Wednesday, October 18, 2017

October 18 - Luke, Evangelist, Physician, Friend of the Prodigal

Luke was a physician. But not like what we think of when we think of a physician. There was no white coat. There was no large salary (in fact, many physicians were slaves). There was no immediate cultural respect. There was no fancy degree or education. There were no easily dispensed medications or diagnostic tools. But, in Luke's case,there was an intense desire to help those who suffered. Luke seems intimately connected with prodigals and misfits. Whether he was eating with them and listening to them or doing what little he could to soothe their physical pain and suffering, Luke loved and was devoted to the people that the world said were worth nothing.

Luke learned this from his master--Jesus.

Luke was a Greek gentile who had, at least, some familiarity with the person of Jesus even if he never actually saw Jesus.Instead, he heard the stories and found a faith growing in him that spurred him to change. He couldn't sit still and listen to these stories--they were too important simply to hear--and so he had to tell them to others. He would record the stories that meant so much to him by listening to others and reading what others had written. Beyond that, Luke knew that the stories of Jesus' disciples were critically important, as well. If Jesus had really brought a new Kingdom into the world, then his disciples would do amazing and wonderful things. Luke recorded these things in a letter that would be known as the Acts of the Apostles. Luke makes a few cameo appearances in this second work but does so in support of the Apostle Paul. When we see him, his character matches the voice in his text: intimatelyconcerned with the lives of the oppressed and unrepresented. Luke had been set on fire with a message of good news about a Kingdom that was changing the world and could only find relief in telling this story to others. His desire to heal became a desire to offer hope to desperate people.

Luke's mercy and soft heart for the invisible people can be seen in the stories that he chooses to highlight.Consider that Luke's gospel is the only gospel to tell the radical story of the Prodigal Son. Luke was a friend of the Prodigal and was excited about the God he saw in Jesus that was willing to love and forgive with fury and passion. This was no meek and mild god that stood aloof from creation but, rather, was a God who was elbows deep in the process of healing the voiceless and abused. Jesus was the Great Physician. Luke desired to be his apprentice. Luke's Gospel is the only Gospel to record Mary's response to God's calling: ""has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty."

Luke was energized by the work of healing that had begun in the Church. He recognized that the Kingdom was the possession of those who had no other possessions to prioritize. In this way, Luke characterized the prodigal nature of the Kingdom of God and their common savior Jesus.

He begins his Gospel by writing:
"Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you..."
Luke recognized the healing power of stories to change the minds and outlooks of people. He knew that the stories that we tell inform the way we think about things and so he wanted to pass them on. These were the possessions of the citizens of God's new Kingdom. These were the valuables that established value in the New World. This is what Luke passed on to us.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

October 17 - End of Exile

They had been hearing rumors of the Persians for quite some time. Of course, it was wise to keep their heads low and act like they knew nothing. The Babylonians were not happy to hear the name of Cyrus or of his Persian army. The Jews in Babylon didn't know what to suspect with the coming of a new conqueror. They were still getting over their own conquest. In 586 BCE, the Babylonians had stormed through Israel and crushed the people under their feet. The Temple--the very dwelling of God almighty--had been torn down and the Babylonians had sneered at them asking them where the Jews' powerful God was when Babylon came around. Was he scared? Most of them had no idea why the God they had slowly filtered through their nationalism seemed silent. Some had heard Jeremiah and others talk about the coming of judgment from the east. They remembered what Jeremiah had said about conquest and exile. Then, the Babylonians had seized the powerful and the wealthy and put them in chains. They were carried back to Babylon before their captors. All the while, they were mocked and asked to play some of their beautiful songs. Their joyous songs of God's power and protection turned to ash in their mouth as they smelled the smoke coming from the ruins of their lives.

Time had passed. In fact, almost fifty years had passed since they had been exiled from the land God had promised them. Surely they wondered if it was a land of broken promises. They had been exiled from the god they had made when they had tried to break the almighty God into easily pocketed pieces. The people had found God in the wastes when taken away from all the things that distracted them. They found that they could sing their songs again when they came into intimate contact with the One who had inspired them. They found that God was in the world in more places than the Temple.They had lost their nation but gained an identity.But, now, there was another conqueror bearing down upon them.

Cyrus the Great and the Persians conquered Babylon by marching in at night and seizing the city. It was a remarkably quick conquest and resulted in the Babylonian rulers being seized and deposed. Cyrus looked around and declared himself "king of Babylon, king of Sumer and Akkad, king of the four quarters of the world."There were few that could deny this in the wake of his impressive campaigns. Though he attributed the success to his own gods, the Jews' hearts beat with hope that it was the one God that had ordained this change. Soon, Cyrus issued an edict that there would be changes under his rule and that one of these changes was granting freedom to the Jews to return to Israel.Stories say that approximately 40,000 Jews elected to return to Israel but it is perhaps more notable that some chose not to return. Surely, some did not return because they had found a new successful life in Babylon and had given up on any faith--they had nothing to make them want to return. Some returned because their faith was renewed and they wanted to take it back with them. Yet, others remained in Babylon knowing that their faith transcended geography and location. In the exile, they had found redemption. In the destruction of religion, they had found God.

Monday, October 16, 2017

October 16 - Gerard Majella, Victim of Abuse, Falsely Accused, Lay Brother

Gerard's family life was fairly typical for the nearly Neapolitan families of Italy. That is, it was fairly typical until his father died when Gerard was twelve. The family was plunged into poverty because of a lack of income and a lack of social power. As a widow, Gerard's mother was often incapable of providing for her family because she was so easily overlooked. Like so many other widows, she was overlooked because her tragedy made others uncomfortable--almost as if they feared it was contagious. She did, however, realize that her son Gerard could be apprenticed to a tradesman and help provide for himself and for his family. So, Gerard was sent to his uncle (his mother's brother) to learn the trade of a tailor.

He was an eager student if he was slightly weak and small for his age. He learned the trade under his uncle's tutelage but Gerard's uncle was very busy and not always around. Isolation and loneliness would have been preferred to what happened, however. Gerard's uncle sent a man to help teach Gerard and watch over him as he continue to learn the trade that he had been apprenticed to. The man his uncle sent was abusive to Gerard and took advantage of him. For whatever reason, Gerard remained silent and did not share with his uncle what his hired man was doing in addition to teaching his trade. The uncle found out one day and confronted the man who immediately resigned and fled Gerard's uncle. Damage had been done, however, and it's hard to say what baggage Gerard carried with him as he pushed onward.

He longed to join the clerical professions and take vows at a nearby Capuchin monastery. He was rejected from the monastery--partially because of his ill health and weakness--and applied instead to a Redemptorist monastery known as the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer. He was accepted as a lay brother and took on a variety of labor-intensive jobs that were of incredible service to the monastery. His work ethic was spoken of with glowing words. He was described as a model of Christian obedience because not only did he seek to do as he was told to do but to intuit why so that he might know what to do when not told specifically. In other words, Gerard wanted to do right because it was right and not because it gained him something. So, it came as a great surprise many years later when a young--obviously pregnant--woman came to the monastery.

She insisted that Gerard was the father of her child but he refused to fight her. Instead, he withdrew to silence and prayer. There was an outrage in the nearby villages and towns that one of the brothers of the monastery had broken his vows and, furthermore, had fathered a baby out of wedlock. As Gerard's reputation was eviscerated and defiled, he remained silent and focused on prayer. Surely, his brothers must have doubted him and considered that the woman was telling the truth--after all, he offered no defense. But, Gerard felt that the truth needed no defense and was confident that the Truth would set him free.Months later, she recanted her story and denied her previous accusation.

It was not Gerard's desire to rage against injustice and pain. Instead, Gerard wanted to find God through pain and suffering.This was not masochistic pleasure but joy inspired through a willingness to lose everything if it meant following after his slaughtered savior. He had given every penny he didn't need to barely survive to his mother or to the poor of the nearby cities. He knew obedience in a way that so few people can comprehend partly because he knew suffering intimately and deeply. About all this, though, he was known to say, "Consider the shortness of time, the length of eternity and reflect how everything here below comes to an end and passes by. Of what use is it to lean upon that which cannot give support?" He found no rest or solace from things of the world and, instead, endeavored to find his support in Jesus. When the brothers came to his cell and found him dead they noticed that obedient and quietly-faithful Gerard had left a small note on the cell of his door. This note fitly summarized Gerard's outlook on life: "Here the will of God is done, as God wills, and as long as God wills."

Sunday, October 15, 2017

October 15 - Teresa of Avila, Mystic, Nun, Doctor of the Church

Teresa was brought up as a Christian by parents who were converts from Judaism.They had worked hard to assimilate into Spanish Christian culture because of her paternal grandfather's condemnation as a denier of the faith and one who returned to Judaism.Teresa found great comfort and inspiration in the stories of the martyrs and greatly desired to imitate their lives. At the age of nineteen, she left her family and joined the local Carmelite monastery as a nun.

Teresa knew sin well. In fact, she spoke about it passionately as a subject she had received divine inspiration on. She described sin in terms of estrangement and alienation from God. Teresa, the one who said "It is love alone that gives worth to all things," knew that sin was essentially a lack of life-giving love, mercy, and grace. However, Teresa was best known for her ecstatic and mystical moments. She had visions and felt that the way to union with God was through love and through self-abnegation and resignation. She taught first that to find God we must begin by focusing on our own failures with a penitent and contemplative heart. She called this part of the ascent of the soul to God "heart's devotion."

The second stage of the ascent of the soul to God through the self is called the "devotion of peace." In this, God delivers a state of spiritual peace upon the person as they continue to meditate upon love, grace, and mercy knowing that they cannot save themselves but that salvation is assured to those who trust in God. This peace does not mean the destruction of distraction but only that the person is becoming closer to God and being helped along the journey toward God by God's prevenient grace. Memory, reason, and imagination are still humanly focused.

The third stage of the ascent of the soul to God is called the "devotion of union." In this state, the reason of the person becomes subsumed by God's will and the person becomes further united with God and, therefore, less united with sin. As they walk the path of love that leads to God--and God alone--they find that sin has less of a hold on their life. As they give more of themselves over to God, they find that it rests securely in God. In this stage of mystical union with God, the soul begins to rest comfortably in the overwhelming love of God.

Finally, the soul ascends to the "devotion of ecstasy." In this place of prayer, the soul divests itself of all that is self and becomes intimately associated with God who is Love. Teresa described this state as being a type of sweet and happy pain. The person is changed and sin is ripped from them as they no longer have a place where it can dwell. Of course, they must again return to the world as we know it but their momentary intimacy with God has fortified them and strengthened their growing faith. In many ways, this was the essence of Teresa's teaching. There was hope for escape from sin but only in providing less room for it to dwell. Ultimately, sin was only destroyed by the soul's ascension to God and the incubation of love within the heart.