Sunday, September 24, 2017

September 24 - Henri Nouwen, Priest, Author, Assistant

Henri was born into a Dutch family in 1932. Recalling his childhood, he was known to say: “I grew up in a very protected and safe environment and I learned to know that I was Dutch and I was Catholic. It took me quite a long time to discover that there were people, many people, who were neither!” His upbringing was religious and he would remark that he was familiar with two voices growing up: the voice of his mother offering unconditional love and the voice of his father spurring him onward to achievement and effort. For Henri, these voices would serve as constant companions and narrators for his life's actions. At the age of six, he says he first felt a calling to be a priest and servant of God's people. This is a calling that he would follow through school and eventually see realized when he as ordained a priest at the age of 25.

Henri's gifts were clearly disposed toward teaching and writing. His writing is--to this day--regarded highly among protestants, orthodox, and roman catholics. The decided difference in Henri's approach was his incredible passion for pastoral theology. This passion led him to study the relatively novel discipline of psychology (a discipline still distrusted by much of the Church) with vigor and apply it to his already considerable theological understanding. In this, Henri began cautiously to plumb the depths of the minds of those he served. He taught psychology and pastoral theology for many years at schools such as the University of Notre Dame and Yale University Divinity School. During this period, he wrote prolifically and magnificently. But, he still felt something was missing and he was haunted by many of his own personal terrors and challenges.

In 1981, Henri moved to Peru to serve the poor and discern if God was calling him to work among the people of the developing South. He left the academic regard and salary to serve among the poor and needy of Peru but, ultimately, found that this didn't feel like where God was calling him even if it was good work that he would continue as he served in other places. This work changed Henri for the better and further deepened his commitment to social justice and ministry to the poor but wasn't the last stop on his journey of calling.

In 1983, he accepted a position at Harvard University Divinity School that many academics would covet--he was required to teach only one semester and was encouraged to write as much as he wanted to. His classes were popular. His influence and fame were notable. Yet, Henri was overcome by the depression that had haunted him for most of his adult life. He found this to be a place of darkness and discomfort. In his journals, he would confess to conflict over his vow of celibacy and his incredible desire for physical and emotional intimacy with another person. This was a place where Henri continued his long struggle with his own sexuality and its implications for his spiritual life. Henri felt that Harvard was a great school but lacking in any feelings of communion. The competition and ambition of its students overtook their calling to love one another and be with each other. Henri resisted this place of darkness and isolation throughout his life--as far as we know--but it was at Harvard where so much of it came to bear upon him and lead to what he alternatively referred to as "burnout" and "spiritual death."

A seeming coincidence brought Henri together with Jean Vanier who told Henri about the communities that he was starting called L'Arche. These communities were meant to be places of intentional communion for people of all varieties. They were noted for taking in many people with intellectual disabilities. In 1986, Henri became the pastor of one of the L'Arche communities--called "Daybreak"--outside of Toronto, Canada. Still deep within his own depression and darkness, this was a challenging time that he relates in his book Adam, God's Beloved. Henri--the famous and influential author, priest, and activist--was asked to take care of a man named Adam who had a severe intellectual disability. Henri felt unappreciated and belittled at first. After all, surely he could be more useful in some other capacity. Yet, Adam became the key to Henri's release from his own darkness. Taking care of Adam--waking him, dressing him, helping him bathe--reminded Henri of the power of love to redeem even the darkest pits. As Henri loved Adam and Adam loved Henri, they were both further converted to life. It was at Daybreak that Henri finally found community and happiness. It was in the simple act of offering unconditional love that Henri found rest and comfort to his soul. Henri died from a heart attack in 1996. He was buried near Daybreak.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

September 23 - Pio of Pietrelcina, Monk, Stigmatic, Mystic

Pio's parents were shepherds in Southern Italy and it was into this life that he was born thirteen years prior to the end of the 19th century. As was his family's custom, he was intimately involved in the local church and served as an altar boy. His family was in attendance with regularity. When Pio looked back at his childhood many years later, he would recollect that he had made a decision to commit himself wholly to God at the young age of five. From then on, he recalled, he strained after intimacy with the God who called him into being and the priesthood. Pio's family helped guide and push him onward in his relationship with God and taught him to pray and memorize the scriptures. As Pio went to sleep at night, he was ushered there on the stories of the scripture told in the voices of those close to him.

When Pio was ten, his family had the opportunity to listen to a Capuchin friar seeking monetary and prayer support for the monastery that was hoping better to live into God's calling upon the life of St. Francis. Pio was awestruck by the friar and subsequently became convinced that this was the particular calling that God had placed upon his life: the monastic life of prayer and mysticism. His family supported this calling and took him to the Capuchin monastery to inquire if he could join them. They had heard of the boy known for prescribing his own penance, have ecstatic visions, and dwelling upon the mysteries of the faith. They assured him that they would accept him if he would receive the education he had missed while tending his family's flocks. Pio's father moved to the United States of America to make enough money to pay for Pio's school and he was soon initiated and ordained into the order.

Pio served as spiritual director of two separate monasteries and became known as a worker of miracles. These miracles--including healing and miraculous discerning--are what occasioned his discharge from the Italian military he was conscripted into (as a chaplain) for World War I. As a spiritual director, he was interested in a daily life of discipleship that involved recognition of one's place before God and acceptance of unmerited suffering as the fertile ground of spiritual growth. In this way, Pio claimed to appreciate the considerable suffering he underwent with his own illness and physical weakness. He advised those under his direction to be as regular with confession as you would be with dusting your house because, ultimately, they had the same effective purpose: removing tarnish and corruption from that which is valuable to you. Pio was quick to advise any who would listen that the practice of Christian teaching amounted to: "Pray, hope and don't worry."

Controversy was not far from Pio's life, however. He experienced great physical pain and suffering because of his poor health but also, he felt, because he was under attack by demonic beings. His understanding of suffering and penance is clear: the pain we experience purifies our souls and is, therefore, good. Pio's visions became intermixed with visions of demons and the Adversary masquerading as angels of light. He was tormented by the confusing aspects of these visions but also, he felt, by the physical attacks of the demons. For Pio, the key to understanding the terrors was in seeing what fruit they bared in his heart and mind. When he felt despair and darkness, he knew that this was not the work of the God of hope and light. Further, Pio experienced the stigmata and became notable to many because of this gift and pain. As he bled from wounds that matched the wounds of Jesus, he found comfort in knowing that he was being purified through his suffering. These marks--and others--remained as a continual calling to Pio to continue onward in his imitation of the slaughtered Lord he loved and followed. Many called him a liar or an impostor. He denied their accusations but had little interest in arguing with them. Investigations found no fraud in what he was doing and affirmed the mysterious and mystical nature of what was going on.

Pio died in 1968 surrounded by his brothers and sisters in Christ. He had offered a mass before retiring to his bed for the last time. A brother came and received his last confession and Pio renewed his own vows as a monk and priest. Death came quietly for Pio who slipped away muttering the name of Jesus and Mary. His funeral was highly attended and people were surprised to see the stigmatic wounds present at his death to have healed completely and left only two red marks--one on each palm. In his death, Pio rested with the God he had so long pursued with abandon. Pio passed through suffering to find himself purified, redeemed, and in communion with the one who had called him so many years prior.

Friday, September 22, 2017

September 22 - Maurice and the Theban Legion, Martyrs, Soldiers, Radicals

Maurice had accompanied his men to the place where the battle was soon to be held. His men were the Theban Legion of the Roman Army. The legion was comprised of almost entirely Christians from Northern Egypt by this point. Over the years, the life and words of the Christian soldiers had an influence on their companions in arms and many conversions were reported as the days and battles wore on. They had now been called to battle to put down a peasant revolt. The peasants had grown tired of being oppressed and abused by the Roman Empire and had begun to resist them. They were known as the bagaudae and they were the reason that the Theban legion (all 6,600 of them) had been called to Gaul.

When they arrived, they discovered two things that made them balk: (1) they were being asked to make war on peasants, and (2) they were asked to make a sacrifice to the Roman gods on the night before battle. Maurice and his legion resisted both of these requests. They continued to proclaim their faith and refuse to sacrifice even as they were threatened and coerced. Finally, the Emperor ordered the decimation of the legion. This meant that all 6,600 men were lined up and every tenth soldier was murdered. 660 men died because they refused to comply with the Emperor's orders. The remaining 5,940 men were asked again if they would make a sacrifice and spare their own lives. When the legion refused, they were decimated again. 594 more men died because they refused to submit their lives and wills to the Emperor. As they were decimated, some of the men tasked with executing them were converted by the Christians' nonviolent resistance. Even as they held weapons, they allowed themselves to be killed. Each murder made a strong statement about the inability of the Empire ever to win a single heart and will. Some were converted because, in the midst of death, they had seen true life.

The remaining 5,346 were given another chance to make sacrifice and appease the Empire. As they stood among the dead bodies of 1,254 people who had already made the sacrifice of their life for their soul, they refused again. Maurice offered some words to his superiors:
"We are your soldiers, but we are also servants of the true God. We owe you military service and obedience; but we cannot renounce Him who is our Creator and Master, and also yours, even though you reject Him. In all things which are not against His law we most willingly obey you, as we have done hitherto....We have taken an oath to God before we took one to you; you can place no confidence in our second oath if we violate the first....We confess God the Father, author of all things, and His Son, Jesus Christ. We have seen our companions slain without lamenting them, and we rejoice at their honor. Neither this nor any other provocation has tempted us to revolt. We have arms in our hands, but we do not resist because we could rather die innocent than live by any sin."

After this, the Emperor ordered the slaughter of the remaining 5,346 soldiers. They stood still and allowed their executioners to take their lives. Though it cost them their lives, they refused to sin. Though it cost them their lives, they maintained the Faith that held them to a higher calling than the Empire. Their oath to God held them stronger than any other and they laid down their lives in the proclamation of their faith and hope in God.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

September 21 - Matthew, Apostle, Evangelist, Beloved Outcast

Matthew had known desperation. That day he had been in the public square when Jesus came by. In his presence, he felt like he should hide his face from the teacher and healer of so many. Jesus had been healing and teaching some of the very same people that Matthew had been bilking out of even more of their precious little money. He avoided Jesus' eyes as he came by and his coin-purse felt a little heavier and a little more obvious than usual. It became apparent that Jesus was going to do a miracle and Matthew couldn't take it anymore. He turned to slip away in the crowd noticing the eyes of his fellow Jews that were glad to see Matthew leave. He was desperate to get away from Jesus before his shame ate him alive. Just as he was about to slip past the edge of the expectant crowd, he heard somebody call his name. He turned around to see Jesus looking at him with a knowing and somehow loving look. He noticed that everybody else was looking at him, too. Jesus said, "Come follow me." Matthew's heart could stand it no longer and agreed to give into the shame that broke through to repentance and healing. He walked through the death of his self and found life more abundant on the other side.

Yes, Matthew had known desperation. Jesus had been arrested and beaten severely. He had run like the rest of the twelve. They left their life-giving master so that they might not be expected to give up their lives. They didn't get it but Jesus forgave them. Matthew had heard and seen parts of the story and knew that Jesus had been crucified and had died. He met with the twelve--at least, most of them--to talk about what had happened and see if there was anything they were planning on doing. In the midst of his own desperation, he began to see what Jesus had been talking about. He started to get the revolution that Jesus was leading and the Kingdom that he had been bringing into the world. He began to see the fruits of repentance and the nature of the already present and still arriving Kingdom. Then, Jesus rose from the dead and it all clicked together. Once again, his life was changed in a desperate moment of calling and hope in the midst of hopelessness.

Matthew had known desperation. But as he hung upside down with the blood rushing to his head, he wasn't feeling shame or hopelessness. Rather, he was feeling love for those who had tied him to the post and forgiveness for the ruler who had ordered his execution. What did they expect him to do? Be quiet? Surely not after God had dwelt within him at Pentecost and called him to foreign lands to spread the good news that grace and mercy were redeeming the world. He had preached good news and, for its sake and the sake of his Lord, they had condemned him to death. He had brought people into life but those who dwelt in death resented it. As they piled the logs around him and the torches approached, he remembered his Lord forgiving his executioners and prayed for his own approaching murderers. This time, he found truth without the desperation or crisis. So even as the last few grains of his life fell through the hourglass, he understood what Jesus had meant when said, "Come, follow me." Matthew had followed his Lord by proclaiming a Gospel of life to the dead and healing to the sick.