotamia, Persia, and Egypt, we have no way of accurately determining where he carried on his ministry. The great 4th-5th century preacher and Archbishop of Constantinople, John Chrysostom, claimed that the traditions with which he was familiar told of Bartholomew and Philip ministering at Hierapolis in Phrygia and traveling into Lycaonia in Asia Minor where he “instructed the people in the Christian faith.

As to his martyrdom, Fr. John Julian, OJN notes: "The primary tradition holds that in his martyrdom, Saint Bartholomew was skinned alive and then beheaded by the pagan King Astyages in Albanopolis (modern Derbend on the west coast of the Caspian Sea in Armenia)...Bartholomew’s hagiography strikes us as particularly bizarre and distasteful to the modern eye in that very commonly he is shown carrying his skin over his arm like a cloak, and in some statues the anatomical details of muscles and ligaments are shown in detail on his flayed body. [See picture above, from the Duomo, Milan] Suffice it to say that he has long been taken as the patron saint of tanners and leather workers." (Fr. John Julian, OJN, Stars In a Dark World)

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Walking the Walk

Commenting on today’s Gospel passage [John 6:56-69] in his dated but still marvelous book The Mystical Way in the Fourth Gospel: Crossing Over Into God, Fr. William Countryman give us this stark reminder: “...Baptism...while necessary for the Christian life, does not guarantee the loyalty of those who receive it...even the fully initiated, those who have participated in the Eucharist, are not perfectly reliable. Many of Jesus’ disciples leave because of his outrageous language; and among those who remain, even within the inner circle of the Twelve, is the betrayer...

Jesus speaks again today of the wisdom of faith: that it is the setting of one’s heart and trust on the Father, through his
incarnate Son, who draws us that ultimately leads us to eternal life. “This is indeed the will of my Father, that all who see the Son and believe in him may have eternal life.” Jesus contrasts this with the foolishness of unbelief, expressed so directly in the opening line of Psalm 14: “The fool says in his heart ‘There is no God.’”

The basis for such faith comes from two sources: 1) Jesus’ word that he is “come down from heaven” to give “eternal life” and to raise up; and 2) Jesus’ own body and blood, now glorified and risen, which reveals the Father to us sacramentally, in the Eucharist; and spiritually, through his indwelling and life-giving Spirit of love.

In today’s Gospel Jesus again hammers away at the fact that his flesh is real food and his blood is real drink; that in sharing his body and blood we “will live because of me”; that he himself, indeed, is the “bread, come down from heaven”, surpassing and supplanting even their ancestors’ food from God. In fact, two verses from last week’s Gospel are repeated today, while two verses in this Chapter 6 are omitted in the RCL. To better understand what’s being said, it would be worth your while to re-read Jn 6:35-50; 56-71.

Hearing these words, many of Jesus' disciples responded: “This is tough teaching, too tough to swallow” John comments: “After this a lot of his disciples left. They no longer wanted to be associated with him.

When Jesus asks if the Twelve also want to leave, they make two statements, through their spokesman, Peter. First:
Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life...” Did you ever ask yourself to what “words of eternal life” they were referring? You and I actually have heard them many, many times. Here is is just a sampling of them:

- God’s kingdom is here. Change your life and believe the good news.

- Whoever does the will of God is my brother, and sister, and mother.

- Whoever would be great among you must be your servant and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all.

- Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.

- Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.

- Do not be anxious about your life.

- Not everyone who says to me ‘Lord, Lord’ shall enter the reign of heaven, but the one who does my Father’s will.

- The one who does not take up his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.

- For you always have the poor with you”

- Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. To the
one who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from the one who takes away your coat, do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and of the one who takes away your goods, do not ask for them again.

- Take heed, and beware of all covetousness; for a person’s life does not consist in the abundance of one’s possessions.

- So you also, when you have done all that is commanded of you, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.’

You have the words of eternal life.” You and I listen to and read these words over and over again in our lifetimes. Do we actually hear what they’re saying and are we committed to live by them each day? Do we find it difficult to “come” to the Father, to truly set our heart on God? Do we, perhaps, resist being drawn because of the demands that go with it? Are Jesus’ words and sacramental presence “hard sayings” for us? Hard, yes, because of our weakness in trusting. Hard also, because we often don’t really “buy” Jesus’ real Presence in the whole Body of Christ which includes him, each of us, and every person for whom he died. Could that be why we have such difficulty in relating our following of Christ with the social issues confronting us? If we admit that they’re connected, it puts some very uncomfortable responsibilities on you and me to do justice, to feed the hungry, to welcome strangers, etc.

The second statement of the Twelve to Jesus, through Peter, is: “...we’ve already committed ourselves, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.” The “words of eternal life” become real only when we come to the Father through Jesus in faith, when we set our hearts on him, particularly in the Eucharist, as we respond to the Father’s gift of drawing us. This is a living encounter.

Jesus’ once-for-all sacrifice of himself on the cross, as representative of humankind, intended and accomplished
restoration of our relationship with the Father -- salvation, redemption -- for all human beings, without exception. Jesus meant this act of restoration, this one-ing with the Father, for all and for each of us personally. The Eucharistic sacramental sign preeminently expresses this personal intention of Jesus for each of us personally and corporately.

The sacrament of the Eucharist is a sign by which Jesus draws near to you and me as particular individuals, as well as to the whole community of faith. In the fullest sense this sign is the Father’s pledge of the Son’s availability to you and me, the tangible assurance that God in Christ desires to relate one-on-one to you and to me, and to the whole Body of Christ. The sacrament is the open, frank, and unambiguous pledge of the fact that God the Father in Jesus the Christ wishes to share God’s life, Spirit, Presence, grace with everyone who comes forward in faith to receive Christ’s body and blood.

When the recipient’s personal power of setting the heart, in solid trust, on God is joined with the power of ritual
supplication of Christ and his Church, then the outward and visible sign of bread and wine becomes, as the
Book of
Common Prayer
says, “...the inward and spiritual grace...the Body and Blood of Christ given to his people...” Just as the Apostles, in that living encounter we come to know, in Jesus present, “the Holy One of God”.

To accept the Holy One, even though we don’t fully understand, is wisdom. To do otherwise makes one a fool. Which brings us back to Fr. Countryman’s stark reminder, mentioned at the beginning: “...Baptism...while necessary for the Christian life, does not guarantee the loyalty of those who receive it...even the fully initiated, those who have participated in the Eucharist, are not perfectly reliable...” John takes great pains, at the end of this discourse which we’ve heard over the past five Sundays, to focus in on the disciples, including Judas, in vv. 70-71 which aren’t actually part of the RCL passage today. Note that this is the first mention of Judas in John’s Gospel, quite interesting in that
1) John uses a veiled reference by Jesus that “one of you is a devil”; and 2) John describes Judas as “he, [who] though one of the twelve, was going to betray him.” It’s a very different portrayal from Matthew who depicts a remorseful Judas, who, though greedy, is somewhat more pitiable because he’s driven to his own suicide.

In John’s Gospel Judas simply doesn’t believe; he, like the others who walked away, hasn’t set his heart in trust on the
Holy One who has shown by what he’s said and done that he is the source of life and salvation. When Judas appears again in John’s Gospel it’s at Jesus final supper together with the Twelve, where several times hints are dropped that Judas is going to betray Jesus, and during which he disappears out into the night. His next encounter with Jesus is in the garden when he brings a cohort of Roman soldiers to arrest Jesus. John describes a Judas who is so unbelieving that he doesn’t even identify Jesus to the soldiers by calling him “
Rabbi” or by kissing him. Jesus actually is the one who comes out of the garden, like a good shepherd defending his flock, and asks virtually the same question which he asked the disciples at the beginning of John’s Gospel: “Whom/what are you looking for?” In Chapter 6, John acknowledges Judas by describing what Judas is going to do, which casts cloud over his loyalty as a disciple. In Chapter 18 he speaks the name of “Judas, who betrayed him...”, reminding us that Judas, once chosen and a
participant in Jesus’ ministry, now stands in the darkness of complete unbelief.

Someone has commented that there are people who can experience God in a wildflower, while others fail to discern
Christ even in the consecrated bread of the Eucharist. The key, as Jesus has told us over these past five weeks, is in allowing the Father to draw us, in setting our hearts in trust on Jesus, and in sharing together the living bread, in whom we have eternal life and who will raise you and me up at the last day.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

"Doctor Mellifluus": The Honey-Sweet Doctor

St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) combined in his personality everything from the sublime to the ridiculous. Some of his sermons to his monks, for example, a number of them from his commentary on the Song of Songs, fairly soar to the heights in their poetic beauty and spiritual depth and inspiration. At the other end of the spectrum, poor Bernard was a mess physically and, some would say psychologically, to the point where a pit had to be dug next to his choir stall because of his propensity to barf frequently from stomach problems.

Regardless, Bernard was one of the Church's great fathers, and was even tagged as the "last of the great fathers". Dom Jean Leclercq sums Bernard up in this way:

"...Bernard had a strong personality, and we may even say a healthy personality. He gives every sign of this: self-confidence, autonomy, and freedom over against his milieu, and ability for taking decisions and initiative, a consciousness of his limitations, a perception of the world's needs, a faculty for involving himself in very diverse causes, all of them lofty. On the balance, honestly, there is more light than shadow...Saint Bernard teaches us that it is possible to be a man of God without ceasing to be a man. A saint may be a man, or a woman, who is normally without vice, but not without faults...without sins. The saint is a Christian who remains a sinner, in the unique way proper to each person's gifts and limits, the form of humility granted him at the cost of humiliations which are his own secret. If Bernard was humble in this way, everything is all right from the point of view of his relationship with God. The same God who made him aggressive also made him humble, not without Bernard himself doing his best to be less aggressive and more humble. Who dares to pass judgment on this mystery?...Bernard had known acclaim by the crowds and often approval by the great. But where he showed himself to be a saint was in the knowledge of his shortcomings, the admission of his failings, and in spite of these his faithfulness in following Christ." (Jean Leclercq, A Second Look at Bernard of Clairvaux, Cistercian Publications, 1990)

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The Episcopal Church's Greatest Theologian

It's hard to assign the tag "the greatest" to anyone about anything. But if William Porcher (pronounced por-shay) DuBose isn't the Episcopal Church's "greatest
theologian", he's certainly right up there at the top of those running for the title.

Here is a sampling of DuBose's Christology:

"God has placed forever before our eyes, not the image but the very Person of the Spiritual Man. We have not to ascend into Heaven to bring Him down, nor to descend into the abyss to bring Him up, for He is with us, and near us, and in us. We have only to confess with our mouths that He is Lord, and believe in our hearts that God has raised Him from the dead--and raised us in Him-- and we shall live."

It was clear from the time that DuBose was a young man that God was up to something in his life. Born into a wealthy Huguenot family in Winnsboro, SC in 1836, William was sent to The Citadel Military Academy, Charleston, SC, in preparation for entrance into the University of Virginia.

At age 18 he God laid a spiritual thunderbolt on him:

There was no apparent reason why…it should just then have occurred to me that I had not of late been saying my prayers…I knelt to go through the form, when of a sudden there swept over me a feeling of emptiness and meaninglessness of the act and of my whole life and self. I leapt to my feet trembling, and then…a light shone about me, and a Presence filled the room. At the same time an ineffable joy and peace took possession of me which it is impossible either to express or explain…My proof…may be expressed in the simple truth of experience, that in finding Him I found myself.” (Quoted by Fr. John Julian, OJN, Stars In a Dark World)

As the saying goes, "Life is what happens when God is making other plans for us." Having graduated with honors from The Citadel in 1855, then entering the University of Virginia and earning an M.A. there in 1859, DuBose entered the South Carolina diocesan seminary. At that point the Civil War broke out, and after DuBose signed up with South Carolina's Holcombe Legion, he was tagged to become its Confederate Army adjutant. Between 1862 and the end of the war DuBose had been wounded three times (twice at the Battle of Second Manassas or Bull Run); captured and imprisoned by the Union Army for four months; released; married, while on furlough, to his fiancée, Anne Barwell Peronneau; commissioned as an army chaplain; and ordained in December, 1863. His wife, Anne, died in December, 1878, and DuBose later married Mary Louise Rucks Yerger.

After the war William did parish ministry at St. Stephen's Episcopal near his hometown, Winnsboro, SC. His name was submitted to the board of trustees of the University of the South, Sewannee, TN, by the Vice-Chancellor, Charles Todd Quintard, and William Porcher DuBose was appointed Chaplain (for 12 years) and professor of religion (for 16 years), during which time he was instrumental in establishing the Theological Department, which later became the School of Theology at Sewanee. In 1894 he succeeded The Rev. Telfair Hodgson as the department's Dean and served as such for 14 years.

The books which DuBose authored include (listed chronologically):

The Christian Ministry, No Publisher, 1870.
The Soteriology of the New Testament, New York: MacMillan, 1892.
The Gospel in the Gospels, New York: Longmans, Green, & Co., 1906.
High Priesthood and Sacrifice, New York: Longmans, Green, & Co., 1908.
The Reason of Life, New York: Longmans, Green, & Co., 1911.
Turning Points in My Life, New York: Longmans, Green, & Co., 1912
Over forty published articles.

During the tenures of Dean Hodgson and Dean DuBose, the School of Theology at the University of the South assumed its characteristic position as an upholder of the great heritage of Anglican thought handed down from the universities of England. It blended together, in one institution, influences from the evangelical, high church, and broad church traditions of Anglican theology and worship. It has continued to this day to embrace and encourage the wide spectrum of Anglicanism, rather than identify itself with one narrow part of the tradition. The School of Theology has continued to define its role as a premier residential seminary in the Episcopal Church, while expanding the Programs Center as a resource to the Church.

Education for Ministry (EFM) is the keystone of the School of Theology Programs Center. This worldwide extension program of in-depth study and reflection is one of the most respected Christian education programs in the Episcopal Church and throughout many parts of the Anglican Communion. The Center offers programs to clergy, laity, individual dioceses and congregations, including the Center for Ministry in Small Churches (CMSC).

Just as one can argue whether or not William Porcher DuBose is the "greatest" Episcopal theologian, so also one might argue as to which is the "best" theological program for non-ordained persons in the Church today. As a 1992 graduate of the EFM program and a veteran of seven years as an EFM mentor, I can say that, in my humble opinion, the EFM program is the "greatest". It certainly bears the stamp of the spirit and depth of great Episcopal/Anglican theologians like William Porcher DuBose. I believe that EFM and other similar programs are the true seedbed and hope of the Episcopal Church as it moves toward full recognition of the importance of the mutual ministry of both non-ordained and ordained members.

The noted Norman Pittenger (1905-1997), a gay man, seminary professor, and Episcopal/Anglican theologian, wrote of William Porcher DuBose: “We have good dominical authority that a prophet is often without honor in his own country. And American Episcopalians should take the saying to heart when they come to see that William Porcher DuBose, who is the only important theologian in our tradition on this side of the water, has been very nearly forgotten in his own communion as well as in the American religious world generally…while in Britain and even in France his significance has been recognized and emphasized.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

The Real Presence: What Jesus Really Said

The Gospel readings for the past three Sundays have been drawn from Chapter 6 of John’s Gospel, which is Jesus’ teaching on his body and blood, the Eucharist. This Gospel reflection continues both today and next Sunday.

Last week the Gospel ended with Jesus’ hearers murmuring and grumbling because this son of Joseph of Nazareth kept referring to himself as “l
iving bread” sent from heaven. He even had the audacity to compare himself to the manna with which God had sustained their forbearers in the Exodus! Jesus went on to make a statement which totally “blew” their minds: “...and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh.

Today’s reading (John 6:51-58) opens with not just murmuring and grumbling, but with a wild and wide-open disputation among themselves over the question: HOW?? “
How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” On the face of it, Jesus seems to be advocating cannibalism.

Note two things here: 1) This whole conversation in John 6 between Jesus and the Jewish crowd has been about bread and living bread. But only in last week’s passage (vv. 49-51) was there finally any reference to “
eating”, and the Greek word which John uses for that is phago, the usual term for satisfying the basic need for hunger. 2) Surprisingly, when the Jews argue about Jesus’ literal language regarding his flesh as bread, Jesus neither hastens to clarify that by using euphemisms, nor does he in any way back away from the discussion. Instead, Jesus presses his point further with the most clear, realistic language: so precise and spelled-out that it’s almost like a definition. “ flesh is real food, and my blood is real drink.” John even emphasizes at the end of the passage: “This he he taught...

Not only is Jesus specific in identifying his body as food and his blood as drink, but John translates Jesus’ reference to “
eating” here, not with the general Greek word, phago = to eat, but with the amazingly crude, but terribly descriptive and realistic word, trogo = to gnaw on/munch.

As we think about today’s Gospel passage, several key Eucharistic teachings emerge:

1) There’s no way that you and I can be truly spiritually alive unless we eat Jesus’ body and drink his blood. The flip side
of that is that when you and I do this, we have “
eternal life” and Jesus will raise us up “at the last day”.

2) Jesus’ flesh is really food and his blood is really drink. As he says: “ flesh is true food and my blood is true drink.

3) When you and I eat his body and drink his blood we experience a state of complete “communion”, that is, a common union, “a union together with” Jesus: you and I “abide”, are oned, in Jesus and Jesus in you and me. In fact, to stress how real and close that union is, Jesus parallels it to the relationship he has with God the Father.

4) The principle out of which and by which you and I are able to live is the eating of Jesus’ body and the drinking of his blood. The being at-one with Jesus is based on his clear statement: “ the one who eats me will live because of me.

5) What Jesus proclaims here regarding his body and blood is consistent and identical with our Christian tradition: with what Jesus proclaims to his Apostles and, through them, to us, the Church: “ they were eating, [Jesus] took bread...and said, ‘Take, this is my body.’ And he took a cup...And he said to them, ‘This is my blood of the covenant...Do this in remembrance of me.’

Jesus’ teaching in Scripture and in the Episcopal Church’s tradition regarding the real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist is unquestioned. An interesting historical note, however, is that Thomas Cranmer, who devised the first
Book of Common Prayer in 1549, actually did not accept the real Presence. He denied it because he believed that Christ took his natural body with him in the Ascension, that Christ is currently present in heaven, and that if he is seated at the Father’s right hand in heaven, according to the Creeds, then he can’t be present in the Eucharist. A body can be in only one place at one time. Cranmer felt that, at most, Christ was present and received only “spiritually”. He later acted on his conviction, without the Church’s authority, it seems, when he authored the famous “Black Rubric” which was added to the first revision of the Prayer Book in 1552 (NOTE: The Prayer Book was revised only 3 years after its appearance!!) Cranmer was theologically in error. His Black Rubric was removed from the 1559 version of the Prayer Book, reinserted into the 1662 revision, but with a change in wording clearly not denying the real presence.

The Church’s teaching has traditionally been that, at the Ascension, Jesus‘ body, the vehicle of his humanity, was
glorified and transformed above all local limitations, so that the Incarnate Lord is everywhere present in his humanity as well as in his divinity. It’s not the natural body which is physically, materially, naturally, spatially, and locally present in the Eucharist, but Christ’s glorified body.

There is ample witness -- Anglican, Episcopal, and ecumenical -- throughout the ages to the teaching of the real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist:

1) In 1597 the great Anglican theologian, Richard Hooker, published Book V of his The Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, in which he depicts Jesus speaking thus of the Eucharist: “‘...this hallowed food, through concurrence of divine power, is in verity and truth unto faithful receivers instrumentally a cause of that mystical participation, whereby, as I make Myself wholly theirs, so I give them in hand an actual possession of all such saving grace as My sacrificed Body can yield, and as their souls do presently need, this is to them and in them My Body.’”

2) On September 12, 1801 the Bishops, clergy and laity of the Episcopal Church in the United States, two years after ratifying the Book of Common Prayer, issued the 39 Articles of Religion. Article XXVIII, “Of the Lord’s Supper”, states: “The Supper of the Lord is not only a sign of the love that Christians ought to have among themselves...but rather it is a Sacrament of our Redemption by Christ’s death; insomuch that to such as rightly, worthily, and with faith, receive the same, the Bread which we break is a partaking of the Body of Christ; and likewise the Cup of Blessing is a partaking of the Blood of Christ...

3) The Anglican/Roman Catholic International Commission, known as ARCIC, issued a statement of common Eucharistic understanding in 1971 which says, in part: “...When this offering is met by faith, a life-giving encounter results. Through faith Christ’s presence...becomes no longer just a presence for the believer, but also a presence with him. Thus, in considering the mystery of the eucharistic presence, we must recognize both the sacramental sign of Christ’s presence and the personal relationship between Christ and the faithful which arises from that presence...The elements are not mere signs; Christ’s body and blood become really present and are really order that, receiving them, believers may be united in communion with Christ the Lord.

4) Finally, the Lima Statement, on Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry in 1982, is an ecumenical witness to this common tradition: “...The eucharist is essentially the sacrament of the gift which God makes to us in Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit...In the eucharistic meal, in the eating and drinking of the bread and wine, Christ grants communion with himself...

Most Christians, as well as Episcopalians, today agree on the reality of Christ’s presence in the Eucharist. Most of their differences and problems involve explaining HOW Jesus is present, the precise mode of presence. There have been countless theories and speculations -- ranging from transubstantiation, to consubstantiation, to memorialism, to transignification, transessentiation, and transfinalization -- all about the HOW of the real Presence for centuries, and we certainly don’t need to rehash them, nor to ridicule them. All of these theories are well-intentioned, if sometimes misguided, attempts to grapple with this fascinating and central mystery of our faith. The mystery of the Eucharist can never be fully grasped by human intelligence, for it is a mystery involving the living God.

What we affirm in faith is that “
bread for this life becomes the bread of eternal life”, and that wine which gladdens our human hearts becomes the wine of endless joy. Christ, to be sure, is really present in the Eucharist, but also in many other ways: in the word of God, proclaimed and received; in our assembly as the Church, gathered to worship in prayer and song; and in the ministers who serve at God’s table in their various roles.

Eating Jesus’ body and drinking his blood is how we, the mystical body of Christ, grow into the oneness which Gods wills for us. The ultimate change intended by God in the Eucharist is the transformation of us human beings into the true likeness of Jesus.

When I first became an Episcopalian at St. Ann’s, Stockton, in 1977, after being a life-long Roman Catholic, I fretted quite a bit over the theology of the Eucharist. There was one quotation, however, which I read in the late, great Rev. Massey Shephard’s book, The Worship of the Church, which finally put my mind at rest. I’ve used it constantly through my 27 years as an Episcopal priest; it was first spoken by Queen Elizabeth I, and, for me, puts this incredible mystery of the HOW of the Eucharist into a rather simple perspective:

Christ was the Word that spake it.
He took the bread and brake it.
And what His word did make it,
That I believe, and take it.