Thursday, September 18, 2014

September 18 - Joseph of Cupertino, Healer, Monk, Ecstatic

Joseph's mother gave birth to him in a stable. She had been driven from her home because of the debts of her recently deceased husband. Joseph's father had been generous but not wealthy. He had guaranteed the debts of many of their poorer neighbors and when they had failed to pay, their debts became his debts. When he died unexpectedly, Joseph's family no longer had any means to support itself. Joseph's childhood was, at times, painful. He was not a good student and was given to staring vacantly into the distance. His teachers could not understand how Joseph could study and, yet, fail his exams. Looking back, it seems apparent that Joseph had some form of learning disability but at the time it was easier to call him ignorant and unsuitable for any profession that involved thinking.

It was Joseph's earnest desire to be a monk--even though he had been apprenticed to a cobbler--and so he applied to a monastery. He was rejected because of his apparent ignorance and inability to pay attention for longer periods of time. Undeterred, he applied to yet another monastery. They accepted him and tried to work with his difficulties at learning but ultimately dismissed him when they could not find a way to work around his challenges. Finally, he applied to the Franciscan monastery and was accepted. This was hardly an easy calling but the Franciscan brothers were willing to accept that he had a deep desire to live the life of prayer and devotion. They recognized a call upon Joseph's life that transcended intelligence or education.

Joseph was known for being given to moments of ecstasy and deep contemplation of the Lord he loved and followed. One gift only made him more unpopular with some: he seemed to be able to discern the hidden sin in a person's life. He would directly approach them and tell them that they smelled and needed to go be cleaned. He would then direct them to the confessional at the local church, chapel, or monastery. He was not allowed to hear confession or preside over masses because of his lack of education and knowledge but he was known for healing people who came to him seeking aid. His daily life soon became inundated with individuals recognizing holiness and calling in his life that his ignorance could not diminish. Joseph was far from intelligent but it didn't matter to the people who came near to him because he loved them and wanted to help them.

Joseph was pushed around throughout his life by people who thought they knew better than him because of their comparatively greater intelligence. His final years involved much travel because of the throngs of people who constantly came to him seeking his love and healing. Joseph was content to stay among them but his superiors moved him around because they detested the scenes that were created around him. When Joseph died among his brothers and sisters, he refused their request that he heal himself saying, "No! God forbid!" He, then, comforted them with soothing words before passing on to his eternal rest.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

September 17 - James Carney, Martyr, Missionary, Revolutionary

James Carney struggled his way through seminary. Not because he wasn't smart--he was--and not because it was the hardest thing he'd ever done--he had recently finished serving in World War II--but because it challenged him in new ways that only Jesuit training could. He studied philosophy and theology for hours and hours doing so in Latin. He reflected back upon his time in the military and what it meant for his life. He engaged his own self-discipline as he was formed in the crucible of his seminary experience and when he emerged, he was prepared for the calling that God had placed upon his life: the life of a missionary priest to a poverty-stricken people. James Carney--who asked to be called Padre Guadalupe in honor of "Our Lady of Guadalupe"--had been called and appointed to Honduras.

James lived a fairly typical life in Honduras as a local priest among a people who struggled daily to know where they would find their next meal and how to make sure their families were cared for. He said mass every week, he baptized, he offered the sacraments, he taught children, and otherwise did what any other priest was doing throughout the world. But James felt that in pursuing his calling and moving to Honduras he had somehow missed it. Instead, he began to consider the poverty of his people and the suffering they labored under. He knew it only indirectly. After all, he was an American citizen who was provided for and comfortable even if living among those who struggled. He began to become intimately acquainted with their lives by leaving the church buildings and entering into the homes of his people. Eventually, he would become a Honduran citizen and give up his American citizenship and passport. He donned the clothes of the people and slept on dirt floors, in hammocks, and wherever he was invited. James Carney found that within his calling was a deeper calling to become intimately associated with a people that the government did not care about.

Eventually, James Carney began to argue that the Church could not stand passively by and watch the poverty-stricken suffer but should, instead, try to alleviate their pain. He began arguing for social and economic justice in Honduras and this attracted the ire of those with power--those who had benefited from the broken Honduran system. Suddenly, he was accused of being a communist and heretic by those with power and the Bishop began to hear criticism of the priest who was a friend of the poor and outcast. As often happens to those who confront power with truth, the influential and powerful people exacted their revenge for James' slight against them and had him exiled from Honduras to Nicaragua. James' citizenship in the country he loved--where the people he loved lived--was revoked and he was told not to return.

While in Nicaragua, James Carney continued his ministry among the Nicaraguans while still dreaming of his beloved in Honduras. There had recently been revolution in Nicaragua where the Sandinista forces had overthrown a government that had failed and oppressed the poor. This was an inspiring event for James who began to associate with a guerrilla force intending to try to start the same thing in Honduras. They crossed the border into Honduras and James went with them as their "priest chaplain." James knew well that he would essentially sign his own death warrant by returning to the country where he belonged but was not welcome. The force was caught, interrogated, and tortured. This included James Carney. Finally, James Carney was taken in a helicopter over the jungle and tossed out of it alive. He fell to the ground and if he survived the fall, then he died of exposure, hunger, or thirst in the days that followed.

James Carney was clearly a man who was willing to fight for what he felt was worth fighting for. This is somewhat troubling for some people who are uncomfortable with the idea of a revolutionary priest that fights for a politicized cause. James' Marxist leanings further complicate the discussion for many Christians who distrust Marxism and its political trappings. Regardless, James can and should be remembered as a person willing to die for those he loved. By living with the poor and outcast of Honduras, he became so attached and connected to their lives that their suffering was his suffering. Their pain was his pain. Their yearning for revolution and change burned in his heart, as well. Because of this and God's calling upon James' life, James Carney was martyred because he refused to stop loving those that the powerful had deemed inconsequential and unlovable.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

September 16 - Cyprian, Martyr, Bishop, Received Second Chances

Cyprian had been raised as a non-Christian and received a fine education before converting to Christianity in the early third century. It is clear that he was a man of means and affluence because of his possession of a villa and his considerable influence among the citizens of Carthage before his conversion. When he converted to the Faith, he gave away a significant portion of his wealth and possessions to the poor people of Carthage. This was greeted with joy and appreciation from the poorer citizens and respect from others. In a short time, he was ordained to ministry in Carthage. Years later, he was elected Bishop of Carthage.

From his position as bishop, he began to hear the rumblings of a terrible set of events that would soon befall North Africa. Emperor Decius had been speaking against Christians and had started persecuting Christians within the Roman Empire. Eventually, these edicts were picked up in North Africa. Carthage was considered a significant target for these persecutions because of the growing number of Christians there under Cyprian's watchcare. Ministers of the Faith were being rounded up and compelled to sign statements of allegiance to the Emperor and sacrifice before the Roman gods and powers. If they refused, there were drastic and dire consequences. When the edict was pronounced in Carthage, however, Cyprian was nowhere to be found.

He had fled Carthage claiming to have seen a vision and heard God's calling to avoid the persecution. He was accused of cowardice and lack of faith before other clergy and their common superiors. In many ways, Cyprian had lost the credibility that allowed him to speak so forcefully to the people he guided and ministered to. He still administered Carthage as its bishop but did so through intermediaries and without stepping foot into the city. The general disapproval of other Christians was abundantly clear to Cyprian who received letters and messages intended to rebuke and question his decision to leave Carthage.

For years, the battle that Cyprian would fight was two-fold: (1) defending his flight from Carthage as ordained by God, and (2) whether or not to accept Christians that had denied their faith back into the embrace of the Church. This was a tenuous position for Cyprian who argued against allowing "lapsed Christians" back into the Church except in exceptional circumstances. His argument was constantly weighed against the public consideration that he had fled the persecution. For Cyprian's enemies, he behaved hypocritically by refusing mercy to those who had crumbled under the same pressure they accused Cyprian fleeing from. Cyprian would wage this battle to the day he died even after he returned to Carthage (following the Decian persecution).

The edicts and actions that would eventually be referred to as the "Valerian Persecutions" began in 256. Roman priests and ministers were martyred (including Sixtus II, and Laurence) and the persecution crept its way into Carthage. This time, however, Cyprian remained in Carthage to face the persecution. As was the practice of the persecutors, the leaders of the Christian communities were called out first and commanded to deny their faith. Cyprian was brought before the Proconsul and proclaimed his faith boldly. For this, he was exiled from Carthage. And, so, he left Carthage again because of persecution but this time he was forced to do so. While in exile, he ministered to others who had been exiled by the persecutions and provided Christian discipleship and formation for those who had refused to deny their faith. The Christian community in exile had maintained their faith and Cyprian had received a blessed second chance to stand in an exiled Kingdom.

A year later, he was summoned again to his villa in Carthage because of a new edict demanding the execution of all Christian clergy to suppress the growing Faith. He refused to deny his faith and was threatened with execution. When this did not deter him, the proconsul condemned him to be decapitated by sword. He responded, "Thanks be to God!" They took him into an open place in the city so that people could watch what happens to those who follow God and refuse the Empire. He was followed by his flock to the place of his execution where he removed his own clothes without assistance from the Empire. He knelt down and prayed for Carthage, for his persecutors, and for himself. Finally, he tied his blindfold and bowed his head. Then, the Empire showed its weakness in its ferocity--in it, the Church showed strength in its weakness.

Monday, September 15, 2014

September 15 - Martyrs of Birmingham

It was just barely past 10:20 a.m. on Sunday morning when the children made their way downstairs. They had just finished listening to the pastor's sermon: "The Love That Forgives." Perhaps their minds dwelt on the incredible calling that the pastor's sermon placed on the lives of those who followed after Jesus--love your enemies so much that you can't help but forgive them? Sure, maybe that stuff worked for Jesus but it would be so hard for a black person in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963. This was the city where dogs and hoses had been turned on peaceful demonstrators. This was the city often described as the "most segregated" city in all of the nation. This was the city of "Bull" Connor who, in response to Brown v. Board of Education had said, "You're going to have bloodshed, and it's on them [the Supreme Court], not us." They were supposed to learn to love and forgive these people?

As they gathered in the basement of 16th Street Baptist Church their minds might have only been concerned with what fun the teacher might have in mind for them. Perhaps they were focused on what everybody else was wearing and doing. We know that one little girl had asked another older girl to help tie her belt--it must have been coming undone. In this sanctuary--this haven from the hate and destruction of the world--where they tried to worship and follow after a crucified and abuse Lord, they were not as scared as they were used to being. For a brief moment, perhaps, they felt some respite and comfort in the basement of this place. Then it happened.

A bomb--nineteen sticks of dynamite--went off.

The cement and glass of the basement wall became a horrible mess of shrapnel and death. One poor girl was so thoroughly mutilated by the blast that she was unrecognizable to all but her father who knew her by the ring she wore. One child's eyes were lacerated and filled with glass. How does one adequately describe a singular blast of indiscriminate hatred that murders children in a church basement in cold blood? Regardless, it is a powerful testament of the conversion of the bombers to the wide way that leads unto destruction.

As people flocked to the site of the bombing, they soon found out that four children had been killed and over twenty other people had been injured physically. The amount of emotional, mental, and spiritual wounds on that day cannot--and perhaps should not--be quantified. That was a day when hatred and darkness struck out and caused inestimable damage. As the gathering crowd looked up, only one stained glass window had not been blown out in the blast: an image of Jesus gathering the little children unto himself. The face and head of Jesus had been blown off by the blast but the remainder of the image stood as an eerie statement about where Jesus was in the blast--about who else the bombers were bombing.

This event--the martyrdom of four little girls (Denise McNair, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, and Addie Mae Collins)--would demonstrate the brutality and evil of the kind of people who would be willing to bomb a church and children because of their own fear and ignorance. The four men who were eventually implicated in the plot (three of whom were found guilty, one died before being charged) remain nameless here because it is best that the world forget their stories entirely. They thought they were doing it to protect themselves and their families from integration of black citizens with white citizens. All they did was further show the world what it was that they truly believed in: a supposed gospel of peace and happiness through domination, destruction, and willful power.

As one of the men was led away after being found guilty, he was asked if he had anything to say. He retorted: "I guess the good Lord will settle it on judgment day." Of this, I have no doubt but, perhaps it is most fitting to remember the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. in response to this atrocity:

And so my friends, they did not die in vain. God still has a way of wringing good out of evil. And history has proven over and over again that unmerited suffering is redemptive. The innocent blood of these little girls may well serve as a redemptive force that will bring new light to this dark city....And so I stand here to say this afternoon to all assembled here, that in spite of the darkness of this hour, we must not despair. We must not become bitter, nor must we harbor the desire to retaliate with violence. No, we must not lose faith in our white brothers. Somehow we must believe that the most misguided among them can learn to respect the dignity and the worth of all human personality.
This was the "Love that Forgives." This was, truly, the seed of redemption that brought about integration and healing. This was the spirit of conversion that leads unto God.