Tuesday, October 21, 2014

October 21 - Malchus, Captive Monk, Husband, Brother

The walls of a cave are greedy things that suck the warmth from your bones and offer no comfort or consolation. Malchus was getting stiff waiting in the mouth of the cave for his pursuers. They intended to kill him when they found him and that is understandable--he had run away from them in hopes of escaping slavery. He was an asset to them that had become a liability. He could resist the call of home no longer so he had seized some food and water and set out to flee with a companion. He had seen their camels approaching speedily and knew that he could not outrun a camel. Further, he and his companion were running out of food and water and needed to find some place to stop and rest.As he awaited his master and another slave who would kill him and his fellow slave where they hid, he reflected back upon how he had ended up in this place.

He had strongly desired to follow after Jesus by living the monastic life of prayer and service. His family had resisted this calling because they expected it would not be especially profitable--and it wasn't. In fact, Malchus had given up much to live a life of prayer and service but felt that he had gained much, too. He had crept out of his home in the middle of the night and was living among the monks by the time his family knew he was missing. He enjoyed the monastic life but wondered if there wasn't something more waiting for him--if maybe he was called to something else. He heard word that his parents had died and he was grief-stricken. Then, he heard that they had left him a sizable inheritance and he became apprehensive about material gain. Under his superior's direction, he returned home to receive the inheritance and visit the graves of his parents. However, that's not what happened.

The Bedouins had come over the hill and surprised him. He suspected that this would not go well. They seized him and the woman he was traveling with and enslaved them. They were torn from their plans and intentions and dehumanized as commodities to be traded and spent. For many years, Malchus served his new master without letting the poison of hatred seep into his heart. He was a good servant to the man and earned a reward for his consistent and dependable service. Malchus' master thought it would be a great reward to give the woman he had been traveling with to Malchus in marriage. He didn't understand that Malchus had two problems with this: (1) Malchus had taken a vow of celibacy, and (2) the woman was already married. Malchus could not do what was asked of him and prepared to take his own life so that he might not sin in this way. As he drew his blade he said, I must fear your death, my soul, more than the death of the body. Chastity preserved has its own martyrdom.Let the witness for Christ lie unburied in the desert; I will be at once the persecutor and the martyr." 

The woman stopped him and said: "Take me then as the partner of your chastity; and love me more in this union of the spirit than you could in that of the body only. Let our master believe that you are my husband. Christ knows you are my brother. We shall easily convince them we are married when they see us so loving." They had been "married" by their master but remained celibate and took care of each other in captivity.

Malchus looked ahead when he heard the men dismount their camels and approach the mouth of the cave. "This is it," Malchus thought, "this is where I die and where my bones will lie and be bleached by desert winds." Yet, as they approached and called out to Malchus--right before Malchus revealed and refused to defend himself--a lion leaped from the mouth of the cave and snarled menacingly at the two men. They rushed back to their camels but were unsuccessful in escaping and the lion killed both of Malchus' pursuers before slinking off away from Malchus. Malchus stood awestruck as he called his "wife" from the cave and to the untouched camels. There was food and water and plenty of supplies to get them out of the desert and back to Malchus' monastery. They had left so that they might return to their homes and found that God was providing for them in unpredictable ways.

When they returned, Malchus was excited to find that his monastery welcomed him back with open arms. But, his companion's husband had died in the time she had been a slave. She mourned his death but moved to a nearby convent where she could live a life of prayer and service like Malchus. They continued to take care of each other and perpetuate the bond that had brought them together in captivity. Their unorthodox union became one of mutual support and sustenance and preserved them until the day they died.Jerome would distill their story, years later, by writing:"Tell the story to them that come after, that they may realize that in the midst of swords, and wild beasts of the desert, virtue is never a captive, and that he who is devoted to the service of Christ may die, but cannot be conquered."

Monday, October 20, 2014

October 20 - Henry Martyn, Missionary, Witness to Calling

This was nothing like what he had hoped for. Henry Martyn was kneeling among the bodies of friends and enemies who were slowly and painfully dying following the Battle of Blaauwberg in South Africa.The Cape of Good Hope no longer seemed an appropriate title for the area. The British had won the battle but Henry feared that they were inexorably losing the hearts and minds of people throughout the world. As he tried to soothe their pain and suffering, he could not help but fear that he had witnessed a tragic shortening of the lives of many who might have heard the Gospel and been redeemed from their brokenness.Instead, their brokenness was cemented by the cold hands of time and finality. Henry shook his head and reflected back upon that fateful day years before in England.

Henry had considered a clerical career like so many of his equally intelligent contemporaries. He had graduated top of his class from St. John's College at Cambridge University. It was his intention to pursue a career in law and politics but God intervened with a different calling. One day, Henry had the pleasure of hearing a challenging and disturbing story about a man named William Carey. He was amazed that William had given his life to share the Christian Gospel with the people of India. He was disturbed by Carey's life because it loudly proclaimed a Gospel that seemed foreign to Henry--a Gospel that called people to lay down their lives.In his quest to understand what he was seeing, he read the biography of David Brainerd--a missionary to Native Americans. This only kindled the calling burning within Henry. He resolved to lay down his professional desires to become a missionary to India.

But, it hadn't been that easy. He had studied for the priesthood in the Anglican church and been ordained. He had prepared himself and packed his things. But, financial difficulties intervened and left him and his unmarried sister in a position where neither of them could continue to live on the money their father had provided for them. Consequently, Henry had taken a job as a chaplain to the British military. This seemed a compromise for Henry because it allowed him to continue in the ministry while still collecting a wage to support himself and his sister. This was how Henry had ended up on his knees among the dead and the dying in South Africa. This was how Henry arrived at the moment that changed his vision of the Church and Britain. He prayed that, Britain "might not remain proud and ungodly at home; but might show herself great indeed, by sending forth the ministers of her church to diffuse the gospel of peace." Among the horrors of war, Henry was converted to a gospel of peace that transcended all nationalities and boundaries.

Later, Henry would go on to India and, eventually, Persia. He would use his education and intelligence to translate the scriptures into the languages of the people and become like them so that he might be with them in meaningful ways. He was not hoping to make them British--he was hoping to show them Jesus. In this, he succeeded. Stories abound of his devotion to a people who were his only by adoption and devotion. He was routinely forced to take vacation and rest because he did not take it without being forced to. It's easy to imagine that it's not because he loved working but, rather, because he didn't understand hislife as a missionary as work. For Henry, it was a calling and a vocation but far from a profession or job. Being sick, he was often recommended to travel by sea as his doctors felt it would be good for him.

At the age of thirty and in poor physical condition, he was sent back to England to recruit missionaries and recover his health before returning. He only got worse as he traveled and died in a plague-infested Turkish village. As he lay dying, he reflected on his life and his calling. In anticipation of God's redeeming work in the world, he wrote of God's coming Kingdom: "There, there shall in no wise enter in any thing that defileth: none of that wickedness which has made men worse than wild beasts, none of those corruptions which add still more to the miseries of mortality, shall he seen or heard of any more." It's not hard to imagine that the horrors of war, neglect, and disease were on his mind as he looked forward to their end and the salvation of those he loved.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

October 19 - Paul of the Cross, Mystic, Passionist, Spiritual Director

Paul was born at the end of the seventeenth century in northern Italy. As he grew, he received spiritual direction from the Capuchin monks near where he was raised. Paul felt a distinct calling to a life of prayer and mystical union with the God he experienced regularly. Intoxicated by his experience of the God who is Love, Paul continued to explore what kind of God had left this kind of mark and calling on his life. Intoxicated as he was, he was regularly trying to find his way back into the communion that salved and comforted his soul so sublimely and so completely. Paul began to realize that he could only think of one guaranteed place to find and commune with God: in the passion and death of Jesus Christ.

Paul wrote:
"It is an excellent and holy practice to call to mind and meditate on our Lord's Passion, since it is by this path that we shall arrive at union with God. In this, the holiest of all schools, true wisdom is learned, for it was there that all the saints became wise."
Paul advised any who would listen to engage in a regular process of contemplative prayer with Jesus' passion and death as their focus. In the passion,Paul saw a condensation of God's love into one body undergoing great suffering because of furious and unrelenting love. Jesus' crucifixion and death are the holy ground where we are confronted by the scandal of God's love for sinners and outcasts.

Paul would spend his whole life begging people to take a few moments and consider the ridiculous and amazing idea of the crucifixion and death of God Almighty--the King of the Universe. He was eventually granted the right to go and become a hermit so that he might found an order of people devoted to dwelling on the holy ground of the passion. They became known as the "Congregation of the Passion of Jesus Christ" and later known as "Passionists" for short.They found great sustenance in thinking on the incredible and incomprehensible love of God--the root and ground of all being and reality--who chose to die so that we might live.

Paul went on to draw others into the new group and establish "retreats" where others might take a moment to escape the pressures of the world and encounter a God who was changing the people of the world. When other groups were growing explosively, Paul opted to grow slowly and methodically. The vowed state of the order meant that few people immediately felt much desire to join with them in prayer and contemplation. But, people were called to join with them and did so gladly once they too found the God who is Love in the crux of the moment where Love was displayed most grandly.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

October 18 - Luke, Evangelist, Physician, Friend of the Prodigal

Luke was a physician. But not like what we think of when we think of a physician. There was no white coat. There was no large salary (in fact, many physicians were slaves). There was no immediate cultural respect. There was no fancy degree or education. There were no easily dispensed medications or diagnostic tools. But, in Luke's case,there was an intense desire to help those who suffered. Luke seems intimately connected with prodigals and misfits. Whether he was eating with them and listening to them or doing what little he could to soothe their physical pain and suffering, Luke loved and was devoted to the people that the world said were worth nothing.

Luke learned this from his master--Jesus.

Luke was a Greek gentile who had, at least, some familiarity with the person of Jesus even if he never actually saw Jesus.Instead, he heard the stories and found a faith growing in him that spurred him to change. He couldn't sit still and listen to these stories--they were too important simply to hear--and so he had to tell them to others. He would record the stories that meant so much to him by listening to others and reading what others had written. Beyond that, Luke knew that the stories of Jesus' disciples were critically important, as well. If Jesus had really brought a new Kingdom into the world, then his disciples would do amazing and wonderful things. Luke recorded these things in a letter that would be known as the Acts of the Apostles. Luke makes a few cameo appearances in this second work but does so in support of the Apostle Paul. When we see him, his character matches the voice in his text: intimatelyconcerned with the lives of the oppressed and unrepresented. Luke had been set on fire with a message of good news about a Kingdom that was changing the world and could only find relief in telling this story to others. His desire to heal became a desire to offer hope to desperate people.

Luke's mercy and soft heart for the invisible people can be seen in the stories that he chooses to highlight.Consider that Luke's gospel is the only gospel to tell the radical story of the Prodigal Son. Luke was a friend of the Prodigal and was excited about the God he saw in Jesus that was willing to love and forgive with fury and passion. This was no meek and mild god that stood aloof from creation but, rather, was a God who was elbows deep in the process of healing the voiceless and abused. Jesus was the Great Physician. Luke desired to be his apprentice. Luke's Gospel is the only Gospel to record Mary's response to God's calling: ""has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty."

Luke was energized by the work of healing that had begun in the Church. He recognized that the Kingdom was the possession of those who had no other possessions to prioritize. In this way, Luke characterized the prodigal nature of the Kingdom of God and their common savior Jesus.

He begins his Gospel by writing:
"Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you..."
Luke recognized the healing power of stories to change the minds and outlooks of people. He knew that the stories that we tell inform the way we think about things and so he wanted to pass them on. These were the possessions of the citizens of God's new Kingdom. These were the valuables that established value in the New World. This is what Luke passed on to us.