Tuesday, May 23, 2017

May 23 - Christian de Cherge and Companions, Martyrs, Monks, Hospitable

There had been Christians in Algeria before the monastery in Atlas had been built and dedicated to prayer and service. But, this monastery represented an entirely new possibility--a new opportunity for the spread of God's Kingdom. The Cistercian monks who populated its halls were French by birth but Christian monks by intention and devotion regardless of what national or social pressures they were forced to face. This monastery was to be--and truly did become--the contemplative and prayer-filled center of Christian life in Muslim dominated Algeria. There were no local people joining in with the monastery--Christianity came at a very high price to the locals--but there were always monks willing to move to Atlas regardless of the potential costs involved. Their lives were disciplined lives of prayer, contemplation, and service. This consistency and regularity gave a strong foundation and foothold to the rapidly growing Algerian Christian community that was in need of leadership and education. In the monastery, they could find both leaders and teachers.

By day, the monks did what they were called to do. Each of them was acquainted with hard work and knew how to farm and coax the warm earth to give its life to the people who needed its sustenance. They grew their own food and planted their own gardens but they did far more than this, as well. They were eager and willing to teach their agricultural techniques--techniques that worked very well but may have been unpracticed by the local farmers in Algeria at the time--to any who was interested regardless of religious conviction or persuasion. They didn't practice hospitality and give the gifts of their knowledge because they hoped to convert the Muslims but because the Muslims were their neighbors and worthy of their love and care. Furthermore, the monastery's doors were open to those seeking refuge or medical care. Regardless of the injury or the need, the monks were willing to care for the one whom God had delivered into their benevolence. Perhaps most shocking was the time when they offered their sanctuary--the space in which they worshiped together--to some local Muslims whose mosque had been destroyed. These Muslims met in the Christian space and worshiped as they desired because of the hospitality of the Christians with whom they disagreed theologically.

Christian and the monks got along well with the Muslims near Atlas and with the majority of those they met. But there were some who were repelled by the hospitality that Christian and his companions offered and desired for the monks to be removed from Algeria. If they would not go willingly or convert to Islam, then they would have to be killed. Twenty Muslim men stormed the monastery on March 26th, 1996, and took the first seven monks they found because they had been told to go and get "those seven monks." Christian was among the seven that were taken.They were taken away from their home and held captive for some time. While captive, they were accused of various crimes and punished for being Christian. Christian had written a letter in 1995 that began "If it should happen one day—and it could be today—that I become a victim of the terrorism which now seems ready to encompass all the foreigners living in Algeria, I would like my community, my Church, my family, to remember that my life was given to God and to this country." He went to ask the reader to "associate such a death with the many other deaths that were just as violent, but forgotten through indifference and anonymity. My life has no more value than any other. Nor any less value." The seven were killed on May 21st, 1996, and their deaths were announced on May 23rd, 1996.

In the final paragraphs of his letter, Christian addressed his would-be-murderer and wrote: "And you also, the friend of my final moment, who would not be aware of what you were doing.Yes, for you also I wish this 'thank you'—and this 'adieu'—to commend you to the God whose face I see in yours. And may we find each other, happy "good thieves," in Paradise, if it pleases God, the Father of us both. Amen."

Monday, May 22, 2017

May 22 - Julia of Corsica, Martyr, Captive, Slave

In 489, something horrific happened in North Africa: Genseric and those he had brought under his leadership crossed the sea from Spain and began wreaking havoc on those who stood in their way. They were Arians and felt that the time for talk had ended. Consequently, they began demanding the orthodox to become Arians or suffer for their faith. Genseric even succeeded in taking Carthage where Julia lived with her noble family and Christian brothers and sisters. When Genseric's people encountered Julia they found her unwilling to renounce her faith or even listen to their attempts to convert her their particular brand of heterodoxy--Julia knew well that beliefs offered at the tip of a sword were not worthy of consideration without the threat of the blade. Because of he steadfast denial she was sold into slavery and shipped away from Carthage. This was a fairly typical practice for Genseric who reasoned that those who refused to be converted should be exiled from the land he wanted as his own. So, Julia who had been raised as a Christian in a noble family was suddenly a captive and a slave. She was sold to a man name Eusebius from Syria.

Eusebius was a merchant and did much business all around the Mediterranean Sea. He was not a Christian and, in fact, was willing to worship any of the gods of the peoples with whom he traded if it might help him make a little more money or gain a little more influence. Julia made the decision demonstrate the virtue of her faith in daily service to Eusebius. This did not make it likable or easy but it did give it an ultimate purpose and allowed her to connect her own story to that of other slaves who had escaped not only worldly chains but the more insidious mental and spiritual bonds--like Joseph, the son of Jacob. In only a short time, she was considered the greatest of all of Eusebius' servants. He was astounded at the love she showed even as he demanded service of her and treated her as a possession. When she wasn't working, she was praying or reading and drawing nearer and nearer to her Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. This devotion frustrated Eusebius at first but when he realized how much she did for him he learned to overlook this irritation. On Julia's last trip with him they were sailing to the southern coast of what would be known as France with a ship full of expensive cargo. They landed on the upper peninsula of Corsica and as they were preparing the ship for the night, Eusebius noticed that there was a great sacrifice happening nearby. He gathered all of his people--all except Julia who refused to take part--and went to see the bull slaughtered by the governor of the region (a man named Felix).

At first, Felix was very happy to have unexpected guests who would come and pay homage to the gods he worshiped. However, word got back to Felix that not all of Eusebius' servants had come to the sacrifice. He inquired after the one that remained on the ship and found out that she was a Christian and refused to have any part in the festivities. Not knowing that Genseric had already failed at the task, Felix resolved to convert Julia to his own evils. He asked Eusebius if he wouldn't command her to come and he said that he had decided long ago that her service was so excellent that he'd rather not risk any damage to her. Felix volunteered to give Eusebius any four of his female slaves for Julia but Eusebius laughed it off and insisted that he wouldn't accept everything Felix owned for Julia. Eusebius was a Roman citizen and so he was protected from any direct assaults upon his property from Felix, so Felix pretended as if it was over and offered Eusebius another drink. In only a little while Eusebius was thoroughly intoxicated and he passed out. As Eusebius fell to the ground in a stupor, Felix sent his men to bring Julia to him.

Julia came in chains and was commanded by Felix to make a sacrifice to his gods. She refused and so he made her an offer: perform one sacrifice and I will set you free as governor. Indeed the power to do so rested squarely in his hands but Julia was uninterested and responded, "My liberty is the service of Christ, whom I serve every day with a pure mind." In other words, she claimed that she was as free as anybody could be and it was Felix who was in need of release from slavery--slavery to that far more deadly master: sin. Because of her refusal, Felix had her beaten severely by some of his strongest men. When that proved unsuccessful at securing her apostasy, he had her hair torn out slowly and painfully. She was asked if she would now renounce her faith to save herself further pain and eventual death. She responded that Jesus had been wounded and killed for her and it was appropriate that she be willing to do the same for him. So, they nailed her to a cross and crucified her. She died a martyr who was a slave that was more free than any.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

May 21 - Rita of Cascia, Wife, Mother, Nun

Rita's received the kind of spiritual education that can only be received in the home and by the careful guidance of a loving mother (Amata) and father (Antonio). Antonio and Amata were eager to pass on the faith that had gripped them to their only daughter and took nearly every chance that presented itself to demonstrate and explain what it was they believed. At a young age, Rita professed the faith of her parents and made it her own. When asked what she wanted to do with her life she quickly responded that she wanted to become a nun. But as the only child--and a daughter, as well---this could be a frightening prospect for her parents. Antonio and Amata worried that there would be nobody to take care of them when they were old if their daughter--their only child--disappeared behind the walls of a convent and undertook a vow of poverty. So, instead, they arranged for Rita to marry a man whose promise was strong, but not as strong as his temper and tongue. Rita married Paolo Mancini at the wishes of her mother and father and began to forge a life as a wife and soon to be mother.

Rita gave birth to two sons by her husband Paolo: Giangiacomo Antonio and Paolo Maria. Regrettably, life with her husband was not easy or pleasant. He was verbally abusive to her and nearly everyone with whom he came into contact. He was nominally Christian but his faith extended no further than his occasional words and meager attendance on Sunday. But Rita knew that love was a transforming force and so she endeavored to love him even when he was unlovable. Furthermore, she spent her life raising Giangiacomo and Paolo Maria in the faith in which she had been raised. Day in and day out her love had a slow and steady effect on those around her. It took nearly eighteen years but eventually Rita's husband came to profess a vibrant and saving faith that changed his outlook and approach to life. Rita's love had led Paolo to God's love and this transformed Paolo's corruption into redemption. Yet, tragedy was right around the corner and soon after his conversion he was murdered by those he worked with--perhaps because of the chance that had occurred in his life. Giangiacomo and Paolo Maria were both adults by this time and so they vowed a vendetta against the murderers of their father.

Rita knew well the spiritual carnage that would be wrought in the lives of her sons if they followed through on their disastrous vendetta. She begged them to renounce it and abandon the lie that said vengeance would "make things even." Rita knew well that more violence would not solve the problem and would only amplify the tragedy and in this she knew the power and value of peace.When Giangiacomo and Paolo Maria refused to abandon their awful course, Rita did the only thing she knew to do: pray. She prayed that God's will would be done and that he sons would be saved from spiritual death because of their haste and fury. They were Christians and so she prayed that--no matter the cost--they not be allowed to destroy their faith with rash actions.Within the year Giangiacomo and Paolo Maria died of natural causes and with a sudden unexpectedness. Rita understood this to be God saving her sons from impending sin and destruction. Following the death of Giangiacomo and Paolo Maria, Rita worked hard to reconcile the rest of her family with her husband's murderer.She was successful in this and retired to a convent as a nun and spiritual leader.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

May 20 - Michael Sattler, Martyr, Reformer, Anabaptist

Perhaps it exposed a vestige of naivete but Michael Sattler was honestly surprised when he became prior of the little Benedictine monastery -- St. Peter's -- near Freiburg. Michael was devoted to a type of ministry that included not only prayer, fasting, and disciple but, also, regular education at the nearby university. Through this program of spiritual development and formation he had grown to a level of maturity that made him the ideal choice for prior--and perhaps eventually for abbot. But when he began to take an inventory of the spiritual health of the monastery he was painfully surprised and woefully underwhelmed. Sure, he had known that there were those among his peers who seemed less interested in their common calling but he had never questioned their calling to this peculiar life of service and prayer--he had assumed that they all approached the cloistered life with the same sincerity and passion that he brought to this withdrawn, spiritual life. Sadly, Michael was mistaken and when it suddenly hit him that not all who claimed a calling to ministry and service were doing it because of an increasing intimacy with God--or a desire for that intimacy--it was crushing. He still found it awkward to question their calling and so he questioned his and left the monastery. He married a woman named Margaretha and gave up the spiritual life he had been taught.

Slowly--very slowly at first--Michael began to see abandonment as a path unworthy of traveling and so he considered the path of reformation. Indeed, there were those in the Church who were misguided but Michael became increasingly aware that the Church was not made up of the sainted and would always have more than its fair share of hypocrites. How could it not? After all, if the Christian Gospel was the highest of callings, then it made the most room for hypocrisy within its ranks. So, slowly at first Michael began circulating in reformer circles--particularly among the Anabaptists--and advocating for reformation of the One Church. Because of this controversial stance he and Margaretha were forced to flee to Switzerland. While he served as a minister and theologian among the Swiss brethren he relearned a way of spiritual life and leadership that was life-giving to him. In Schleitheim they convened a council of Christians who drafted a confession of faith (now known as the Schleitheim Confession) and Michael was the leader of the party that wrote the document. Both within their lives and within their document they resisted coercion within the Church, denounced the use of violence for Christians, forbade the swearing of vows on the basis of the Sermon on the Mount, called for an increasingly intentional approach to the Faith, and denied the ability of civil power to serve in the Church's place among other things.They published this document under the title "Brotherly Agreement of Some Children of God." They sought reformation but they were labeled heretics. They sought unity through healing but were labeled the disease.

For daring to suggest that the Church had problems they were targeted by the civil arm of the Church. Those in power within the State took up arms against Michael and the Swiss Brethren. He was given a trial but was not asked to defend his arguments for the need of healing and reformation within the Church--that was never considered a possibility by those within power. Rather, he was given a chance simply to deny all he had said. He refused. So, they decreed: "Michael Sattler shall be committed to the executioner. The latter shall take him to the square and there first cut out his tongue, and then forge him fast to a wagon and there with glowing iron tongs twice tear pieces from his body, then on the way to the site of execution five times more as above and then burn his body to powder as an arch-heretic." As they prepared to kill him he cried out, "Almighty and eternal God you art the way and the truth. I have not been shown to be in error and, so, I will--with thy help--on this day testify to the truth and seal it with my blood."And so they made a martyr of a reformer of the One Church. Two days later they also killed Margaretha by drowning her.