Monday, December 9, 2013
Eulalia and Leocadia may never have met each other on our own side of the dusky vale of death. Regardless, their lives had an impact upon one another. Leocadia had been gathered up from the streets of Toledo, Spain, by the Roman empire in yet another attempt to stifle and neutralize the Christian presence. The Diocletian persecutions were in full force and had drawn blood throughout the Empire but in the days of Eulalia and Leocadia, it was particularly bad in Roman Spain. Leocadia's story was like so many other martyrs--she had been identified as a Christian and drawn before the powers of the Empire and given a chance to deny her faith to save her life.Leocadia's faith was strong, however, and she refused to concede to the wishes of the Empire since they would require her to betray herself and her Lord. As was the practice of the Empire, Leocadia was beaten and tortured for her refusal. The Empire's hope was that the pain it could inflict might win out over the faith of the Christian. The Empire always thinks in terms of self-preservation and avoidance of pain--this is one of the high values of the Empire--and not in terms of glory and the Kingdom of God. The greatest power of an Empire always has been--and always will be--the ability to deprive somebody of their life and when somebody no longer holds their life to be protected at all costs, the Empire loses their domination. So, Leocadia was returned to her cell in prison so that she might think over her refusal in hopes that time would combine with her wounds to render a denial.
While Leocadia languished in prison, Eulalia was at home. As a Spanish Christian, she had known many of the people gathered up in the Imperial raid. Though she was only thirteen, she also knew the inevitable fate of those who refused to deny their faith when placed under the unrelenting scrutiny of the Empire. Somehow, her name had escaped the list of Christians and she had been left alone while her brothers and sisters began to suffer on account of their common faith and Lord.Eulalia was distressed that she was not numbered with her brothers and sisters--Leocadia being one of them--and so she went to the tribunal and confessed her faith before the ears of an Empire that had not asked. For this crime of faith, she was arrested and tortured like her brothers and sisters. Supposing that she might be humiliated and induced into apostasy, they stripped her of all of her clothing and cast her out on the steps of the tribunal. Eulalia suffered the indignity of being laughed and leered at in the public square but refused to deny her faith because of the temporary and desperate machinations of the Empire.
Eulalia was brought in from her humiliation and taken to a public execution. Along with other Christians, this eager martyr was burned at the stake and her ashes were scattered. The story of Eulalia seeking out the powers and confessing her faith drifted through the prison cells and brought a new confidence and joy to those who were facing their own martyrdom. Leocadia heard the story and fell to her knees. She was still bleeding and hurting from her last experience with the Imperial death-dealers but she had a new determination.Praying to God, she cried out, "Lord, deliver me from a world that allows a woman like Eulalia to die at the hands of an Empire like the one that holds me even now. If Eulalia has died so eagerly, then so do I desire to die."Having prayed this and aroused the attention of her guards, she died without being touched or harmed in any additional way.
Sunday, December 8, 2013
"Walter, have you heard that Lubyanka is the tallest building in Moscow?" asked Walter's fellow prisoner," they say you can see Siberia from the basement." It had been meant as a joke to relieve some of the mundane and oppressive tension that highlighted the lives and days of the prisoners in Lubyanka. Walter laughed but it might be because of the absurdity of it all and his growing need for companionship with other people. Walter was primarily kept in solitary confinement while at Lubyanka even though he was no physical threat to the other prisoners or the guards. He was confined for the purposes of cruelty and restricted on a whim. He had come a long way from the small Polish family in Shenandoah, Pennsylvnia, in the United States of America. Even now his family wondered what had happened to Walter. He had not led an exemplary life in the United States but his family still dearly missed him and prayed daily for his safe return. Regrettably, though, they were increasingly convinced that he would never return and was likely no longer alive. When he had left the life of a gang member behind to become a Jesuit priest, they had assumed that his life was taking steps in the direction of safety and security. But then he had accepted a calling.
Walter heeded the desperate call by the pope for priests to become missionaries to Russia in the early twentieth century. It was not an especially safe time for men to immigrate to Russia but the Church seized upon the opportunity and soon he found himself in Rome studying to become a priest while also learning the Russian language and history. When he arrived in Russia, he became a logger and got to work becoming part of a culture that was not his own. In his spare time, he began hearing confession and saying mass in secret. The Soviet State had no room for Christians and was quick to isolate them from others. Perhaps the Soviets had learned from the actions of Rome and knew that the Christian story was contagious and would continue to spread--maybe even faster-- as you tried to kill Christians to silence them. So, instead of killing Walter, they arrested him and threw him into one of their most secure prisons. This hadn't been enough and he continued to share his faith with the people he met and eventually they were forced to further restrict him. In an act of desperation, they ordered him sent to one of the many Gulag camps. It seems that they truly could see Siberia from the basement at Lubyanka.
In this attempt to silence Walter, they only firmly planted a seed in frozen Russian soil. They had dropped him into the camp expecting him to give up and eventually die from exhaustion and exposure. He was among prisoners of all different types and crimes. Some had been sent to the camp for speaking out against the government--even as little as telling a joke that was deemed disrespectful of the State--or being too closely related to somebody who had been marked for exile. Children, women, and men labored in the cold to support the State and save their own necks. Yet, Walter still heard confession and held services in the camp. In their attempt to isolate Walter, the State had only given him a larger audience and nurtured the tiny plant that was Walter's ministry in Russia.
Even after he was released from the camp and moved between other cities, he continued to offer ministry and aid to those who were seeking it. He wrote to his family for the first time in nearly fifteen years and they were surprised and overjoyed to learn that the brother and son whom they had presumed dead was alive--the one they thought lost had been found. His release was eventually negotiated by the United States of America so that he might come home and a Soviet spy and his wife might return to Russia. Even as he was being released, the Soviets still considered him a spy and failed to understand that he had been a missionary for a Kingdom that is not of this world. After twenty-three years of imprisonment he was reunited with his family and lived the remainder of his days as a minister in Pennsylvania. Twenty-five years ago, today, he died.
Saturday, December 7, 2013
Ambrose hadn't expected to be interrupted in the middle of his speech. Of course, he had expected there to be a degree of outrage and confusion at the meeting but it was unexpected for it to interrupt the address he had been asked to give to bring peace and calmness to the crowd. Auxentius--the bishop of Milan--had died only recently and there was considerable conflict over who would succeed him. Auxentius had been an Arian and the other Arians insisted upon the appointment of one of their number. The non-Arians insisted that Arianism was heterodox and that an orthodox bishop should be appointed. In the middle of Ambrose's address on the need for unity and peace, he was interrupted by cries of "Ambrose, bishop!" He shook his head humbly and tried to pick up the fast escaping thread of his address but soon the cries were being voiced by the whole crowd. Both Arians and non-Arians approved of the conciliatory nature of Ambrose's words and so they insisted upon his appointment in one voice.
However, Ambrose was reluctant to accept the position. He insisted that they seek some other fit person to serve. He protested that he wasn't even baptized and found a hiding place with a dear friend. The word of Ambrose's appointment spread and soon the emperor was congratulating the people in Milan for their selection noble-born Ambrose. When word continued to spread Amrbose's host and friend eventually gave up his hiding place and Ambrose reluctantly agreed to become bishop of Milan. Within the following week, Ambrose was baptized, ordained, and installed as bishop of Milan. Soon, he was overseeing the life of the Church in Milan and providing counsel to the priests in the city using his extensive political and diplomatic experience and expertise.
Ambrose was an able and competent bishop who helped define the relationship between the Church and the State--not to mention he also advised and mentored Augustine of Hippo. When emperor Theodosius had massacred 7,000 people in the city of Thessalonica, it was Ambrose that hoped to win back the emperor's heart from death and evil through tough love. He refused to admit Theodosius to the shared Eucharistic table and went so far as to suggest he would excommunicate the emperor if penance was not done. Theodosius had executed an atrocity and Ambrose understood that the only way back for the emperor was the way of repentance and forgiveness. Under Ambrose's direction, Theodosius repented and served public penance for his crimes.
Ambrose's influence upon the growth and development of the Church during a turbulent time should not be understated. He had kept the Church together even in times of theological dispute and civil unrest. For this reason, it is right to remember his story and to resolve to seek unity and peace with the same fervor as our brother Ambrose.
Friday, December 6, 2013
Nicholas knew the likely consequences of the man's poverty--his three daughters would have no dowry and would not be able to marry because of it. If they couldn't marry, then they would likely follow the same path that so many other poor, unmarried women did at the time: prostitution. This thought chilled Nicholas' heart and so he devised a plan. Taking a significant portion of the wealth he inherited from his parents, he converted it to gold and divided the gold equally among three sacks. As day gave way to dusk and the frenetic activity of the street faded into yet more noisy memories, Nicholas left his home and began walking toward the home of the man and his three daughters.
That first night, he must have felt nervous since he wasn't planning to be noticed. He waited until a group of people were walking down the street by the home and joined in with their gentle throng. He had spied the window of the home and noticed that it was open that night and would allow him the safest and easiest way to leave the gold. If he left it on the doorstep, it would likely be stolen but he couldn't knock and hand it to them without being noticed. Instead, he waited as his group passed the doorway and tossed the sack through the window. The sack landed with a pleasant thud and the jingling of coins. The father picked up the bag to see what type of garbage had been tossed through the window and discovered that it was filled with gold. Immediately, his thoughts went to his daughters and he rejoiced that he was a little closer to providing a dowry for his daughters. His thoughts turned to fear, though, as he considered that surely this was dropped by some wealthy man walking the street and so he opened the door to find the man who would be frantically searching for his money. There was nobody left on the street. So, the father waited up several eager hours silently hoping against hope that this had been a gift and not an accident. Every step in the street drew the father from the home to see if it was somebody looking for the money but nobody ever came to claim the gold.
The next night, Nicholas took another sack of gold and waited for another group of people to walk down the street. He joined with them again and was glad to see that the man had left the window open again. Feeling that his work for the Kingdom of God was not yet done, Nicholas approached the window with the group of people again. He thrilled to know that he was making a difference in the lives of the daughters and their father but he still did not want to be found out. He tossed the sack through the window where it landed again in the middle of the room. This time, however, when the sack landed the father didn't hesitate and bolted for the door. He already knew what was in the sack but he wanted to know who had again delivered such a wonderful gift. He gave chase to the cloaked figure and caught up with him. He spun him around and asked who he was that he should leave such a wonderful gift but the man only shook his head and said, "It wasn't me. Some man gave me this coin and his cloak to run when you came out of your door." With a subtle deception, Nicholas crept away into the night and again eluded the father.
The third and final night, the father had prepared and hid by the window. When the sack entered the open window, he would leap up and catch the man. Then, he would be able to thank and praise the man who had done such good for him. He waited as Nicholas approached but Nicholas had already detected the father's plan. He climbed to the top of the house and took the third sack with him. There was no smoke coming from the chimney and so Nicholas knew his plan would work. He dropped the third sack down the chimney where it landed with a triumphant thud. Before departing, the father yelled, "Who are you that I might thank you for these great gifts?"
Before he disappeared, Nicholas responded, "You have nobody to thank but God alone."The father did not try to follow after Nicholas for it was abundantly clear that he didn't want to be found out. He took the money and used it to provide a sizable dowry for each of his daughters and to ease the poverty that had gripped his small family. For this wonder--and others--Nicholas is well remembered and memorialized. May we, too, be generous gift givers.