Monday, August 29, 2016

August 29 - John the Baptizer, Voice in the Wilderness

John the Baptizer wasn't the kind of person you'd likely invite over for dinner on Sunday afternoon. By our modern sensibilities, he's a little odd. By first century sensibilities, he was frightening and perplexing. He wore garments made out of rough camel hair and subsisted on an odd diet of locusts and honey. In a sense, he had rejected the comforts and pleasures of the world he lived in to set an example and proclaim the truth in an intriguing way. Like a modern day Ezekiel, he became an object of derision and mockery so that people would hear the message he was proclaiming: "Repent, for the God's Kingdom is right around the corner!" The people began to wonder if this wasn't the person that Isaiah had been talking about when he described: "A voice of one calling in the desert, 'Prepare the way for the Lord, make his paths straight.'"

John the Baptizer was known for preaching repentance and baptism for the forgiveness of sins. Though he went to a fairly inhospitable part of the land, people streamed out to him to hear his message of repentance and to be baptized by him. They recognized that there was something different about him. They could see it went beyond weird clothes and a scavenger's diet--it had something to do with the truth of his message. In the face of that present darkness of spirit, John was proclaiming truth as if he had no fear of reprisal--as if God had anointed him to speak. He took those who could feel the tension in the air--the seeming climax of the ages--and baptized them hoping to begin the inauguration of a new Kingdom.

Seeing some of the religious professionals come out to him he preached, "I see you, you children of serpents! You clearly didn't see it for yourself so who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? If you're sincere, then produce fruit in keeping with repentance. I can hear you saying to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our father.' I know that makes you feel better but I tell you that God can make children for Abraham out of these stones. Your heritage isn't enough, anymore. This isn't some far-off judgment--the ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire like the scrap wood it is. Oh, yes, something is going on here. I baptize people with water on account of repentance. But there is somebody else coming--somebody more powerful--whose sandals I am not fit to carry. He will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire. You think this is amazing? You think this is 'out there?' Just wait. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear the threshing floor. That's right, he'll gather the wheat into the barn and burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire."

Eventually, John would baptize Jesus and indicate that this one was the one he had been talking about. Though he begged Jesus to baptize him, Jesus insisted that John live into his calling and be the baptizer. After all, John would soon have his own baptism--a baptism of blood. Being a truth-teller, John would speak truth to the Empire and Herod. Herod had taken his brother's wife as his own and John had spoken out against it. For his truth-telling, John was arrested, bound, and thrown into a prison. The hope was that John would rethink his truth and deny it to purchase his own freedom. They underestimated John the Baptizer and, consequently, he remained in prison for some time--until Herod's birthday to be precise. A beautiful woman--his new wife's daughter--performed a special dance for Herod and pleased him. Herod, in a fit of ignorant lust, agreed to give her anything she asked for. Her mother had trained her well and, so, she asked for the head of John the Baptizer. The demand had been made for the Empire to behave like the Empire and execute a person who told uncomfortable truths. Herod knew this was a bad idea--people loved John and would be enraged when he was executed for sport--but he did it anyway.He had John beheaded and the head presented on a silver platter.

John died for telling the truth--like many prophets--and for refusing to purchase his freedom at the price of his soul. He had lived into his calling: to be a voice in the wilderness and to prepare the way of Jesus in the world. Jesus would praise John when John's disciples came to him and told of his execution. Many of John's disciples would become disciples of Jesus--both at Jesus' baptism and at John's death. Jesus was aware that John's death foreshadowed his own impending execution and, so, likely felt some intimate kinship with this truth-teller knowing that he, too, would be executed for telling the truth. As we look back at the life and words of John the Baptizer, we must recall that living into our calling and refusing to live a life of deception and destruction will cost us dearly. It may cost some of us our lives in one instant moment of martyrdom, while others it will cost our lives a moment at a time as continue to tell the truth to a world that doesn't want to hear it--as we continue to prepare the ways of our Lord.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

August 28 - Augustine of Hippo, Convert, Blessed, Pear Thief

Augustine was born into a divided family where his mother--Monica--was a Christian and his father--Patricius--was a non-Christian. He was raised within the bounds of the Church at his mother's insistence but he received a top notch education at a non-Christian school nearly twenty miles away from home at his father's insistence. Because of the incredible opportunity that his education presented, Augustine became an articulate and intelligent expounder of the philosophical systems he had studied and learned to love--namely, Platonism. He found great comfort in the predictable and consistent halls of academia and decided to pursue a career within the walls of the ivory tower of academia--Augustine aspired to be a professor of rhetoric.

Augustine moved around teaching rhetoric to popular academic acclaim for many years. He was repeatedly disappointed with his students' behavior and lack of professionalism but so loved the academic world that he continued on gaining more and more acclaim. Eventually, he was appointed Professor of Rhetoric for the Imperial Court at Milan. This was, very likely, the most highly regarded rhetorical profession in the western world. Augustine took it gladly but, on the way there in a carriage, noticed a homeless beggar on the street and remarked: "Surely, this man lives a happier and more carefree life thanI do." Even at the zenith of his academic career, Augustine was aware that countless accolades and voluminous praise could not satisfy the man who would, eventually, write: "Thou hast created us for Thyself, and our heart is not quiet until it rests in Thee.Happiness eluded Augustine even as success dwelt in his lap.

Augustine sought happiness and fulfillment in women throughout his adult life. He was famed for his voracious sexual appetite. He lived with a woman--Flora--for nearly fifteen years and had a son by her without marrying her. He wasn't interested in loving her as much as experiencing her as an object and thing meant to provide him pleasure. He would, eventually, become part of an arranged marriage with a girl too young to be wed. He broke off his relationship with Flora because of the arranged marriage but could not wait long enough to marry his betrothed and started a new relationship with another woman. This is the man who is famed to say,"Grant me chastity and continence, but not yet." Augustine hoped to fill the aching void within him with pleasure and women but found that he still felt unsatisfied.

Augustine sought fulfillment in the Manichaean religion that followed their founder Mani. Mani suggested that good and evil were equal and opposing cosmic forces--neither was more powerful or more capable than the other--that fought out their eternal battle within the lives and minds of humans who were composed from good and evil. They identified goodness with the soul and evilness with the body. This linked with Augustine's love of Platonic philosophy and he remained convinced for some years. He sought meaning to life in Mani's philosophy and sought the release promised if humans could only learn to identify solely with their soul and cast aside the foreign domination of the body upon the soul. Augustine would, eventually, have a chance to sit down with one of the greatest living teachers of Manichaeanism and question him. Augustine was painfully disappointed to find out that this "enlightened teacher" knew less than he did andwas tripped up on simple philosophical questions related to the religion he was described as knowing expertly. Finding that even the great enlightened teachers were unable to attain to Mani's theoretical salvation, Augustine left the Manichaeans unfulfilled and unsatisfied.

In recollection, Augustine learned much of himself. He revealed in The Confessions that as a child he and some friends had crept into a neighbor's land and found a cluster of pear trees. There, he and his friends tasted some of the pears and found them to be either sour or bland and absolutely unpalatable. Yet, they stole armloads of the pears and destroyed them. Augustine would look back and find great meaning in this moment--meaning that would help him understand his incredible lack of satisfaction and peace throughout his life: he had stolen the pears not because they were something of value but, rather, because he wanted to steal. Augustine was, finally, prepared to turn his critical eye inward and realize that so much of his life had been spent in rebellion to God not because of some value in it but because it was part of his very nature--he was alienated from the only true source of peace and satisfaction in the universe.It was with this dawning realization that Augustine met Ambrose in Milan.

Ambrose was a skilled and educated rhetorician and priest who welcomed Augustine into his home and his church. He encouraged Augustine to ask questions--knowing that it was in Augustine's nature to do so--and answered what he could and taught Augustine to answer others. His openness to the intellectual aspects of Christianity and his skillful presentation of its teachings slowly won over Augustine. Eventually, Augustine would convert to Christianity--much to his mother's happiness--and become one of the staunchest defenders of orthodoxy in the history of the Church. He would apply the skills that he had acquired in the world to the service of the Kingdom of God and write numerous treatises and booksAugustine, upon looking back over his life, would come to the slow and steady realization that " wishes to be happy even when he so lives as to make happiness impossible." Looking back upon his aimless wandering and pursuit of satisfaction and peace, he reflected,"I found thee not, O Lord, without, because I erred in seeking thee without that wert within."

Even now, Augustine's life raises his question: "Don't you believe that there is in man a deep so profound as to be hidden even to him in whom it is?" For Augustine, there was no rest until he found it in God and he found this rest in 430 as the Bishop of Hippo and an inspiration to countless millions of Christians.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

August 27 - Monica of Hippo, Wife, Mother, At Home in God

Monica was born in Africa, near Carthage. She was born to a Christian family and grew up within the bounds of the Church. However, when she was older her parents agreed to marry her to an older non-Christian man by the name of Patricius. Patricius was known to be an abusive man with a volatile temper. However, Monica continued to attend church services nearly every day and prayed for her husband with an undeniable fervor. Her love and devotion to a man who she hadn't chosen or known had a marked influence on Patricius. Though he did not convert until the end of his life, he never beat her or physically abused her. Over time, his verbal abuse stopped as he realized that it was having no effect on her or her love for him. They had three children--the eldest of which was named Augustine.

To say that Augustine was the apple of his mother's eye is quite the understatement. Through his writing we learn much of Monica's fabled devotion and love for those near her. Augustine was not a Christian and, as a youth, seemed to show no interest in his mother's faith. She prayed for him daily in spite of his mockery and derision. When he joined the Manichean cult, she prayed for him and sought direction from spiritual leaders and mentors. She received a vision in which an angel told her: "Your son is with you."She joyfully told Augustine about her vision and he dismissed it. He insisted, cruelly, that this could tell of her own apostasy as easily as it could tell of his conversion. Overlooking her son's cruelty and mockery, she responded: "No, the angel didn't say I was with you. The angel said you were with me."

Monica shed many tears for her prodigal son who seemed to flee his mother and avoid her prayers. She continued to pray for him at every opportunity. Eventually, a bishop she had been talking to told her, "Go now, please...It is not possible that the child of so many prayerful tears should be unaffected." The bishop was right but Monica would not know this for many more long prayer-filled days. After her husband had converted and died, she went to live with Augustine in Italy and eventually, and partially through her own engineering, he began conversing with St. Ambrose the bishop of Milan. It was there--in Milan--that Augustine finally converted and Monica's hopes and dreams for her son were realized. Her prodigal son had come home and she ran to meet him at the gates. He was baptized, much to her joy, in 387.

They enjoyed a scant few worship experiences together before Monica's death at the age of fifty-five. She told Augustine, prior to her death, "There was only one reason that I wished to remain longer in this world: to see you profess the Christian faith before I died. I have seen this, what else is left for me?" As she died, someone asked her, "Aren't you afraid to die so far from your home?" They expected that Monica wanted to die near Carthage. However, Monica responded with the wisdom and spirituality that had sustained her through many prayer and tear filled nights:"Nothing is far from God."

Friday, August 26, 2016

August 26 - Louis of Toulouse, Hostage, Crown Rejector

Louis of Toulouse was born in Brignoles, France, to Charles the Lame and Maria Arpad of Hungary. He was their second son and, as such, had no claim to the throne that his father was appointed to (King of Naples) by Pope Clement IV. Clement had been the secretary of Louis' uncle--Louis IX of France (better known as Saint Louis). Louis' older brother Charles Martel d'Anjou was in line to take the crown and a position of power in the world as he grew older. Louis would be well taken care of but would not need to engage in the political game to the same degree as his older brother.

In 1288, Charles lost a naval battle off the coast of Naples to some Sicilians and Aragonians. His fleet was defeated and he was taken prisoner. In exchange for the life and liberty of king Charles, his three sons (Charles Martel, Louis, and their youngest brother--Robert) were made to be hostages to the Aragonian rulers. The boys were taken captive and forced to live in Barcelona among their captors.There, they were cared for by Franciscan friars and given a competent education. Though all three were competent in their academic studies, Louis seemed to "get" the deeply Christian spirituality of the Franciscans in ways that his brothers seemed to miss. In a time of great personal crisis, he vowed to become a Franciscan friar when he was released--a vow that included poverty, chastity, and obedience.Further, he was appointed Archbishop of Lyon by his own people even while he was still a captive and unable to perform the duties of the office. In many ways, there was a life of promise awaiting him after his release and, yet, he still asserted his vow to be obedient to God's calling upon his life.

Shortly before they were released, the eldest brother--Charles Martel--died. With his death, Louis became the heir to the throne and crown of their father Charles the Lame. They were released and Louis was expected to come and accept the crown but he rejected it in favor of his vow to become a Franciscan. He gave up his right to his father's inheritance and passed these honors and titles on to his younger brother Robert. Louis, instead, took the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience and became a Franciscan friar like he had vowed. He was, also, consecrated as the Bishop of Toulouse in a region much sought after by warring powers and players. In this tenuous position, Louis devoted his life to taking care of the poor and needy. He rarely took a moment to himself and spent most of the hours of his day providing aid and care to the neediest of the needy. Doing so took its toll on him and he died young--at the age of 23--from a fever.

In so many ways, Louis' life would have been easier if he had taken up the secular titles of his father. He could have experienced a life of leisure and political influence but, instead, he lived into a calling on his life to care for the poor and oppressed. He rejected the easy life of appointment and privilege for the hard but fulfilling life of the Christian called to service.