Wednesday, January 28, 2015

January 28 - Thomas Aquinas, Doctor, Theologian, Monastic

Thomas' parents had especially high expectations for how his life should proceed. As members of the southern Italian nobility, their several sons all had very precise blueprints for how their lives and ambitions should flow. Thomas was one of the youngest of his brothers and they all shared an uncle who was an abbot in a Benedictine monastery. Without every considering questions of calling and how Thomas felt about it, his family simply assumed that young Thomas would become a Benedictine abbot and monk. They provided him with an exemplary education in a great institution but a war broke out and it became necessary to send Thomas to a school in Naples where he was introduced to the works of Aristotle, Averroes, and Maimonides. Further--and to the eventual dismay of his mother and father--he was introduced to a Dominican preacher by the name of John. As Thomas heard the stories of the Faith again from the lips of John, he felt a buzzing within him that seemed to call him inexorably toward service to God. This much had been expected but to serve in a Dominican monastery would have been considered unacceptable. Their plan had been made and there was no room for God's calling within it.

The Dominicans were pleased to have an able mind like Thomas and knew well that his family would resist his desire to become a Dominican monk. Consequently, they arranged for him to be taken to Rome and sent to Paris from Rome. The plan was mapped out and executed but Thomas' mother had a plan of her own. A few of Thomas' brothers were waiting for him in Rome and they seized him and dragged him back to the home of their mother and father so that he might be dissuaded from following after God's leading. It's easy to look back and wonder why Thomas insisted on the Dominicans over the Benedictines if both are monastic groups that devote themselves to God. It's easy for our minds to think that it would have been better for Thomas to give in and become a Benedictine because it would be "close enough." But, this falls into the same trap that Thomas' family fell into: a feeling that if we can our own will "close enough" to God's will, then that will be good enough without actually having to turn over our lives and wills to God. They imprisoned their own son and brother and did everything within their power to bend his will to theirs and away from God's.

At one point, his brothers decided that it would be better to ruin Thomas then see him become a Dominican. Their dehumanization of their brother had reached its completion and they now saw him as a commodity to be traded for family honor and influence. They paid a prostitute to seduce Thomas and led her into his room where Thomas could not escape. He refused to be seduced and ran the woman out of his room with a burning stick from the fireplace. All the while, he was a tutor and teacher to his family--specifically his sisters. Eventually, Thomas' mother arranged for him to escape and leave the home because she wanted to be rid of him but did not want to go through the indignity of disowning and abandoning her own son. Thomas escaped and eventually became a Dominican monk and theologian. He served the Church as a writer and thinker. His answers to theological questions--memorialized in his master work: Summa Theologica--informed and educated not only audiences of his day but also Christians of all subsequent generations. The one who had been imprisoned and persecuted for his call became a teacher and wise man whose words and works would carry God's message into the hearts of many discerning the first inklings of God's call upon their lives.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

January 27 - Marcella, Martyr, Widow, Monastic

Marcella was born to wealthy parents of considerable influence in Roman society. Further, she married a man of affluence and influence, as well. She was primed for a life of pleasure, recreation, and relaxation. Yet she had only been married for seven to nine months before her husband died and she became a widow. Of course, she was a widow who lived very comfortably thanks to the wealth she had inherited but she was a widow nonetheless. This event became the catalyst that pushed her onward to consider what was truly valuable in life and what of the Roman culture and life was nothing more than illusion and delusion. She devoted herself to a brand of ascetic joy that involved renouncing herself and her own ambitions in favor of taking care of the poor and hungry. She soon found herself with plenty of work to do and many demands on her time and she couldn't have been happier.

At one point, a wealthy man became enamored with Marcella. By this time, Marcella had become a leader in the Roman Church and had become an inspiration to other women to live lives of daring faith. He decided he would woo her and make the widow his wife and he assumed it would be an easy thing since she had been widowed and widows were often of little influence and power in Roman society because of their sex. He went to her and he proposed marriage saying that she could inherit all of his fortune when he died if she would only marry him. He was a wealthy political leader and his fortune was considerable but Marcella responded: “If I wished to marry, I should look for a husband, not an inheritance.” He went away without a wife and with a new understanding of Marcella's devotion to the ministry to which she had been called.

She started a school for women to study scripture and pray. It was rather successful and soon she was spiritual mother to many younger women who sought to follow after the same Christ who had captivated Marcella. Then the Goths came to Rome. The Goths looted and plundered the riches of Rome under the direction of Alaric and soon found their way to Marcella's school. Likely, they had heard that the old widow was a wealthy woman and that her school was highly respected. To the Goths, this meant she was an ideal target for their terror inducing savagery. They forced their way into the school and demanded all of the valuables that Marcella had. She insisted that she had nothing to offer them as she had spent her life giving herself and her things away to the poor. Her wealth, she declared, was in the stomachs of the poor people in the city. The Goths tortured her to get her to reveal her hidden stores of valuables but were not successful since she had nothing but her clothes and a few meager possessions to offer them. The soldiers seized one of her students--Principia--and informed Marcella that they would rape and kill the woman if Marcella did not give them what they wanted. Marcella dropped to her hands and knees and begged mercy from Alaric insisting that she had nothing to give and begging them to leave the woman alone. Seeing the once wealthy and powerful old woman on her knees in tears with blood streaming down her back begging for the welfare of another, their hearts were turned at last to mercy. They took Marcella and her students to a nearby sanctuary--even carrying the weakened Marcella--so that they might not be victimized any further. Marcella died from her wounds shortly thereafter with her head resting on the lap of Principia whom she had saved.

Monday, January 26, 2015

January 26 - John Bradford, Martyr, Roving Chaplain, Reformer

While John Bradford was confined to the royal prison--the Tower of London to be precise--he was far away from his books and academic world but that is where all of this had started. Born to a wealthy family, he was given the gift of a good and comprehensive education. From there, John went on to study more and pursue an intellectual career emphasizing his greatest strength: accounting and mathematics. He served as an officer in King Henry VIII's army and was in the position of accounting for payroll for the soldiers who fought Henry's wars. After this, he pursued a career in law as a legal professional but while studying he had the mixed fortune of befriending a man who supported the English reformation. As he studied and talked with his new friend he found himself slowly but steadily being won over to the Anglican church in particular and the teachings of the Church in general. The earnest eagerness of his friend convinced John to take his faith ever more seriously. He could stand it no longer and so he stopped studying law and started studying theology so he might become a minister of the faith he had been infected with.

When he had received his education he began his clerical career first as a teaching fellow and secondly as an ordained priest who was given a region to rove and preach in. With Anglican leaders in control of Britain, he was not under immediate threat but tensions were high with other Christians--Roman Catholic Christians in particular. He preached and taught and served the Faith as best he knew how until Mary Tudor took control of the throne and fortunes were reversed. Soon thereafter he was arrested on charges of attempting to incite mob activity. These trumped up charges took away his freedom and imprisoned him in the Tower of London. It was from his window in the tower that he looked down upon some anonymous criminal going off to die for his crimes and remarked, "There but for the grace of God goes John Bradford." John had not lost his connection with God's grace and his need for God's forgiveness even as he had gained honor and received suffering. He knew well that it was only the grace of God that separated him from a life of unrepentant corruption. One thing he would share with that criminal, though, was a state-sponsored death.

Some time after his famous remark, he was charged and tried before a court disposed toward execution. Predictably, he was found guilty and condemned to death at the hands of an Empire that would not accept his brand of resistance. He was tied to a stake with another man and wood was piled around his feet and body. As they brought the torch, he asked for forgiveness for any that he might have wronged and publicly offered forgiveness to those who had wronged him.Enveloped in forgiveness on all sides, he was set ablaze by murderous hands. He died a martyr of the reformation of the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. There with the grace of God went John Bradford.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

January 25 - Gregory of Nazianzus, Doctor, Theologian, Archbishop

Had Gregory ever heard the sentiment that "you can't go home again" he would have likely agreed wholeheartedly. After going away to school and studying intensely with his new friend Basil, he returned to the home of his parents full of vigor and hope for the future. Gregory's father--Gregory, Sr.--had become bishop of his home region of the Church after Gregory's mother--Nonna--had convinced him to consider conversion. Years after his conversion, Gregory's father was serving the Church in a shepherding and guidance role and expected Gregory to return from school and join him in leadership within the Church that had served as both comfort and affliction. But, Gregory came home speaking about a life of disconnection from the world and a life of ascetic joy and pursuit. His father insisted that he should serve in a role similar to his own role within the Church and was troubled by his son's change of heart--especially given the struggles between orthodoxy and Arianism that had only intensified over the last few years.Gregory was upset that his hopes were not met with excitement and left his home to go and be with his friend Basil.

Basil didn't offer the conspiring advice that Gregory hoped for. Though Basil and Gregory had hoped to become ascetics together, Basil's advice turned from encouraging to discouraging when he found out what Gregory's father had said. He advised his dear friend to follow his father's advice and teaching and become a Church leader and shepherd. Likely Gregory resisted this at first but soon found himself seeing his friend's wisdom even when he couldn't see his father's identical wisdom. So, he returned to the home of his father and became a leader within the Church--eventually becoming Archbishop. He would even help walk his father back into the embrace of orthodoxy when his aged father became persuaded by a heretic and wandered from the Church's teaching. The father who had insisted on the Church's need for Gregory found himself in need and Gregory willing to serve.

His incredible rhetorical skills made him a noted and highly esteemed leader and theologian, yet perhaps the most amazing aspect of Gregory's leadership and writing was his willingness to lay down anything and everything to reconcile others to the Faith that gripped and held him. When he was invited to councils and synods he was always eager to take a little extra time and effort to bring people back into the fold instead of simply breaking communion with them. At the Second Ecumenical council his presence there was disputed by some of those who opposed him theologically. When he was asked to moderate and mediate the meeting, he did so and reached out to his opposition but they were unpersuaded. Finding that he could not bring peace to the meeting he resigned his position and said, "Let me be as the Prophet Jonah! I was responsible for the storm, but I would sacrifice myself for the salvation of the ship." With these words, he left his position and his willingness to resign power for the sake of unity brought about momentary peace and agreement between the parties. He finished his life serving in the Church that had called and formed him even as he had fought and resisted the drive to power and drive to do solely what he wanted. He was willing to lay himself and his will down for the good of the Church he loved and that loved him.