Friday, November 28, 2014

November 28 - Herman of Alaska, Missionary, Evangelist, Monk


Herman could hardly believe what he was hearing and Herman was used to incredible stories. As a younger man in Russia he had experienced a terrible throat infection that was quickly

rendering him mute. Day by day, his friends and family became increasingly uncomfortable with his voice devolving into series of croaks and sputters. He spent days in prayer for the health of his voice and throat but nothing seemed to happen. His family and friends prayed for him, as well. The thought of a monastic like Herman becoming mute was more than a little frightening--a learned man of prayer and words without a voice seemed especially tragic. Yet, it still seemed as if his prayers remained unanswered. As days passed, Herman's prayers became increasingly wordless and more and more desperate. One night he prayed before retiring for the night and felt an unmistakably odd sensation of hopeless desperation and faint, white-hot hope. Moving his lips in silence, he prayed: "Thy will be done." As he slept, a vision of the virgin Mary came to him and touched his ailing throat. A brief flash of pain and relief surged through him and he awoke with a start. "Was that a dream?" he asked himself aloud. In surprise, he heard his own voice and gratefulness flooded through his body. He had been miraculously healed. It was incredible--truly hard to believe.

Yet, Herman could not believe that other men claiming the yoke of Christ would mistreat the Aleutian people so cruelly. They had arrived and insisted that they convert to their particular doctrinal position upon penalty of death. This was especially tragic for Herman since he had been sent as a missionary to Alaska from Russia to bring the Aleutian people the faith they were now being asked to suffer for. He had arrived with other missionaries to live and make room for a monastery among the Aleuts. They had been welcomed tentatively at first but had proven their love and compassion for the Aleuts and had become welcome dwellers in the often unforgiving wilds of Alaska. Regrettably, some of Herman's companions had gone back to Russia for a variety of reasons. Others had been martyred. Herman had stayed and made himself a more permanent resident. He had experimented in the Alaskan soil and found a way to grow a garden. Now, only Herman remained as Orthodox monastic at the New Valaam monastery. His brothers and colleagues were now Aleutian converts. It was these men that were now in the grips of the others and facing martyrdom. It was one of these men who was telling him the incredible story.

"They threatened us with torture," said the escapee, "and then they followed through and started cutting off our fingers and toes one by on." Herman shook his head sadly. "They insisted that we could go free if we'd only 'convert,' but Peter kept insisting that he was already a Christian," continued the escapee. At the mention of Peter's name, Herman called up the image of his dear brother in his mind.

"What did they do to Peter?" asked Herman.

"They... they..." stuttered the escapee,"...they killed him because he refused to say anything but 'I already am a Christian.'" A bright light seemed to shine in Herman's eyes at this statement. He nodded vigorously and walked swiftly to the iconostasis of the monastery.

Kneeling in prayer, he crossed himself and cried out loudly in a mixture of joy and sorrow: "Pray for us new martyr Peter." His brother and sisters followed in his footsteps as they reflected upon the faithful death of their brother at the hands of the misguided.

Years later, Herman called for the Acts of the Apostles to be read so that he might hear them at his death. One of the men he had guided to the Faith read the whole of the book in Herman's hearing and then turned to see if Herman needed anything else. Herman smiled and embraced his friend and colleague. Then, he died in the arms of his beloved friend. It was many weeks before a priest could come to officiate a funeral for Herman--he had remained alone as a missionary in the New World and found faith, hope, and love in the forbidding Alaskan wilderness.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

November 27 - John LaFarge, Artist, Faithful, Caretaker of Christian Heritage


John LaFarge was a man with many questions who was
willing to challenge the expectations and standards of most of the world. Yet, he was still a faithful member of the Roman Catholic church even as he asked questions and cultivated a life of investigation and consideration. For John, there was no tension between a life of faith and a life of intellectual and artistic pursuit. From an early age he had a passion for art and showed a natural talent and gift for it. He was encouraged to pursue a more reliable and lucrative career and so he considered becoming a lawyer for some time. Eventually, though, he came to a place in his life where he stood at a fork in the road: pursue the dependable and predictable or follow his calling and passion. John chose the right path and returned to the United States to study and produce art.

With his inquisitive mind he approached and addressed problems in art that had been labeled lost to the annals of history. John was one of the first to reinvent the medium of stained glass and produce art that was truly original and of equal quality to that produced in the middle ages. His stained glass masterpieces adorned many churches who recognized his talent and calling. All the while, he was faithful to attend and follow after God in congregations of people who may not have even known his prodigious talent--for John, art wasn't about fame; it was about following a passion and a call.

John knew well why art was important for the Church. It is far too easy to cast aside art as an idol or as something of no rhetorical or didactic purpose. In a culture enraptured with words and turns of phrase, there is little room for the power of art to communicate in different and--at times--more powerful ways. Oftentimes, it is argue that church art--specifically the stained glass windows--is the scripture for the illiterate. This argument is often used to justify religious art historically but doesn't hold the same force in our culture. John rejected the idea that religious art was a vain pursuit or idolatry and insisted that there was a calling and need for art within congregations--even in a mostly literate culture. Just as Jesus had been an image of the Father, there was room for art to transcend word and communicate Truth in ways that language failed. In a very real sense, Jesus' incarnation paves the way for the use of image to point toward the transcendent. It was John's passion--though not his exclusive practice--to do religious art that pointed toward a God who loved and cared for the people of the world as a father cares for his children.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

November 26 - Sojourner Truth, Abolitionist, Crusader for Truth


Some stories are best told by the subject:
Well, children, where there is so much racket there must be something out of kilter. I think that 'twixt the Negroes of the South and the women at the North, all talking about rights, the white men will be in a fix pretty soon. But what's all this here talking about?
That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain't I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain't I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man - when I could get it - and bear the lash as well! And ain't I a woman? I have borne five children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother's grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain't I a woman? 
Then they talk about this thing in the head; what's this they call it? [member of audience whispers, "intellect"] That's it, honey. What's that got to do with women's rights or Negroes' rights? If my cup won't hold but a pint, and yours holds a quart, wouldn't you be mean not to let me have my little half measure full? 
Then that little man in black there, he says women can't have as much rights as men, 'cause Christ wasn't a woman! Where did your Christ come from? Where did Christ come from? From God and a woman! Man had nothing to do with Him. 
If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back, and get it right side up again! And now they is asking to do it. The men better let them. 
Obliged to you for hearing me, and now old Sojourner ain't got nothing more to say.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

November 25 - Catherine of Alexandria, Martyr, Evangelist, Contagious

Catherine's father was the governor of Alexandria so emperor Maxentius felt pressure to accept Catherine into his presence and company. Of course, he wasn't forced to do anything--he was the emperor--but he knew that it would be wise to pick his battles prudently and spend some time with Catherine if she wanted it. After all, he had a little extra time to entertain guests of influence and importance. Yet, as their meal dragged on, the Maxentius came to regret his agreement more and more. She wouldn't stop bringing up the cause of those cursed Christians. For some reason, this noble born woman of influential blood seemed to have a soft heart for Christians who he thought of as atheist, cannibalistic, crypt-dwelling scavengers.

Catherine insisted that the ethic that governed all of the Christian activities was one of love and mercy. This grated sharply across Maxentius and his nose wrinkled in disgust at the idea. How could sacrificial love and merciful forgiveness accomplish conquest and change? Surely, this was some idealistic fantasy and nothing more. When Catherine asked again if Maxentius would cease the persecution and execution of Christians, he flatly refused. He turned to his wife to share with her in a conspiratorial life and found tears in her eyes. "What have you done?" he asked Catherine as his rage began to bubble up in him.

"I've done nothing, Maxentius," Catherine responded, "but it seems that my Lord Jesus has found fertile soil in the heart of your wife. Will you not open your heart to him, as well?" In rage, Maxentius cast his cup aside and backed away from the table. If all of this was true then Maxentius was determined to punish Catherine and his own wife if need be. He called for his advisers and ordered them to dispute with her and prove her wrong. Seeing only a woman as their opponent, they confidently started arguing with her but found that she was surprisingly convincing. Within a few hours, they were converting to the faith she had--a faith that love could conquer death and sin and that mercy was more powerful than vengeance--and rejoicing with each other in their new found life.

As his advisers wondered aloud with each other how they could have been so blind, Maxentius fumed and gawked at what was going on. It was as if Catherine--who he now understood to be one of these Christians she defended--was contagious and her story was spreading quickly to those around her. Calling to his guards and hoping they hadn't been infected yet, he ordered the whole group--Catherine, his wife, and his advisers--arrested. They were thrown into prison and Maxentius hoped that this was enough to stop the spread of Catherine's faith.When people came to visit her they came away converted,however, and were imprisoned with them. When his cells were filling up he had the group brought before him again and had his own wife and advisers killed first while Catherine watched.Expecting that the crowd would shrink in fear and beg for their lives, he was surprised to see them laughing, clapping, and singing songs. It seemed that everything he did was playing into their hands. He had the rest of them killed--all except for Catherine. Catherine offered prayers of thanksgiving loudly with each cut of the blade and soon found herself condemned to die in a brutal, public and painful way--the breaking wheel--because of her refusal to be broken before Maxentius' will.

As they drug her to the public place, the crowd fell silent as they looked upon the condemned. She was marked for a gruesome death. The breaking wheel was a torturous way of dying that involved being tied to a wooden wheel with radial spokes. The soldiers would beat the condemned and apply pressure to the bones of the victim until they cracked and popped under the blows from the hammers. The gaps in the spokes allowed the bones to be broken in loud, agonizing, and mutilating fashion. Catherine seemed unfazed as they carried her to the wheel and the guards were frightened by her calm. When they laid her back on the wheel, the wheel broke as it came into contact with her skin. What resolve had remained now dissolved as they thought that surely this one was different from the others they had tortured and killed. The crowd murmured and to stem the possibility of yet another revival, Maxentius ordered her beheaded quickly before her contagion could spread to the crowd and guards.