Saturday, June 24, 2017

June 24 - G.K. Chesterton, Author, Wit, Prince of Paradox

Perhaps nobody in the history of Christianity has so clearly understood the power of humor and wit to indicate truth as Gilbert Keith Chesterton did. G.K., as he was known, was a writer who was also dubbed the "prince of paradox" because of his uncanny ability to formulate short but insightful sentences that seemed, at first, to smack of wrongness only to give way to sublime truth. He was educated in both art and literature but never received a degree in either subject. Instead, he became associated with publishing houses and freelance journalism. He had been raised a nominal Christian but found himself fascinated by religious and philosophical subjects from a relatively young age. Consequently, he "drifted" closer and closer to the Church as the years wore on and his writings led him closer and closer to Truth. He was an apologist of a sort that was difficult to confront. His humility and compassion in the presence of his opponents presented them with ample opportunities to demonstrate their own conceit or ruthlessness if any was present in them. It wasn't enough for G.K. to win arguments and debate--he truly wanted to love people even as he contradicted them.

G.K. wrote many books--both fiction and non-fiction--which are still reprinted and read today. Once he was asked by the writers of the British newspaper The Times to add his voice to a chorus of highly regarded thinkers and speakers on the subject: "What's wrong with the world?" The great minds of the day were given room to make their arguments for inherent flaws of the world as they saw it. G.K., however, took a different approach and tendered the briefest of all responses when he wrote:
"Dear Sirs,
I am.
Sincerely yours,
G.K. Chesterton"
Though it was clearly a humorous and witty response, it was also a statement of G.K.'s deeply held Christian convictions. In this witty response, G.K. was able to insist upon the fallen nature of humanity and its own need for redemption from some outside source. The humor of the letter enabled its message to slip by the intellectual defenses of the readers and lodge a particularly potent paradox within their minds.

G.K. can only truly be understood by reading his work and contributions to the faith. Accordingly, I will close with a selection of some of my favorite quotes:

"By a curious confusion, many modern critics have passed from the proposition that a masterpiece may be unpopular to the other proposition that unless it is unpopular it cannot be a masterpiece."

“Fallacies do not cease to be fallacies because they become fashions.”

“The Bible tells us to love our neighbors, and also to love our enemies; probably because they are generally the same people.”

“You can only find truth with logic if you have already found truth without it.”

“Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about.”

“The men who really believe in themselves are all in lunatic asylums.”

“The whole modern world has divided itself into Conservatives and Progressives. The business of Progressives is to go on making mistakes. The business of the Conservatives is to prevent the mistakes from being corrected.

“There is a certain poetic value, and that a genuine one, in this sense of having missed the full meaning of things. There is beauty, not only in wisdom, but in this dazed and dramatic ignorance.”

“The riddles of God are more satisfying than the solutions of man.”

“Without education, we are in a horrible and deadly danger of taking educated people seriously.”

“It is idle to talk always of the alternative of reason and faith. Reason is itself a matter of faith. It is an act of faith to assert that our thoughts have any relation to reality at all.”

Friday, June 23, 2017

June 23 - Anthony of Padua, Preacher, Franciscan, Called

Ferdinand--for this was the name Anthony of Padua was known by for many of his years--had turned his back on the life appointed for him by his noble and wealthy parents in favor of a life of monastic discipline and devotion. He received a competent education in the Augustinian school but in doing so turned down the excellent education offered by his family's connections and influence. Regardless of the opportunities offered to him, though, Ferdinand was only willing to live the life that God had called him to live. In pursuit of his calling, he became the monk in charge of hospitality at the Augustinian abbey of Saint Vincent outside the city walls of Lisbon, Portugal. One night he gave rest and comfort to five Franciscan monks who were traveling for Morocco to preach to the Muslim inhabitants there. Ferdinand was energized by their clearly passionate obedience to the calling God had placed upon their lives even in the face of probable death. He was not surprised when he soon hosted them again--though this time it was their corpses he cared for--at the abbey as they were sent home from the mission field as martyrs. Each of the men had died for a Kingdom that places demands on its citizens and a Lord who promised life through death. Impressed as he was by their bravery and commitment, he asked for and received permission to leave the Augustinian abbey and become a Franciscan monk. Upon this occasion, he took the name Anthony.

Anthony had become a Franciscan so that he might follow in the footsteps of the men whose callings had been so clear and sacrifices so definitive. He soon set out to travel to Morocco to take up the calling of the men who had been martyred. Anthony made this decision knowing that his own martyrdom was the likely outcome of such a calling but he went willingly and eagerly. While traveling, however, he became severely ill and was forced to turn around and return to Portugal to seek medical attention and time to recover. Anthony was heartbroken that he would be turned back fromMorocco and what he perceived to be his calling but he did so knowing that God's will could not be frustrated and that if it was God's will for him to go to Morocco then he would find his way there. Yet again, though, circumstances changed for Anthony when his ship was wrecked on the coast of Sicily. Anthony had no connection to Sicily but it seemed as nice a place as any for him to recover and continue his life of monastic service and devotion. He had the opportunity to go to Assisi and after the occasion of his presence passed he remained there as a servant of God who seemed lost in his calling. Anthony must have felt adrift in God's plan to be so far from home and so far from anywhere he had ever imagined God guiding him. In Italy Anthony was an unknown and of no consequence. Yet, Anthony continued to wait for God to do God's will and allow him to join into the work of the Kingdom in the world--he was content to wait on God's guidance because he trusted that God's calling upon him was true and complete.

Anthony ended up in San Paolo because of his illness and his relative obscurity among Italian Franciscans. One day a group of Dominicans and Franciscans gathered together for the purposes of an ordination. The Franciscans had assumed that surely the Dominicans would be prepared to preach--after all, the Dominicans were the Order of Preachers. The Dominicans had assumed the Franciscans would have a preacher since they were hosting the day. Consequently, nobody was prepared to preach on the occasion of the ordination. The monks decided that humble Anthony would preach and he objected to their insistence. They overruled him, though, and he was compelled by his obedience to his brothers and his Lord to do as they asked. He ascended to the pulpit and swallowed nervously. Finally, he began preaching whatever it was that the Holy Spirit directed him to say. At first, it was halting and hesitant but as the Spirit gripped Anthony the words came clearly and powerfully through him to the attentive audience. They were astonished at the clarity of the words he brought forth on that day and he gained a reputation of spirited preacher in the small community. His reputation began to spread from that day and soon he was not only preaching sermons to the many who were desperate to hear words of hope, faith, and love but he was also working wonders in the crowds that came to see him. The man who feared he had missed God's calling found it seemingly by accident when called upon to preach the Word of God. For the rest of his life he preached and worked wonders and lived into the wondrous calling God had known from before his birth and Anthony only found out a day at a time.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

June 22 - Alban, Protomartyr, Convert, Hospitable

It's hard to guess why Alban had agreed to shelter Amphibalus. Maybe he didn't know why Amphibalus needed a place to live or maybe he did and thought that he might be compensated for his charity.Perhaps, he wanted to be kind to a man who was obviously in need. Regardless, though he was a Roman soldier and loyal to the Roman gods and values, Alban invited the Christian priest Amphibalus into his home and gave him both a place to sleep and meals to eat. As is the case for those who demonstrate love through hospitality, he began to genuinely question Amphibalus on matters both mundane and essential. Soon, Amphibalus made it clear to Alban that he was a Christian priest and he carried with him a story greater than any Rome could offer. Alban was intrigued by the simultaneous confidence and humility of the priest and he listened attentively as Amphibalus both prayed and explained the Faith that was so dear to him. He learned that Amphibalus was on the run from the emperor and the terrible imperial decree of death and destruction for those who dared to swear their allegiance to any Kingdom besides Rome. Alban knew that his lords had labeled this man a traitor and criminal but the life giving story he told suggested that perhaps it was Rome that had it all wrong. Soon, Alban was converted to the faith of the priest and baptized. He had made a decision to condemn himself in the eyes of Rome for the hope of mercy and life more abundant.

The next morning Roman soldiers arrived at the place where Amphibalus had been hiding and they knocked on the door of Alban's home with orders from the emperor. Before he opened the door, Alban made an important decision. He had heard the story of Amphibalus and the Lord Jesus and knew well that there is no greater love than to lay yourself down for another. So, he took the cloak and hood of Amphibalus while he slept and opened the door silently to greet the representatives of Rome on his threshold. They threw him to the ground and tied his hands behind his back. Alban offered no word to them and, instead, prayed that he might have courage enough to see his plan through to the bloody end. They brought him before the governor and he was beaten severely. As he was beaten his hood fell back from his face and his true identity was revealed. Not only was he not the accused priest but he was, also, a Roman soldier who had apparently allowed himself to be turned over into the hands of the Roman empire to protect a Christian priest. The governor was furious at being fooled and at the audacity of Alban to perpetrate such a scheme. He ordered Alban to offer a sacrifice to the Roman gods so that, perhaps, he might have mercy on this fallen soldier. Alban shook his head and uttered the words that signed his death warrant: "I worship and adore the true and living God who created all things." With his profession of faith he had sealed his fate.

He was beaten severely again and then forced to walk to the top of a hill where he would be executed. Being a Roman citizen he was condemned to decapitation at the hands of an executioner. As they walked to that lonely place of death his crimes were intoned to the crowds who watched questioningly. Each step deepened the conviction and shame in the heart of the executioner and he began to ask questions of Alban as to why he was going to give up his life instead of make the same sacrifice he had made so many times before. Alban told the executioner of his own faith and the fundamental conviction that gripped his heart:Jesus who had been executed had been the True God and had died so that sinners might find grace and true life in this world. The executioner was astonished at not only the words of Alban but, also, the confidence with which he walked to his certain death. When they arrived at the place of Alban's death the executioner confessed Jesus as his Lord and refused to be a party to Rome's imperial death sentence. He was arrested by the soldiers and held there to watch as a second executioner finished the task and made a martyr of Alban. Soon thereafter, the executioner joined him in martyrdom. Eventually, Amphibalus was caught, as well, and he suffered the same death in the same place for the same crime of allegiance to the same Lord.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

June 21 - Ephrem of Syria, Deacon, Teacher, Harp of the Spirit

Ephrem was the child of Christian parents who were active in their congregational family in Nisbis. This was a mark in the favor of Ephrem's potential spiritual growth. From birth he was raised hearing the stories of life through death and the redeeming power of pure, unblemished love. We cannot and should not underestimate this for a single moment. Further, the congregation that Ephrem was a part of--and into which he was eventually baptized--was led and cared for by Jacob of Nisbis. Jacob was one of the men who signed the documents of the First Council of Nicea in 325 when Ephrem was almost twenty years old. This meant that Ephrem was learning from one of the pillars of the Church how best to likewise become a great leader of the Church and devoted follower of the Church's bridegroom. He was baptized by Jacob and eventually appointed both deacon and teacher. But Ephrem took an interesting approach to his educational vocation. He did not ask his students to memorize and he did not teach them in the lecturing didactic style so common at the time. Instead, he wrote poetry and hymns. Ephrem was convinced that the great mysteries of God could not be handled with the calculating hands of academia and must be carefully cradled by the hands of the arts. With poetry and music the mysteries of the Faith could flourish and not be "solved" but, instead, be entertained, experienced, and appreciated.

Constantine died in 337 and the Persian ruler Shapur II began to raid the northern portions of Roman Mesopotamia. These attacks were repelled, according to Ephrem's hymns and poetry, by the mighty prayers of Jacob of Nisbis. But some twenty years later they were picked up again and the Roman empire was willing to make a deal because of the chaos ripping through its power structure in the wake of the death of Julian the Apostate in battle. Since Constantius II was not willing to attend to the needs of the cities of norther Mesopotamia and the new ruler Jovian was willing to sacrifice the cities to save his army, the city of Nisbis was turned over to Shapur with the understanding that its Christian population would be banished. Ephrem led the community in its exile and they eventually landed in Edessa. In Edessa, Ephrem helped to rebuild the congregation and continued to teach them through the wonders of poetry and hymnody.Even as rival teachers tried to engage him in formulaic debate he refused to abandon the world of the arts for the world of academic discourse. He wasn't concerned with winning arguments and solving intellectual puzzles, he was concerned with taking care of the mysteries and proclaiming what amounted to nothing more than foolishness to most.

In the year 373 famine hit Edessa and tore through its occupants with ferocity. A plague resulted from the widespread starvation and death. Ephrem led his congregation to care for the sick, hungry, and dying and did so by example. Eventually, he succumbed to the plague that afflicted those he loved and cared for. Through the years, we still have four-hundred of Ephrem's hymns so we can trust that there were thousands of hymns and poems at his death. He left a legacy of love and mysterious providence behind him to the Church he loved and served. This legacy was inspired in him by the Lord he loved and of whom he wrote:

Your Bread kills the Devourer who had made us his bread,
your Cup destroys death which was swallowing us up.
We have eaten you, Lord, we have drunk you,
not to exhaust you, but to live by you.
See, Lord, my arms are filled with the crumbs from your table;
there is not room left in my lap.
As I kneel before you, hold back your Gift;
Keep it in your storehouse to give us again!