Tuesday, September 27, 2016

September 27 - Vincent de Paul, Slave, Priest, Chaplain

Vincent was born into a historically unremarkable family with five other children. His peasant father and mother evidently took good care of their children and grounded them in the faith that they held so dear and so tightly held them. Vincent had the opportunity to study and receive an education by associating with various societies in more urban areas and received an education in theology while studying in Toulouse. He was ordained in the year 1600 and began a life of service and devotion to the Church and its Lord--Jesus Christ--who promised freedom to the bound.

While serving as a priest in Toulouse, he received a call to travel to Marseilles for some family business. His life had been like so many others for his first twenty-four years. His story differed very little from so many other priests while he served in the urban area of Toulouse. His life and his story was about to change, though, in a drastic and difficult way. It's hardly the kind of thing that anyone would wish for themselves or another but it was the path that Vincent's life took: while in Marseilles, Vincent was seized by Turkish pirates and forced into a life of servitude and suffering.

He was carried against his will to Tunis in Northern Africa. When they landed there, he must have trembled at the thought of what awaited him when he was forced to disembark. The voyage had been terrible but it had, at least, been a limited type of terror--on the ship he knew where he would be the next day and who he would be interacting with. When he was brought onto dry land again he could still smell the Mediterranean sea but it was a very different world that he found himself in. Drawing hope from the faith that held him and countless Christians before and after him, he walked to the slave market where he was purchased by a powerful man who had some interest in Vincent the priest.

As a slave, he was incredibly limited in his interactions with his owner but he began to form a relationship with the man who had bought his freedom and life for a small sum. His love and way of life drew the attention of his owner and the attention became interest. When the owner began talking with Vincent, he found a vibrant faith that led his slave to offer him forgiveness and love. This was so much unlike his other slaves who hated and despised him for commanding and controlling them. Though Vincent did not condone the servitude he was entangled in, he continued to love his owner anyway. Eventually, Vincent's owner was converted to the faith, hope, and love that held Vincent. After this, he freed Vincent and Vincent returned to France.

When he returned to France, it must have seemed like everything had changed because so much of Vincent had changed while serving another in bondage. In many ways, life was better and more exciting because of his rediscovered freedom which he likely took for granted before his enslavement. However, something else was changed--Vincent's outlook on life. He eventually became a chaplain to galley slaves and offered pastoral care and comfort to those who suffered under the hand of bondage and oppression. His ministry became characterized by service to the less fortunate and defeated. For the remainder of his life, he would serve under the guidance of the powerful to provide care to the weak and outcast. When confronted with the physical abuse that the slaves had received, he was also concerned with the spiritual abuse rendered unto them. He began to live a life and ministry of comfort and healing for the least of the slaves and convicts under his care. With priests who were inspired by his life and work, he founded a group of ministers committed to care for the enslaved and bound.

Monday, September 26, 2016

September 26 - Jeremiah, Prophet, Prisoner

To be fair, he had seen it coming. Jeremiah had stood among the people of God and yelled as loud as he could. As they went about their days and the activities therein, they failed to notice the waterfall this river of humanity was approaching. Ignorant of where their path was leading them, they didn't understand what Jeremiah was saying. To be fair, though, God had told Jeremiah to expect this. God had said, "You will go to them; but I know them--they will not listen." So, Jeremiah stood in the middle of his friends and family and screamed distasteful and disagreeable things--true things. Many ignored him because they couldn't begin to understand what he was saying. Others understood what he was saying but refused to believe that it could be true. "No," they thought, "God is still with us. Didn't he just recently turn away those Babylonians?" Jeremiah alternated between tears for their ignorance and disgust for their hardheartedness.

Jeremiah was thrown in jail for telling the truth to people who didn't want to hear it and had the power to punish him for saying it. Jeremiah was beaten, mocked, and abused. Jeremiah even knew he would fail from the beginning. Yet, Jeremiah continued to share the message of repentance and faith in God because God had called him to do so. He lamented his calling. He disliked his calling. But, he lived into it because doing so was what his life of faith and trust in God demanded.

Knowing that people were hearing his words but not hearing his message, Jeremiah tried reaching out to them in different ways. He hoped desperately to break through the walls the people had constructed around themselves. He walked around town wearing a yoke around his neck. When people were shocked out of their apathy enough by this strange sight, they learned that Jeremiah was making a statement about the coming enslavement of the Jews by the Babylonians. When Babylon had laid siege to Jerusalem, Jeremiah made the ridiculous gesture of repurchasing the land of his family--the same land that was currently underneath Babylonian feet. This was a sign of hope for a day when the people of Israel could return again to Jerusalem. Jeremiah tried to reach out to the very people that God had assured him would not listen to him. God was right and the people ignored Jeremiah and Jeremiah's God. They had fallen away and no longer knew a life of faith and trust. They needed to wander until they realized they needed to led.

Jerusalem did fall to the Babylonians and the Jews were exiled. Wealthy and influential Jews were carried away to Babylon to serve the Babylonians there. This was the beginning of one of the greatest wounds in Jewish history--the attempted destruction of a people. The Jews who were not powerful enough or influential enough were left behind in Israel to suffer under Babylonian oppression and domination. Life had changed much as Jeremiah had said it would. Yet, he had left them with the hopeful image of his purchase of the land. For some, perhaps, this served as a comforting thought that even though things had changed and God had allowed the Babylonians to conquer Jerusalem, God still cared for Israel and was still working out its salvation and redemption.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

September 25 - Sergius of Radonezh, Monk, Father Superior, Abbot of Russia

Sergius was born with the given name "Bartholomew" to a family of aristocrats. His parents were "boyars." This status made them only slightly less influential and powerful than princes in the world of the Moscovites. However, something lost in the waves of history happened and they were suddenly impoverished. Having fallen from their position of wealth and influence, they became like so many other Russians and began struggling to make enough money to live.

Stories say that young Bartholomew was a clever boy with only one problem in his studies: he had considerable trouble reading. Apparently, he could learn well when he heard something or saw something but struggled to read well enough to make written work useful and helpful. For a boy who expressed religious aspirations, this was a significant problem. Clerical vocations involved quite a bit of reading. As Bartholomew was traveling in the hills one day, he was approached by a man who looked like a local holy man. As Bartholomew approached, the man had nothing to say but was holding a piece of consecrated bread--like something that would be used in the Eucharist. This piece of bread would have been made of two separate pieces--representing the two natures of Jesus--and had letters printed on it standing for "Jesus Christ, Conqueror." The man offered him the bread and Bartholomew took it. He ate it as he had learned to do. The man said nothing but as Bartholomew left, he turned back and couldn't find the man who had just been there. Stories say that this was an angelic visitation and when Bartholomew returned home he could read with proficiency and skill.

Bartholomew's parents died when he was a teenager and he went to be with his older brother Stefan who had become a monk. He persuaded Stefan to move from his monastery deeper into the forest and take on a more ascetic life of prayer and devotion than he was already living. They lived with each other and pushed each other on to greater and greater intimacy with the Lord they followed after. Eventually, Bartholomew would take his own monastic vows in Moscow and also take the name "Sergius" as part of his calling. He moved back into the forest to live the life of a hermit but monks began traveling to be with him and learn from him. When they would find him, he would not turn them away and when many of them had found him he agreed to be their abbot when they begged him to. They built their own cells in the forest and lived together in prayerful and holy communion. He led them to live by their own hands and work but to maintain a life of devotion and contemplation. This was a very challenging calling and, yet, his disciples lived into it.

Eventually, the Patriarch would sent a monastic charter to Sergius to make his collection of monks into an official monastery. Having been chartered, the members of his community spread throughout Russia and founded monasteries in the pattern that they had learned from Sergius. Their lives of contemplation and work prepared them well for their new roles of leadership among other monks. Sergius' notoriety meant that he was chosen as the successor for important Russian Church positions but turned them down in favor of remaining a simple monk. He also had the incredible opportunity to seize political power by riding the waves of his popularity in religious circles. Sergius' insistence upon the monastic life in contrast to a life of influence and power is significant for understanding what he was devoted to. Sergius knew where he was called and resisted temptations to power. He died on September 25, 1392. He was admired and respected throughout life and in his death as a Russian saint and monastic worthy of imitation.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

September 24 - Henri Nouwen, Priest, Author, Assistant

Henri was born into a Dutch family in 1932. Recalling his childhood, he was known to say: “I grew up in a very protected and safe environment and I learned to know that I was Dutch and I was Catholic. It took me quite a long time to discover that there were people, many people, who were neither!” His upbringing was religious and he would remark that he was familiar with two voices growing up: the voice of his mother offering unconditional love and the voice of his father spurring him onward to achievement and effort. For Henri, these voices would serve as constant companions and narrators for his life's actions. At the age of six, he says he first felt a calling to be a priest and servant of God's people. This is a calling that he would follow through school and eventually see realized when he as ordained a priest at the age of 25.

Henri's gifts were clearly disposed toward teaching and writing. His writing is--to this day--regarded highly among protestants, orthodox, and roman catholics. The decided difference in Henri's approach was his incredible passion for pastoral theology. This passion led him to study the relatively novel discipline of psychology (a discipline still distrusted by much of the Church) with vigor and apply it to his already considerable theological understanding. In this, Henri began cautiously to plumb the depths of the minds of those he served. He taught psychology and pastoral theology for many years at schools such as the University of Notre Dame and Yale University Divinity School. During this period, he wrote prolifically and magnificently. But, he still felt something was missing and he was haunted by many of his own personal terrors and challenges.

In 1981, Henri moved to Peru to serve the poor and discern if God was calling him to work among the people of the developing South. He left the academic regard and salary to serve among the poor and needy of Peru but, ultimately, found that this didn't feel like where God was calling him even if it was good work that he would continue as he served in other places. This work changed Henri for the better and further deepened his commitment to social justice and ministry to the poor but wasn't the last stop on his journey of calling.

In 1983, he accepted a position at Harvard University Divinity School that many academics would covet--he was required to teach only one semester and was encouraged to write as much as he wanted to. His classes were popular. His influence and fame were notable. Yet, Henri was overcome by the depression that had haunted him for most of his adult life. He found this to be a place of darkness and discomfort. In his journals, he would confess to conflict over his vow of celibacy and his incredible desire for physical and emotional intimacy with another person. This was a place where Henri continued his long struggle with his own sexuality and its implications for his spiritual life. Henri felt that Harvard was a great school but lacking in any feelings of communion. The competition and ambition of its students overtook their calling to love one another and be with each other. Henri resisted this place of darkness and isolation throughout his life--as far as we know--but it was at Harvard where so much of it came to bear upon him and lead to what he alternatively referred to as "burnout" and "spiritual death."

A seeming coincidence brought Henri together with Jean Vanier who told Henri about the communities that he was starting called L'Arche. These communities were meant to be places of intentional communion for people of all varieties. They were noted for taking in many people with intellectual disabilities. In 1986, Henri became the pastor of one of the L'Arche communities--called "Daybreak"--outside of Toronto, Canada. Still deep within his own depression and darkness, this was a challenging time that he relates in his book Adam, God's Beloved. Henri--the famous and influential author, priest, and activist--was asked to take care of a man named Adam who had a severe intellectual disability. Henri felt unappreciated and belittled at first. After all, surely he could be more useful in some other capacity. Yet, Adam became the key to Henri's release from his own darkness. Taking care of Adam--waking him, dressing him, helping him bathe--reminded Henri of the power of love to redeem even the darkest pits. As Henri loved Adam and Adam loved Henri, they were both further converted to life. It was at Daybreak that Henri finally found community and happiness. It was in the simple act of offering unconditional love that Henri found rest and comfort to his soul. Henri died from a heart attack in 1996. He was buried near Daybreak.