Tuesday, August 4, 2015

August 4 - John Vianney, Priest, Confessor, Shepherd

John Vianney was not a well-educated man. He had been born to a family of poor peasants near Lyons, France. He briefly served in the military before deserting. He greatly desired to be a priest because of the heroic quality of the outlawed ministers who would supply spiritual sustenance and succor under threat of arrest, imprisonment, and even death. Yet, he was not a learned or well-read man. His inconsistent education combined with his relative lack of academic intellect suggested that the priesthood was not an appropriate profession for him.Regardless of his suitability for the profession of priest, John was ideally suited for the calling and vocation of priest.

He was, eventually, recommended for ordination--although, it was with great hesitation that the bishop agreed to assign him. He was not learned like other priests but he was sincerely interested in taking care of people and providing spiritual support and formation. In 1815, he was finally ordained. In 1817, his bishop assigned him as the parish priest of a small village--Ars-en-Dombes--where he was expected to live out a life of obscurity and do little damage. Even though the bishop failed to see John's potential, God was calling John to do great things.

Even though it was clear that his advisers, friends, and supervisors felt that his was an unimportant calling, John understood his parish to be a flock of people thirsty for life-giving water. Though he was unable to do much education on abstract theology or erudite books and theories, he repeatedly poured himself out for his flock. His people talked among themselves and wondered if he ever slept since they were aware that he was constantly visiting members, officiating over the work of the Church, and engaging in his own spiritual formation. Though John's sermons were simplistic and far from eloquent, they spoke with the power of a man who truly believed that love was stronger than death. John's every action and movement became a powerful sermon about sacrifice, love, peace, and hospitality.Though the world had labeled him insignificant and his parish unimportant, John devoted himself to the ministry of loving these people with all his heart, mind, soul, and strength.

John would hear confession on some days for up to 18 hours. His skills with confession were laudable and his investment in his people reaped dividends in their own spiritual formation. By being devoted to their lives--day in and day out--John gained a familiarity with them that allowed him to move them in confession and formation. He helped call out their sin and weakness and moved them onward to greater growth and devotion to their common Lord and Savior. This unlearned man knew little of books but much of people and holiness and lead onward calling his flock to follow into the Kingdom of God.

As John continued his ministry at Ars-en Dombes, this unimportant town became a center of people seeking compassion and care. For those who sought healing from the world and their own self-initiated slavery to sin and destruction, John offered a hand to hold while Jesus Christ freed and redeemed them. John never quite understood what all the fuss was about and why so many people wanted to honor him and never would. For John, this was simply what being a priest meant. Though John was not martyred--in fact, he died of natural causes--it's true to say he repeatedly laid down his life not only for his friends, but also, for his enemies. John lived a life worthy of remembrance and emulation. Miracles and feats accompanied this gentle and soft-spoken shepherd but, for John, the greatest miracle of all was God calling greatness out of the insignificant and unimportant.

Monday, August 3, 2015

August 3 - Lydia of Thyatira, Seller of Purple, Convert, Hospitalier

Paul, Silas, Luke, and Timothy were traveling through Philippi and spreading the Gospel given to them by their Lord--Jesus. In obedience to the great commission that had been given to all Christians and their own particular call, they found themselves traveling through the known world and sharing the story of a crucified king and forgiveness and redemption for all who would request it.

As was their practice they went to the synagogue to speak to their people and share the news that Jesus had lived and died for their sins, been raised from the dead, ascended to the Father, and that Jesus would come back in judgment of both the living and dead. In their proclamation of the Gospel, they gathered the interest of Lydia and her friends.

Lydia was a wealthy widow who had gained some notoriety among the male-dominated society of Philippi. She made a living as a business-woman selling purple-dyed clothing and the purple dye, itself. Her husband had died and, yet, she was not ruined in the eyes of the merchant community. Instead, she had become a leader in the community and held the respect of people who may never have offered respect to a woman if it hadn't been for her incredible success and head for business. She had not been given respect or assistance because of her status as a widow but she had purchased it through her commitment to business and the economy of the powers-that-be.

Not only was Lydia wealthy, she was spiritually sensitive and known to lead women in prayer and study. When Paul, Silas, Luke, and Timothy arrived she was the natural leader of the group of women and the first to step forward and convert to the life and calling that the men were offering. Lydia's keen spiritual awareness prepared her for this experience but it was the Holy Spirit that drew her to the place of proclaiming Jesus--the crucified King--as Lord.

Upon her conversion, she said to the men, "If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come to my house and stay." In doing this, Lydia grasped at the heart of the Kingdom. She offered hospitality to those in need of it and began to share her life and self with others regardless of familiarity. She opened her table and her home to the four men who guided her conversion but, also, would go on to be a pillar of the Church in Philippi. The hospitality she demonstrated would not only prove to be a mark of her conversion but, also, a mark of the early Church.

Lydia's hospitality proclaimed the power of love and fellowship to a world that offered little help to widows and women. Though Lydia had earned respect and appreciation through her business-sense, she was part of a different economy of love and respect when she joined the Kingdom:love was the starting point, in the Kingdom, and not something you had to earn. Love was not something that had to be purchased or torn from people but, rather, something given freely and compassionately. In her commitment to hospitality, Lydia helped to advance the Kingdom in Philippi through merciful and compassionate use of the blessings God had given to her.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

August 2 - Basil of Moscow, the Blessed, Wonderworker, Prophet

In 1468, Basil was born near Moscow to a poor family of serfs. Their poverty had a lasting impact upon Basil in a variety of ways: 1) Basil learned what it meant to be impoverished, 2) Basil was not tempted to affluent disregard like so many of his contemporaries, and 3) Basil gained a powerful prophetic voice by virtue of his upbringing. In spite of their poverty they arranged to have their son sent off to be apprenticed to a cobbler. Making and repairing shoes would not be a luxurious or respectable job but it would be a way to make a steady living.

Though he was a cobbler by profession, he was a holy fool by vocation. As a holy fool, he followed in the footsteps of Ezekiel the Prophet and engaged in foolishness in a prophetic fashion. By refusing to live by people's expectations, he constantly challenged people to reconsider what they felt and believed. A holy fool redefines foolishness.

For example, Basil would walk barefoot through the streets of Moscow during the blazing Summer. He would, seemingly without cause or rationale, turn over a table of food or pour out jugs of wine. Only later would it be found out that the food was improperly cooked or the wine poisonous. With their limited knowledge, the people would judge Basil to be an idiot and an incompetent but this was because they could not see and understand what Basil could. Until they would learn, they would beat and abuse Basil. Basil, in the fashion of his Lord and Savior, would accept these punishments wordlessly and compassionately. Though he was saving their lives, they abused him. In their ignorance, they scorned their salvation--a beautiful image for those who might reflect upon the life and death of Jesus.

Once, there was a merchant who had fallen upon hard times when thieves had stolen everything he owned. He was penniless and, yet, his clothes suggested his former wealth. As he begged alms on the street for food and assistance, people would pass him by thinking he was nothing more than a greedy and evil man. He could not simply lose his clothes as they were all he had left and, yet, he would not receive any help because the people knew him by what he had before he lost it. Basil, with the true-sight of a holy fool and prophet, recognized the merchant for what had happened. He gave the man a great gift he had received. The merchant went, sold it, and was able to buy back all that had been stolen from him. Basil was able to see the heart of the person when everybody else saw only the appearance. Once again, Basil understood what others missed.

Perhaps the greatest feat of this holy fool was his encounter with Ivan the Terrible. Ivan attended church services but Basil was unconvinced that it was anything more than a show of pseudo-spirituality for political purposes. Ivan had earned the title "the Terrible" butBasil had no fear of this man who spent time in church services daydreaming about building palaces. During Lent, when the people were not eating meat, Basil approached Ivan at dinner and slammed down a large piece of bloody meat on the table in front of Ivan. Ivan protested that he did not eat meat for it was Lent. Basil responded, "You eat and drink the blood and flesh of those you kill and torture..." Ivan, in an unexpected turn, did not punish Basil. Instead, he would be a pall-bearer at Basil's eventual funeral.

For the people of Moscow, Basil was an oddity that one hoped to avoid for the most part. His tearful prayers over the houses of sinners and outcasts must surely have gathered some confusion and derision. And, yet, Basil was comfortable in his calling as a fool for Christ. He saw what others could not or would not see. His values were not the same as the world's. He was a citizen of the Kingdom of God and his life was foolishness to the people he sojourned among.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

August 1 - Abgar of Edessa, king, Convert, Icon Keeper

King Abgar of Edessa had contracted a terrible skin disease. Indubitably, it would have been labeled
leprosy--like so many diseases at the time--but we're still unsure what affliction afflicted Abgar. Regardless, it was painful and distressing for Abgar. Doctors and healers had tried their various solutions to no avail and, still, the king of Edessa suffered. He called Hannan--a dear advisor, friend, and accomplished artist--to himself and said: "I have heard of a man near Jerusalem named Jesus. What I have heard and read amazes me. Go and find this man and convince him to come here. We will provide him sanctuary from his troubles and pay him handsomely. If he refuses then, at the very least, paint a picture of him and bring it back." He gave Hannan a letter to deliver to Jesus that read (in part):
I have heard of Thee, and of Thy healing; that Thou dostnot use medicines or roots, but by Thy word openest (the eyes) of the blind, makest the lame to walk, cleansest the lepers, makest the deaf to hear; how by Thy word (also)Thou healest (sick) spirits and those who are tormented with lunatic demons, and how, again, Thou raisest the dead to life. And, learning the wonders that Thou doest, it was borne in upon me that (of two things, one): either Thou hast come down from heaven, or else Thou art the Son of God, who bringest all these things to pass. Wherefore I write to Thee, and pray that thou wilt come to me, who adore Thee, and heal all the ill that I suffer, according to the faith I have in Thee.
Hannan departed for Jerusalem and, eventually, came across a crowd. He observed that there were many here seeking healing and saw that at the center of the crowd was a group of Jewish men surrounding an individual who was healing and caring for the crowds. He noticed the compassion on the face of the healer and began to ask around about his identity. He soon found out that this was the Jesus he was looking for. He pushed his way through the crowd and delivered Abgar's request. Jesus declined the offer and wrote a letter for Hannan to deliver to Abgar. It read (in part):
Happy art thou who hast believed in Me, not having seen me, for it is written of me that those who shall see me shall not believe in Me, and that those who shall not see Me shall believe in Me. As to that which thou hast written, that I should come to thee, (behold) all that for which I was sent here below is finished, and I ascend again to My Father who sent Me, and when I shall have ascended to Him I will send thee one of My disciples, who shall heal all thy sufferings, and shall give (thee) health again, and shall convert all who are with thee unto life eternal.
Having been refused on the matter of coming with him, Hannan sat down to make a painting of Jesus and, yet, was unable to do so. He was unable to capture the glorious compassion and love in the face of Jesus and, consequently, failed to produce a painting that truly represented the face he was seeing. Noticing Hannan's failures, Jesus washed his face, took a cloth and dried it, and gave the cloth to Hannan. Legend holds that the appearance of Jesus' face was made to stay upon the cloth as an image to take back to Abgar. Thus, the first icon was made by Jesus' hands and is, therefore, described as: acheiropoietoe ("made without hands"). From this, some draw Jesus' approval of iconography and the process of writing spiritual imagery.

Hannan carried the icon of Jesus back to Abgar and Abgar's faith in Jesus' words partially healed him. After Jesus' death, resurrection, and ascension, Thaddeus (one of Jesus' disciples) was sent by St. Thomas to go to Abgar and heal him. Thaddeus arrived and finished the healing work that Jesus had started. Upon this miracle, many were converted to follow after the same Jesus whom they had seen but never met and trusted yet never spoken to.

In the icon, there is comfort for those whom have not seen Jesus and, yet, have faith. In the icon, we engage the Lord God Almighty--King of the Universe--through the things that God has created--wood, egg, dirt, gold--and remind ourselves that God is not an aloof and distant God but a close and intimate God who offers healing and redemption even to those in the far reaches of the world. There is much to learn from the legend of Abgar, assuredly, but one particular point is the importance of image (note: not idol) for Christian teaching. Just as the Triune God became flesh so that we might gain access and redemption, the spiritual has become corporeal in the icon to provide teaching and comfort. Icons are, after all, not things to be worshipped but, rather, holy items that we might worship our common God and Savior.