Tuesday, January 17, 2017

January 17 - Anthony the Great, Monastic, Ascetic, Hermit

Anthony's parents were something of an exception for Egyptian citizens in the lower regions of the nation--they had money and they owned land. From their affluence, they were able to provide handsomely for son and daughter even though Egypt was under the control and dominion of the Roman empire. But, they died when Anthony was eighteen years old. This left him in charge of his family estate and inheritance. The potential conflict between Anthony's faith and his family's wealth did not come to bear until he was in charge of it and charged with providing for his unmarried sister. Anthony felt called to do something ridiculous--to live a revolutionary life of freedom and self-renunciation in the desert--but was anchored to the world that tempted him by his family wealth and obligation to his sister. So, it came as a pleasant surprise when his sister was willing to join an early convent so that Anthony could follow his calling. Anthony sold his family's possessions and gave the sum total of all his considerable wealth to friends and neighbors.With this radical act, Anthony set out for the desert to live into a calling.

As he journeyed further into the wild, he slowly became more and more detoxified from the temptations and holdings of the world he left behind but it would be silly to believe that he simply walked away and was never again tempted to the affluence and influence of his youth. It was a long process but it came to bear very quickly with a very acute temptation as he journeyed. As he thought back to the city he had left he wondered if it was possible he had made a mistake. With poetic timing, Anthony looked down and saw a silver plate--of much value--holding a mound of silver coins. With these coins, he couldgo back and nearly regain the life he had left behind. He could abandon a hard calling for an easy and comfortable existence. He thought about it. Then, he spoke to the one he knew was behind the temptation: "Give it up, Satan, I won't be tempted." As he finished his retort to the temptation, it vanished and faded as Anthony's hopes would have had he given into temptation. As he traveled further, he found a larger, golden plate with and even larger mound of golden coins upon it. Wordlessly, he built a fire and tossed the gold into it whereupon it promptly vanished. He wasn't beyond temptation but he was slowly removing the barbs of the Empire from his flesh and gaining true freedom.

Anthony's life in the desert was the life of a monastic hermit. He secluded himself first in a tomb so that he could best devote himself to a life of prayer and service but no matter how far he got into the wilderness, news traveled back to the cities and increased the amazement of the people for Anthony's deeds. When he became sick, some Christians went and gathered him up to take him to a monastery and heal him. But when he was better, he left again and this time he found an old Roman fortress and made it his hermitage. The pilgrims who came to see the holy man spoke to him through a small hole in the wall of the fortress and received very few words back from him. He offered his teachings to his disciples but refused to be a spectacle for those who were not connected to him. He accepted gifts of food and drink but mainly subsisted upon the bread he made himself. As any monastic of legendary qualities, he was soon surrounded by disciples and students regardless of whether or not he wanted to be a hermit. He taught but he was devoted first and foremost to a life of self-renunciation and denial that blossomed in prayer and worship.

When he approached the end of his life, he endeavored to finally escape one more bond upon his life and so he made his peace with his disciples. He gave away his only clothing--two cloaks. One cloak was given to Serapion his disciple and the other was given to Athanasius. He gave his abbot's staff to Macarius and then he laid down prostrate upon the ground and died having made peace and preparation.Anthony had spent a lifetime rejecting the temptations of power and influence so that he might escape the hooks they would place in his soul. He had even gone so far as to ignore a letter from the emperor Constantine before being convinced by his disciples to at least offer a blessing by letter. For Anthony, freedom and peace were found in renunciation--even if it cost him his everything.

Monday, January 16, 2017

January 16 - Raoul Wallenberg, Martyr, Victim of Oppression, Liberator of the Oppressed

Raoul had wealthy parents--though he never met his father who died three months before he was born--and this afforded him many opportunities. For example, he was able to study architecture at the University of Michigan even though it meant quite a bit of travel to get there from Sweden. When he returned to Sweden with his degree in hand he soon found that there was no room for young architects among the Swedes. So, first he took a job in South Africa but eventually ended up with a job in Hungary. His boss--Kálmán Lauer, a Hungarian Jew--utilized him to help handle imports and exports between Sweden and central Europe. It was a great opportunity for a young man and he proved invaluable. Especially invaluable after Nazi coercion brought about laws restricting business done by Jews in Hungary. Lauer trusted Raoul and since Raoul had learned Hungarian he made him his representative and allowed the Christian to take care of business matters where he could not do so as a Jew. Eventually, Raoul was a partner in ownership of the company and was spending more and more of his time in Hungary. Then, one day, an emissary from a refugee organization in the United States contacted him on behalf of president Roosevelt. It seemed that the organization wanted to rescue Hungarian Jews from Nazi oppression. Raoul was just the man for the job.

Sustained by his faith and his commitment to the sacredness of life, he reentered Hungary as a Swedish diplomat. As a diplomat from a different country that Hungary hoped to keep good ties with, he was able to issue protective passes that would label the bearers as individuals preparing to immigrate to Sweden. With these passes, they were relatively untouchable by the Hungarian Nazis. He was even able to lobby with the Nazis to consider these men, women, and children to be Swedes and not required to wear the yellow star that was forced upon the Jews in Hungary. But, this wasn't enough. He purchased a building and declared it to be exempt from Hungarian law because of his diplomatic immunity. He put large Swedish flags on the front and titled it the "Swedish Research Institute." But, once inside the doors it was clear that this was a place for Jews to find sanctuary from oppression. But, this still wasn't enough for Raoul--he felt called to more. The one house became several houses and the several houses became many. Yet, there was still more to be done.

It was clear that death awaited those who could not find some escape or protection and so, again, Raoul further laid himself out for his neighbors. He took to pulling off bigger and bigger stunts to free Jews from the chains of the Nazi regime. He could not free every Jew he met--and this thought tormented him--but he tried. Once, he was atop a train headed for Auschwitz and passing protective passports through the slats to the Jews within the train car. They were unsealed and, therefore, unofficial but Raoul was willing to risk everything to save these lives. He was ordered to stop what he was doing by the guards and they fired a warning shot over his head. He stopped and considered the situation--he might lose his life if he persisted in saving a few more people but he would surely lose more if he denied them their last chance at hope. So, he began passing the passes again and the guards fired at him. Whether they had poor aim or were not trying to hit him, Raoul escaped unscathed and stepped down onto the train platform. As the guards watched, he insisted that the doors be opened and that the inhabitants be checked again for Swedish protective passes. The guards opened the doors and Raoul led the men, women, and children to waiting cars and back to safety.

When the Soviets took Hungary, it seems that Raoul would be free again to live his own life now that the Jews could hopefully be safe again. He had saved tens of thousands of Jews from imperially sanitized death. Yet, he was arrested on January 17, 1945, and charged with being an American spy. Charged with espionage he was hid away in secret prisons. Later, the Soviets first insisted that he had died of a heart attack and later that he had been killed by Zionist Hungarians. Eventually, it was uncovered the the last years of Raoul's life were filled with torture, interrogation, and eventually his own execution at the hands of the Soviets. He died because he refused to agree with empires that life was a commodity to be traded and manipulated. Because of his faith in a God who taught love for neighbors and enemies, Raoul was appropriately murdered as a revolutionary--after all, nothing is more revolutionary than love in a world that cannot stand the sight or sound of it.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

January 15 - Paul of Thebes, Hermit, Monastic, "the First Monk"

The persecution in Thebes had been intense for quite some time but with the way Decius and Valerianus were ruling the Roman Empire it was only getting worse day by day. Paul wasn't sure what to do as he and his fellow Christians began meeting in secret and contemplating their next course of action in those turbulent times. Paul and his friends found themselves in the middle of a precarious situation: their lives and their homes tied them to Thebes but Thebes was becoming an increasingly dangerous place to live for Christians. Paul found a way out of the situation, though, by abandoning all that tied him to Thebes and becoming a hermit.

He traveled to the mountains of the Theban desert and came across a cave that looked especially inviting. As a twenty-two year old man with a few possessions, this was a significant change of lifestyle but it represented a strange kind of freedom that few knew or understood. Near his cave was a palm tree and a hidden mountain spring. Surely the words of Jesus rang in his head nearly every day as he went to gather fruit and water--"Listen carefully, don't worry about what you will eat, or what you will drink, or about what you will wear. Isn't there more to life than food and clothing?Notice the birds of the air; they don't do plant or harvest or put away supplies for security and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Aren't you more valuable than birds? And what's worrying ever done for you--has it added one single solitary second to your life?" Time went on and Paul's life became more and more isolated and devoted to prayer and worship. His city clothes gave way to time and wear and eventually Paul was clothed in garments made from the leaves of the nearby tree. His life had become simple and divorced from need upon what the Empire could offer--Paul was an island in the midst of the Roman Empire that needed and accepted no ruler but God.

One day, however, a raven flew down to greet the mostly silent Paul and it carried a small loaf of bread in its mouth. Paul gave the small bird his thanks and rejoiced at the bread provided for him by God's will. He broke it joyfully and consumed it. The next day he saw the raven approaching again with bread and was joyous again. This process continued for the remainder of Paul's life. After subsisting upon what he could gather for twenty-one years he became further liberated from the needs of this world and found his needs met without his own work. His needs were met because he was more valuable than the birds of the air and because Jesus had taught his disciples not to fear--knowing that fear enslaves many to the empires of the world. Paul had nothing to lose and so he had everything to gain and nothing to fear.

Paul was very, very old when Anthony came one fateful day to visit with Paul and seek his advice, Paul welcomed him gladly into his small cave. Anthony was going into the desert to become a hermit and Paul--being the first recorded Christian hermit--was the person to talk to before setting out upon the path of material renunciation that leads to true freedom. Years later, Anthony--that much venerated monk and hermit--would refer to Paul as "the first monk." That day and that night, the two men talked and broke bread together. As Anthony was leaving he had the presence of mind to turn and thank Paul for his time and he saw a vibrant old man staring back and welcoming him to return whenever he would like. When Anthony did return a little while later, Paul had died in his cave in a peaceful and comfortable position. Anthony took it upon himself to bury the old man and commit his body back to the dust as a man finally freed from sin and corruption.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

January 14 - Nino, Slave, Missionary, Preacher

Nino felt a calling to go to Iberia--in fact, she had had a vision commanding her to take what little she had and travel east to the land that would eventually be known as Georgia. But there was one very significant impediment to Nino's missionary calling: she was a slave and, according to the Roman powers, her life was not her own to direct. She had quite a pedigree being related to notable and powerful leaders both within the Church and without it, yet she had been taken captive from Armenia and brought to Constantinople as a servant. However, this did not lessen the intensity of her calling. The words of Mary in her vision still rung in Nino's ears: "Go to Iberia and share the good news that is accomplished in Jesus Christ. I will take every step before you do and be your shield against enemies you'll know and some you'll never know. Take a cross and plant it in a land to proclaim salvation and life through my beloved Son and Lord." So, somehow--some way--Nino risked much to leave and do God's work in a land where she had no connection.

When she crossed the border into Iberia she began looking for a town--any place where people would congregate--and she settled there. She planted the cross she carried into the ground and began preaching a Gospel that so few had heard in the little town. The fires of conversion caught in the tiny town and soon Nino's message was spreading into the larger cities and eventually arriving in the capitol. When the queen heard Nino's message she was transfixed and requested an audience. Nino--the slave--went to speak with the queen and share a faith that depended upon a crucified king. When she arrived, she discovered that the queen was ill and not responding to the cures of the greatest of the royal physicians. Nino offered a humble but earnest prayer on behalf of the queen and she was healed.The two women conversed. We don't know what was said but the queen was converted and this created a pathway to speak with the king. The king was tolerant of his wife's conversion but was not personally persuaded that day. It would take another set of circumstances.

The king--like so many other members of the royal class--had a passion for hunting. One day while he was in a nearby forest, he descended further into the forest than he had ever traveled. Soon, he was surrounded by unfamiliar streams and rocks and realized that he wasn't entirely sure how to find his way back out. He began tracking his path to discover his escape when he was suddenly struck blind. Lost deep in a forest, blinded, and surrounded by animals that would eventually overcome their timidity to inspect and perhaps kill a disabled man, he began to fear for his life. His thoughts flew to Nino and Nino's God and he prayed a simple prayer: "Jesus, if you are indeed God like the slave says, then save me from my darkness so that I might abandon all other gods and allegiances to follow and worship you." With the sounding of his "amen" his sight returned and he beat a hasty retreat to his palace. When he arrived, he called for Nino and was converted. Soon thereafter, Christianity became acceptable in Iberia and was no longer punished.

The king and queen were taught by Nino but Christianity was exploding in Iberia and the king recognized that more teachers and ministers were needed to accommodate the needs of the growing community of Jesus' disciples. Emperor Constantine sent a bishop and ministers to Iberia and a great church was built there. Nino could see that the Church had gained a foothold in Iberia and so she retired to a small hermitage in the mountains where she could again devote herself to prayer and service. When she died, the king built a monastery by her grave and continued to tell the story of the slave who had freed a kingdom.