Saturday, April 29, 2017

April 29 - Catherine of Siena, Mystic, Monastic, Betrothed to Christ


The boy was talking very fast and trying his hardest to impress his six-year-old sister Catherine. He knew it was his job and duty to not only take care of her but to entertain her as they walked back from the home of their older and married sister. Catherine was the youngest of twenty-five children since her twin had died shortly after birth and was a treasure to the family. So, he joked with her and told her stories so that the journey home might be a little easier on her. When he turned to see why she wasn't responding to his best jokes and funniest voices, he noticed that she was no longer walking beside him. Like a good brother, he was instantly terrified that he had lost his youngest sister. He began to look around frantically while yelling at himself for his negligence and carelessness. He was gripped by that horrible combination of certainty that she must be nearby and confidence that an awful mistake has been made that will exact a terrible cost. When he didn't see her in the immediate area he began to sprint back on the path they had been traveling. He finally found her standing in the middle of the road and staring up into the sky with tears streaming down her face.

He knew that those tears--probably tears of fear at being lost, he suspected--would purchase his punishment with their father and so he began to think of a way to dry them up along with any story Catherine might be tempted to tell before they got home again. He called her name sweetly but she didn't adjust her gaze away from the blank spot on which it was focused. He became frightened and called out to her louder and more harshly yet she still mouthed silent words with her eyes focused on some invisible subject. When he grasped her hand, she suddenly gasped and seemed ripped back into the world she shared with her family and the rest of humanity. Six-year-old Catherine began speaking of seeing the throne of Heaven with Jesus seated upon it. Around him were Peter, Paul, and John and they joined together with others in worship. The little girl who was nicknamed "Joy" by her family had been overwhelmed by the joy that radiated from the communion and unity of that glorious scene. Even telling it to her brother had an infectious nature and when they got home her family found this to be a miraculous vision of things unseen. This little girl would commit then and there to a life of devotion to the one who had inspired such joy and peace by his mere presence. She would go on to become a leader in the Dominican monastic movement among the devoted laity. Her appointment was not without controversy but it is undeniable that she was called to and suited for this position of service.

When she grew older she was pushed toward marriage by her family. They had raised her in the Faith that they professed alongside her but it seems that Catherine's childhood vision had faded in their minds over the years while it still burned white hot in her own. When they began to speak of marriage and betrothal, she took a shocking action and cut her long, beautiful, golden-brown hair to a strikingly short length. She was punished for this act and forced to do menial tasks around the home and denied the solitude and silence she craved so eagerly.Yet, it was through this punishment that she learned to find solitude within herself--deserts that could not be denied to her and always held the promise of the presence of God. Eventually, she had another vision wherein she was brought up to heaven by Jesus himself. Once there, she was betrothed to Jesus. He slipped a ring upon her finger to seal her as his and she was taken back to the world she knew and shared with her family. From that day onward she said she could always see the band upon her finger even as others claimed that nothing was there.

Catherine answered a calling to devote herself to her Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. In doing so she became an advocate of reformation within the Church that called clergy and leaders to hold themselves to a high standard even as they called others to join with them in this standard of excellence and service. She would write numerous letters and treatises on the mystical life of communion with Jesus and the way of love that she knew as the way of her Faith. She cared for the sick and the plague-stricken with her own hands and walked with many weeping and mourning families as they escorted their loved ones to the grave. The little girl who had been inspired by a vision of joy and communion spent her life on others in a way that brought this joy and communion a step closer in her own world.

Friday, April 28, 2017

April 28 - Oskar Schindler, Businessman, Enemy of the Nazis, Righteous Among the Nations


Oskar Schindler had an eye for business even if he didn't seem to be all that gifted at maintaining businesses long term in challenging economies. So, when the Nazis breached the Polish defenses and began seizing the assets and valuables of the country, he recognized that there would most surely be opportunities to purchase and run successful business in Poland. Her purchased an enamelware factory in Krakow and quickly set out figuring how he might make it profitable and self-sustaining. The Nazis had a limited need for enamel in their war effort so Oskar wanted to hire workers as cheaply as he possibly could to insure profitability. His accountant--a German speaking Jew by the name of Itzhak Stern--convinced him to hire Jews who had been forced into labor camps as they would be cheap but able to do the work. Oskar took Itzhak's advice and soon he was in the business of enamel in Poland and employed over 1,000 Jews.

At first, he had hired the Jews because they would be cheap. Oskar bought into the Nazi lies that insisted the Jews were vile but his opinion was slowly being changed by regular interaction with them. He found that unlike what he had been told, his employees were good and decent people who seemed very much like himself. It was only after a little while that he began to defend them against raids, probes, and harassment. He turned the Gestapo aside and used his charm to convince others to overlook him and his little factory. When they came to take the children and handicapped, he insisted that they were highly skilled and essential workers who could not be taken if the factory was to survive. Since the factory had been labeled "important" to the Nazi war effort, Oskar's workers--often referred to as Schindlerjuden or "Schindler's Jews"--were allowed to remain under Oskar's watchful care. Oskar had found that he loved those who worked for him and could no longer believe the lies of the Nazis who had tried to make him hate people so that he might better obey their Imperial commands.

In 1942, Oskar had the painful experience of seeing the Nazis ply their trade in a ghetto in Krakow. The soldiers beat, humiliated, and dragged away the Jews that they could find. They were loaded onto trains and shipped to concentration camps where they would likely work until they died from hunger and exhaustion or until they were murdered for being Jewish and undesirable to those in power. After this, Oskar began using more and more of his money and charm to protect more and more Jews. He arranged for 700 Jews to be assigned to work in a nearby factory where he could keep his eye on their welfare. He began buying some of their possessions and valuables off of the black market so that they might not lose them forever. He bribed officials and powerful people so that those he protected might continue to be protected. In other words, Oskar sacrificed the values of good business and economics to care for the people he had learned to love and adore.

When the Soviets began to make progress against the Nazis and encroach upon their conquered territory, Oskar knew that soon his workers would be evacuated to concentration camps if the Nazis became nervous about their proximity to liberating Soviet forces. So, he made a request that he and his nearly 1,200 workers be shipped to another factory in Czechoslovakia where he might "better serve" the Nazi war effort. The factory he had purchased produced missile and hand grenades and his willingness to seemingly strengthen the Nazi army was smiled upon. He and his workers were shipped to the factory and began to produce missiles and hand grenades. Not a single one of the weapons they produced ever worked successfully, though. He had bought a factory that would ultimately cost him far much more money than it was worth but by this point he was far more concerned with those he loved and was protecting than he was for himself or his business ventures. He protected his workers at great cost to himself and the ruination of his own business and economic life. At the end of the war, he was nearly penniless because of his steadily increased devotion to the people God had called him to love.


Oskar tried many more business ventures over the course of his life but none were especially successful for any significant period of time. He had saved over 1,200 Jews from certain death because he knew that the Faith he professed called him to lay down his life for those he loved. He died in 1974 and is remembered as a great savior and protector of the Jews in Germany. He found a way to protect even those who were within the jaws of the Nazi war machine by laying down his present and his future so that they might live. He was declared one of the "Righteous Among the Nations"during his lifetime and is memorialized by a tree planted at the Yad Vashem in Israel.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

April 27 - Toyohiko Kagawa, Poet, Pacifist, Friend of the Poor

When Toyohiko Kagawa was asked to come and speak to the seminarians at Princeton--one of his alma maters--he went willingly and eagerly. Toyohiko had been displeased with much of his own seminary experience because he found that the students there were far more interested in arguments, rhetoric, persuasion, and the fine points of doctrine and textual study. He repeatedly begged them simply to live out what Jesus had taught in the parable of the Good Samaritan. He knew he was asking for much of the seminarians but he hoped that they would--as far as people go--be the most likely to answer a call to genuinely and sincerely practiced allegiance to Jesus as Lord and Savior. When he finished speaking to the assembled Princetonians he accepted some questions and then dismissed them quietly and gathered his things from the podium. As he was doing so, two of the seminarians turned to each other in their seats and discussed his lecture.

One insisted that it had not been quite what they had expected from a man who was so well respected around the seminary. Turning to his friend, he quipped, "He didn't have much to say, did he?"They shared their own little laugh knowing that they were better educated than Toyohiko but not knowing that they were still fools. Both of them had heard of his background and how he had been the illegitimate child of a powerful Japanese man and a geisha. He was hated by his mother and liked by his father but soon both his mother and father had died and he was orphaned. He was given over as the ward of the widowed wife of his father. She and her mother struggled not to resent little Toyohiko because it had not been his decision to be a child of infidelity but they failed in their struggle and Toyohiko knew he was hated by them. They sent him away to a boarding school. He began attending a bible study given by a Christian minister so that he could learn and practice his English. Yet while he was learning the language, he was hearing and considering the truths and teachings of the Faith of the minister. When he was a teenager, he converted to the Christian Faith that had gripped him by the heart over a long time of reflection and meditation. Soon after this conversion he knew clearly that he would be a minister of the Gospel that had spoken to him when he had walked in darkness, desperation, and death.

Though they didn't seem to prize it, those two young seminarians knew that after receiving more education in preparation for the calling he was already living into, Toyohiko had stepped out in faith and moved into the Shinkawa district of Kobe. These slums were some of the worst--if not the absolute worst--in all of Japan. He lived in a three-walled dwelling so filthy and small (only six feet wide by six feet long) that it would be an overstatement to call it a shack. For nearly fifteen years he tended to the sick, suffering, hungry, poor, and dying in Shinkawa. Toyohiko was able to make a little money (not nearly as much as he would have been able to if he had moved out of Shinkawa, though) but he spent it all on medicine, food, and clothing for those who came to him asking for it. He was regularly abused and beaten for his love and compassion. At one point, a band of thugs accosted him knowing him as an "easy mark" who would give over anything to them not out of fear but out of love. They demanded his clothing and mentioned that they knew he was a Christian. He took off his clothing and handed it over to the criminals and they walked away with filthy rags and an increasing awareness of the goodness of Toyohiko's God and their own inherent sinfulness shown by their willingness to beat and strip a poor and loving man in the slums.


Those two young seminarians probably had no idea that Toyohiko had spent nearly every night for nearly fifteen years tending for the sick and homeless in his own meager dwelling. He gave over his bed to the sick and filthy people he loved and slept in the cold with little to protect himself from the elements. He gave over his food and drink with such regularity that he was regularly ill from hunger. He did not have intense theological debates but he regularly lived out the teachings of Jesus in a way that granted him an inherent understanding of the Gospel that Jesus brought into this world. Every night for four years he held the hand of a murderer as that murderer drifted off into a fitful sleep in Toyohiko's own bed. The murderer could not bear what he had done any longer but Toyohiko still spoke of forgiveness to and refused to abandon the poor man who feared isolation and judgment. He organized workers in the slums and shipyards all while fighting for increased voting rights in Japan. Eventually, he was arrested and held in prison for two particular crimes: 1) he organized the voiceless so that they might speak in unison to those with power and be heard, and 2) he apologized to the Chinese for the Japanese occupation of portions of China. Toyohiko's commitment to peace--one he felt compulsory for all who hoped to follow Jesus even if it cost them their lives--made him a dangerous criminal in the eyes of Japan.

Perhaps the two young seminarians knew that a terrible earthquake hit Tokyo and Yokohama in 1923. The ruins of those cities were flooded with the sick, suffering, hungry, poor, and dying. The government was overwhelmed by the need and was uninitiated into taking care of its citizens since it had been so long practicing power and control and forsaking compassion and mercy. So they came to Toyohiko in prison and released him. They knew he had made a difference in the lives of those needing help and they also knew that it was Toyohiko who would be able to do it again. They made him Chief of Social Welfare and offered him a home and a sizable salary. He rejected them and insisted that he could neither help the poor from a position of comfort nor allow his Christian duty to be purchased. He slowly helped rebuild cities devastated by earthquake, neglect, and need. For this he was lauded and honored even as he insisted that he was only doing the bare minimum of what God had called him to do.


As the two seminarians continued to share their own criticism of Toyohiko they ignored that Toyohiko was struggling to see the steps he was trying to descend. He had acquired a serious eye disease because of his practices of offering hospitality even in the slums. Those he lived with were sick and soon so was Toyohiko. As the two men missed the point of all they had heard and continued to pass the drug of intelligent pride back and forth an elderly lady overheard them and interrupted them. She leaned forward to interject one simple sentence into their conversation while pointing at Toyohiko as he carefully descended the stairs: "You don't need to say much when you're hanging on a cross."

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

April 26 - Basil of Amasea and Glaphyra, Martyr and Near-Martyr, Bishop and Refugee

Glaphyra was the servant of the empress--Constantia--who was married to the emperor named Licinius. Licinius lusted for Glaphyra in such an obvious way that it was apparent even to his wife whom he hoped to hide it from. To be honest, this was surely not the first time that Constantia was faced with her husband's infidelity since he seemed to be accustomed to getting what he wanted from women whether they liked it or not. Glaphyra, however, was a Christian and had taken a vow of celibacy so that she might focus on devoting herself to service and her calling as a woman of God. Constantia knew that soon her husband would force Glaphyra to transgress her vow and ruin yet another young woman. So, she dressed Glaphyra in the clothing of one of her male servants and undertook careful measures to disguise Glaphyra in a way that would not attract Licinius' attention. Then, she gave her a large sum of money and sent her to Amasea where she might refuge with the Church there. Once Glaphyra was away Constantia conspired with her servants to deceive Licinius and tell him that Glaphyra was insane and on her deathbed.

Glaphyra was very frugal with the gift that Constantia had given her. In fact, she still possessed nearly all of it when she arrived in Amasea and was taken in by the bishop there. His name was Basil and he was committed to taking care of the people of God and those that God willed to pass through his life. He took Glaphyra in and found a home for her within the congregation. She found comfort and spiritual solace in Amasea under Basil's leadership. Eventually, she donated all of the gift she had received to build a meeting building for the congregation that had welcomed her as a refugee and exile. It wasn't nearly enough and so she sent a letter back to Constantia by secretive means asking for more support. Constantia was very willing to support the Church in Amasea and so she sent along the money and the building was finished. But as it was being finished Licinius stumbled upon the letter and was outraged. He was not furious because he could not have Glaphyra's body but because he had been deceived and outwitted. He was embarrassed and allowed his embarrassment to fuel a rage. He ordered the governor of Amasea to send Glaphyra and Basil to him so that he might punish them for their audacity. He complied because of his allegiance to Licinius but Glaphyra died before the journey could be made and was buried among the bones of the congregation she had been grafted into. She had found a home and a calling and rested peacefully knowing her life's journey was over.


Basil, however, was sent to Licinius--brought in chains--to pay for the heinous crime of taking in a lonely, refugee woman. Basil was found guilty of the charge of subverting the empire and being an enemy of the state. For the treason of loving those the emperor raged against he was beaten and tortured. Licinius thought that a promise of money and power would win Basil over and so he offered to make brave Basil into a pagan priest of his own personal religion. Licinius must have been even more enraged when Basil laughed at the idea and insisted that it was foolishness to trade faith for life. So, he was carried to the place where he would be made a martyr and he stopped to pray with some of the Christians who had come from Amasea to be with him. They were worried he wouldn't hold up to the emperor's worst intentions but they were comforted to watch him follow through in his commitment and mount the platform where his life would be stolen from him. He knelt down and looked up to his executioner. "Do what he wants you to do," Basil said, "it's alright." Having forgiven his killers, he died a martyr and an example of what it means to follow Jesus regardless of the cost.