Sunday, August 28, 2016

August 28 - Augustine of Hippo, Convert, Blessed, Pear Thief

Augustine was born into a divided family where his mother--Monica--was a Christian and his father--Patricius--was a non-Christian. He was raised within the bounds of the Church at his mother's insistence but he received a top notch education at a non-Christian school nearly twenty miles away from home at his father's insistence. Because of the incredible opportunity that his education presented, Augustine became an articulate and intelligent expounder of the philosophical systems he had studied and learned to love--namely, Platonism. He found great comfort in the predictable and consistent halls of academia and decided to pursue a career within the walls of the ivory tower of academia--Augustine aspired to be a professor of rhetoric.

Augustine moved around teaching rhetoric to popular academic acclaim for many years. He was repeatedly disappointed with his students' behavior and lack of professionalism but so loved the academic world that he continued on gaining more and more acclaim. Eventually, he was appointed Professor of Rhetoric for the Imperial Court at Milan. This was, very likely, the most highly regarded rhetorical profession in the western world. Augustine took it gladly but, on the way there in a carriage, noticed a homeless beggar on the street and remarked: "Surely, this man lives a happier and more carefree life thanI do." Even at the zenith of his academic career, Augustine was aware that countless accolades and voluminous praise could not satisfy the man who would, eventually, write: "Thou hast created us for Thyself, and our heart is not quiet until it rests in Thee.Happiness eluded Augustine even as success dwelt in his lap.

Augustine sought happiness and fulfillment in women throughout his adult life. He was famed for his voracious sexual appetite. He lived with a woman--Flora--for nearly fifteen years and had a son by her without marrying her. He wasn't interested in loving her as much as experiencing her as an object and thing meant to provide him pleasure. He would, eventually, become part of an arranged marriage with a girl too young to be wed. He broke off his relationship with Flora because of the arranged marriage but could not wait long enough to marry his betrothed and started a new relationship with another woman. This is the man who is famed to say,"Grant me chastity and continence, but not yet." Augustine hoped to fill the aching void within him with pleasure and women but found that he still felt unsatisfied.

Augustine sought fulfillment in the Manichaean religion that followed their founder Mani. Mani suggested that good and evil were equal and opposing cosmic forces--neither was more powerful or more capable than the other--that fought out their eternal battle within the lives and minds of humans who were composed from good and evil. They identified goodness with the soul and evilness with the body. This linked with Augustine's love of Platonic philosophy and he remained convinced for some years. He sought meaning to life in Mani's philosophy and sought the release promised if humans could only learn to identify solely with their soul and cast aside the foreign domination of the body upon the soul. Augustine would, eventually, have a chance to sit down with one of the greatest living teachers of Manichaeanism and question him. Augustine was painfully disappointed to find out that this "enlightened teacher" knew less than he did andwas tripped up on simple philosophical questions related to the religion he was described as knowing expertly. Finding that even the great enlightened teachers were unable to attain to Mani's theoretical salvation, Augustine left the Manichaeans unfulfilled and unsatisfied.

In recollection, Augustine learned much of himself. He revealed in The Confessions that as a child he and some friends had crept into a neighbor's land and found a cluster of pear trees. There, he and his friends tasted some of the pears and found them to be either sour or bland and absolutely unpalatable. Yet, they stole armloads of the pears and destroyed them. Augustine would look back and find great meaning in this moment--meaning that would help him understand his incredible lack of satisfaction and peace throughout his life: he had stolen the pears not because they were something of value but, rather, because he wanted to steal. Augustine was, finally, prepared to turn his critical eye inward and realize that so much of his life had been spent in rebellion to God not because of some value in it but because it was part of his very nature--he was alienated from the only true source of peace and satisfaction in the universe.It was with this dawning realization that Augustine met Ambrose in Milan.

Ambrose was a skilled and educated rhetorician and priest who welcomed Augustine into his home and his church. He encouraged Augustine to ask questions--knowing that it was in Augustine's nature to do so--and answered what he could and taught Augustine to answer others. His openness to the intellectual aspects of Christianity and his skillful presentation of its teachings slowly won over Augustine. Eventually, Augustine would convert to Christianity--much to his mother's happiness--and become one of the staunchest defenders of orthodoxy in the history of the Church. He would apply the skills that he had acquired in the world to the service of the Kingdom of God and write numerous treatises and booksAugustine, upon looking back over his life, would come to the slow and steady realization that " wishes to be happy even when he so lives as to make happiness impossible." Looking back upon his aimless wandering and pursuit of satisfaction and peace, he reflected,"I found thee not, O Lord, without, because I erred in seeking thee without that wert within."

Even now, Augustine's life raises his question: "Don't you believe that there is in man a deep so profound as to be hidden even to him in whom it is?" For Augustine, there was no rest until he found it in God and he found this rest in 430 as the Bishop of Hippo and an inspiration to countless millions of Christians.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

August 27 - Monica of Hippo, Wife, Mother, At Home in God

Monica was born in Africa, near Carthage. She was born to a Christian family and grew up within the bounds of the Church. However, when she was older her parents agreed to marry her to an older non-Christian man by the name of Patricius. Patricius was known to be an abusive man with a volatile temper. However, Monica continued to attend church services nearly every day and prayed for her husband with an undeniable fervor. Her love and devotion to a man who she hadn't chosen or known had a marked influence on Patricius. Though he did not convert until the end of his life, he never beat her or physically abused her. Over time, his verbal abuse stopped as he realized that it was having no effect on her or her love for him. They had three children--the eldest of which was named Augustine.

To say that Augustine was the apple of his mother's eye is quite the understatement. Through his writing we learn much of Monica's fabled devotion and love for those near her. Augustine was not a Christian and, as a youth, seemed to show no interest in his mother's faith. She prayed for him daily in spite of his mockery and derision. When he joined the Manichean cult, she prayed for him and sought direction from spiritual leaders and mentors. She received a vision in which an angel told her: "Your son is with you."She joyfully told Augustine about her vision and he dismissed it. He insisted, cruelly, that this could tell of her own apostasy as easily as it could tell of his conversion. Overlooking her son's cruelty and mockery, she responded: "No, the angel didn't say I was with you. The angel said you were with me."

Monica shed many tears for her prodigal son who seemed to flee his mother and avoid her prayers. She continued to pray for him at every opportunity. Eventually, a bishop she had been talking to told her, "Go now, please...It is not possible that the child of so many prayerful tears should be unaffected." The bishop was right but Monica would not know this for many more long prayer-filled days. After her husband had converted and died, she went to live with Augustine in Italy and eventually, and partially through her own engineering, he began conversing with St. Ambrose the bishop of Milan. It was there--in Milan--that Augustine finally converted and Monica's hopes and dreams for her son were realized. Her prodigal son had come home and she ran to meet him at the gates. He was baptized, much to her joy, in 387.

They enjoyed a scant few worship experiences together before Monica's death at the age of fifty-five. She told Augustine, prior to her death, "There was only one reason that I wished to remain longer in this world: to see you profess the Christian faith before I died. I have seen this, what else is left for me?" As she died, someone asked her, "Aren't you afraid to die so far from your home?" They expected that Monica wanted to die near Carthage. However, Monica responded with the wisdom and spirituality that had sustained her through many prayer and tear filled nights:"Nothing is far from God."

Friday, August 26, 2016

August 26 - Louis of Toulouse, Hostage, Crown Rejector

Louis of Toulouse was born in Brignoles, France, to Charles the Lame and Maria Arpad of Hungary. He was their second son and, as such, had no claim to the throne that his father was appointed to (King of Naples) by Pope Clement IV. Clement had been the secretary of Louis' uncle--Louis IX of France (better known as Saint Louis). Louis' older brother Charles Martel d'Anjou was in line to take the crown and a position of power in the world as he grew older. Louis would be well taken care of but would not need to engage in the political game to the same degree as his older brother.

In 1288, Charles lost a naval battle off the coast of Naples to some Sicilians and Aragonians. His fleet was defeated and he was taken prisoner. In exchange for the life and liberty of king Charles, his three sons (Charles Martel, Louis, and their youngest brother--Robert) were made to be hostages to the Aragonian rulers. The boys were taken captive and forced to live in Barcelona among their captors.There, they were cared for by Franciscan friars and given a competent education. Though all three were competent in their academic studies, Louis seemed to "get" the deeply Christian spirituality of the Franciscans in ways that his brothers seemed to miss. In a time of great personal crisis, he vowed to become a Franciscan friar when he was released--a vow that included poverty, chastity, and obedience.Further, he was appointed Archbishop of Lyon by his own people even while he was still a captive and unable to perform the duties of the office. In many ways, there was a life of promise awaiting him after his release and, yet, he still asserted his vow to be obedient to God's calling upon his life.

Shortly before they were released, the eldest brother--Charles Martel--died. With his death, Louis became the heir to the throne and crown of their father Charles the Lame. They were released and Louis was expected to come and accept the crown but he rejected it in favor of his vow to become a Franciscan. He gave up his right to his father's inheritance and passed these honors and titles on to his younger brother Robert. Louis, instead, took the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience and became a Franciscan friar like he had vowed. He was, also, consecrated as the Bishop of Toulouse in a region much sought after by warring powers and players. In this tenuous position, Louis devoted his life to taking care of the poor and needy. He rarely took a moment to himself and spent most of the hours of his day providing aid and care to the neediest of the needy. Doing so took its toll on him and he died young--at the age of 23--from a fever.

In so many ways, Louis' life would have been easier if he had taken up the secular titles of his father. He could have experienced a life of leisure and political influence but, instead, he lived into a calling on his life to care for the poor and oppressed. He rejected the easy life of appointment and privilege for the hard but fulfilling life of the Christian called to service.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

August 25 - Genesius, Actor, Martyr, Convert

Genesius was not raised in a Christian family but he was a member of a class of people who were not highly esteemed or respected--actors and comedians. He sacrificed to the Roman gods and said all the right things but the Roman world seemed to offer him no opportunities to attain its great reward of wealth and a life of leisure and influence. Diocletian had made it clear that it would not be profitable--or even safe--to be a Christian but he had not been very clear on how anybody else could attain the rewards of the Empire. Genesius was an enterprising man and deduced that Diocletian would be making a rare trip to Rome to celebrate the 20th year of his rule and devised a plan. Knowing Diocletian's hatred of Christians, he endeavored to work with his troupe and develop an improvisational comedy act mocking Christians and their rites. He expected that this would convince the Emperor to smile upon him and earn him the rewards of the Empire and so he cast himself in the role of the main character with the intention of viciously satirizing Christian practice.

Using his skills as an actor, Genesius was able to become involved in Christian circles to perform the research necessary to do the act well. He was taking significant risk to do so--Christians were being persecuted and arrested--but he knew that he could always offer sacrifice quickly if captured and keep his freedom. Genesius convinced the Christian leaders that he was sincere and began to be educated by them about what it was they believed and trusted.While a catechumen of the Church, he learned about the Church's mysteries and rites--including baptism. The idea of sacramental rebirth by water intrigued Genesius who decided to focus the act upon this rite in particular. After he had received enough information to do the show, he stopped attending the meetings and classes of the people he had duped.

On the day of the show, the troupe was excited because Diocletian was present for the performance. Knowing that he loved comedy, the troupe knew that Diocletian's amusement meant their success and benefit. They took the stage and the mockery commenced much to Diocletian's delight. Genesius played a Christian in the catechumenate and his fellow actors played the stereotypes and comedic parts to the hilt. Subtle and not-so-subtle satire of the Christians pleased Diocletian as the actors must have been aware as they performed. Genesius--in character--requested baptism and an actor playing a priest came out from the wings of the stage area. Much laughter accompanied the baptism of Genesius but something changed as the water left the priest's bowl and poured over Genesius' head. Genesius saw a vision and all of his catechumenate came to bear upon his soul. He found himself painfully aware that he was mocking something that had taken seen in his heart and that he found himself truly to believe. He was being converted even as he mocked his newfound Lord and Savior. He had professed his faith in mockery but now it was made real as he found that the seed of faith planted by his time with the Christians had bloomed within him.

Actors playing soldiers came forward and gripped Genesius by the shoulders. They noticed that something had changed about Genesius' demeanor who had stopped delivering lines and, instead, was staring into space at some unseen vision. They continued on with the play likely thinking that Genesius was planning some particular gag or, perhaps, in accordance with the maxim: "the show must go on." They dragged him before the feet of Diocletian in the audience and presented him to the Emperor. Thinking it hilarious and excited to have a part in the show, Diocletian demanded the same of Genesius as he had demanded of so many Christians--denial of their faith and sacrifice to the Roman gods. Genesius looked up into the face of Diocletian and said, "I can deny neither my faith nor my Lord Jesus Christ." Nervous laughter stole through the crowd and Diocletian looked to his aides with confusion in his eyes--he didn't get it. The other actors froze knowing that Genesius had left the script--he was supposed to have agreed to the Emperor's demands and make a mockery of all that had preceded and been said.

Diocletian did not like that he thought a joke was being played on him and so he had soldiers--real soldiers--come out and bind Genesius before the crowd. It may not be funny but he refused to allow some actor to rob him of his dignity and aura of fear and adoration. He demanded Genesius' denial under threat of torture as audience and acting troupe looked on. Genesius responded: "There's nothing you can do or threaten to remove Jesus Christ from my heart and my mouth. Once I mocked his holy name and now I detest and regret that time. I came so late to the Kingdom and cannot leave it now." On Diocletian's order, Genesius was beheaded and made a martyr. He had not received the rewards of Rome but he had received the rewards of the Kingdom of God. He had earned the Martyr's Crown.