Friday, January 30, 2009

Charles: The King Who Lost His Crown and His Head

Christopher, a former parishioner and friend of mine has a great respect and devotion for Charles I (1600-1649), son of James VI of Scotland and Anne of Denmark and Norway, and grandson of Mary, Queen of Scots.  The Anglican Church honors Charles as "King and Martyr" in its liturgical commemoration on this day; the Episcopal Church does not.  But every year, knowing Chris' ongoing admiration for the controversial former "King of England, Scotland, France, and Ireland, Defender of the Faith, etc." , I always call or write to wish him a blessed "Charles Day".

Prior to becoming king, which happened by default since his older brother, Henry, died at age 18, just before Charles' 12th birthday, Charles bore the following titles:  Prince of Wales and Earl of Chester, Duke of Cornwall, Duke of Rothesay, Duke of York, Duke of Albany, Marquess of Ormond, Earl of Carrick, Earl of Ross, Baron Renfrew, Lord Ardmannoch, Lord of the Isles, Prince and Great Steward of Scotland.  Is it any wonder, then, that he was ardently and passionately convinced that kings ruled by Divine Right: that he had a direct powerline to the King of Kings?!  He proved it by his actions which were frequently a little over the top: levying taxes without Parliament's OK, ruling without a Parliament, dissolving Parliament, being responsible for two civil wars, opposing and coming down hard on Calvinism and others with Reformed tendencies, etc.  Maybe it was the shoes he wore that caused all his discontent! Get a look at those "pumps" he's wearing in the picture above.

Amazingly, he managed, through all the ups and downs -- and there were more than anyone could count -- to hang on to his kingdom for 24 years.  That is, until people got really tired of his constant drama and "attitude".  During the Civil War periods Charles suffered any number of military losses to his opponents, yet still he thumbed his nose at Parliament, even in defeat.  Virtually the last two years of his life he moved from prison to prison.  Finally, the House of Commons passed an Act of Parliament creating a court for a trial.  This had never been done to an English king; others had been deposed, but never tried for "high treason and other high crimes".   Sounding a bit like Slobodan Milosevic at The Hague, Charles refused to enter a plea, proclaiming that no court had jurisdiction over a monarch, since his own authority had been given to him by God, as well as by the traditions and laws of England when he was crowned and anointed.  

It was all to no avail.  It took only 9 days to convict Charles.  It's said that when the prosecutor, Solictor General John Cooke, began reading the indictment, Charles tried to stop him by poking him with his cane.  When the ornate silver tip of the cane fell off, Cooke refused to pick it up.  After a dramatic pause, King Charles leaned over and did so: perhaps a symbol that the proud monarch finally realized that even he had to bow before human law.  There's a lesson in that, isn't there?

Shortly before he was executed on January 30, 1649, Charles sent a letter to his son, the Prince of Wales, via his chaplain.  It begins: "With God, I would have you begin and end, who is King of Kings, the sovereign disposer of the kingdoms of the world, who pulleth down one and setteth up another.  The best government and highest sovereignty you can attain to is to be subject to him, that the sceptre of his word and spirit may rule in your heart..."  Regarding the preservation of established religion and laws, he says: "...I may (without vanity) turn the reproach of my sufferings, as to the world's censure, into the honour of a kind of marytrdom, as to the testimony of my conscience..."
He concludes: "...I know God can -- and I hope he will --  restore me to my rights.  I cannot despair, either of his mercy, or my people's love and pity.  At worst, I trust I shall but go before you to a better kingdom, which God hath prepared for whose mercy I commend you, and all mine..."

At his execution, Charles is said to have insisted on wearing two cotton shirts to prevent the cold weather from causing any noticeable shivers that could be mistaken for fear or weakness.  His last words were: "I shall go from a corruptible to an incorruptible Crown, where no disturbance can be."  He then said a prayer, placed his head on the block, and signalled to the executioner that he was ready.  With one, powerful, smooth stroke Charles I entered a new kingly realm.

In May, 2007, I had the privilege of visiting St. John's Chapel at Little Gidding, of T. S. Eliot fame, formerly the center of Deacon Nicholas Ferrar's little prayerful community of family and associates.  For me, the chapel had an exquisitely "prayerful" feel to it.  One of the stained glass windows, restored in 1853, is a memorial to Charles I.  He had visited Little Gidding twice, in 1642 and 1646.  At the bottom of the coat of arms are words which, perhaps, well sum up Charles' whole life:  "Dieu et mon droit.  [God and my right.]" 

Of Haggis, Whisky, and Robert Burns

I completely missed it this year -- the 250th anniversary of the birth of Robert Burns.  

It got called to my attention through the Order of Julian Affiliates' online network.  There was a major discussion on the merits, or not, of haggis.  One affiliate said that in her hometown in Canada, there's a festivity during which teams see which team can propel a haggis across the river: "...some believe," she says, "that's the best that can be done to a Haggis..."  Another lady, who'd never partaken of the dish, recalled that her great-great grandmother had said that it was a "myth" in order to poke fun at the Scots.   The previous woman noted that she and her family were about to have a meal that evening of tinned haggis, bashed neeps, and Dundee cake.  Webster defines haggis thus: "a traditionally Scottish dish that consists of the heart, liver, and lungs of a sheep or a calf minced with suet, onions, oatmeal, and seasonings and boiled in the stomach of the animal."  As to bashed neeps, the woman said they're essentially turnips and potatoes, mashed together, with maybe some onion, salt, pepper, and butter.  Dundee cake is a "rich, fruity cake, topped with almonds.  Sounds OK to me! -- the cake, that is.  Many other folks who commented on the topic were decidedly less than enthusiastic about digging into the haggis.

I put my two cents' worth into the discussion by relating my first and only experience of haggis so far.  In January, 1997 I was asked by the Mendo-Lake Scottish Cultural Society (Ukiah, CA) to give the "Selkirk Grace" at a Robert Burns "Experience", complete with whisky (Scottish-"whisky"; Irish-"whiskey") and haggis. I never knew what the latter was; a lot of people there, some of them good Scotspersons, said it was terrible, horrible, vile: that if I ate it I'd probably regret it.  But, probably after a few whiskys, (I still have the shot glass, by the way) of course I had to try it. I have to say I rather liked it, in fact I think I may even have had a second go at it.  I was told that the taste and appeal of the haggis depends on who makes it and how. But I leave that to the Scots to haggle about.

For anyone wondering about the "Selkirk Grace", which Robert Burns apparently recited in his day:

"Some hae meat and canna eat
And some wad eat that want it:
But we hae meat and we can eat,
And sae the Lord be thankit."

And for your birth, life, poetry, and annual occasions to eat haggis and drink whisky (or whiskey, according to one's preference!), Robert Burns, we too "sae the Lord be thankit"!

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Andrew: Yesterday's TV Interview

In earlier blogs I spoke of the recurrence of the serious illness of my son, Andrew, and his hospitalization at Good Samaritan Medical Center in West Palm Beach since December 17.  He's still there, unfortunately, but gradually making progress, thanks to the support, good thoughts, and prayers of people all over the world.

Yesterday WPTV - Channel 5 interviewed him live.  If a picture is worth a thousand words, a video is worth at least two thousand or more.  Here is the WPTV URL, so that you can hear his story first-hand:

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Bishop Francis de Sales (1567-1622)

(From Treatise on the Love of God, Chapter 6)

"There are souls that make great projects to do excellent services for Our Saviour, by eminent actions and extraordinary sufferings, but actions and sufferings of which there is no opportunity, and perhaps never will be, and who upon this apprehend they have done a great matter in love, in which they are very often deceived: as appears in this, that embracing in desire, as seems to them, great future crosses, they anxiously avoid the burden of such as are present, which are less. Is it not an extreme temptation to be so valiant in imagination, and so cowardly in execution?

Ah! God preserve us from those imaginary fervours, which very often breed a vain and secret self-esteem in the bottom of our hearts. Great works lie not always in our way, but every moment we may do little ones with excellence, that is, with a great love. Behold that saint, I beg you, who bestows a cup of cold water on the thirsty traveller; he does but a small matter in outward show, but the intention, the sweetness, the love, with which he animates his work is so excellent, that it turns this simple water into water of life, and of eternal life...

Truly, in the low and little works of devotion, charity is not only practised more frequently, but ordinarily more humbly too, and consequently more usefully and more holily.

Those condescensions to the humours of others, that bearing with the clownish and troublesome actions and ways of our neighbour, those victories over our own humours and passions, those renouncings of our lesser inclinations, that effort against our aversions and repugnances, that heartfelt and sweet acknowledgment of our own imperfections, the continual pains we take to keep our souls in equality, that love of our abjection, that gentle and gracious welcome we give to the contempt and censure of our condition, of our life, of our conversation, of our actions: ...all these things are more profitable to our souls than we can conceive, if heavenly love have the management of them..." 

St. Thomas Aquinas - Patron of Nerds?

I think there should be a worldwide celebration today for all the so-called nerds of the world. They have a patron, whether they know it or not: St. Thomas Aquinas, whom the Church commemorates today.

Many of us have, at one time or another in our lives, been assigned to the ranks of the those who are pejoratively tagged as “nerds” by various rude, egotistical, self-centered bullies, super-hormoned jocks, high school “queens and princesses”, and other nastily sharp-tongued, insecure ignoramuses. When you’re a young school-age kid you especially feel the sting and bite of such a stigma, knowing in your heart how deceiving appearances are and what things really do count in life, after all. I can remember being made to feel as though being a “brain” was something you needed to apologize or do penance for, when all I was doing was what I thought was expected of everyone, and for the sheer love of learning. Thomas was no stranger to that, I learned much later.

Thomas was born in a castle at Roccasecca, about 75 miles east southeast of Rome, the sixth son of Count Landolfo d’Aquino, of a high-born southern Italian family and Countess Theodora of Theate, of Norman descent. Thomas was a nephew of Frederick Barbarossa and connected with St. Louis IX of France. A younger sister of Thomas had been killed instantly by a bolt of lightning, causing Thomas to be extremely nervous during thunderstorms all his life.

His father’s brother and his uncle, Sinibald, was the Benedictine abbot of Monte Cassino. His mother was determined that Thomas would study there, become a Benedictine, and eventually become the abbot. He dutifully studied there for five years, after which, at age 14, he enrolled at the University of Naples, spending the next seven years there. He was a “brain”, by the way! And he took a lot of flack over that, really for most of his life. You couldn’t miss Thomas, either. Bearing more Nordic than Italian features, he had a fair complexion, was massively built and of imposing stature. In other words, a big dude! A nerdy version, perhaps, of “The Hulk”. And during this time he’d become fascinated with the Dominicans, the Order of Preachers, noted for their teaching and preaching ministry.

By age 18 or 19, in 1243 or 1244, Thomas had decided to enter the Dominicans. He encountered tremendous opposition from his family, especially his mother. She actually had his brothers kidnap him as he travelled to Paris, bring him back, and confine him in the castle at Monte San Giovanni Campano! Only his sisters could visit him and they were unyielding in trying to get Thomas to change his mind. Even the Pope and the Emperor put in their two cents worth and remonstrated him for his bullheadedness. This went on for well over a year. Nevertheless, Thomas used his time in captivity constructively: praying, studying Scripture and the great philosophers, Aristotle and Peter Lombard. His brothers, their little pinhead minds seemingly in overdrive, then got the bright idea of bringing a prostitute to Thomas’ lockup, in hopes that that might lighten him up, although the logic of this escapes me, since the issue supposedly was which Order he was to join! Thomas, nerd or not, drove the unfortunate young lady away with a burning firebrand, perhaps also giving his immature siblings a few whacks in the process!

Momma Aquino, though still hell-bent on having her boy head up a monastery, saw that she was not going to shake Thomas’ resolve. To save face, she secretly engineered his escape through a window, actually with the help of his sisters, whom he apparently won over because of his tutoring them, as well as of some Dominicans in mufti, with whom he’d been in communication. The Pope, to placate Theodora, offered Thomas the abbacy at Monte Cassino. Thomas, though some had called him a “dumb ox”, referring to his size, politely, and wisely, declined the Pope’s offer. The Pope counteroffered to make him Archbishop of Naples, but again Thomas stood his ground and refused the honor.

When his family finally relented, the Dominicans sent Thomas to Cologne to study with the great Albertus Magnus, Albert the Great. In 1245 he travelled with Albert, who had certainly picked up on Thomas‘ intellectual brilliance, to Paris where Thomas continued under his tutelage for the next three years, returning to Cologne with him in 1248. In Cologne Thomas taught and absorbed the scholastic wisdom which Albert had to offer, much of it based in Aristotle’s philosophy. Probably in 1250 Thomas was ordained a priest in Cologne by the Archbishop, Conrad of Hochstaden. He was extremely devout and, to no one’s surprise, proved to be a great preacher. Yet he had his troubles, too, and was no stranger to opposition and jealousy, especially from the secular clergy.

Thomas went to Paris in 1252 for his master’s degree where, at the University, he met and befriended the noted Franciscan, Bonaventure. They graduated together from the University of Paris in 1258, both earning a doctorate in theology. For the next decade Thomas taught in a school for select students attached to the Papal court. Thomas lived such a busy and rich life, moving in circles of many who eventually became famous intellectuals, philosophers, theologians, and movers-and-shakers. The Catholic Encyclopedia well describes this period of his life: “...praying, preaching, teaching, writing, journeying.”

Thomas Aquinas, without knowing it and without really aiming for it, became one of the Western Church’s, and indeed society’s, most astute and wise minds. Yet, a hallmark of his life was his quiet, unassuming manner, his innate humility, and his profound spiritual wisdom. Occasionally his spiritual experiences spilled over into the visible realm, such as the one at Naples in 1273. Thomas had recently completed his treatise on the Eucharist, when during prayer he fell into ecstasy in front of the altar crucifix. Three of his fellow friars attested to hearing a voice from the crucifix: “Thomas, you have written well of me; what reward would you like?” To which he replied: “None other than yourself, Lord.”

Not long after this, in December, 1273, his health going downhill, he stopped writing and dictating altogether. He confided in Fr. Reginald of Piperno, his longtime friend, companion, co-teacher and confidant: “I can do no more. Such secrets have been revealed to me that all that I have written so far seems to me to be as so much straw.”

Gregory X convoked a general council of the Church, to open at Lyons on May 1, 1274. He asked both Thomas and Bonaventure to attend and to take part in the deliberations. Thomas obediently set out in January, despite his ill health, getting as far as Terracina before he fell to the ground. He was taken to the Castle of Maenza, home of his niece, Countess Francesca Ceccano. The Cistercians monks at Fossa Nuova, hearing of his plight, insisted that he be transferred to their monastery where they would care for him. Thomas, sensing that the end was near, was overwhelmed with the monks’ attention and their eagerness to learn from him even in these circumstances, and so dictated for them a brief commentary on the Canticle of Canticles.

Having received the Last Rites, Thomas made a moving profession of faith: “...I receive You, the price of my redemption, for Whose love I have watched, studied, and labored. You have I preached; You have I taught. Never have I said anything against You: if anything was not well said, that is to be attributed to my ignorance...” Thomas wasn’t just being a nerd in saying that: he really meant it!

Thomas Aquinas died on March 7, 1274.

I remember March 7 well, mostly because it was two days before my Mom’s birthday; later is was one day before my wedding day; but mostly I remember it because that was always a free day during our years in major seminary! We had a tradition that the St. Thomas Lectures were given on that day, three papers on a common topic given by three students. In 1963, the year I was ordained a deacon, I was one of three chosen to speak on “kerygmatic theology”, in a paper entitled: “Christian Education and Learning-to-be-Free. In comparison with the venerable Thomas Aquinas, I can tell you, I felt much more like a “dumb ass” than a “dumb ox”!

Though one can argue with the propriety of the practice, the Church in former times, desiring, I guess, to “spread around” the sanctity of various holy ones, divvied up their body parts among several churches in various places. That was to be Thomas’ fate also. His remains were first at Toulouse, but after the French Revolution they were taken to the Church of St. Sernin, where most of him is today. The chief bone of his left arm is preserved in the cathedral at Naples. His right arm, orginally given to the University of Paris and kept in St. Thomas’ Chapel of the Dominican church, is currently preserved in Santa Maria Sopra Minerva Church in Rome. I’m distressed to just now learn that! Had I done my homework prior to my trip to Rome in the fall of 1998, I could have viewed Thomas’ arm. Santa Maria Sopra Minerva is a beautiful church, particularly the blue ceiling. And I did manage to get a great photo of both St. Catherine of Siena’s and Fra Angelico’s tombs there. But, of course, only part of Catherine is there; the rest, presumably, being in Siena! I’m not sure about the good Fra.

Do I sound like a nerd?!

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The Golden-Mouthed Preacher

St John Chrysostom was born in Antioch, Syria, c. 349 C.E., of a pagan mother and a father who was a high-ranking military officer. His father died soon after he was born, and he was raised by his mother, Anthusa. Educated in the liberal arts of his time, first under a pagan teacher, Libanius, his special gift for public speaking soon became evident. While he was still a young student, in his late teens or early 20‘s, he asked to be baptized. The bishop, Meletius, then invited him to serve as lector in the local Church, for which he received the customary tonsura [hair clipping], making him a cleric. This was during a turbulent period when ordinary Christians were struggling with different ways to better understand and articulate Christ's divinity in appropriate theological language. John had aligned himself with those who professed the full divinity of Christ as expressed by the Church’s bishops at the Ecumenical Council of Nicea in 325, although this put him and others at odds with the imperial government.

After his baptism, John embraced the ascetic life. Influenced by his theology teacher, Diodore of Tarsus, he chose to remain celibate throughout his life and dedicated himself to prayer, rigorous fasting and the study of Sacred Scripture, which he committed to memory. He left Antioch around 375 and lived as an ascetic in the Syrian desert for six years. He began writing on various issues of the spiritual life. His asceticism took its toll, particularly on his stomach and kidneys, and he was forced to return to Antioch. In 381 Meletius ordained him a deacon, and five years later Bishop Flavian I, Patriarch of Antioch, ordained him a presbyter/priest. For the next twelve years, along with a life of prayer and literary activity, he became an extremely popular preacher. He was gifted at interpreting Scripture in a practical way which ordinary people could understand. In his preaching, he stressed the need of reaching out to the poor and needy in charity, while he condemned the abuse of wealth and riches. At a time in the Church’s history when it was threatened both from within and without, he emphasized the need to strengthen unity among the faithful. He stressed the central mysteries of the Church's faith, mindful of the difficulties of these mysteries, while still trying to express them clearly for his audiences, both in Antioch and later also in Constantinople. John was not reluctant to address dissenters, finding that "nothing is more effective than moderation and kindliness", rather than coercion, to correct theological error.

After serving the Church in Antioch for 12 years, in 398 John was asked by the imperial court, against his will, to take the position of Archbishop of Constantinople and was ordained bishop. He remained there for five and a half years. While he was still popular with the common people, his rather rigid attitude towards the wealthy citizens and clergy won him no friends. One could argue if he was tactless or just fearless. His reforms of the clergy were particularly unwelcome. The Patriarch of Alexandria, Theophilus, opposed him appointment as Archbishop. Yet both by his personal words and example he try to encourage priests to live in conformity with the Gospel. He supported the monks who lived in the city and took care of their material needs, but also sought to reform their life, emphasizing their original resolve to dedicate themselves exclusively to prayer and to a life of withdrawal. Although he was bishop of the capital of the Empire, he himself took pains to avoid any ostentation or luxury and to live modestly. He was generous in distributing alms to the poor.

Every Sunday and on important feasts, John devoted himself to preaching. He tried to keep the people’s focus on the Gospel, despite their frequent applause for his eloquent preaching. He sometimes even complained that all too often the same people who applauded his homilies ignored his advice about living authentic Christian lives. He continually denounced the contrast that existed in the city between the wasteful extravagance of the rich and the indigence of the poor. He went so far as to suggest that the well-off should gather the homeless into their own homes. In the poor he saw Christ; and he invited his listeners to do and to accordingly. Understandably, he inspired displeasure, even hostility, to himself among some of the rich and politically powerful in Constantinople.
John stood out among bishops of his time for his missionary zeal, sending missionaries to spread the Gospel among those who had not yet heard it; building hospitals for the sick; and affirming that the Church's material assistance should be extended to every person in need, regardless of religious belief. 

John Chrysostom's role in the capital of the Eastern Empire obliged him to mediate in the delicate relationship between the Church and the imperial court. Many imperial officials were outraged and offended because of his firm criticism of the excessive luxury with which they surrounded themselves. His position as Metropolitan Archbishop of Constantinople also placed him in the difficult and delicate predicament of having to negotiate ecclesial issues involving other Bishops and other dioceses. He managed to get on the wrong side of Aelia Eudoxia, wife of the Eastern Emperor Arcadius, because of his comments on the extravagance of female dress, which she took personally. Eudoxia gathered an alliance of John’s enemies around her, and he was summoned to a synod in 403 where he was deposed and banished. So tumultuous was the people’s protest over this, not mention an earthquake the night of John’s arrest, which Eudoxia saw as a negative sign from God, that Arcadius promptly recalled John. John refused to back down in his public comments, and was again banished for a second time: to the Caucasus in Armenia, then to Pitiunt in the Abkhazia region of Georgia. As it turned out he never reached the latter because he died September 14, 407 at Comana in Pontus, far from his beloved people in Constantinople. His last words were said to be: “Glory be to God for all things.

From the fifth century on, Chrysostom was venerated by the entire Christian Church of the East and the West. His courageous witness in defence of the faith, his generous dedication to pastoral ministry, his eloquent preaching, as well as his concern for the sacred Liturgy soon earned him recognition as a Father and Doctor of the Church. His fame as a preacher was acknowledged already by the sixth century with the attribution of the nickname: Golden Mouthed, in Greek, chrysostomos.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Paul's Wisdom: Gaining by Losing

Most people familiar with the Bible know the graphic story of the conversion of Saul/Paul of Tarsus as he travelled to the city of Damascus, recorded in Acts 9:1-19.  The life-changing incident occurred around 34-35 C.E.  Even more moving than the story itself is Paul's mature reflection on its meaning, recorded in his letter (3:1-16)  to the Christians of Philippi in Macedonia.  He wrote this some twenty years after his conversion, about seven years before he was executed in Rome.  
The context in which he reflects, in Philippians, on his past is one of warning Christians there about false teachers trying to make inroads into the community: people boasting about circumcision, their sign in the flesh of being "God's chosen" under the Law; people stuck in the past, in their supposed "status" as descendants of Abraham.  Paul reminds his foes that if it comes to a pissing contest over past achievements which make you "somebody", or over credentials, then he can beat them, hands down! As a devout Jew Paul was a spiritual aristocrat, a member of the elite Pharisee movement.  That being said, however, Paul says that none of that counts in the now or in the future.  "...whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ."  

Paul made an extraordinary sacrifice when he accepted Jesus: of position, of security, of respect in a community he dearly loved.  All this, he says, counts little from his new perspective.  In fact, he says, in comparison to a future with Christ it's all, in polite terms, "refuse": dung, garbage.  Not that all the gifts with which Paul had been blessed were evil or bad per se.  But in comparison with the incredible new worth he's discovered in the person of Jesus, those things are now empty and without value.

There's an important lesson for us here.  Paul really paid a price for his Christian faith: not just the loss of a few privileges, but of his identity, as a rabbi and as a Jewish leader; of his parentage; of his inheritance; of his Pharasaic education; of his involvement in the Jewish community which meant much to him.  "For His sake I have suffered the loss of everything...that I may gain Christ..."

Paul came to know Jesus in the deepest sense of being identified with Jesus in his own life.  Even his dramatic conversion-experience in the past was, for Paul, only the beginning of a life-long transformation.  There was so much more growing, deepening -- and suffering -- to do in the future.  In describing the cost of coming to faith, Paul uses a metaphor from athletics: that of a runner.  Marathon runners know from all their painful training how important steady effort is.  Once the race begins, past achievements and past defeats don't matter an iota, just the motion forward, steady and maintained, as they stretch and strain toward the finish line.  The prize in faithful living, as Paul understands it, is the "upward call of God in Christ Jesus...": the resurrection.  "I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead..."  He follows that with a word of wisdom to his readers/hearers:  "Let those of us then who are mature be of the same mind..."  Mature people can accept suffering and even death as part of the process because they realize that it's a natural part of the order of things.  Out of death comes life.

It's a good word of wisdom for us, too, who tend to cling to the past, especially to our past achievements and perceived virtues, even to our past guilt, failures, and sicknesses.  Twisted as it seems, these often represent security, stability, the known; sadly for many, it's their only source of identity.  The trick is to learn how to eventually let go of the past, to accept what seems to be loss in order to accomplish real gain: the "rightness" which comes through setting our hearts on God alone.  Julian of Norwich puts it this way:  "God, of your goodness give me yourself, for you are enough to me. And I can ask for nothing that is less that can be full honor to you; and if I ask for anything that is less, ever shall I be in want, for only in you have I all."

Sunday, January 25, 2009

"...Sweet Miracle of Our Empty Hands."

In the book The Diary of a Country Priest, the author, George Bernanos, describes the ministry of a self-effacing and unsuccessful country pastor. Most of the time the pastor is inept. The village he serves ignores him, and his parish all but abandons him. There’s one wealthy parishioner who is particularly harsh. In part it’s because of her own personal bitterness toward God. As this woman approaches her death, however, the priest somehow breaks through and helps her surrender to God’s eternal life. Later he reflects on the event: “’Be at peace,’ I told her. And she knelt to receive this peace. May she keep it forever. It will be I that gave it to her. Oh, miracle, thus to be able to give what we ourselves do not possess, sweet miracle of our empty hands.”

The lesson which the story of Jonah -- all four chapters of the book -- holds out to us is one of the most important in the Bible. Jonah, clearly, was a man of “empty hands”, empty by his own stubborn choice. Jonah had a unique call from God to go and speak in God’s place to the people of Nineveh, capital of the Assyrians, one of Israel’s hated enemies. God commissioned Jonah to call that people to repentance, but he would’nt go. “...Jonah set out to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord.”

As you probably know from reading the story, the ship, which he boards, and the crew experience a dreadful, life-threatening storm. Eventually the sailors suspect that Jonah may be the cause of God’s apparent displeasure. Jonah, indeed, confesses that he’s fleeing the Lord’s presence and from his responsibilities. As the storm grows worse, Jonah suggests that if the sailors throw him overboard, God might be appeased, since he’s the cause of the trouble. Reluctantly, they do so.

“And the Lord appointed a great fish to swallow up Jonah...” Jonah suddenly has a lot of time on his hands to reflect and get things right within himself, with God, and with his neighbor: three whole days and nights! He begins to pray, and his prayer gives us some sense that perhaps it’s beginning to dawn on Jonah that God is the One who’s really in charge here. At length, God has the fish unceremoniously spit Jonah out on the dry land.

On the second try, in Chapter 3, God convinces a freshly-motivated Jonah to finally take on the mission to Nineveh. Apparently, Nineveh was a
b-i-i-i-g city, because it took three days and three nights to walk across it! Jonah gets only a third of the way across the city (a day’s walk) with his call to repentance when he experiences what surely is every pastor’s dream. “The people of Nineveh believed God.” After all his fussing and running away, this prophet had only eight words to proclaim: “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown.” The city grinds to a halt; they proclaim a fast; everyone, including the king and even the animals, puts on sackcloth; and the whole city turns from evil and violence, to God. God assesses the situation and, in the author’s description, has a change of heart. God is so impressed with their attitude that God surrounds them with mercy, forgiveness and compassion.

Now, you’d think that with that kind of success Jonah would’ve been beside himself with joy and appreciation, and would’ve recommitted his own life to God on the spot, and preached to those Ninevites with a fervor that would make Billy Graham seem like a first-year church school teacher. But Jonah’s response is to be
angry! You see, Jonah struggles, as we all do, to understand the God he serves. How could God allow God’s “soft” side, God’s mercy, to leave unfulfilled the oracle of just judgment which Godself had pushed Jonah to pronounce upon these godless, violent aliens? God “had compassion and did not bring upon them the destruction God had threatened...” Jonah’s heart is full of resentment and bitterness toward God for sending him to a non-Israelite, non-covenanted people (the wrong “denomination”, so to speak!), and he resents the Ninevites because all along, on the journey and now, both the sailors and now the Ninevites acted with more faith than he, God’s prophet, had. They repented, changed their lives, opened their hearts to God the Mighty One, while Jonah remains empty-handed and without peace.

In a gesture that make us further question his mental stability, Jonah removes himself to a tent in “East Nineveh” and waits. In his hard heart Jonah suspects that Nineveh’s conversion is only temporary. Sooner or later, he figures, they’ll go back to business as usual, and then we’ll see how much lovingkindness and mercy God is willing to show them. So,
Jonah waits.

But it never happens. Their conversion is real. And Jonah is left sitting there, baking in the hot sun. The Lord, “gracious and full of compassion...loving to everyone...faithful in all God’s words and merciful in all God’s deeds...”, allows a plant to grow to provide some shade for Jonah. Jonah would never say it, for he’s not speaking to God at the moment, but the shade of the plant feels pretty good. The next day, however, Jonah notices that the leaves are slowly dropping off one by one; the plant is withering, dying -- very much like the way Jonah is feeling inside -- and his depression deepens. A fat worm has found the succulent plant, and soon there’s no more shade. The sun is so relentless that Jonah almost suffers heat-stroke, and Jonah is angry at God for killing the plant, let alone for making the Assyrian Empire’s capital city the beneficiary of God’s lovingkindness. In his deep despair, Jonah voices a death-wish. “It is better for me to die than to live.” You and I would phrase that a little differently: “It isn’t fair!”; “Why?”; “Why me?”; “What kind of God are you?” God gently sets the record straight: “You pity the plant for which
you didn’t labor, nor did you make it grow, which came into being in a night, and perished in a night. And should I not pity Nineveh...?”

There are a couple of things which you and I might take away from all this. Like Jonah, you and I individually, and collectively as the Church, all have a unique call through our Baptism to do God’s mission and ministry. And that’s the point: it’s
God’s call and God’s work. Anything we do should be in accord with what God wants. Could it be that part of Jonah’s problem was his struggle to understand how God had changed his role as prophet from being a deliverer of oracles to that of being a persuader? God has the option to change God’s decisions when people truly repent. When that occurs, we whom God sends are called to preach, to model, to arouse a change in others’ hearts. And that’s hard to do, perhaps impossible, if your own heart hasn’t been changed, if it lacks much love and mercy as it tries to dispense justice in the name of God.

God’s will for us and in us, individually and collectively, can be accomplished only if you and I are willing to humbly acknowledge our own unlovingness, our abrasive rigidity, our human inadequacy, our inability of ourselves to hold out anything to God or to each other except our empty hands. The “sweet miracle of our empty hands” is
God’s. When you and I are too proud, too unloving, too controlling, to allow God’s Spirit to do God’s will, in God’s way in our lives and in the Church’s life, we can be sure that, like Jonah, we’re running in the opposite direction from God’s Presence. You and I are called daily to test the authenticity of those words which we pray so often: “...For the kingdom, the power, and the glory are yours, now and forever...”

Saturday, January 24, 2009

"Much Beloved Daughter"

I remember my first experience in meeting a woman priest.  She was The Rev. Mary Goshert, a former priest of our Diocese of Northern California; it was at St. Matthew's, my home parish in Sacramento, CA; and at the time I was not yet an Episcopal priest.  Her command of the liturgy and her preaching were captivating.  But as I was coming up to meet her at coffee hour, it occurred to me that I didn't have a clue how to address her.  Somewhat embarrassed, I confessed this to her, and in her simply charming and disarming way she said: "'Mary' will do just fine."   

It would be unfortunate to miss noting the commemoration today of The Rev. Florence Li Tim-Oi, first woman priest in the Anglican Communion.

Her father named her "much beloved daughter" when she was born in 1907.  The "Florence", in honor of Florence Nightingale, was adopted when Li Tim-Oi was baptized.  She attended Union Theological College in Guangzhou (Canton), graduating in 1938, after which she served as a lay woman.  Florence Li Tim-Oi was ordained a deaconess in 1941.  Despite the Japanese invasion, Florence continued her work in Macao, and eventually was befriended by Bishop Ronald Hall of Hong Kong.  With great foresight, Bishop Hall determined that she would be more effective if she were a priest, and so ordained her on January 25, 1944.  

Naturally, a woman priest was quite shocking to many in the Anglican Communion.  Remember, this was long before the 1970's, and we know now how shocking the ordination of the first U.S. women priests was, and is still today for a dwindling minority! Though she continued her work, Florence, in a magnanimous and humble personal decision, decided not to exercise her priesthood until a greater consensus was reached in the Communion.  In 1947 she became the rector of St. Barnabas Church, Hepu.  Bishop Hall insisted that she still be referred to as a priest.  

During the Cultural Revolution in China, from 1958-1974, Florence was forced to leave her ministry and work first on a farm, then in a factory, until she retired.  Five years later, when the churches reopened, Florence took up her priestly ministry again.  She eventually migrated to Canada to be with her family.  She was licensed in the Diocese of Montreal, then in the Diocese of Toronto where she remained until her death on February 26, 1992.

I hope someone will write a book some day chronicling the heroic life stories of women priests like Florence Li Tim-Oi.   

Digging Into the Past

Nearly ten years ago I jumped on the genealogy enthusiasts' bandwagon.  Most of my life I knew little to nothing about my ancestors: father, grandparents, and further on back.  It has been fascinating getting acquainted with some of them through the past few years.  Unfortunately, I've found little time to work at it on a sustained basis, but every now and then I get a spurt of energy, or a new lead, and start digging again.  I've learned that you need to have almost infinite patience; that most of what you find needs to be accepted tentatively; that many ancestors shared the same names, thus creating confusion; and that the census records are far from being completely accurate.  Nevertheless, modern technology has developed countless new tools to assist those interested in piecing together family stories.

Today is the anniversary of the death of my great-great grandfather, on my mother's side: Valentine F. Fries (1824-1895). He was born in Bavaria, place unknown, of a Bavarian father and a French mother.  I know nothing of his early life.  Valentine was married to Anna Maria [Mary Ann] Reble (1823-1915), daughter of Jacob Friederick Reble and Anna Maria Schaefer (his second wife), on November 11, 1844, before Father H. D. Junker.  Anna Maria was born in Buoch, in the then duchy or kingdom of Würtemberg, located in South West Germany, between Baden and Bavaria.  Her father brought the family to America, to Montgomery County, Dayton, OH, around 1830.

Valentine and Mary Ann appear to have had four daughters and three sons, one of whom, John Quitman Fries, was my great-grandfather.  Valentine is listed as an insurance agent and a saloonist prior to his enrollment on October 6 [year not noted in the record] as a First Lieutenant in Company K, 2nd Regiment of the Ohio Volunteer Cavalry.  I've read conflicting stories about the 2nd Regiment: some saying it was one of the most undisciplined units, others that it had one of the most brilliant records of any Regiment in the service.  It had been organized in 1861, presumably the year in which Valentine was inducted, at age 37! The Regiment moved from the Indian Territory, Arkansas, and Missouri to Kentucky in the summer of 1862. What stories he must have heard! The records I accessed are vague as to exactly how he served, or whether he actually saw any battle, etc.  The records note that he served at Camp Mitchell, KY.  Military life took its toll on him rather quickly, for on January 8, 1862 he applied for discharge because "by reason of hardships of soldier life [he] contracted asthma, bronchitis and heart disease", which a later document says "resulted in his death".  The records show that he wasn't treated in a hospital but "only by [the] Regimental Surgeon -- Dr. C. Renolds
[?]."  It took another year and four months before he was honorably discharged on April 30, 1863.  He lived another 31 years.  

The 1870 census lists his occupation as an insurance agent, although Odell's Dayton Directory and Business Advertiser for years 1862-1865 lists his business as "saloon", on the southeast corner of 5th & Ludlow Streets, as does the 1880 census. The latter also lists two of his sons, including my great-grandfather, John Q., then 20 years old, as a "Bartender".  True to their good German heritage, my forbears embraced "the drink" and obviously made their living from sharing it with others.  As a child, I can remember my grandfather, Harry Fries, trekking over to Popovitz's, a local neighborhood pub, almost every Saturday night to fill a gallon glass jug with brew.  The whole family would sit around the kitchen table, and us young'uns were treated to a small sip of the frothy amber from small glasses, provided by my Grandmother Clara, which had formerly contained pimento cheese.  My grandfather's custom was to put a pinch of salt in his beer, so, of course, that became one of my rituals.

Valentine Fries died January 24, 1895 of "Old Age", attested to by Dr. P. W. Adams.  His funeral was handled by P. Meyers, undertaker; he was buried in Calvary Cemetery in Dayton.  In 2001 I visited the cemetery and located both Valentine's and Mary Ann's graves.  Weeds had overgrown the markers, and the lettering on Valentine's is nearly worn away.  You can barely make out the inscription: "Lieut. Valentine Fries  Co. K  2nd Ohio Cav." [See above] 

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Agnes or Ines of Rome

"Agnes is a Christian martyr who died at Rome around 304 in the persecution of Diocletian: the last and fiercest of the persecutions of Christianity by the Roman emperors. The anniversary of her martyrdom is observed on 21 January. Her name means “pure” in Greek and “lamb” in Latin. She is said to have been only about twelve or thirteen when she died, and the remains preserved in St Agnes' Church in Rome are in agreement with this. It is said that her execution shocked many Romans and helped bring an end to the persecutions.  Some said, 'It is contrary to Roman law to put a virgin to death. Our leaders say that it is necessary to kill Christians in order to preserve the old Roman ways: but they are themselves scorning those ways in the process.'  Others said, 'Do young girls constitute such a threat to Rome that it is necessary to kill them?' Others said, 'If this religion can enable a twelve-year-old girl to meet death without fear, it is worth checking out.'

There is a narrative poem by Keats, called “The Eve of Saint Agnes.” It is a romantic poem with a mediaeval setting, about an elopement the night before St Agnes' Day. The only tie-in with Agnes is that (presumably because she died as a young virgin), Agnes is regarded as the patron of young unmarried girls, and there is a folk-belief that a girl who goes to bed supperless on the eve of St Agnes's Day will dream that night about her husband-to-be."   (by James Kiefer) 

Painting:  St. Agnes of Rome with the coat of arms of the Countess von Werdenberg 
(by Meister von Messkirch, 1531-1532)

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

"Pope Fabian: meet our 44th President, Barack Obama"

"I do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States, 
and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States."

It has been a day to remember! I can't remember a time when I've been more proud to be an American, a citizen of these United States.  A lady, whom I overheard as she was standing in the checkout line of the market today, summed it all up beautifully: "At least we have hope again.

In the liturgical calendar of the Episcopal Church, January 20 is the commemoration of a 3rd century leader, the inscription on whose tomb reads simply: "Fabian...bishop...martyr".  But not just any bishop: Fabian was the Bishop of Rome, the Pontiff, the Pope.  He served for fourteen years after being chosen through the most unusual circumstances. When an assembly was held in Rome in 236 to elect a successor to Antherus, Fabian was a layman from another part of Italy, just one of the crowd looking on.  The noted church historian, Eusebius, records that a dove suddenly flew over the crowd and, guess what?: it landed on Fabian's head! In that precarious situation (a number of jokes come to mind!), and despite the fact that Fabian was a total stranger, not ordained, and certainly not a candidate for papal office, the crowd suddenly broke forth in a chant indicating their unanimous consensus to choose Fabian as their Pope:  "He is worthy! He is worthy!", they shouted, and I know all of you are immediately thinking of Mike Myers and Dana Carvey, though their mantra was couched in the negative! Amazingly, though, no one objected, and so Fabian found himself ordained as the Bishop of Rome.  Perhaps there are lessons here on how to conduct future elections?!

As the leader of the Catholic Church, Fabian made numerous administrative reforms, developing the parish structure of the Church in Rome and establishing the custom of venerating martyrs [literally, witnesses, in Greek] at their shrines in the famous catacombs.  He appointed a committee of seven deacons and seven subdeacons to record the lives of the martyrs, and I assume that this was the basis for the Roman Martyrology, with which we, as seminarians, became familiar from its daily reading to us in the refectory at lunchtime.  Highly inappropriate, we thought, but we learned a lot about the multitudinous ways that holy men and women could be "done in", in quite some detail, I might add! Fabian also vigorously defended the faith against a new theological heresy which had arisen.  Apparently, not everyone, the emperor Decian in particular, appreciated Fabian's strong leadership, for the emperor saw to it that Fabian himself was "done in" around 250 C.E.

I believe that President Obama reflects traits which match some of Fabian's, as well as things in Matthew's Gospel reading for the feast of Fabian, which says:  "See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves...Do not worry about how you are to speak or what you are to say; for what you are to say will be given to you at that time...The one who endures to the end will be saved..."  We heard President Obama's eloquent testimony this morning: "I stand here today humbled by the task before us..."; "We the People have remained faithful to the ideals of our forbearers, and true to our founding documents.."; "...greatness is never a given.  It must be earned."; "For everywhere we look, there is work to be done..."; "...the world has changed, and we must change with it.";  "...service; a willingness to find meaning in something precisely [the] spirit that must inhabit us all..."; "...This is the source of our confidence -- the knowledge that God calls on us to shape an uncertain destiny."

Had Pope Fabian been lucky enought to get a seat at the inauguration this morning, I have a feeling that he and the new President would have gotten along fabulously.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Martin Luther King, Jr. Day

"Were there no men of vision,
all who are blind would be dead."
- Rumi
[I, 2133]

Almighty God, by the hand of Moses your servant you led your people out of slavery, and made them free at last:  
Grant that your Church, following the example of Martin Luther King, may resist oppression in the name of your love,
and may secure for all your children the blessed liberty of the Gospel of Jesus Christ; who live and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.  Amen.
(from Lesser Feasts and Fasts - 2006)

From a homily [slightly adapted] which I preached on April 5, 1968 at Sacred Heart College, Wichita, KS:

"The real tragedy of yesterday's events, perhaps, is that our memorial of Dr. King comes only now, when it should have come long before this.

As he himself said only Wednesday evening, 'I have been to the mountaintop.'  Today's liturgy is so fitting for a memorial to the man who was to have had the keynote address for our Catholic national Liturgical Conference in August.  Repeating Christ's cry in deepest affliction in the Introit, we come into this church.  In the Collect we pray: "Graciously pour forth your grace into our hearts...that, keeping our sinful inclinations under control by self-denial, we may suffer for a brief while rather than be condemned to everlasting punishment..."   The Epistle reading from Jeremiah reminds us that names change from century to century, but men of God and their message remain the same. Dr. King was every bit as much a prophet, as much a man of God, as Jeremiah.  He assumed the task of being a champion for the poor and those without their God-given human dignity and human rights.  He, too, was called in his youth, as Jeremiah, to speak an unpopular, unpleasant (because it was uncomfortable) message.  In the Epistle Jeremiah's is the plea of a man of God wishing to be speedily rid of his unpleasant burden of prodding and predicting woe.  Neither did Martin Luther King like having to preach this message.  As Jeremiah and Isaiah, Dr. King could say, in God's name, "this people honors me with its lips, but their heart is far from me."

Many a modern Caiphas, like the one in John's Gospel, even today in the face of this disastrous tragedy, is still saying, "It is better for one man to die than that our secure nation be shaken up."  When will WE ever learn that Dr. King's death could not mean anything just for that reason, but that it could mean something in order, as the Gospel says, "to gather together into unity the scattered, fragmented children of God."

Someone recently asked why we always preach about people and about loving one another.  The answer is in your newspaper this morning, as it was in November, 1963, or when Abraham Lincoln died, not to mention countless other times.  Violence won't stop until we learn this message, which was Dr. King's message.

Some time ago I read this quote: "The hottest place in hell is reserved for those who in times of great crisis remain neutral."  How can our consciences let us remain inactive any longer?..."


Sunday, January 18, 2009

Come and see

(The blog entry for December 1, 2008 was about “The Boys from Bethsaida”. I was then focussed on the person of the apostle Andrew. Bear with me for some slight repetition in the following piece, which has to do with John 1:43-51, the Gospel reading for today, the 2nd Sunday after the Epiphany.)

Bethsaida, in Hebrew “house of fishing” or “house of the fisherman”, was a town probably located at the northeast corner of the Sea of Galilee, close to where the Jordan River flows into the Sea, although the exact site is unknown. This small fishing village attained the status of a city when Philip the tetrarch renamed it to Bethsaida-Julias, in honor of Caesar Augustus’ daughter, sometime before 2 B.C.E.

Andrew was one of the local Bethsaida Boys: he, his brother, Simon Peter, and Philip (not the tetrarch). I’m guessing Andrew could have been a middle child, because in the Gospels his brother, Peter, gets a disproportionate amount of attention and greatly overshadows Andrew. Peter also overshadows Philip, his and Andrew’s compatriot, not to mention the rest of the disciples. Peter is as blustery, blunt, boisterous, and bull-headed as Andrew is quiet and serene. Contrary to impulsive Peter who, in the Gospel it seems, is always screwing up, Andrew is a behind-the-scenes man who gets the job done. In John’s Gospel he is actually the one who introduced Peter to Jesus. Around four o’clock in the afternoon one day, two of the disciples had been standing around with John the Baptizer, perhaps in the public plaza, when Jesus came by, and John points him out, saying “
Here’s the Lamb of God”. That fascinated the other two disciples and their curiosity drew them to start walking behind Jesus as he went his way. Jesus turns and says, “What are you looking for?” “Rabbi,” they asked, “where are you staying?”, a paraphrase for “Where do you live?” Jesus says, “Come and see.” John the Gospel writer and many readers centuries later, of course, know that these questions and responses aren’t what they seem on the surface. They bear a much more profound message.

The two disciples take Jesus up on his offer and go with him; and, John notes, “
they saw where he was staying and remained with him that day.” Andrew, losing no time, runs off to tell his brother, Simon Peter, about this unusual man, whom, he has a hunch, could be the Anointed One, the Messiah. He brings Peter to Jesus who gazes at Peter and predicts: “You’re Simon, John’s son. You’re going to be called Cephas.” [Petros in Greek; in English, something like Rock or Rocky.] Thus is set off a whole chain of life-changing introductions.

The next day, as he sets out for Galilee, Jesus runs into Philip and says simply “
Follow me.” Philip is probably intrigued, but he’s not about to join up alone. He thinks immediately of his buddy, Nathanael, and hurries to him saying: “I just met this guy and he’s invited me to go to Galilee with him. There’s something about him; I think he could be the One of whom Moses and the prophets spoke. C’mon and go with me.” Nathanael is skeptical. “Who is he?” he asks. Philip responds, “His name is Jesus, from Nazareth in Galilee.” “Nazareth!”, says Nathanael in his snarkiest tone, “what good ever came out of that place?!” Philip again tosses an invite over his shoulder as he walks off: “Come and see.”

Nathanael comes, and “Bam!”: what a life-changing collision takes place for Nathanael (whose name means God has given) as he approaches Jesus! “
Here’s an Israelite in whom there’s no deceit!”, Jesus shouts in the hearing of his friends. “How do you know me?”, Nathanael asks warily. “Before Philip even called you, I saw you under the fig tree”, Jesus replies. Nathanael would have instantly understood the unique symbolism of the “fig tree”, an OT term for the shelter, peace, and safety of true Israelites in the age to come. Nathanael is flabbergasted: “Rabbi, you ARE the Son of God, the King of Israel!” Jesus says quietly, “Oh, Nathanael, you’re going to see even greater things. You’ll see the heavens opened and God’s angels ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.” Echoes of Jewish history and of the story of Jacob at Bethel, in Genesis 28, who dreams of a stairway with God’s messengers ascending and descending! It was a way of conveying that God shares God’s life with humankind, communicates reciprocally with us. Nathanael’s heart must have skipped a beat as he recalled Jacob’s startled exclamation on waking up from that dream: “Surely the Lord is in this place -- and I did not know it!...How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, this is the gate of heaven!” Nathanael could, indeed, see that, in his own situation, “God has given.” From this time on he and the Bethsaida Boys were inseparable from this Jesus from, yes, Nazareth! We don’t know too much more about them. Peter, of course, got to carry around the keys of the kingdom, despite his bumbling antics. Andrew continued working behind the scenes: borrowing five loaves and two fish from some kid in a crowd which Jesus quickly transformed into quite a picnic: for 5000 people, we’re told! Philip had connections with Gentiles, including some Greeks who wanted to meet the celebrity Rabbi. Philip and Andrew, definitely the ones you wanted to get to know for something like this, arranged it for them. Nathanael, according to tradition, probably underwent a name change and is known to us as the Apostle Bartholomew. Beyond that it’s all legend.

The lesson from all this is that: 1) these stories are all about God in Jesus the Christ: not about John the Baptizer, not about the Bethsaida Boys, not about Nathanael; and 2) the common thread running through these stories is people’s hope for something more, something better, something more real for their lives, and their willingness to accept the invitation to “
Come and see.

Two days from now, we the people of the United States of America will witness and celebrate one of the most signficant events in our country’s history: the inauguration, the swearing in by an oath before God, of the first African-American President of the United States. For citizens of color this is defining moment, a dream fulfilled, a possibility beyond the wildest dreams that perhaps equality and justice have come to stay among us. For most of us who are not citizens of color, especially those of us who can remember the horrific racial conflicts in our country 45, 50, even 60 years ago, it is a sign, perhaps, that healing and reconciliation among our country’s diverse population is entirely possible and even more necessary.

We don’t and cannot understand all the circumstances by which God has led us, the American people, to this point in our common history. What we do know is that, in this historic moment, God is here, acting in our lives, individually and as a nation. With Jacob we can rightfully exclaim: “
Surely the Lord is in this place -- and I did not know it!...How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God...this is the gate of heaven!

And God is here in this moment, as in all moments of our lives, with an invitation to hope for something more, something better, something more real for our lives. “
What are you looking for?”, God asks us. Hopefully our hearts respond: “Teacher, where do you live? Because that’s where we, individually and as a nation, wish to be.” God only asks for our willingness to accept God’s invitation to “Come and see.

That invitation is offered to us, in our individual lives and in the life of our nation, through other human beings, our brothers and sisters. All through our history great men and women in our nation have periodically emerged, moved by the impetus of God’s Spirit, whether or not they recognized it as such, to offer an invitation to us all: “
Come and see.” As with the Bethsaida Boys and Nathanael, it’s all about the willingness of each of us to respond, willingly and generously, to God’s promptings to come and see what we can do with our unique individual skills and talents, and what we can do with the multitude of common resources with which we’ve been so blessed as a nation, to make it possible for all -- women, children, and men of every origin, color, condition, sexual orientation, and creed -- to have something more, something better, something more real for our lives: physically, socially, psychologically, economically, spiritually.

Hopefully we’re really beginning to “get it” that the governance and care of our beloved country is, indeed, “of the people, by the people, and for the people” -- ALL the people. It’s no secret that we’re once again at another critical point in the U.S., facing unprecedented challenges. We would be most ungenerous, unwise and just plain wrong as citizens if we were to leave it entirely to the new President and Congress to find solutions to our problems. As citizens and as people who follow Jesus, we have, individually and as a community of states united, a huge moral and civic responsibility to do whatever we can, wherever we can, and whenever we can to assist our new President and Congress in instilling in others a sense of hope, in promoting justice and equality, in preserving our natural resources, in reaching out to those less fortunate, in modelling fairness and compassion, and in being responsible partners with all the other countries of the world.

Historic as this moment in our nation’s history is, and certainly one to be celebrated with all our hearts, it is but one more, among many, new beginnings. By God’s grace, as Jesus says, “
You will see greater things than these.

Come and see.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

The Patriarch of Monks

The introduction to the Life of St. Antony, written by the great St. Athanasius, (297?-373), reads: "The life and conversation of our holy Father, Antony: written and sent to the monks in foreign parts by our Father among the Saints, Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria."  

The fame of Antony the Abbot (c. 251-356) was legendary among the monks and solitaries of the desert.  Unfortunately, few knew him all that well.  Athanasius, who was well-acquainted with the holy man, wanted to draw upon his own experience and share the real Antony with them.  "Wherefore do not refuse evidence to what you have heard from those who brought tidings of him; but think rather that they have told you only a few things, for at all events they scarcely can have given circumstances of so great import in any detail...I, at your request, have called to mind a few circumstances about him, and shall send as much as I can tell in a letter...I was desirous, when I received your letter, to send for certain of the monks, those especially who were wont to be more frequently with him, that if I could learn any fresh details I might send them to you.  But since the season for sailing was coming to an end and the letter-carrier [was] urgent, I hastened to write to your piety what I myself know, having seen him many times, and what I was able to learn from him, for I was his attendant for a long time..."

Antony was an Egyptian by descent.  He came from a good and rather wealthy family, and was raised in the Christian faith.  Athanasius notes that from infancy on Antony was pretty much a home-body.  As he grew into boyhood and adolescence, "he could not endure to learn letters, not caring to associate with other boys; but all his desire live [as] a plain man at home."  But Antony was no dummy.  He was attentive and obedient.  He attended church with his parents, helped them with chores, and always respected them.  He was a rich kid, of "moderate affluence" according to Athanasius, yet was content with his state in life and didn't seek out "varied or luxurious fare".  He accepted the status into which he'd been born, without seeking beyond it.

When Antony was somewhere between 18 and 20 his parents died, leaving him and a younger sister orphans.  Despite his youth, Antony sought strength and guidance in his religion, and thought and prayed long hours about what he should do next.  At length he determined to sell the property, some 300 "productive and fair" acres, since he realized that he and his sister would be unable to keep it up.  As for the rest, he sold all that was movable, thus realizing a good bit of money.  He set sufficient funds aside for his sister, then gave the remainder to the poor in a spirit of true Gospel poverty.  

As God's plan for him was becoming clearer to him, he took his sister to "known and faithful virgins", and placed her in a convent to be raised there.  A hard decision, both for the little girl, and for such a young man.  Feeling the draw to monastic life, "he henceforth devoted himself outside his house to discipline, taking heed to himself and training himself with patience".  There were few monasteries at that time, and desert hermits were virtually unheard of.  So those drawn to a solitary life chose to live ascetically near their own villages.  Antony discovered a mentor in the next village over, an old man who'd lived as a hermit from his youth, and Antony began to live as he did.  "Like a prudent bee", Athanasius says, he worked with his hands and used what money he had to help the needy and to buy bread for himself.  He prayed constantly and, attentive as he'd learned to be all along, he trained his memory to retain what he heard and, according to Athanasius, "afterwards his memory served him for books."  Surely cheaper than it is for many of us today! Apparently, this became commonplace for the early monks who used to memorize the Psalter, and therefore had a vast reservoir upon which to draw as they counselled others.

Antony was apparently a lovable human being.  He learned from his elders and only competed with those his own age in not being second to them in things of the spirit.  So much so that people of his village and his other spiritual colleagues and associates referred to him as "God-beloved".  

But the life of a solitary was by no means a bed of roses for Antony.  From the start he was tested and tried by the forces of evil.  Every demonic trick which could be employed was used against Antony, especially at the very points of his spiritual strength.  Antony figured it out early on, and could exclaim, once temptation had subsided: "the Lord is my helper". He kept a determined focus and by working with his hands, constant prayer, fasting, and vigilance he moved, step-by-step, ever closer to union with God.  Athanasius recounts one particularly intense encounter which Antony, when he was about 35, had with the demons: "...But Antony, feeling the help and getting his breath again, and being freed from pain, besought the vision [of God] which had appeared to him, saying, 'Where were you? Why did you not appear at the beginning to make my pains stop?' And a voice came to him, 'Antony, I was here, but I waited to see your fight; since you have endured and have not been worsted, I will ever be a succour to you, and will make your name known everywhere..."

After that, Antony set off for the mountains and greater solitude, and settled in there for the next twenty years. Acquaintances would check on him periodically, to deliver bread and to see if he was still alive, but though they couldn't see him, they could often hear him singing.  Finally, says Athanasius, "...Antony, as from a shrine, came forth initiated in the mysteries and filled with the Spirit of God.  Then for the first time he was seen outside the fort by those who had come to see him.   And they, when they saw him, wondered at the sight, for he had the same habit of body as before, and was neither fat , like a man without exercise, nor lean from fasting and striving with the demons, but he was just the same as they had known him before...he was altogether even as being guided by reason...[God] gave grace to Antony in speaking...he persuaded many to embrace the solitary life.  And thus it happened in the end that cells arose even in the mountains, and the desert was colonized by monks, who came forth from their own people, and enrolled themselves for the citizenship in the heavens..."    

As the monastic movement, in imitation of God-beloved Antony, grew and prospered, Antony maintained his steady, day-by-day, routine of simple living, prayer, and penance.  Nevertheless, he and the other monks were definitely attuned to events in the world around them.  They even emerged from their solitude when Maximinus began to persecute the Church, in order to be of assistance to their sisters and brothers.  Once the threat subsided, Antony returned not only to the desert, but to the "inner desert" which he'd learned about from some Saracens.  "Antony then," declares Athanasius, "as it were, moved by God, loved the place...And recognizing it was his own home, he remained in that place for the future."  He grew old here, with others seeing to his necessities.  He himself wove baskets for those who came, in return for what they brought him.  Occasionally Antony would visit the little cells of monks which had grown up in the general area.  Even his sister, "grown old in virginity", herself now a leader of other virgins, gave him the joy of a visit.  For the most part, he remained in his chosen seclusion.  Only when certain people involved in the Arian heresy claimed that Antony's opinions where the same as theirs, did Antony become so upset that he marched down the mountain and into Alexandria where he denounced the Arians as "forerunners of the Antichrist".  He clearly taught the people that the Son of God was not a created being, nor had He come into being from non-existence, but that Christ was "the Eternal Word and Wisdom of the Essence of the Father...Wherefore have no fellowship with the most impious Arians..."  Antony, despite his lack of book learning, was intelligent, "ready-witted, and sagacious".  Through his refutation of the Arians and his brilliant teaching in Alexandria, Athanasius observes that " many became Christians in those few days as one would have seen made in a year..."

If his dates are close to being accurate, Antony was certainly in his 90's, perhaps close to 100, when he finally fell ill. Knowing that he was going "the way of the fathers" and being "called by the Lord", he summoned two faithful and seasoned monks who'd been with him on the mountain for 15 years in order to make his final arrangements.  He asked them to personally bury his body and hide it underground in a place which only they would know.  His garments were to be divided: one sheepskin and the garment on which he was laid, to Athanasius, who had given him the garment when it was new; the other sheepskin, to Bishop Serapion; the hair garment, they could keep themselves.  'For the rest, fare ye well, my children, for Antony is departing, and is with you no more.'"

Athanasius concludes: "...This is the end of Antony's life in the body...Even if this account is small compared with his merit, still from this reflect [on] how great Antony, the man of God, was.  Who from his youth to so great an age preserved a uniform zeal for the discipline...For his eyes were undimmed and quite sound and he saw clearly; of his teeth he had not lost one, but they had become worn to the gums through the great age of the old man.  He remained strong both in hands and feet...he appeared more cheerful and of greater strength...For not from writings, nor from worldly wisdom, nor through any art, was Antony renowned, but solely from his piety towards God...For from whence into Spain and into Gaul, how into Rome and Africa, was the man heard of who abode hidden in a mountain, unless it was God who makes His own known everywhere...

Read these words, therefore, to the rest of the brothers that they may learn what the life of monks ought to be..."