Thursday, September 30, 2010

St. Jerome: "Seldom Pleasant...Never Dull"

"A militant champion of orthodoxy, an indefatigable worker, and a stylist of rare gifts, Jerome was seldom pleasant, but at least he was never dull." Such is the assessment of the Episcopal Church's newly published Holy Women, Holy Men: Celebrating the Saints (Church Publishing, 2010) One Renaissance Pope, seeing a portrait of Jerome in the desert, in sackcloth, and holding a stone in his hand, with which Jerome allegedly used to beat his breast in penance, is said to have commented: "It's well that Jerome was holding that stone, for without it he could hardly be considered a saint!"

Sophronius Eusebius Hieronymus (c. 342-347 to 420) was born in Strido, near Aquileia, in Dalmatia, in the upper northeastern corner of Italy. As Fr. John Julian, OJN notes in his Stars In A Dark World, Jerome was part of astounding century of saints, from 350-450, which included SS. Jerome, Ambrose, Augustine of Hippo, and the great Cappadocian Fathers Basil, Gregory Nazianzus, and Gregory of Nyssa, all of whom knew one another! Jerome corresponded with Augustine, with whom he made up a sort of mutual admiration society! Gregory Nazianzus was later his teacher.

In art Jerome is often depicted either in a cardinal's robe or with a cardinal's hat, items not even in vogue until about four centuries later. A lion is also often shown lying next to him, remnant of a fable that Jerome pulled a thorn from a lion's foot and kept him as a house pet.

Jerome was an über-brainiac and scholar, to say the least! He studied the classics in Rome, learned Latin and Greek, and later Hebrew, to the extent that he could, under a fellow-monk of Jewish heritage in Chalcis and under Bar Ananias in Bethlehem. While a young man in Rome, Pope Liberius baptized him. Jerome and his buddies often spent Sundays visiting the tombs of the apostles and martyrs.

After three years in Rome he travelled to Gaul and ended up in Trier, where he made a decision to commit his life to God. He and a group of friends returned to Dalmatia where they lived as a semi-monastic community. Jerome, however, was "difficult" to live with; he had his beliefs and convictions and defended them uncompromisingly. The group was dissolved and in 374 Jerome and three others went their way, this time east, to Antioch.

Eventually, because of his draw toward the ascetic and eremitic life, Jerome withdrew to the wilderness of Chalcis, southeast of Antioch, where he stayed for four years. About his Hebrew studies there, under the monk mentioned above, Jerome, writing some 30 years later, says: "...When my soul was on fire with wicked thoughts, as a last resort, I became a pupil to a monk who had been a Jew, in order to learn the Hebrew alphabet. From the judicious precepts of Quintilian, the rich and fluent eloquence of Cicero, the graver style of Fronto, and the smoothness of Pliny, I turned to this language of hissing and broken-winded words. What labor it cost me, what difficulties I went through, how often I despaired and abandoned it and began again to learn, both I, who felt the burden, and they who lived with me, can bear witness. I thank our Lord that I now gather such sweet fruit from the bitter sowing of those studies."

Paulinus, Bishop of Chalcis, convinced Jerome to be ordained a priest in 378, though Jerome was reluctant and even protested that his vocation was to be a monk. He consented at length, but he never engaged in priestly ministry nor, surprisingly, did he celebrate the Eucharist during his lifetime. In 379, continuing studies in Hebrew and Greek, he moved to Constantinople to study Scripture for three years under Gregory Nazianzus. Afterwards, travelling as part of a council delegation to Rome, Pope Damasus tagged him for the job of secretary to the Pope, as well as for a major project: translating the Gospels and the Psalter into Latin from Hebrew and Greek. Jerome was humble about his work. He freely admitted ignorance, even embarrassment, when warranted, and revised some of his translations, making corrections and additions. On the other hand, he also pointed out that a translation's accuracy depended greatly on the source text's reliability. It wasn't unusual for copyists to inadvertently make errors, which would be further compounded and passed on through the centuries. Jerome once observed, “I am not so stupid as to think that any of the Lord’s words either need correcting or are not divinely inspired, but the Latin manuscripts of the Scriptures are proved faulty by the variations which are found in all of them.

In his spare time (!), Jerome devoted himself as spiritual mentor to many noble Roman women who, at this time, felt drawn to monastic life, among them Paula, and Eustochium, to both of whom he later dedicated Scriptural treatises. After the death of his patron, Pope Damasus, many people whom Jerome had offended by his judgmentalism, harshness, and sarcasm, began to gossip about and slander him. When Jerome decided to go east again, this time to Bethlehem, Paula, a wealthy widow, followed, and even built a monastery for Jerome and his companions. Here he again took up Hebrew, and the translation into Latin of nearly all of the Hebrew Old Testament. This, plus his previous work on the New Testament and the Psalms, spanned some 55 years of labor! It became known as the versio vulgata, or Vulgate, i.e., the "commonly used translation". Aside from his monumental accomplishment, the Vulgate, Jerome also distinguished himself in Scriptural interpretation, theological debate, history, opposing heresies, and correspondence. Some 120 of his letters have survived.

Jerome's last years were full of turmoil and suffering. St. Paula died in 404, to Jerome's great sadness. A few years later the Huns sacked Rome. In 418 Pelagian enemies of Jerome attacked his monks and nuns, and burned the monastery and convent to the ground. Frail and exhausted, Jerome died in Bethlehem in 420. At first his body was buried in a chapel beneath the Church of the Nativity, and many years later was transferred to Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome.

Prayer for Christ's Mercy
by St. Jerome

O Lord, show your mercy to me and gladden my heart.
I am like the man on the way to Jericho who was overtaken by
robbers, wounded and left for dead. O Good Samaritan, come to my aid.
I am like the sheep that went astray. O Good Shepherd, seek me out
and bring me home in accord with your will. Let me dwell
in your house all the days of my life and praise you for ever and ever
with those who are there.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Better Angels of Our Nature

Pope St. Gregory the Great's Homily 34 on today's Gospel gives a nice simple explanation of heavenly spirit-beings. We speak of nine orders of angels because Holy Scripture mentions nine kinds of spirit-beings: Angels and Archangels (in many places); Virtues and Dominations, Powers and Principalities (mentioned by Paul in the Letter to the Ephesians); Thrones (in the Letter to the Colossians); and Cherubim and Seraphim (in the prophetic books).

The word angel is the name of their role or function, not of their nature. It derives from the Greek angelos = messenger or one who brings tidings. Though the holy heavenly Spirits are always spirits, they can't always be called angels. They're angels only when they're announcing a message to someone(s): sometimes one of comfort, sometimes one of warning. Those Spirits who announce less important things are called angels, and those who announce very significant things or events are called Archangels. Thus, the Archangel Gabriel was sent to Mary. For this ministry, it was fitting to have the highest angel, since he was to announce the greatest news of all, i.e., Jesus's coming into the world.

In Scripture, it seems that Archangels also have special names describing their particular task or mission. Michael means "Who is like God?" Gabriel means "God's strength", and Raphael means "God's healing or medicine".

Whenever something is to be done needing great power, the Archangel Michael is sent forth so that from his action and his name (Who is like God?) we may understand that no one can do what God can do. Hence the ancient adversary and enemy, who through pride desired to be like God, is shown in the Book of Revelation, Chapter 12, as about to undergo the final punishment in a fight with Michael the Archangel and his angels: "And war broke out in heaven; Michael and his angels fought against the dragon. The dragon and his angels fought back, but they were defeated, and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. The great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world..."

Similarly, Gabriel, who is called Strength of God was sent to Mary to announce the One who deigned to appear in humility in order to overcome the power of Evil. And Raphael is interpreted as Medicine of God, for when he touched the eyes of Tobit to do the work of healing, Raphael dispelled the night of his blindness.

In his first inaugural address, President Abraham Lincoln spoke of "the better angels of our nature". He was speaking figuratively of angels, rather than literally, as he sought a way to convince fellow citizens to set aside suspicion and to assume the best, rather than the worst, about one another's motives and intentions. Sound familiar?! Oh, yeah! It's an idea which loudly resonates in an American society, and in our own state of California, these days where politicians and people of opposing parties seem to be daily at one another's throats, on every conceivable issue, so that civil discourse becomes impossible, and progress on constructively resolving problems, on either the state or national level, often comes to a standstill.  Similarly with the Episcopal Church in recent years, with challenging issues and divisions which have diverted attention from its true ministry and mission.

The great St. Bernard of Clairvaux said this in one of his sermons: "...Even if the splendor and glory of the holy angels before God is beyond our comprehension, we can at least reflect upon the loving kindness they show us. For there is in these heavenly spirits a generosity that merits our love...if we would enjoy their intimacy, [let us] cultivate those things that would please them...being moderate...praying with sighs and tears and with a heart full of loving ardor. But more than these things the angels of peace desire in us unity and peace, for these are things that characterize their own commonwealth, and when they see such things produced in us, they marvel at the birth of the new Jerusalem on earth."

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Michael: "Angel All Peaceful"

O Jesu, lifespring of the soul,
The Father’s power, and glory bright!
You with the angels we extol;
From You they draw their life and light.
Thy thousand thousand hosts are spread
Embattled o‘er the azure sky;
But Michael bears Your standard dread,
And lifts the mighty Cross on high.
He, in that sign, the rebel powers
Did, with their dragon prince, expel;
And hurled them from the heavens' high towers
Down like a thunderbolt, to hell.
Grant us, with Michael, still, O Lord,
Against the Prince of Pride to fight;
So may a crown be our reward,
Before the Lamb’s pure throne of light.
To God the Father praise be done,
Who has redeemed us through the Son;
Anoints us by the Holy Ghost,
And guards us by the Angel-host.

Holy Mystics: A Hermit, A Canon, & A Wacky Lady

Generous God, we give you thanks for the lives and work of Richard Rolle,
Walter Hilton, and Margery Kempe, hermits and mystics, who, passing through
the cloud of unknowing, beheld your glory. Help us, after their examples,
to see you more clearly and love you more dearly, in the Name of Jesus Christ
our Savior. Amen.

Richard Rolle (c. 1300-1349) is the earliest of the great 14th century English mystics. Though the facts about his life are uncertain, it seems that he was born in Yorkshire and studied at Oxford, though he seems not to have earned a degree there. Nevertheless, he was widely read and at home with Scholastic theology. He became recognized as an accomplished poet. His writing was geared, not just to the cloistered or the learned elite, but to anyone who was interested in what he had to say. 

At about the age of 19 he became and dressed as a hermit, finally settling at Hampole, near a Cistercian nunnery. To some of his contemporaries, Rolle seemed somewhat unusual, even a bit mad. According to his biographer, one day, as he was " a church, rapt in meditation,...he felt in his breasta strange and pleasant heat, as of a real sensible fire, so that he kept feeling of his breast to see if the heat was caused by some exterior cause. He often heard heavenly music..." Heat, song and sweetness characterized his mystical experiences, of which he wrote, for example, in one of his best known works,  Incendium Amoris (The Fire of Love).

(Artist: Tom Errington, an accredited NADFAS lecturer
and Adviser on Art, Art History & Stained Glass to the
Diocese of Southwell & Nottingham & Stained Glass
Adviser to the Diocese of Coventry)

As with Richard Rolle, little is known of Walter Hilton's life. He was probably born sometime between 1340-45. Having attended Cambridge University, he is first recorded as a bachelor of law, attached to the diocesan court of Ely in 1371, and again in 1375. Some manuscripts describe Hilton as a commensor or inceptor decretorum = one who has completed the studies and examinations entitling him to become a Master of Canon Law, but without undertaking the regency that would have given him the latter title. Some time, probably before 1386, he declined a legal and administrative career available to him in the court of Bishop Thomas Arundel of Ely, and retired from the world as a hermit. He eventually decided that he was not called to the eremitic life, but to a religious order. He apparently joined the St. Peter's Priory at Thurgarton, in Nottinghamsire, some time after 1375, and died there as an Augustinian Canon Regular on March 24, 1396.

His spiritual writings were very influential in 15th century England. His major work is The Scale of Perfection, in two books, written for the spiritual guidance of an unnamed anchoress. Other notable works of Hilton are Epistola Aurea (The Golden Letter, c. 1375); De Utilitate et Prerogativis Religionis (Of the Profit and Prerogatives of Religious Life); De Imagine Peccati (Of the Image of Sin); and an English work, On Mixed Life, written for a devout layman regarding wealth and household responsibility. Hilton advises the man not to relinquish his active life in order to become a contemplative, but rather to mix the two. The latter four works were probably written in the 1380's. 

Hilton also wrote other Latin letters of spiritual guidance, a scholastic quodlibet on the appropriateness of reverence shown to images, e.g. crucifixes (a practice criticised by the Lollards), a short tract in English, Of Angels' Song, and commentaries on Psalm texts. He also translated Eight Chapters on Perfection from a Latin text said to have been left at Cambridge by an Aragonese Franciscan who had studied there in the mid-1380s.

Even though she herself probably was unable to read or write, Margery Kempe (c. 1373–after 1438) is known for her dictated work, The Book of Margery Kempe, considered by some to be the first autobiography in the English language. Margery was the daughter of John Brunham, a Member of Parliament, and five times the mayor of Bishop's Lynn (now King's Lynn). She married John Kempe, son of a prosperous merchant, c. 1393, and had 14 children by him.

After the birth of her first child, Margery fell ill and was overcome with fear for her life. After a failed confession that resulted in a bout of self-described "madness," Margery Kempe claimed to have had a vision, calling her to put aside the "vanities" of this world. Having railed against her family and friends for many weeks, Kempe says that Jesus appeared in a vision at her bedside, asking her: "Daughter, why have you forsaken Me, when I never forsook you?"

From then on, Margery undertook two failed domestic home-based businesses, a brewery and a grain mill, not uncommon enterprises for medieval women. Though she tried to be more devout after her vision, she was tempted by sexual pleasures and social jealousy for some years. Turning away, at length, from what she interpreted as the effect of worldly pride, Kempe devoted herself completely to the spiritual calling which her earlier vision suggested. In order to live committed to God, Margery and her husband agreed to live a celibate life together.

She then began making pilgrimages. In her Book Kempe herself describes a visit she made to St. Julian's Church in Norwich, c. 1410: "Then she [i.e., Margery] was bidden by our Lord to go to an anchoress in the same city, named Dame Jelyan...for the anchoress was expert in such things and good counsel could give..." Margery, in fact, describes how she and Julian discussed Margery's visions as to their orthodoxy, deciding that because they led to charity, they were of the Holy Spirit. Kempe also journeyed to other various holy sites: to Rome, where she stayed at the Venerable English College in 1416; Jerusalem; Santiago de Compostella; and a journey in the 1430's to Norway and the Holy Roman Empire, where she visited the Holy Blood of Wilsnack.

The stories surrounding her travels are what eventually comprised much of her Book, although a final section includes a series of prayers. The spiritual focus of her Book is on the mystical conversations she shared with Jesus for more than forty years, though another key focus was also on her persecution by civil and religious leaders.

She describes having mystical experiences which were particularly spectacular, and there is wide divergence of opinion regarding whether or not she was a true mystic. Some feel that she was "a woman whose intelligence was mediocre but whose strong will her Divine Lord...who sought by her words and example to spread the Kingdom of Christ.." (E. I. Watkin, Poets and Mystics) Others judge her to be a "hysterical young woman [who] calls herself a poor creature...I am afraid she was. She is obviously proud of the 'boisterous' roarings and sobbings which made her a nuisance to her neighbours. She never quite rings true..." (W. R. Inge, Mysticism in Religion)

Though Margery is often depicted as an "oddity" or even a "madwoman," recent scholarship suggests that she wasn't, perhaps, as odd as she appears. Her Book is actualy a carefully-constructed spiritual and social commentary. One scholar notes that at some time in the 1420s, a man took it upon himself to record the life of this extraordinary Norfolk woman. Although he died before finishing the task, it was continued by another scribe, then published as The Book of Margery Kempe. About the time Margery began dictating her book, John, her husband, had a fatal fall and Margery returned to Lynn to take care of him. Both he and her son died soon after.

Part of Margery Kempe's significance lies in the autobiographical nature of her book. It's probably the best insight we have about a middle-class female's experience in the Middle Ages. There's no doubt that Margery Kempe is unique and unusual among the more traditional holy women and men of her age. Kempe's Book is also significant as a record of the tension in late medieval England between institutional orthodoxy and increasingly public modes of religious dissent, especially those of the Lollards. Throughout her spiritual career, Kempe's adherence to the teachings of the institutional Church was challenged by both church and civil authorities. Kempe was even tried several times for such "illegal" acts as allegedly teaching and preaching publicly on Scripture and faith, and wearing white clothes, interpreted as hypocrisy on the part of a married woman. Nevertheless, she stood her ground and proved her orthodoxy.

The Book of Margery Kempe is known to have been completed in 1438. That same year, a "Margeria" Kempe, possibly Margery, is recorded as having been admitted to the Trinity Guild of Lynn. The last record of her is in the city of Lynn in 1438, and it is not positively known when or where she died.

Monday, September 27, 2010

The Grouch Who Became A Saint

Vincent de Paul once described himself as "of a bilious temperament and very subject to anger." He admitted that without the grace of God he would've been "in temper hard and repellent, rough and crabbed." That restored a bit of hope in me when I read it, for that is something of a description of my temperament at a past point in my life. Ask some of my former parishioners, or my former wife! I deeply regret my failings in that regard, but I also thank God that in later years I've been able to mellow and change. Woodene Koenig-Bricker, in her book 365 Saints, observes: "Although grumpiness may be part of your natural tendencies, more often it's the result of self-neglect and overwork..." Amen: been there, done that!

In the 17th century, God raised up Vincent de Paul and Louise de Marillac to serve the poor. They were mystics in action, who had fallen in love with God and who looked upon the world with eyes of compassion for the suffering, the poor, the destitute, the downtrodden, the victims of violence and injustice.

Born in either 1576 or 1581 of peasant stock at Pouy, in southwest France, near Dax in Gascony, to Jean de Paul and Bertrande de Moras, Vincent was one of four boys and two girls. Intellectually sharp, his father sent him to be educated by the Cordelier Brothers, a stricter branch of the Franciscans, in Dax. After four years, a lawyer hired Vincent as tutor for his children, thus covering his education expenses. He continued studies at the University of Saragossa in Spain, then returned to France to study at the University of Toulouse. He was ordained a priest c. 1600, at the age of 24, but remained another four years at Toulouse, earing a doctorate in theology. After returning to Toulouse, he was called to Marseille to legally recover a small legacy left for him by an old woman of that city. In 1605, while sailing back from Marseille to Narbonne, the ship was captured by Barbary pirates, at that time a menace to all Mediterranean shipping (not unlike the current piracy prevalent in the waters around Somalia). His captors brought him and others to Tunis in Africa, where he was sold as a slave.  His master, a fisherman, resold him to an aged Muslim, a humane man who had spent 50 years in search of the "philosopher's stone". The Muslim often lectured Vincent on alchemy, the secrets of his science, and on Islam, to which he hoped Vincent would convert.

The young priest remained strong in his Catholic faith until the old man died, after which Vincent became property of the master's nephew. The nephew soon sold Vincent to a Frenchman, a native of Nice and a fallen-way Christian, who had embraced Islam.  The new master had three wives, one of whom was a Turkish woman.  The Lives of the Saints, edited by Fr. Joseph Vann, OFM, relates that: "She often wandered into the field where the new Christian slave was at work, and out of idle curiosity would ask him to sing songs in praise of his God. With tears running down his cheeks Vincent would obediently sing certain Psalms [among them, Psalm 137, "By the waters of Babylon..."]...The Turkish woman now began to reproach her husband for abandoning his religion, and kept on until, without herself accepting the faith, she made him return to it. He repented of his apostasy, and he and Vincent made their escape from Africa together..." in 1607. No mention as to why the master felt compelled to escape, nor whether the three wives accompanied him. Of course, it's entirely possible that, for whatever reason, he was escaping them!

After returning to France, Vincent went to Rome and continued his studies until 1609, when he was sent back to France on a mission to Henry IV. He served as chaplain to the colorful, sometimes scandalous daughter of Henry II and Catherine de Medici, the late-16th century Queen Consort of France and Navarre, Marguerite de Valois. For a while he was parish priest at Clichy, but from 1612 he began to serve as tutor to the children of Philip de Gondi, Count of Joigny and general of the galleys of France, of the illustrious Gondi family. He was also confessor and spiritual director to Madame de Gondi, and began giving missions for the peasants on her estate under her sponsorship. In 1617, Vincent de Paul founded the Ladies of Charity, lay women in the parishes, to help in the mission of serving the poor.

In 1622 Vincent was appointed chaplain to the galleys, and in this capacity he gave missions for the galley-slaves. In 1625 he founded the Congregation of the Mission, a society of missionaries, commonly known as the Vincentians, or Lazarists, because their chief house in Paris was the priory of St. Lazare. The Congregation consisted of priests and laymen, taking four simple vows of poverty, chastity, obedience, and stability, living a common life and devoting themselves to preach the Gospel to the poor and to reform the clergy.

Around 1625, Vincent de Paul met Louis de Marillac. Louise was a Parisian woman who'd been born out of wedlock, but was raised among French aristocrats. She married Antoine le Gras, secretary to Queen Marie de Medici, in 1617, and was married for nine years until Antoine died. She raised her son, Michel, and through all those years, experienced a call to a more dedicated life. Vincent, who had become her spiritual director, recognized her gifts and potential. In 1634, with the assistance of Louise de Marillac, he founded the Daughters of Charity, a congregation of active, unenclosed nuns who devoted themselves to serve the poor in the spirit of humility, simplicity and love. Their habit resembled a French peasant dress: blue-grey gown with wide sleeves and apron, and a distinguishing white cap and "wings".

Vincent de Paul was also deeply concerned with and fought against the rise and spread of the Jansenist heresy, propounded by Cornelius Jansen, bishop of Ypres, and quite prevalent at that time. It denied freedom of the will and man's ability to contribute to his own salvation. Jansenists believed that God had predestined some to eternal life and others to be lost forever.

On September 27, 1660, after much suffering, Vincent received the Last Sacraments, then died calmly in his chair at age 79 or 84, depending on his actual year of birth. He was buried in the Church of St. Lazare, Paris, beatified by Benedict XIII in 1729, and canonized a saint by Clement XII in 1737.

In 1809 Mother Elizabeth Ann Seton founded a community of Sisters in America based on the Rule of the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul. From this root the Sisters of Charity have spread the spirit of the charism of St. Vincent and St. Louise to all parts of the U.S. and Canada.

In May 1833, Blessed Antoin Frédéric Ozanam, a layman of Jewish extraction and a French scholar, founded the Conference of Charity, later known as the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, in Paris, to serve the poor. He had worked with Sr. Rosalie Rendu, a Daughter of Charity, in the slums of Paris, and advocated the concepts of Christian social justice, the rights and dignity of every individual, and the need for equality of opportunity in education and employment.  Ozanam was beatified by Pope John Paul II at Notre Dame de Paris in 1997.

The legacy of Vincent de Paul and Louise de Marillac lives on in numerous institutes, both religious and lay, throughout the world. Many foundations have been influenced by the rule of Vincent which Louise helped develop.

Lord, you gave Vincent de Paul the courage and holiness of an apostle,
for the well-being of the poor and the formation of the clergy.
Help us to be zealous in continuing his work.
Grant this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son. Amen. 

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Dialogue Across The Chasm

In Luke’s Gospel passage (16:19-31) there’s a rich man and a poor man. The rich man isn’t named, though he’s often referred to in tradition as Dives = Latin for rich [person]. Luke describes him as “dressed in purple”, so he may have been either a high-ranking official or a member of royalty. The Romans had standards regarding who could wear purple and how much purple could be worn: a fact possibly consoling for non-Roman Anglican and Episcopal bishops -- or not! Dives’ estate was undoubtedly a “gated” community, as Luke intimates. The rich man dressed “in fine linen and...feasted sumptuously” on gourmet delicacies: every day, says Luke!

Then there was the “poor man”, Lazarus, who lay at Dives’ gate: on the outside, of course. Lazarus is Lazar in Aramaic, from the Hebrew Eleazar = God has helped, a rather common name. Luke says that, in addition to being poor and laying at Dives’ gate, Lazarus bore sores on his body which, as Luke perceptively observes, “even the dogs would come and lick”. If that weren’t enough, poor Lazarus was, perhaps, starving because he longed just for the crumbs that fell from Dives’ table. At a feast, apparently an everyday occurrence at Dives’ home, it was common etiquette to use bread to wipe grease from one’s hands, then chuck it under the table: understandable, because the rich man’s cleaning crew of slaves would’ve been expected to move in and tidy up after guests had left the table. Luke doesn’t tell us whether Lazarus actually ever got any of the leftovers, only that he was craving them.

Luke then simply states: “The poor man died…”, and leaves us wondering how and why. Perhaps of starvation...even just a few steps from Dives’ table? Perhaps from overexposure on a cold night, while Dives slept on his custom-made linen?

Luke also says: “The rich man...died and was buried.”, leaving us, once again, to wonder about the cause. Given his propensity to eat “sumptuously”, maybe the rich man’s cholesterol and high blood pressure caught up with him, and it was more than his heart could take. In which case, the very food which he could have shared with hungry Lazarus in the end “did him in”. We’re left to wonder if Lazarus was properly buried, or just thrown into a pauper’s grave. Dives was, of course, buried, probably after a large, ostentatious funeral, presumably in the rich purple and fine linen to which he was accustomed.

In the next scene, things get interesting and Luke gets to the heart of his purpose for relating this story. Lazarus unexpectedly appears, in the words of an old black Gospel spiritual, “in the bosom of Abraham”, much to the astonishment of Dives who’s “being tormented”, Luke says, “in Hades”. Judaism saw sheol or Hades as the place of silence where all humans went after death. Luke seems to indicate that there was a “cool” side and a “hot” side, insurmountably separate from each other. “Abraham’s bosom” became a common designation for a place of comfort, the highest state of glory and blessedness. It also reminded people of the Messianic banquet, where God’s guest is given the place of honor at the right hand, the hand of power. “Hades”, on the other hand was the underworld, the place of darkness, the abode of the dead, “the end”, the final stop.

To many Jews this story would’ve been a bit shocking, for it was common belief that blessings and wealth in this life were a sign of God’s favor. Whereas illness, poverty, and tragedy happened only to the those with whom God was displeased. (Here the Book of Job comes to mind.) So, how could a poor beggar end up in Abraham’s bosom?

You and I, of course, need not wonder why Dives ended up where he did. The rich man’s sin, so far as we know, wasn’t that he physically mistreated Lazarus, or spit on him, or actually had anything at all to do with him. Dives‘ sin was much greater. Not only did he not have any gratitude for this fellow human being, or probably anyone else: his sin was that he didn’t even care about Lazarus. He was indifferent. He ignored a fellow human being’s basic needs, when he, out of his overabundance, probably taken for granted, could easily have addressed those needs.

As the tables are turned now, Dives calls out to Abraham, rather presumptuously according to Luke, asking him to send the beggar over “to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue”.
Abraham reminds Dives that there’s an unbreachable barrier, a chasm between him and Lazarus, similar to the one he’d set up to cut Lazarus out of his circle of concern in life. In death, the rich man is now the one excluded, cut off forever, alone, suffering. No one can reach him now, not even the circle of his own family. He’s eternally stuck in his total ingratitude, indifference, selfishness: which is a fair description of what we call hell.

Jeanne Stevenson-Moessner Associate Professor of Pastoral Theology and Christian Formation at the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary, in Iowa, and editor of two pioneering books on pastoral care, offers a perceptive comment on what follows. She says: “The rich man had hoped to command Lazarus as servant to run back to his mansion and warn his five brothers. Alas, the wealth that had afforded him such power to command people on earth survived neither death nor the flames of hell. Sharon Ringe, in her Luke commentary, elucidates this concern for the rich man's five brothers: ‘The biological family, and not a wider or more inclusive community, continues to function as his principal, (even his only) point of reference, security, and concern." In other words, even in Hades, Dives doesn’t “get it”.

The sins of the fathers are often visited on their children. Perhaps indifference and ingratitude for the wider community ran in the family of Dives, or at least was passed on. Abraham reminds the rich man that the brothers have the Scriptures to guide them: “Moses and the prophets: they should listen to them…” But if only someone goes to them from the dead, says Dives, then surely they’ll repent.

In other words, signs and wonders! Jesus had encountered this warped mentality throughout his ministry: Matthew 12: “Teacher, we want to see a miraculous sign from you…” John 2, 4, & 6: “What miraculous sign can you show us to prove your authority?…” “Unless you people see signs and wonders you will never believe…” “What miraculous sign, then, will you give that we may see it and believe you?…” And you and I still run into it today: the need for something big, spectacular, life-changing, in order to bring people into the Church.

Luke’s Abraham ends the passage with the words: “If they do not listen to [the Scriptures], neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” These very Scriptures today encourage us, in the words of the conclusion of the second reading (1 Timothy 6:6-19) to “take hold of the life which is life indeed.” The Word of God spells out for us, in many places, how to get from indifference and ingratitude, to caring, to sharing, and to community.

Normally, I think most folks don’t do too bad with some of corporal works of mercy: feeding the hungry, clothing the needy, visiting the sick, comforting those who lose loved ones. But there are also the spiritual works of mercy, and you and I might ask ourselves “When did I last…”
- take time with someone who expressed doubt in their faith?
- try to comfort someone in psychological or spiritual pain?
- patiently bear criticism or being “blown off” by another person, without reacting?
- forgive a long-standing grievance?
The author of 1 Timothy reminds us: “ rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, thus storing up...the treasure of a good foundation for the future…

Harold Ivan Smith leaves us with these words:

Even a boxer is guaranteed
to stand in his corner
between rounds of brutal blows

Someone to care for his needs
before the bell would summon
to yet another round.
How many pilgrims
have struggled to their corner
only to be alone?
Are we not to step between the ropes
to wipe a forehead or
to offer a word of encouragement?
To risk the stain of sweat
the sting of blood
the despair of agony?

Saturday, September 25, 2010

St. Sergius of Moscow, The Wonder Worker, Abbot of Holy Trinity Lavra

The Holy Trinity Lavra or Monastery of St. Sergius, in the town of Sergiyev Posad, about 90 km northeast of Moscow, is the most important Russian monastery and the spiritual center of the Russian Orthodox Church. The monastery is currently home to some 300 monks. It was founded in 1345 by a most highly venerated Russian saint, Sergius of Radonezh.
Venerable Sergius of Radonezh, or Sergii Radonezhsky, was a spiritual leader and monastic reformer of medieval Russia. Together with Venerable Seraphim of Sarov, he is one of the Russian Orthodox Church's most beloved saints.

The date of his birth is unclear: 1314, 1319, or 1322. He was born to a boyar family near Rostov Velikiy, where Varnitsy Monastery now stands. He was originally baptized with the name Bartholomew. His parents Kirill and Maria became impoverished and moved to Radonezh together with their three sons: Stefan, Bartholomew and Peter. Bartholomew was intelligent, but had great difficulty learning to read. It seems that a starets (spiritual elder) met him one day and gave him a piece of prosphora (holy bread) to eat, and from that day forward he was able to read. Devout Orthodox Christians interpret this incident as being an angelic visitation.

After his parents died, Bartholomew went to Khotkovo near Moscow, where his older brother, Stefan, was a monk. He and Stefan sought out a more secluded place, and withdrew deep into the forest at Makovets Hill, where they built a small cell and a wooden church dedicated to the Holy Trinity: humble beginnings to the history of the great Trinity-St. Sergius Lavra.

Eventually, Stefan moved to a monastery in Moscow. Bartholomew took monastic vows, assuming the religious name Sergius, and spent more than a year in the forest alone as a hermit. In time, other monks began coming to him and building their own cells. Subsequently, they asked him to become their hegumen (father superior), and he was ordained to the priesthood. All of the monks were required to live by their own labor, even as Sergius did. Over time, more and more monks arrived at this place. Nearby, a posad (settlement/small provincial town) developed and eventually grew into the town of Sergiev Posad.

When the news of Sergius's monastic movement reached Patriarch Philotheus of Constantinople, he sent to Sergius a monastic charter, and Sergius's disciples began to spread his teaching across central and northern Russia. They settled intentionally in the most impracticable places and founded numerous monasteries. St. Sergius was also connected with the foundation of two communities in Moscow: Andronikov and Simonov monasteries. The devoted disciples of Sergius founded c. 400 monasteries in all, greatly enhancing Sergius's reputation and influence in the Church. Nevertheless, when Metropolitan Alexius asked him to become his successor, Sergius declined, preferring to remain a simple monk.

Sergius was gentle by nature, mystically inclined, and insistent that his monks serve the needs of their neighbors. As an ascetic, St. Sergius didn't involve himself in the country's politics. However, he blessed Dmitry Donskoy, the Prince of Moscow, when he went to fight the Tartars in the decisive Battle of Kulikovo field, but only after he was satisfied that Dmitry had first pursued all peaceful means of resolving the conflict.

St. Sergius died on September 25, 1392. His incorrupt relics were found in 1422 and placed in the new Trinity Cathedral of the Lavra which he had founded, and he was glorified (canonized) in 1452. The Church commemorates him on September 25, the day of his death, and on July 5, the day his relics were uncovered. Well loved by many, Sergius has been referred to as the "Abbot of Russia" and "The Wonder Worker". The Roman Catholic Church recognizes Sergius as a saint, including him in the Roman Martyrology. The Episcopal Church also commemorates Sergius's feast day on September 25.
Anglican Christians are familiar with Sergius from the ecumenical Fellowship of St. Alban and St. Sergius, a society established to promote closer relations between the Anglican and Russian Churches.
Pilgrims continue to visit the shrine of St. Sergius at the monastery of Zagorsk, the residence of the Patriarch of Moscow.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Vigil of the Feast of St. Matthew

(From a homily of St. Jerome, Priest: Commentary on Matthew, Bk. 1, Ch. 9)

"The other Evangelists, out of respect and reverence for Matthew would not call him by his ordinary name, but addressed him -- for he had two names -- as Levi. But Matthew refers to himself as Matthew. According to the words of Solomon, 'The just is the first accuser of himself,' and in another place, 'Confess your sins that you may be justified.' Accordingly, Matthew calls himself, in his Gospel, both Matthew and the publican, to show his readers that no one should despair of salvation who is converted to a better life, since he was himself changed suddenly from a publican to an apostle."

Thursday, September 16, 2010

The Busy Sybil of the Rhine: Hildegard of Bingen

Born in 1098 at Bermersheim vor der Höhe, Hildegard lived a long, busy life before her death, September 17, 1179 at Bingen am Rhein, at age 81.
She's venerated in the Roman Catholic Church, the Anglican Communion, and by Lutherans, not to mention many people, especially women, with no religious affiliation. Though she wasn't formally canonized a saint, her name, nevertheless, appears in the Roman Martyrology.

Blessed Hildegard of Bingen, also known as the Sibyl of the Rhine, was a Christian mystic, German Benedictine abbess, visionary, and a person of great and varied learning, spanning many subject areas. Elected a magistra = teacher by her fellow nuns in 1136, she founded the monasteries of Rupertsberg (1150) and Eibingen (1165), and even had running water! Her writings inspired so great a figure as Bernard of Clairvaux. She corresponded with the Pope, and counselled many lay people and clergy. One of her works as a composer, the Ordo Virtutum, is an early example of liturgical drama. She wrote theological, botanical and medicinal texts, as well as letters, liturgical songs, poems, and the first surviving morality play, while supervising brilliant miniature illuminations: all this in addition to travelling extensively in Germany.

The most fascinating account I've ever read on what Hildegard of Bingen might have been like is the 1995 novel, entitled The Journal of Hildegard of Bingen, by Barbara Lachman. Even though it's purely fictional, it's based on the autobiographical, scientific and visionary writings of this medieval rebel nun and iconoclast of her age. Lachman has studied Hildegard's life and writings extensively, and her book, though a novel, has the semblance of authenticity, structured as it is around the liturgical feasts of the year 1152, a busy one in Abbess Hildegard's life, and the life of her nuns as they prepared for the feasts. Lachman makes Hildegard come alive in all her humanness, as well as in her vibrancy, creativity, and even in her weaknesses. But, then, what else are saints but terribly human, alive, vibrant, and weak creatures? We can all take heart! Another useful resource for coming to understand Hildegard of Bingen better is the wonderful CD collection of her music, called Visions. Both it and the book are available through

Creator God, your whole creation, in all its varied and related parts,
shows forth your verdant and life-giving power: Grant that we your people,
illumined by the visions recorded by your servant Hildegard, may know,
and make known, the joy and jubilation of being part of this cycle of creation,
and may manifest your glory in all virtuous and godly living. Amen. 

Ninian of Galloway (c. 350-c. 432)

St. Ninian is first mentioned in the 8th century as being an early missionary among the Picts, in what is now Scotland. He's known as the Apostle to the Southern Picts, and there are numerous dedications to him in those parts of Scotland with a Pictish heritage, throughout the Scottish Lowlands, and in parts of Northern England of Northumbrian heritage. Ninian is also known as Ringan in Scotland, and as Trynnian in Northern England. St. Martin of Tours in Gaul was a mentor to Ninian.

A major shrine in honor of St. Ninian is at Whithorn in Galloway, where he is associated with the Candida Casa = white house, Latin), the first stone building in the land, the first church north of where Roman civilization had spread. Beyond this we know nothing about his teachings and little about his life.

There are over 70 churches or altars in Scotland dedicated to St. Ninian, and in many ancient Irish Ordo calendars the word mo = my is added before Ninian's name.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Mary, Woman of Sorrow, Woman of Joy

Liturgical days are so confusing sometimes! Today, for example, is the feast of St. Cyprian of Carthage in the Episcopal calendar. It's also an Ember Day. The Order of Julian and the Catholic calendars celebrate the feast of Our Lady of Sorrows, formerly The Seven Sorrows of Our Lady. I think I'll go with Our Lady of Sorrows today.

O God, who willed that in the passion of your Son a sword of grief should
pierce the soul of the Blessed Virgin Mary his mother: Mercifully grant that
your Church, having shared with her in his passion, may be made worthy to
share in the joys of his resurrection.

The great abbot and saint, Bernard of Clairvaux, whose deep love of and devotion to the Mother of Jesus is so expressedly transparent in his eloquent sermons to his monks, graces us today with some words about Our Lady of Sorrows in his "Sermon on the Twelve Stars":

"The martyrdom of the Virgin is set before us both in the prophecy of Simeon and in the story of the Lord's Passion. The saintly old man had said of the child Jesus, 'Behold, this Child is destined for a sign that shall be contradicted.' To Mary he said, 'And a sword shall pierce your own soul.' Yes, truly, blessed Mother, the sword pieced your soul. Only by passing through your soul could it penetrate to the body of your Son. When Jesus your Son had given up his spirit, when the cruel spear which pierced his side could no longer touch his soul, it transfixed yours. His soul was no longer there. Yours was. It could not be torn away.

The sword of sorrow indeed pierced your soul. We call you more than martyr because your love, which made you suffer with your Son, brought pain of soul far more exquisite than any pain of body. 'Woman, behold your Son.' Wasn't this word of your Son far more piercing than any sword as it thrust in and cut apart soul and spirit? What an exchange! You are given John for Jesus, the servant for the Lord, the disciple for the Master, the son of Zebedee for the Son of God, mere man for true God. How keenly these words must have pierced your loving soul! Mere remembrance of them can wring our hard steely hearts with sorrow.

You need not wonder, my brothers, that Mary is said to be martyred in spirit. Only the one who has forgotten the words of the Apostle Paul might wonder. When Paul wrote of the sins of the Gentiles, he placed among their greatest ones that they were without affection. That kind of want of affection was far from Mary's heart. May it be equally far from the hearts of her servants! Some people comment: 'But she must have known beforehand that he was going to die.' Yes, she knew that. 'Didn't she have hope that he would rise again?' Yes, she did have hope. She had absolute faith. 'Did she mourn for her crucified Son in spite of this?' Yes, and deeply. 

Who are you, my brother? What sort of wisdom do you have? Do you marvel less that the Son of Mary suffered than that Mary suffered with him? He could die in body. Could she not die with him in her heart? His death was brought about by a love greater than any human being has; hers, by a love no other mortal ever had, except she."  


Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Christ On the Rood

One of the earliest Christian poems in Old English literature, and an intriguing example of dream poetry, is The Dream of the Rood. Like all Old English poetry, it's lines are alliterative. Rood derives from the Old English rod = pole, specifically crucifix. The poem is preserved in the 10th century Vercelli Book. The poem is probably considerably older, perhaps even one of the oldest works in Old English literature.

Some sections from The Dream of the Rood are found on the 7th century Ruthwell Cross, an 18 foot, free standing Anglo-Saxon Cross, perhaps intended as a sort of catechetical tool. At each side of the vine-tracery runes are carved. On the cross there is an excerpt, written in runes, along with scenes from Jesus' life. Torn down and destroyed during initial Protestant revolt, it was reconstructed as much as possible later. Fortunately, those words which were in the runes were still protected in the Vercelli Book, so called because the book is kept in Vercelli, Italy. The Vercelli Book (10th century) also holds 23 homilies interspersed with six poems; "The Dream of the Rood," “Andreas,” “The Fates of the Apostles,” “Soul and Body,” “Elene,” and a poetic, homiletic fragment.

As to who wrote The Dream of the Rood, we simply don't know. Nevertheless, with the Ruthwell Cross giving the poem a rough time period in which it could have been written, scholars have been able to tentatively suggest two possible authors: the Anglo-Saxon Christian poets Caedmon and Cynewulf. Caedmon was associated with St. Hilda of Whitby at her famous monastery, the site of which I was privileged to visit in 2007.

The following version of The Dream of the Rood is the work of an unknown translator. (from Wikisources):

Lo! I will tell of the best of dreams,
what I dreamed in the middle of the night,
after the speech-bearers were in bed.

It seemed to me that I saw a very wondrous tree
lifted into the air, enveloped by light,
the brightest of trees. That beacon was all
covered with gold. Gems stood
beautiful at the surface of the earth, there were five also
up on the central joint of the cross. All those fair through eternal decree gazed
[on] the angel of the Lord. [It] was certainly not a wicked person’s gallows there,
but holy spirits, men over the earth,
and all this famous creation gazed on him.

Wondrous was that tree of victory, and I stained with sins
wounded sorely with defects, I saw the tree of glory,
honoured with garments, shining joyously,
adorned with gold. Gems had
splendidly covered the Lord’s tree.

I was able, however, to perceive through the gold,
the ancient hostility of wretched ones, [that] it first began
to bleed on the right side. I was all troubled with grief,
I was afraid in the presence of that beautiful sight. I saw that noble beacon
change its coverings and colour; sometimes it was drenched with moisture,
soaked with the flow of blood, sometimes adorned with treasure.

Nevertheless, I, lying a long time there,
gazed troubled at the Saviour’s tree,
until I heard it speak.
The most excellent tree then began to speak the words:
'It was years ago (that, I still remember),
that I was cut down from the edge of the forest,
removed from my foundation. Strong enemies seized me there,
they made me into a spectacle for themselves, commanded me to lift up their criminals.
Men carried me there on their shoulders, until they set me on a hill,
many enemies secured me there. Then I saw mankind’s Lord
hasten with great zeal, that he wished to climb upon me.

There, I did not dare break to pieces or bow down
against the Lord’s words, when I saw the surface
of the earth tremble. I was able to destroy
all the enemies, nevertheless, I stood firmly.

The young hero stripped himself then (that was God Almighty),
strong and resolute. He ascended onto the high gallows,
brave in the sight of many, there, [since] he wished to release mankind.
I trembled when the man embraced me. However, I dared not bow down to the earth,
fall to the surface of the earth, but I had to stand fast.

I was raised [as a] cross. I lifted up the mighty king,
the lord of the heavens; I dared not bend down.
They pierced me with dark nails. On me, the scars are visible,
open malicious wounds. I did not dare injure any of them.
They mocked both of us, together. I was all drenched with blood,
covered from the man’s side, after he had sent forth his spirit.

I endured many cruel events
on that hill. I saw the Lord of Hosts
severely stretched out. Darkness
had covered the bright radiance
of the Lord’s corpse with clouds, a shadow went forth,
dark under the sky. All of creation wept,
they lamented the king’s death. Christ was on the cross.

Nevertheless, eager ones came there from afar
to the prince. I beheld all that.
Grievously I was afflicted with sorrow, yet I bowed to the hands of the men,
humble, with great zeal. There they took God Almighty,
they lifted him up out of the oppressive torment. The warriors abandoned me
to stand, covered with moisture; I was wounded very badly with arrows.

They laid him down there, weary-limbed; they positioned themselves at his body’s head,
there they gazed at the Lord of heaven, and he, rested himself there for a while,
weary after the great battle. The men began to make a sepulcher for him
in the sight of his slayer; they carved it out of bright stone;
they put him, the Lord of Victories, therein. The wretched began to sing him a song of sorrow
in the evening-time, then they wanted to go again,
wearily from the glorious prince. He rested there with little company.

Nevertheless, we stood in a fixed position,
weeping for a good while, after the voice of the warriors
went up. The corpse cooled,
beautiful dwelling of the soul. Then they began to cut us all
down to the earth. That was a dreadful event!

We were buried in a deep pit. However, the Lord’s disciples,
friends, discovered me there,
and adorned me [with] gold and silver.

Now you can hear, my beloved hero,
what work of the evildoers that I have experienced,
the painful grief. The time is now come
that men over the earth and all this illustrious creation
far and wide honour me,
they pray to this sign. On me, God’s son
suffered a time. Therefore, now I rise up
glorious under the heavens, and I am able to heal
each one of those who hold me in awe.

Formerly, I was the most fierce of torments,
most hateful to people, before I opened the right
path of life to them, the speech-bearers.
Lo, the prince of glory, the guardian of the kingdom of the heavens,
honoured me over all the trees of the forest!
Just as he, Almighty God, before all men,
honoured his mother also, Mary herself,
over all womankind.

Now I command you, my beloved warrior,
that you tell this vision to men,
reveal in words that it is the tree of glory,
on which Almighty God suffered
for mankind’s many sins
and Adam’s deeds of old,

He tasted death there. However, the Lord arose again
to help men with his great power.
Then he ascended into the heavens. Hither again, the Lord, Himself,
will set out into this world
to seek mankind on the day of judgement,
Almighty God and His angels with Him,
since He who has power of judgement, He then will sentence
each one, just as he shall have earned
for himself here in this temporary life.

Nor can there be any unafraid there
because of the words which the Lord shall say:
He shall ask before the multitude, where the man might be,
who for the name of the Lord would taste
bitter death, as He did before on the cross.
But then they fear, and few think of
what to begin to say to Christ.
None needs to be afraid
of [him] who already bears on his breast the best of signs,
but through the cross, each soul must seek
the kingdom from the earthly way,
those who intend to dwell with the Lord.'

Then I prayed to the cross with friendly spirit,
with great zeal, where I was alone
with little company. My mind was
impelled on the way hence, it experienced very many
times of longing. Now this is my life’s joyous expectation
that I may seek the tree of victory
and honour [it] well
most often of all men. The desire for that is
great in my heart, and my patronage is
directed to the cross. I do not have many
powerful friends on earth, since they departed away hence
from the joys of the world, they sought the King of Glory;
now they live in the heavens with God the Father.

They dwell in glory, and each day
I look forward to the time when the cross of the Lord
that I previously saw here on the earth,
in this temporary life, will fetch me,
and will then bring me to where great bliss is,
joy in the heavens, where the Lord’s people are
seated at the feast, where perpetual joy is;
then it may set me, where afterwards I might
dwell in glory, with the saints
to enjoy bliss well. May the Lord be a friend to me,
who suffered here on earth before
on the gallows-tree for men’s sins;
he redeemed us and gave us life,
a heavenly home. Joy was restored
with blessings and with bliss, for those who endured the fire there.

The Son was triumphant on that expedition,
mighty and successful, when he came with the multitude,
the host of souls, into God’s kingdom,
the Lord Almighty, to the delight of the angels,
and of all the saints, who in the heavens before
dwelled in glory, when their Ruler, the Almighty
God came, where his homeland was.

Monday, September 13, 2010

O Tree of Beauty, Tree of Light!

Below is the hymn Vex­il­la Re­gis pro­deunt, composed by Ve­nan­ti­us For­tu­na­tus, and trans­lat­ed from La­tin to Eng­lish by John M. Neale, Med­iae­val Hymns and Se­quenc­es, 1851.

According to legend, on No­vem­ber 19, 568, St. Ra­de­gund pre­sent­ed to the town of Poi­ti­ers a frag­ment be­lieved to be that of the True Cross. Venantius Fortunatus was the person chos­en to accept the rel­ic when it was brought to Poi­ti­ers. The bear­ers of the ho­ly relic were two miles outside the town, when For­tu­na­tus, along with an enthusiastic ga­the­ring of be­liev­ers, some car­ry­ing ban­ners, cross­es and other sac­red em­blems, went forth to meet them. They are said to have sung this hymn which Venantius For­tu­na­tus had writ­ten.

The royal banners forward go,
The cross shines forth in mystic glow;
Where He in flesh, our flesh Who made,
Our sentence bore, our ransom paid.

Where deep for us the spear was dyed,
Life’s torrent rushing from His side,
To wash us in that precious flood,
Where mingled water flowed, and blood.

Fulfilled is all that David told
In true prophetic song of old,
Amidst the nations, God, saith he,
Hath reigned and triumphed from the tree.

O tree of beauty, tree of light!
O tree with royal purple dight!
Elect on whose triumphal breast
Those holy limbs should find their rest.

Blest tree, whose chosen branches bore
The wealth that did the world restore,
The price of humankind to pay,
And spoil the spoiler of his prey.

Upon its arms, like balance true,
He weighed the price for sinners due,
The price which none but He could pay,
And spoiled the spoiler of his prey.

O cross, our one reliance, hail!
Still may thy power with us avail
To give new virtue to the saint,
And pardon to the penitent.

To Thee, eternal Three in One,
Let homage meet by all be done:
As by the cross Thou dost restore,
So rule and guide us evermore.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Celebrating God's Mercy

The “hot topic” of the week, which preoccupied sensationalism-hungry Americans, was the proposed burning of copies of the Koran at a fundamentalist church in Gainesville, FL. The statements and actions of the Dove World Outreach Center, especially of its so-called “Pastor”, Terry Jones, over the past few weeks, and actually going back over the past 10 years, are directly related to what the Scriptures hold out for us to think about today. By his own admission, Jones has never read the Koran and has never personally met a Muslim, yet has been irrationally defiant and unbending in his determination to burn the Islamic faith’s most sacred book: the very book which begins by proclaiming: “Praise be to Allah, Lord of the Creation, The Compassionate, the Merciful… You alone we worship, and to You alone we pray for help. Guide us to the straight path…” As the Christian Scriptures proclaim today, in refusing to celebrate God’s mercy to all others, regardless of religious belief, race or color, gender or sexual orientation, we run the risk of committing the ultimate sin, the ultimate betrayal of God, which, as the late Dominican Fr. Gerald Vann says, “can harden into hell.

Sin is a very real part of all of our lives. The Exodus writer (32:7-14) cites examples of Israel’s acting “perversely”, of “turning aside”, of casting an idol for themselves and worshiping it, of being “stiff-necked”. Then, along with St. Paul in the Epistle (1 Timothy 1:12-17), there’s not a one of us who couldn’t say, and mean it: “I am the foremost of sinners.” Finally, in Luke’s Gospel (15:1-10) Jesus takes a lot of flak for associating with “sinners”, and yet he speaks openly and boldly in their behalf. Oftentimes it may seem to us that “the sinner” is the other person, but the only “sinner” you and I really know firsthand is our self. St. John reminds us: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.

In 1983 M. Scott Peck wrote a book which was most perceptive, but at the same time terribly chilling, entitled The People of the Lie. In it Peck distinguishes between folks who sin, and people who perpetrate evil things. Please notice that I don’t call the latter “evil people”, even though their evil actions are clearly a reality. Those who perpetrate evildoing are no less in need of prayer than sinners. Peck says that we need to make a distinction between “ordinary” sin and evil. It’s his belief that “the poor in spirit”, as he thinks of “ordinary” people like us, people who feel uncertain about our righteousness, who question ouir own motives, who worry about betraying ourselves,
generally don’t commit evil per se. Unpleasant as it may be, a sense of personal sin is exactly what keeps our selfishness from getting too far out of hand. Though quite painful at times, it’s an enormous blessing because it’s our one and only effective safeguard against the capacity which every human being has for doing evil.

“People of the lie”, on the other hand, aren’t characterized by their human sins per se. What characterizes their actions as “evil” is the intentional refusal to acknowledge it. People whose actions are evil aren’t defined only by how illegal their deeds are, nor by how great their sins are, but rather by the consistency of their sins. Their destructiveness, though usually quite subtle, is terribly consistent. They have, indeed, "crossed over the line" by their absolute refusal to tolerate a sense of their own sinfulness. People who do evil hate the light: they hate being shown up by good people, or by any kind of scrutiny which blows their cover and exposes them, or by people who speak the truth and penetrate their deception. Rather than blissfully lacking a sense of morality, like the sociopath, people who commit evil are continually engaged in sweeping the evidence of their evil under the rug of their own consciousness.

What the Scriptures bid us to reflect on today, however, is more of the “garden variety” of sin! I’ve found few descriptions of sin better than that given in our own Book of Common Prayer, on p. 848: “Sin is the seeking of our will instead of the will of God, thus distorting our relationship with God, with other people, and with all creation.

The Bible uses several terms for sin. The Hebrew Scriptures see it as missing, deviating, failing, or affronting the Covenant Partner, setting oneself up as God’s rival. It can also mean to make crooked, or to stride, in the sense of breaking away running, rebelling.

In the Christian Scriptures there are two major understandings of sin: 1) missing the mark, so as not to obtain a reward or prize; and 2) living lawlessly, without guidelines, and, by implication, living irresponsibly, as a fool. Hardly a better description of such behavior could be found than God’s, in the Exodus reading. Ultimately, sin is selfishness: the attempt to make oneself #1. It’s a selfishness which misuses and distorts relationships: with God, with others, and with God’s creation.

All of this would be terribly depressing, were it not for the incredible Good News expressed in today’s readings from 1 Timothy and Luke. Of all people, St. Paul knew what it feels like to be weak, to fail, to be a sinner: “...I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence…Christ Jesus save sinners -- of whom I am the foremost...” Each of us, in the innersanctum of our hearts, can add other words to Paul’s descriptive list, as they apply to our own sinfulness. “But,” says Paul, “I received mercy...and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus…so that in me, as the foremost [sinner], Jesus Christ might display the utmost patience, making me an example to those who would come to believe in him for eternal life...

It’s important for you and me to recognize that Paul is talking there about you and me! God worked in Paul’s life, and in the lives of so many others since then through the centuries, precisely in order that you and I might come to realize, even in the midst of our most horrible personal selfishness, God still holds out to us the gift of eternal life, simply because the patient, loving Jesus wants that for us.

God’s giving of that gift is based on two assumptions: 1) that I humbly acknowledge/admit/confess my sin; and 2) that I willingly open myself to God’s strength, God’s favor, God’s grace in Jesus to change me. The object of God’s mercy has to be a sinner: a person who needs to be saved and who acknowledges it. Otherwise, God is powerless. The writer of Exodus, in fact, depicts God, confronted with Moses’ fervent intercessions, as having a change of heart about bringing disaster upon the upstart Israelites, because God has created human beings with free will, and God will always respect that. Our release from human weakness and selfishness, and from all that results from them, is possible only because of God in Christ, because of Divine Grace and Mercy overflowing on our behalf. That was Jesus‘ whole mission in his short life. That’s the Church’s mission in every age. And that’s our mission: to make visible and real to others genuine compassion, mercy, and love.

How can it be that this mercy of Jesus is so accessible, with no strings attached? Jesus’ perfect patience is the model for all who believe in him for eternal life. If you believe in Jesus, if you believe that his mercy works this way, then you and I will follow suit and incorporate such mercifulness into our own actions. That’s exactly the point of Luke’s Gospel passage. The professional holy people murmured and grumbled: “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” They couldn’t accept
Jesus‘ standard of mercy, and therefore they were unable to be merciful themselves.

Luke’s whole Chapter 15 consists of stories of God’s overwhelming mercy: the lost sheep, the lost coin, the lost prodigal son. God is so overjoyed whenever what is “lost”, especially people, is “found”. It’s as if God can’t help it, so that God’s mercy and forgiveness must find expression in pure unbounded celebration and sharing. Today’s parables of the lost sheep and the woman’s lost coin aim not so much at calling sinners to repentance, as at calling the “righteous” to celebrate and join in praise of God’s unlimited patience, mercy, caring and love. If you and I, so often the objects of God’s bounty, are resistant and unwilling to join in the joy and celebration of God’s extending that same mercy to others in our lives, and of being merciful ourselves, then we exclude ourselves from God’s grace, every bit as much as the grumblers among the Pharisees and scribes. God’s nature doesn’t allow any agenda of mercy only for us, but strict justice for others.

Marilyn Von Waldener and M. Scott Peck, in their 1985 book What Return Can I Make?, observe that: “...There can be a state of soul against which Love itself is powerless because it has hardened itself against Love. Hell is essentially a state of being which we fashion for ourselves: a state of final separateness from God which is the result not of God's repudiation of man, but of man's repudiation of God, and a repudiation which is eternal precisely because it has become, in itself, immovable…” Parenthetically, Jesus himself says in Mark’s Gospel: “...whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit [i.e., thereby intentionally resisting and rejecting God’s mercy] can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin…

Von Waldener and Peck continue: “...So with the soul and God; pride can become hardened into hell, hatred can become hardened into hell, any of the seven root forms of wrongdoing can harden into hell, and not least that sloth which is boredom with divine things, the inertia that cannot be troubled to repent, even though it sees the abyss into which the soul is falling, because for so long, in little ways perhaps, it has accustomed itself to refuse whatever might cost it an effort. May God in his mercy save us from that.

For myself, I’ll continue to speak out and oppose the statements and actions of the Terry Joneses of the world. At the same time, I’ll surely pray that God’s Spirit of loving mercy may somehow get past the barriers which such people seem to have thrown up. Corita Kent puts it this way: “Evil may be not seeing well enough, So perhaps to become less evil we need only to see more, see what we didn’t see before…” Because of this, it’s important that we be cautious about stamping out evil or hating anything because, as Kent says, “we know that in the past and in the present many people and things have been tragically destroyed in the name of good…” In saying this, she echoes Rainer Maria Rilke who wrote: “...perhaps everything terrible is in its deepest being something that wants help from me…

Friday, September 10, 2010

Blessed Alexander Crummell (1819-1898): Pastor, Professor, Abolitionist

When I read the life of Alexander Crummell, I confess that I, as a white person of privilege, feel quite ashamed of how my country and my Church treated this man, father, and priest, simply because the color of the skin with which God created him was black. Perhaps the most despicable expression of this was on the occasion of Crummell's seeking to come into the Diocese of Philadelphia, under Bishop Henry Onderdonk. He'd come with the blessing and a letter of introduction from Bishop Griswold of Boston. Onderdonk said to Crummell: "I will receive you into this diocese on one condition: No Negro priest can sit in my church convention and no Negro parish must ask for any representation there." Rightfully unwilling to accept second-hand status, Crummell is said to have paused for a moment, then resolutely replied: "I will never enter your diocese on such terms." Time after time, decade after decade in the United States, right down to the present, this sort of glaring prejudice and scapegoating has been repeated. You need only read the true history of our country to realize why and how deeply this ungodly attitude has been ingrained in our national DNA, so to speak!  

Alexander Crummell was born to a former slave, Boston Crummell, and a freeborn mother, Charity Hicks, in March, 1819. Crummell himself tells us that his paternal grandfather was an ethnic Temne, born in Sierra Leone, and was captured into slavery when he was around 13 years old. Alexander's parents were active abolitionists, and the first African American newspaper, Freedom’s Journal, was published within their home. His father, Boston, also instilled in his son a sense of unity with black people still living in Africa. All of this had a profound effect in shaping Crummell’s values, beliefs, and actions throughout the rest of his life. Even as a boy in New York, Crummell worked for the American Anti-Slavery Society.

Alexander began his formal education in the African Free School No. 2, as well as at home with private tutors. After attending and graduating from Canal Street High School, at age 12 Crummell, along with his friend Henry Highland Garnet, attended interracial Noyes Academy in New Hampshire. On the journey there, he was banned from a cabin on the steamboat and forced to stay on the deck. On the next leg of the trip, he was forced to sit atop the stagecoach during the day and night. In his mid-freshman year at Noyes, the locals voted to abolish the Academy, literally dragging the school building into the swamp.

Crummell returned to New York where he enrolled in Oneida Institute, also an interracial school, in upstate New York. While there, Crummell began to discern a call to become an Episcopal priest, and pursued it with the same enthusiasm with which he'd pursued the rest of his education. Once again he hit the race barrier when he was denied admission to the General Theological Seminary, solely because of his race. Nevertheless, Alexander Crummell persevered. With the help of several clergymen sympathetic to his position, he was accepted as a candidate in the join Diocese of Massachusetts/
Rhode Island. He studied under a tutor for a year and took some studies at Yale Theological Seminary where, despite having the same advantages as white students, he wasn't permitted to have his name recorded on the college register! In 1842 he was ordained a deacon by Bishop Alexander Viets Griswold, and as a priest, in 1844, by Bishop Alfred Lee, first bishop of Delaware and 40 years later, the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church. Alexander struggled as the pastor of the Church of the Messiah in New York experiencing severe poverty, hunger, ambivalent attitudes, low finances (he himself took no pay!) and low attendance. He married during this time, and he and his wife suffered the loss of their first child to malnutrition. 

In 1847, Crummell traveled to England to raise money for his congregation at the Church of the Messiah. While there, Crummell preached, spoke about abolitionism in the United States, and raised some money. By the next year Crummell had become so discouraged that he and his wife went back to England. He was welcomed by such British notables as William Wilberforce and Thomas Macaulay, among others, who became his patrons. At length he was invited to enter Cambridge University, which he attended from 1849 to 1853, at Queens' College. Although he had to take his finals twice to receive his degree, he became the first man of color ever to graduate from either Cambridge or Oxford.

Personal sadness once again visited Alexander and his family, this time in England, when his firstborn son, one of four, accidentally choked on a button and died.

During his time at the Cambridge, Crummell continued to travel around Britain and speak out about slavery and the plight of black people. He formulated his most central belief for the advancement of the African race, Pan-Africanism, during this time. Crummell believed that in order to achieve their potential, the African race as a whole, including those in the Americas, the West Indies, and Africa, needed to unify under one banner. Racial solidarity was, for him, the solution to slavery, discrimination, and continued attacks on black people. To that end, he decided to move to Liberia in Africa to spread his message.

Arriving in 1853, at the point in that country's history when American Liberians had begun to govern, Crummell began his ministry as a missionary of the American Episcopal Church, with the stated aim of converting the native people. Though previously opposed to colonization, experiences in Liberia changed his mind and he became convinced of its benefits. Crummell wove colonization into his Pan-African ideology, preaching that "enlightened," or Christianized, Africans in the United States and in the West Indies had an obligation to return to Africa, where they could help civilize and Christianize the continent. After a sufficient number of native Africans had been converted, they, in turn, would undertake converting the rest of the population, while those from America and the West Indies would continue to educate the people and run a republican government. Alexander Crummell’s grand scheme, however, never came to fruition. Interest in colonization waned, "enlightened" black people failed to perform the duties laid out for them. Crummell did, however, successfully serve as a pastor and professor in Liberia, though he was never able to set up the government and society which he had envisioned. In 1873, he returned to the United States.

Back in the United States, Crummell became a "missionary at large among the colored people", and served for two years as pastor of an integrated Episcopal mission, St. Mary’s. In 1880 he founded and served as rector of St. Luke's, Washington, for 15 years. Despite prior frustrations, he never stopped working for the racial solidarity he had advocated for so long. In the 1880's he organized a national black convocation which effectively blocked the efforts of Southern Episcopal Bishops to set up a segregated missionary district for black congregations. It was the forerunner of today's Union of Black Episcopalians. He encouraged the establishment of new black parishes in the eastern U.S. Throughout his life, Crummell continued to work for black nationalism, self-help, and separate economic development.

Retiring from active ministry in 1894, he taught at Howard University for two years. He spent the last years of his life gathering black artists and educators to help establish the American Negro Academy in Washington, which opened in 1897. Interest in the Academy waned by the 1920's, but it was revived some forty year later, in 1969, in New York City as a non-profit organization, the Black Academy of Arts and Letters.

Alexander Crummell died in Red Bank, NJ, in 1898. Though most of his work never produced the intended results, he was an important voice within the abolition movement and a vocal leader of the Pan-African ideology. His contributions to the academic world, via his sermons and written works, leave the impression of a well-educated, well-spoken, and well-written black man. Crummell  exerted significant influence on other great African Americans: Marcus Garvey, Paul Laurence Dunbar, and W. E. B. Du Bois. Du Bois, in his 1903 book, The Souls of Black Folk, memorialized Alexander Crummell: "I can see his face still, dark and heavy-lined beneath his snowy hair; lighting and shading, now with inspiration for the future, now in innocent pain at some human wickedness, now with sorrow at some hard memory of the past.  

The more I met Alexander Crummell, the more I felt how much the world was losing which knew him so little..."