Saturday, May 28, 2016

May 28 - Bernard of Menthon, Monastic, Missionary, Hospitable

Bernard was raised in the castle of Menthon in the geographic region known as Savoy. Being raised in a castle suggests the degree of nobility that flowed through his veins. In fact, he was a man of significant pedigree for that little region bordering the Alps and received an exemplary education as a child and youth. Being a child of wealth and influence, it was customary that his marriage be arranged so that power could be consolidated and bloodlines could be maintained in a politically and socially useful way. So, a marriage was arranged for Bernard in spite of his stated desire to become a monk and priest. His family and friends tried to talk him out of such a ludicrous idea by mentioning all the things he would need to give up to become a priest. They reasoned that such a vocation made sense for the lower classes because the priesthood or the monastery could represent a step up in quality of life for them but that it made no sense for somebody to step down into such a calling when wealth and influence were theirs by birth. None of this convinced Bernard, though, who maintained that a calling was a calling regardless of what one stood to lose and so he fled through the Alps to part of Italy to escape his family and the envied castle life that threatened to become a prison. He gave it all up for the life of a Benedictine monk under the spiritual direction of Peter the archdeacon of Aosta.

Peter's influence upon Bernard was intensely formative. Due in part to his excellent education and his passionate understanding of his own calling, but largely because of Peter's capable direction, Bernard grew in the faith at an exceedingly rapid rate. In those years he spent as a monk and priest he studied how to reach out to others with the Gospel he had received and been taught to prize above all things.That which he had received he was eager to give away to others if they had ears to hear and eyes to see. After Peter's death, it was Bernard who became the archdeacon of Aosta. With this position of direction and leadership he turned his eyes to the Alps and both the people who crossed them to get to Rome and those who lived among the frosty crags. Bernard began travelling the passes and summits of the Alps and spreading the Gospel he so dearly loved among
the people he encountered. He was a surprisingly effective missionary and evangelist among the natives but perhaps the most memorable part of Bernard's story was his work among the travelers who traversed the mountains he saw as his mission field.

Many who tried to cross the Alps on their way to Rome died because of the incredible challenges to their health and safety. So, Bernard did something ridiculous: he built a monastery on the summit of the most popular pass from the west to the east. The monks lived within its walls under Bernard's direction and lived lives of quiet prayer and contemplation but also included a very peculiar discipline within their monastic lives. Each day, monks would travel into the Alps to look for those who had become lost in their pilgrimage or become overcome by the weather and aid them in their travels. Each monk would travel with a dog bred specifically for the treacherous climate of the Alps (a breed of dog now known as a Saint Bernard) so that they could guide the travelers back to the monastery for the night. Those who traversed the Alps found Bernard's monastery a welcome stop along the way and so, eventually, another monastery was founded with the same disciplines and same directions as the first. After Bernard's death, his direction and guidance lived on in his many disciples and in those whom he reached and for whom he cared.

Friday, May 27, 2016

May 27 - Julius the Veteran, Martyr, Soldier

We know far less about the conversion of Julius than we do about his military service. This makes sense in a way because those who were keeping records of the man were infinitely more interested in his service to Rome than his conversion to Jesus. Somewhere during his twenty-seven years of military service in the Roman army he converted to Christianity even though it was an increasingly unpopular faith. During those twenty-seven years of service to Rome he was an active participant in seven different military campaigns. To survive one or two campaigns as a soldier in Rome's service was notable because it easily signified a special level of battlefield awareness and competency. To survive seven campaigns was astounding for a soldier who risked the fearsome teeth of battle regularly and set Julius up as a notable feature of his legion and as a minor celebrity among the other soldiers. That's what makes their betrayal so surprising.

They had known he was a Christian shortly following his conversion because his whole outlook and approach to life seemed to change in the blink of an eye. But when he was fighting by their side they had no trouble with his beliefs--perhaps they even thought his new faith might earn them some special luck or protection. It wasn't until after that seventh campaign that a group of his fellow soldiers accused him of being a Christian before the prefect Maximus. Since the punishment for disloyalty to the Roman faith was death, this was the kind of accusation that was not made lightly. Perhaps the soldiers stood to gain from Julius' absence or perhaps they simply had grown tired of his changed life. Regardless, he was dragged before the prefect and accused of treason by placing his faith and trust in Jesus--one of the many masters of which the empire did not approve. Maximus stood before one of the best soldiers he knew and a group of accusing soldiers whose mouths could be his own downfall if word got out that Maximus could not tame one Christian. So, he made the threat of death that all prefects knew as their most fierce weapon and openly ridiculed the faith of Julius asking, "Who is this Jesus that you--a soldier who has faced death time and time again--are willing to die quietly for him?"

Julius responded, "It was he who died for our sins to give us eternal life. This same man, Christ, is God and abides for ever and ever. Whoever believes in Him will have eternal life; whoever denies Him will have eternal punishment." In those brief sentences, Julius made his confession before Rome and professed the Faith he knew and in which he trusted his soul and life. Maximus' face turned red in embarrassment that his ridicule had been turned to a confession and he looked over quickly at the faces of Julius' accusers. Maximus knew that these men would tell the story of what happened here with Julius and that Maximus couldn't afford to look weak before soldiers who valued strength above all things. So, he approached Julius with rage in face but deceit in his heart. It must have looked like a quiet threat but in those whispered words Maximus offered Julius a large sum of money and a position of power if he would deny his faith and sacrifice to the Roman gods. It would look powerful for Maximus to whisper in Julius' ear and suddenly effect his conversion and would make a great story for Julius' accusers to tell. When Julius refused the bribe openly, though, Maximus' plan fell apart in front of him. In a rage he commanded his guards to decapitate not only Julius but also seven other Christians being held in prison for the crime of faith. Having proven that he could not convert the Christians, Maximus proved that he could rob them of their lives. This passed for power in Rome and made for a better story in the opinion of Maximus. Julius died in the year 255 at Dorostorum on the lower Danube River as a martyr and example of what the world thought about those whose faith was in mysteries.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

May 26 - Augustine of Canterbury, Monastic, Missionary, Archbishop

Gregory wasn't surprised--even as his peers and colleagues were awestruck--that pope Gregory had selected him to become a missionary. Sure, he was a monk and prior of the abbey where Gregory was abbot but this didn't seem enough to qualify him to cross the waters and land in non-Christian Britain approximately 200 years after Rome had pulled the legions out of the countryside and ceded the territory to the non-Christian Anglo-Saxons. Sure, Augustine was very well educated but this didn't inspire enough bravery in his companions as they traveled to the coast to board their ships and sail for Kent. So, they had begged him to return to Rome and ask Gregory for permission to return from their mission before it ever started. He went because of the overwhelming outcry from among his fellow monks and companions but he knew what Gregory would say--how Gregory would quickly deny the request, remind him of his calling, and insist that it was time to take the Gospel back to southern England. So, when Augustine returned to his group of fellow missionaries and monks he was unsurprised by the news he carried with him from Gregory and wondered if they might not abandon him and the cause for a life of quiet desperation within the secure embrace of the Roman empire. But, with Gregory's fiery insistence and warm encouragement they rallied and joined Augustine on the ships that would take them far from comfort and deep within the grip of the non-Christian world.

They landed in Kent in 597--nearly 45 of them including Augustine and his second-in-command Laurence--and went to visit king Æthelberht and his wife Bertha. Bertha was a Christian princess from Frankish lands and had a bishop with her who served as her spiritual adviser. It was largely because of her insistence that the non-Christian Æthelberht had been open to accepting Christians in his lands. Of course, it helped that there was a history of Christianity in the land and the Irish Christians had proven their credibility for some time. Augustine and his colleagues began preaching with Æthelberht's blessing and proclaiming a Gospel of love for enemies and forgiveness for all and withing a few years saw Æthelberht converted with thousands of other native people. Æthelberht allowed the construction of a monastery in Canterbury and even supported a mass baptism in 601 that included converts numbering in the thousands. The derelict Christian traditions of southern England were revived under Augustine's leadership and soon he found himself with the title, duties, and obligations of a bishop.

After Augustine and his companions had established a monastery and revitalized the Church in England, there were many more missionaries sent in 601.Augustine's foothold allowed for the triumphant return of Gospel grace and life to English villages and people. Gregory sent along the vestments and sacred articles that symbolized the status of archbishop when these new missionaries came to England to follow the will of God under Augustine's careful and prayerful guidance. As archbishop he was asked by Gregory to ordain twelve bishops to expand the ministry of the Church in England and to begin the process of setting up a second archepiscopal see in York. It was the design of Gregory and Augustine to have two archbishops in England with twelve bishops serving under each archbishop. Augustine spent the rest of his life overseeing the missionary efforts of the Church in England and training and supporting the ministers who joined with him in this arduous but glorious task. Augustine had followed the lead of Gregory and reached out to his people's enemies in love to offer forgiveness and grace. Because of actions like these, the Church found a foothold and a fortress in the hearts and souls of the non-Christian Anglo-Saxons. After appointing Laurence as his successor, Augustine died in the year 604 on the 26th day of May. The good work God had started in England continued even as Augustine finally rested from his labors.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

May 25 - Bede, Teacher, Raised by the Monastery, Venerable

When Bede began to get sick he knew that it wasn't going to be long until he succumbed to the illness that he had seen in so many other monks. The swelling in his legs only confirmed to him that he had less time than he had expected. He spent the remainder of his days, though, doing what it was that he felt called to do--called to do from the beginning of his life. Bede had been raised in the monastery at Wearmouth-Jarrow in Christian Britain. In fact, he spent every day from the age of seven on as a member of that cloistered community because his parents sought to give him the best life they knew by fostering him to a group of monks and scholars.Because of this life, Bede received an education of such quality that it was beyond compare in the seventh and eighth centuries. He learned the teachings of the Church and how to read the scriptures they valued so highly. But at the end of his life, he was still paying back the gift of his magnificent education by passing it on to those around him--to his many students. So, as his life slowly drained away from him he began teaching more fervently and worshiping even more often than was already his regular and consistent practice.

He taught his many students on the many different subjects of his expertise. In his time period, he was considered the most intelligent and highly educated person alive. He taught rhetoric, mathematics, astronomy, history, homiletics, grammar, philosophy, music, science, and a variety of other subjects. It was his firm conviction that there were two powerful sources of transformation within the Christian religion. Through the Holy Spirit, Bede believed that education would whittle away violence and oppression by increasing knowledge among the people of the world. In fact, Bede understood education to be a ladder which God would help us to climb out of our broken lives and derelict relationships. Bede's commitment to education would characterize the Church's devotion to scholastic endeavors for many centuries to come. But the essential teaching was that education didn't matter if it lacked a powerful love that could animate all of a person's actions and make them truly and holistically redemptive. Bede wrote, "He alone loves the Creator perfectly who manifests a pure love for his neighbour." However, as he approached his death he had yet more to write and classes to finish. So, he called his students to him on his death bed.

One by one he recited teaching to them and they memorized it. Having memorized it they rushed from the room to record it in books. This curious process of dictation went on for some time before Bede's strength failed further and he was forced to rest in his own bed--within sight of his familiar spot of prayer. As death stalked him more closely and he could smell the scent of his own impending passing on the air he called for the monks to come to him by his bed. He had a few scant possessions--some pepper, some fabric, and a little incense--and he gave them away so that he might face death and his loving God with nothing more than when he entered into this world to seek God's will and calling on his life. Then, in his dying moments he gave what little he had left to give: a few more words of teaching for his students eager to record every word for posterity. Even as he approached his death he still taught the power of education--the power of a transformed life--and the primacy of love in all thoughts and actions. Having given his final lesson, he passed from this world and into the embrace of his creator.