Sunday, May 31, 2009

May 31 - Heliconis, Martyr, Idol Breaker

Perinus was the governor of the region that included Thessalonica in Greece. As governor he was charged with keeping order for the Roman establishment so that what passed for "peace" in Rome might be kept and those in power might remain in power. He had a nice title and a significant amount of power and wanted to keep both. So, he knew what to do with Christians and with people who would not pledge their greatest allegiance to Rome. In a way, you could call him progressive because in the year 250 he was already very willing to torture and kill Christians on account of their faith. But there was another tactic that he was especially fond of: character assassination. Sometimes, as in the case of Heliconis, he would have a Christian locked in the temple of Aesculapius after being beaten and tortured for their insistence in believing in Jesus. Then, after some time he would release them with congratulations and comfort--insisting that they had sacrificed to Aesculapius while they were captive in the temple. Though they often had not done so it was very tempting for them to allow Perinus to lie on their behalf. "After all," they reasoned to themselves, "I didn't sacrifice or say I did...so what's the harm in pretending?" Heliconis, however, knew that such a deception was apostasy. To accept the benefit of worshiping an idol was to worship it with your mind. Plus, this lie would be used to demoralize Christian brothers and sisters.

So, when Heliconis was ordered to worship Aesculapius she was ready to resist no matter what. Perinus demanded that she sacrifice to the idol even though it was her denunciation of idols that had landed her in his presence. She responded, "Hear me, and know that I am a servant of Christ; as for Aesculapius, I do not know who he is. Do what you will." So, Perinus had the woman beaten severely while other soldiers heated brands in a blazing fire. When the brands were ready, the soldiers burned and branded Heliconis' body without mercy at the command of Perinus. The soldiers never doubted the justice in what they were doing--torturing an unarmed and unresisting woman for the sake of causing pain--because they had learned that Rome's power was an absolute power that accepted no questioning. After torturing Heliconis cruelly for quite some time Perinus finally decided to lock her in a temple with a very large idol so that he might manipulate her into apostasy. They tossed her beaten body into the temple and locked the doors behind her.

They opened the doors much quicker than they expected, though, when they heard a thundering crash from within. As they looked into the temple they saw Heliconis grinning through her pain as she lie suffering on the floor and they saw the idol shattered around her. While they had waited outside the doors, Heliconis had summoned a thin remnant of her strength with a prayer and mounted the pedestal upon which the idol stood. With all that remained of her earthly might she pushed against it but it wouldn't move. She said a prayer and tried again but it only seemed to move a fraction of an inch. Fearing that the guards would soon come and take her from the temple, she prayed to God and insisted that if God wanted her to do this thing, then God would have to make it possible. With this faithful prayer she pushed once again and the statue fell forward. The idol broke on the floor and made an indelible statement to Perinus, the soldiers, and all to whom Rome might try to lie. None could believe that Heliconis made a sacrifice to the god she had shattered with the help of her own God. In a rage, Perinus commanded that she be beheaded for this crime and the soldiers were quick to comply because they knew that Perinus had the power to do the same to them. Heliconis died a martyr and a destroyer of gods.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

May 30 - Joan of Arc, Martyr, Warrior, Victim of Injustice

Tricky questions shouldn't have a place in a trial that is meant to be an exercise of justice but, then, Joan of Arc's trial wasn't designed to be fair. It was designed to reach the scandalous verdict of blasphemy and heresy for one who opposed English rule. At its most basic, it was the cloaking of the State in the garments of the Church so that power could be exercised in new and terrifying ways. The inquisitor--the one in charge of determining Joan's guilt--allowed her accusers to ask a leading question meant to solidify her guilt before the onlooking crowds. They asked her if she was certain that she rested within God's grace. On the surface, it seems a simple question for a woman who had received visions from God calling her to do unconventional things and speak truth to powerful and influential people. But, Joan was aware that there was no good, simple answer. If she said she knew she was in God's grace then she would be labeled a heretic for claiming knowledge that her accusers insisted was open to nobody--after all, only God could claim to know such a thing. If she said that she didn't know then she would be dangerously close to admitting her own guilt before a panel of accusers all too willing to punish her.

Joan responded, "If I am not, may God put me there; and if I am, may God so keep me." Though this was a beautifully crafted response, in Joan's ears its beauty could not compare to the sound of the silence that followed it. Her accusers were dumbstruck by the careful precision offered in her words and were forced to take another route of accusation to arrive at the predetermined verdict of guilty and condemned to death. They condemned her for her visions and claimed she was an imposter wrapping herself up in the garments of the Church while serving a civil master. They condemned her for wearing men's clothing and armor as she led French soldiers to resist the abusive and land-destroying practices of the English invaders. She was ceaselessly questioned and housed in a prison guarded by English soldiers instead of in a monastery or convent as the law concerning ecclesastical trials demanded. So, when she wasn't being questioned and tricked by her accusers, she was held in a rough prison cell, forced to wear a flimsy dress that provided no protection from the cold, and "guarded" by the soldiers she had been fighting only weeks before.

After she was condemned--and her condemnation caused no surprise among anybody--she was asked to sign a statement renouncing the crimes with which she had been labeled. Being illiterate, she was duped into signing the statement under threat of immediate death and then this statement was replaced with one confessing her alleged crimes. With this final duplicitous act, she was condemned to be burned at the stake for heresy without it having ever been proved or rightly tried. She agreed to wear women's clothing to her execution but this plan changed after she was sexually assaulted in her cell before the day of her martyrdom. They did not return her torn dress to her and so, instead, she was marched to her death wearing the same clothes she had worn when she fought the English who now condemned her. She was tied to a stake and burned to death on the 30th day of May in the year 1431. As she died, two clerics held a cross before her so that she might focus on the instrument of execution that had robbed her savior of his life. After the flames died down, the coals were raked back so that the crowd would have no doubt that she had died in the flames and at the hands of the English. They took the remains, burned them twice more until they were but ash and then threw the ashes into the Seine river so that no relics might be obtained by those still loyal to Joan.

Friday, May 29, 2009

May 29 - Watchman Nee, Convert, Avid Reader, Prisoner,

Watchman Nee was glad that his mother--who had passed only two years previous--was not around to watch her firstborn son be arrested by the Chinese government as a dissident and rebel. But, she wouldn't have been surprised. After all, Watchman had made it abundantly clear that he would not compromise his faith for anything because he was stunningly confident that this was not an option that Jesus had afforded him. Ever since that day when he was seventeen and he had struggled with whether or not to convert to the faith of his mother and his teacher, he had known that to be converted to that faith meant the devotion of his life wholly to the Lord and Savior he only desired to be an acquaintance of, at first. He was not interested in only seeking some eventual salvation if it did not also come with transformation and lifelong calling. So, that night he prayed even though he didn't have the words for it. As he waited in that wordless silence he felt something for the first time in his life: the weight of the sin that hung around his neck. In a flood of moments he was suddenly reminded of the countless times he had rejected God and chosen the path of self-obsession. With the weight of this new discovery, he found himself broken before the God to whom he hoped to pray.

In that moment of quiet and wordless desperation Watchman felt another new feeling: undeserved and merciful forgiveness. As he knelt beside his bed he saw Jesus on the cross with arms wide open and blood flowing freely. He saw and knew God's love flowing from the wounds of God and knew with one sudden and startlingly clear moment that Jesus was calling him near. Though his arms were outstretched so that he might die it was clear to Watchman that those same arms were open to him to call him to life-giving and saving faith. Watchman heard Jesus say to him "I am here waiting to receive you." So, Watchman went to Jesus and committed himself to a faith that intimidated him but demanded all of him, as well. To the Jesus who stood with arms outstretched to accept all who might avail themselves of his furious love Watchman cried "Lord, You have really been gracious to me." With that, Watchman was converted and accepted a calling to a life of ministry and devotion--a life of sharing what he had received.

So, Watchman followed after his Lord and found himself living on only a third of the money he made. He spent a third of his money on others and the final third was spent on reading material which he would read--and memorize large portions--and then give away to others. He read voraciously and applied his keen intelligence to the texts and scripture that he read with regularity. He began to start churches throughout China and insist that Christians were called to be a part of a caring community that accepted no division or separation even while accommodating doctrinal disagreements. For daring to start churches in a country that was quickly succumbing to the seduction of communist rule, he was arrested, convicted, and sentenced to spend fifteen years in prison. He served his sentence and died in confinement on the 30th day of May in the year 1972 at the age of 68. In the wake of Watchman's ministry in China there were many Christians who had heard his story and were willing to carry on the ministry of preaching and spiritual direction that Watchman started.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

May 28 - Bernard of Menthon, Monastic, Missionary, Hospitable

Bernard was raised in the castle of Menthon in the geographic region known as Savoy. Being raised in a castle suggests the degree of nobility that flowed through his veins. In fact, he was a man of significant pedigree for that little region bordering the Alps and received an exemplary education as a child and youth. Being a child of wealth and influence, it was customary that his marriage be arranged so that power could be consolidated and bloodlines could be maintained in a politically and socially useful way. So, a marriage was arranged for Bernard in spite of his stated desire to become a monk and priest. His family and friends tried to talk him out of such a ludicrous idea by mentioning all the things he would need to give up to become a priest. They reasoned that such a vocation made sense for the lower classes because the priesthood or the monastery could represent a step up in quality of life for them but that it made no sense for somebody to step down into such a calling when wealth and influence were theirs by birth. None of this convinced Bernard, though, who maintained that a calling was a calling regardless of what one stood to lose and so he fled through the Alps to part of Italy to escape his family and the envied castle life that threatened to become a prison. He gave it all up for the life of a Benedictine monk under the spiritual direction of Peter the archdeacon of Aosta.

Peter's influence upon Bernard was intensely formative. Due in part to his excellent education and his passionate understanding of his own calling, but largely becuase of Peter's capable direction, Bernard grew in the faith at an exceedingly rapid rate. In those years he spent as a monk and priest he studied how to reach out to others with the Gospel he had received and been taught to prize above all things. That which he had received he was eager to give away to others if they had ears to hear and eyes to see. After Peter's death, it was Bernard who became the archdeacon of Aosta. With this position of direction and leadership he turned his eyes to the Alps and both the people who crossed them to get to Rome and those who lived among the frosty crags. Bernard began travelling the passes and summits of the Alps and spreading the Gospel he so dearly loved among the people he encountered. He was a surprisingly effective missionary and evangelist among the natives but perhaps the most memorable part of Bernard's story was his work among the travelers who traversed the mountains he saw as his mission field.

Many who tried to cross the Alps on their way to Rome died because of the incredible challenges to their health and safety. So, Bernard did something ridiculous: he built a monastery on the summit of the most popular pass from the west to the east. The monks lived within its walls under Bernard's direction and lived lives of quiet prayer and contemplation but also included a very peculiar discipline within their monastic lives. Each day, monks would travel into the Alps to look for those who had become lost in their pilgrimage or become overcome by the weather and aid them in their travels. Each monk would travel with a dog bred specifically for the treacherous climate of the Alps (a breed of dog now known as a Saint Bernard) so that they could guide the travelers back to the monastery for the night. Those who traversed the Alps found Bernard's monastery a welcome stop along the way and so, eventually, another monastery was founded with the same disciplines and same directions as the first. After Bernard's death, his direction and guidance lived on in his many disciples and in those whom he reached and for whom he cared.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

May 27 - Julius the Veteran, Martyr, Soldier

We know far less about the conversion of Julius than we do about his military service. This makes sense in a way because those who were keeping records of the man were infinitely more interested in his service to Rome than his conversion to Jesus. Somewhere during his twenty-seven years of military service in the Roman army he converted to Christianity even though it was an increasingly unpopular faith. During those twenty-seven years of service to Rome he was an active participant in seven different military campaigns. To survive one or two campaigns as a soldier in Rome's service was notable because it easily signified a special level of battlefield awareness and competency. To survive seven campaigns was astounding for a soldier who risked the fiersome teeth of battle regularly and set Julius up as a notable feature of his legion and as a minor celebrity among the other soldiers. That's what makes their betrayal so surprising.

They had known he was a Christian shortly following his conversion because his whole outlook and approach to life seemed to change in the blink of an eye. But when he was fighting by their side they had no trouble with his beliefs--perhaps they even thought his new faith might earn them some special luck or protection. It wasn't until after that seventh campaign that a group of his fellow soldiers accused him of being a Christian before the prefect Maximus. Since the punishment for disloyalty to the Roman faith was death, this was the kind of accusation that was not made lightly. Perhaps the soldiers stood to gain from Julius' absence or perhaps they simply had grown tired of his changed life. Regardless, he was drug before the prefect and accused of treason by placing his faith and trust in Jesus--one of the many masters of which the empire did not approve. Maximus stood before one of the best soldiers he knew and a group of accusing soldiers whose mouths could be his own downfall if word got out that Maximus could not tame one Christian. So, he made the threat of death that all prefects knew as their most fierce weapon and openly ridiculed the faith of Julius asking, "Who is this Jesus that you--a soldier who has faced death time and time again--are willing to die quietly for him?"

Julius responded, "It was he who died for our sins to give us eternal life. This same man, Christ, is God and abides for ever and ever. Whoever believes in Him will have eternal life; whoever denies Him will have eternal punishment." In those brief sentences, Julius made his confession before Rome and professed the Faith he knew and in which he trusted his soul and life. Maximus' face turned red in embarrassment that his ridicule had been turned to a confession and he looked over quickly at the faces of Julius' accusers. Maximus knew that these men would tell the story of what happened here with Julius and that Maximus couldn't afford to look weak before soldiers who valued strength above all things. So, he approached Julius with rage in face but deceit in his heart. It must have looked like a quiet threat but in those whispered words Maximus offered Julius a large sum of money and a position of power if he would deny his faith and sacrifice to the Roman gods. It would look powerful for Maximus to whisper in Julius' ear and suddenly effect his conversion and would make a great story for Julius' accusers to tell. When Julius refused the bribe openly, though, Maximus' plan fell apart in front of him. In a rage he commanded his guards to decapitate not only Julius but also seven other Christians being held in prison for the crime of faith. Having proven that he could not convert the Christians, Maximus proved that he could rob them of their lives. This passed for power in Rome and made for a better story in the opinion of Maximus. Julius died in the year 255 at Dorostorum on the lower Danube River as a martyr and example of what the world thought about those whose faith was in mysteries.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

May 26 - Augustine of Canterbury, Monastic, Missionary, Archbishop

Gregory wasn't surprised--even as his peers and colleagues were awestruck--that pope Gregory had selected him to become a missionary. Sure, he was a monk and prior of the abbey where Gregory was abbot but this didn't seem enough to qualify him to cross the waters and land in non-Christian Britain approximately 200 years after Rome had pulled the legions out of the countryside and ceded the territory to the non-Christian Anglo-Saxons. Sure, Augustine was very well educated but this didn't inspire enough bravery in his companions as they traveled to the coast to board their ships and sail for Kent. So, they had begged him to return to Rome and ask Gregory for permission to return from their mission before it ever started. He went because of the overwhelming outcry from among his fellow monks and companions but he knew what Gregory would say--how Gregory would quickly deny the request, remind him of his calling, and insist that it was time to take the Gospel back to southern England. So, when Augustine returned to his group of fellow missionaries and monks he was unsurprised by the news he carried with him from Gregory and wondered if they might not abandon him and the cause for a life of quiet desperation within the secure embrace of the Roman empire. But, with Gregory's fiery insistence and warm encouragement they rallied and joined Augustine on the ships that would take them far from comfort and deep within the grip of the non-Christian world.

They landed in Kent in 597--nearly 45 of them including Augustine and his second-in-command Laurence--and went to visit king Æthelberht and his wife Bertha. Bertha was a Christian princess from Frankish lands and had a bishop with her who served as her spiritual advisor. It was largely because of her inistence that the non-Christian Æthelberht had been open to accepting Christians in his lands. Of course, it helped that there was a history of Christianity in the land and the Irish Christians had proven their credibility for some time. Augustine and his colleagues began preaching with Æthelberht's blessing and proclaiming a Gospel of love for enemies and forgiveness for all and withing a few years saw Æthelberht converted with thousands of other native people. Æthelberht allowed the construction of a monastery in Canterbury and even supported a mass baptism in 601 that included converts numbering in the thousands. The derelict Christian traditions of southern England were revived under Augustine's leadership and soon he found himself with the title, duties, and obligations of a bishop.

After Augustine and his companions had established a monastery and revitalized the Church in England, there were many more missionaries sent in 601. Augustine's foothold allowed for the triumphant return of Gospel grace and life to English villages and people. Gregory sent along the vestments and sacred articles that symbolized the status of archbishop when these new missionaries came to England to follow the will of God under Augustine's careful and prayerful guidance. As archbishop he was asked by Gregory to ordain twelve bishops to expand the ministry of the Church in England and to begin the process of setting up a second archepiscopal see in York. It was the design of Gregory and Augustine to have two archbishops in England with twelve bishops serving under each archbishop. Augustine spent the rest of his life overseeing the missionary efforts of the Church in England and training and supporting the ministers who joined with him in this arduous but glorious task. Augustine had followed the lead of Gregory and reached out to his people's enemies in love to offer forgiveness and grace. Because of actions like these, the Church found a foothold and a fortress in the hearts and souls of the non-Christian Anglo-Saxons. After appointing Laurence as his successor, Augustine died in the year 604 on the 26th day of May. The good work God had started in England continued even as Augustine finally rested from his labors.

Monday, May 25, 2009

May 25 - Bede, Teacher, Raised by the Monastery, Venerable

When Bede began to get sick he knew that it wasn't going to be long until he succumbed to the illness that he had seen in so many other monks. The swelling in his legs only confirmed to him that he had less time than he had expected. He spent the remainder of his days, though, doing what it was that he felt called to do--called to do from the beginning of his life. Bede had been raised in the monastery at Wearmouth-Jarrow in Christian Britain. In fact, he spent every day from the age of seven on as a member of that cloistered community because his parents sought to give him the best life they knew by fostering him to a group of monks and scholars. Because of this life, Bede received an education of such quality that it was beyond compare in the seventh and eighth centuries. He learned the teachings of the Church and how to read the scriptures they valued so highly. But at the end of his life, he was still paying back the gift of his magnificent education by passing it on to those around him--to his many students. So, as his life slowly drained away from him he began teaching more fervently and worshpping even more often than was already his regular and consistent practice.

He taught his many students on the many different subjects of his expertise. In his time period, he was considered the most intelligent and highly educated person alive. He taught rhetoric, mathematics, astronomy, history, homiletics, grammar, philosophy, music, science, and a variety of other subjects. It was his firm conviction that there were two powerful sources of transformation within the Christian religion. Through the Holy Spirit, Bede believed that education would whittle away violence and oppression by increasing knowledge among the people of the world. In fact, Bede understood education to be a ladder which God would help us to climb out of our broken lives and derelict relationships. Bede's commitment to education would characterize the Church's devotion to scholastic endeavors for many centuries to come. But the essential teaching was that education didn't matter if it lacked a powerful love that could animate all of a person's actions and make them truly and holistically redemptive. Bede wrote, "He alone loves the Creator perfectly who manifests a pure love for his neighbour." However, as he approached his death he had yet more to write and classes to finish. So, he called his students to him on his death bed.

One by one he recited teaching to them and they memorized it. Having memorized it they rushed from the room to record it in books. This curious process of dictation went on for some time before Bede's strength failed further and he was forced to rest in his own bed--within sight of his familiar spot of prayer. As death stalked him more closely and he could smell the scent of his own impending passing on the air he called for the monks to come to him by his bed. He had a few scant possessions--some pepper, some fabric, and a little incense--and he gave them away so that he might face death and his loving God with nothing more than when he entered into this world to seek God's will and calling on his life. Then, in his dying moments he gave what little he had left to give: a few more words of teaching for his students eager to record every word for posterity. Even as he approached his death he still taught the power of education--the power of a transformed life--and the primacy of love in all thoughts and actions. Having given his final lesson, he passed from this world and into the embrace of his creator.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

May 24 - A Man Born Blind Receives His Sight

As Jesus walked along teaching the disciples they came upon a blind beggar who had been blind from the moment of his birth because of an incredible circumstance: he lacked eyes. As Jesus stopped to consider the blind man the disciples saw a great opportunity for education. They asked Jesus, "Teacher, whose sin robbed this man of his eyes? Was it his parents or was it the man himself before he was born?" It was a good question--the kind that might tell us something about the nature of sin and predestination but Jesus didn't answer it as they expected.

Jesus replied, "Neither is to blame. He was born blind so that God's glory might be revealed through him, today. We have work to do and we should do it while we still can--there is a time coming when other things will take precedence. But until that dark day I am the Light of the World." As the disciples pondered what he had just said and tried to reconstruct their crumbling thought systems, Jesus stooped down and spat onto the dirt at his feet. He picked up the mud created by his saliva and fashioned two mostly round figures that wouldn't have been mistaken for eyes but must have aroused suspicion when Jesus placed them on the space where the man's eyes should have been. Then, Jesus said to him, "Go to the pool of Siloam and wash your face."

The man went and did as Jesus was told and in the moment that the water flowed over his eyelids the mud was changed to human flesh and the man was suddenly able to see out of his new eyes. With the spittle from his lips, Jesus had brought creation to 1st century Israel. When they saw him, all who had once seen the blind beggar asked each other, "Isn't that the guy who used to sit and beg? You know, the one without eyes?" Those who had known him couldn't agree on whether or not it was truly him even though he insisted that he was the man they were talking about. Finally, they asked him with exasperation, "Fine, then, why do you have eyes? How can you see?"

The man shrugged and responded, "The man they call Jesus made mud, put it here," indicating his eyes, "and told me to go to Siloam to wash. When I did, I could see. I can't explain it but I know it happened." The crowd was amazed and desperate to know where Jesus was. The man responded, honestly, "I don't know. I've never seen him."

All of this attention attracted the Pharisees who came and began to question the now-seeing blind man. It was the Sabbath when Jesus made eyes for the man and so the Pharisees were upset when they heard the beggar's story. "Ah ha" they crowed, "this man cannot be doing this by God's power because he doesn't observe God's Sabbath." This didn't settle the matter, though, like the Pharisees hoped it would. Some insisted that it was ludicrous to think of this healer as a sinner if he could work what was clearly God's power in the world.

As they argued one with another, one of the members of the crowd finally asked the formerly blind beggar: "Well, you're the one with the new eyes. What do you say he is?"

"He's a prophet, " the man said, "he tells the truth."

Many still couldn't believe and suggested that this man was not the same man as the blind beggar. They went and took the man to his parents' house and decided that they could surely put an end to this madness. One of them asked the parents, "Is this man your son--the one who was born without eyes? How can this man who sees be your son?"

The parents replied, "Oh, it's definitely our son and he was definitely born without eyes but anybody can tell he sees now. We know neither how he sees now nor who did this miracle." Then, because they were afraid of what it would cost them to confess Jesus as good, they continued, "Ask him. He's old enough to answer your questions."

So, they asked him again and insisted, "Alright, you've had your fun but tell the truth. Jesus didn't do this, right? After all, we know that he's a sinner."

The man responded, "I can't tell you whether or not he's a sinner but I can tell you that I was blind and now I see." They asked him again how it was that Jesus had healed him and he became frustrated with their incessant questions. He snapped at them, "I've told you this already! Perhaps you just don't want to hear it." Then, coyly he continued, "Or is it that you want to become his disciples?"

This infuriated the Pharisees who spat back, "Oh, you're the one who is his disciple. We're the disciples of Moses--unlike you. Don't forget that we know God has spoken to Moses but nobody seems to know anything about this Jesus. We don't know by what power he works these signs."

The once-blind beggar responded, "Well, isn't that astonishing? You don't know how he does these miracles or where he comes from but he gave me eyes. You didn't. We know that God's power is demonstrated by God's people and that God listens to those who worship God and obey God's will. Something like this--giving eyes to a blind man--has never been done before. So, do the math: if this man wasn't doing God's work, then I wouldn't have eyes." In anger, the Pharisees picked up on that first strain of thought demonstrated by the disciples' question. They insisted that they wouldn't take instruction from a man who must have been born so deeply in sin that he had been born blind. They failed to appreciate what Jesus had said or the miracle that had happened in the man they quickly dismissed.

When Jesus heard that they had thrown the beggar out of town he went and found the man. He asked him, "Do you believe in the one who gave you sight?"

The man responded, "I'd like to but I need you to show me him."

Jesus said, "Use those new eyes of yours and look because it's me who did this thing." The man fell down to his knees and worshipped Jesus proclaiming his trust and faith in Jesus. There were some Pharisees nearby and so they heard him when he said, "I came into this world to turn things on their head and judge the hearts of men and women--believe me that those who cannot see will be made to see and those who can see will be blinded." The Pharisees scoffed at this and insisted that they surely weren't blind but Jesus overheard them and replied, "If you'd confess your blindness--that you don't get it--then you'd escape sin. Instead, you proclaim your sight and retain your sin."

Saturday, May 23, 2009

May 23 - Christian de Cherge and Companions, Martyrs, Monks, Hospitable

There had been Christians in Algeria before the monastery in Atlas had been built and dedicated to prayer and service. But, this monastery represented an entirely new possibility--a new opportunity for the spread of God's Kingdom. The Cistercian monks who populated its halls were French by birth but Christian monks by intention and devotion regardless of what national or social pressures they were forced to face. This monastery was to be--and truly did become--the contemplative and prayer-filled center of Christian life in Muslim dominated Algeria. There were no local people joining in with the monastery--Christianity came at a very high price to the locals--but there were always monks willing to move to Atlas regardless of the potential costs involved. Their lives were disciplined lives of prayer, contemplation, and service. This consistency and regularity gave a strong foundation and foothold to the rapidly growing Algerian Christian community that was in need of leadership and education. In the monastery, they could find both leaders and teachers.

By day, the monks did what they were called to do. Each of them was acquainted with hard work and knew how to farm and coax the warm earth to give its life to the people who needed its sustenance. They grew their own food and planted their own gardens but they did far more than this, as well. They were eager and willing to teach their agricultural techniques--techniques that worked very well but may have been unpracticed by the local farmers in Algeria at the time--to any who was interested regardless of religious conviction or persuasion. They didn't practice hospitality and give the gifts of their knowledge because they hoped to convert the Muslims but because the Muslims were their neighbors and worthy of their love and care. Furthermore, the monastery's doors were open to those seeking refuge or medical care. Regardless of the injury or the need, the monks were willing to care for the one whom God had delivered into their benevolence. Perhaps most shocking was the time when they offered their sanctuary--the space in which they worshipped together--to some local Muslims whose mosque had been destroyed. These muslims met in the Christian space and worshipped as they desired because of the hospitality of the Christians with whom they disagreed theologically.

Christian and the monks got along well with the Muslims near Atlas and with the majority of those they met. But there were some who were repelled by the hospitality that Christian and his companions offered and desired for the monks to be removed from Algeria. If they would not go willingly or convert to Islam, then they would have to be killed. Twenty Muslim men stormed the monastery on March 26th, 1996, and took the first seven monks they found because they had been told to go and get "those seven monks." Christian was among the seven that were taken. They were taken away from their home and held captive for some time. While captive, they were accused of various crimes and punished for being Christian. Christian had written a letter in 1995 that began "If it should happen one day—and it could be today—that I become a victim of the terrorism which now seems ready to encompass all the foreigners living in Algeria, I would like my community, my Church, my family, to remember that my life was given to God and to this country." He went to ask the reader to "associate such a death with the many other deaths that were just as violent, but forgotten through indifference and anonymity. My life has no more value than any other. Nor any less value." The seven were killed on May 21st, 1996, and their deaths were announced on May 23rd, 1996.

In the final paragraphs of his letter, Christian addressed his would-be-murderer and wrote: "And you also, the friend of my final moment, who would not be aware of what you were doing. Yes, for you also I wish this 'thank you'—and this 'adieu'—to commend you to the God whose face I see in yours. And may we find each other, happy "good thieves," in Paradise, if it pleases God, the Father of us both. Amen."

Friday, May 22, 2009

May 22 - Julia of Corsica, Martyr, Captive, Slave

In 489, something horrific happened in North Africa: Genseric and those he had brought under his leadership crossed the sea from Spain and began wreaking havoc on those who stood in their way. They were Arians and felt that the time for talk had ended. Consequently, they began demanding the orthodox to become Arians or suffer for their faith. Genseric even succeeded in taking Carthage where Julia lived with her noble family and Christian brothers and sisters. When Genseric's people encountered Julia they found her unwilling to renounce her faith or even listen to their attempts to convert her their particular brand of heterodoxy--Julia knew well that beliefs offered at the tip of a sword were not worthy of consisderation without the threat of the blade. Because of he steadfast denial she was sold into slavery and shipped away from Carthage. This was a fairly typical practice for Genseric who reasoned that those who refused to be converted should be exiled from the land he wanted as his own. So, Julia who had been raised as a Christian in a noble family was suddenly a captive and a slave. She was sold to a man name Eusebius from Syria.

Eusebius was a merchant and did much business all around the Mediterranean Sea. He was not a Christian and, in fact, was willing to worship any of the gods of the peoples with whom he traded if it might help him make a little more money or gain a little more influence. Julia made the decision demonstrate the virtue of her faith in daily service to Eusebius. This did not make it likable or easy but it did give it an ultimate purpose and allowed her to connect her own story to that of other slaves who had escaped not only worldly chains but the more insidious mental and spiritual bonds--like Joseph, the son of Jacob. In only a short time, she was considered the greatest of all of Eusebius' servants. He was astounded at the love she showed even as he demanded service of her and treated her as a possession. When she wasn't working, she was praying or reading and drawing nearer and nearer to her Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. This devotion frustrated Eusebius at first but when he realized how much she did for him he learned to overlook this irritation. On Julia's last trip with him they were sailing to the southern coast of what would be known as France with a ship full of expensive cargo. They landed on the upper peninsula of Corsica and as they were preparing the ship for the night, Eusebius noticed that there was a great sacrifice happening nearby. He gathered all of his people--all except Julia who refused to take part--and went to see the bull slaughtered by the governor of the region (a man named Felix).

At first, Felix was very happy to have unexpected guests who would come and pay homage to the gods he worshipped. However, word got back to Felix that not all of Eusebius' servants had come to the sacrifice. He inquired after the one that remained on the ship and found out that she was a Christian and refused to have any part in the festivities. Not knowing that Genseric had already failed at the task, Felix resolved to convert Julia to his own evils. He asked Eusebius if he wouldn't command her to come and he said that he had decided long ago that her service was so excellent that he'd rather not risk any damage to her. Felix volunteered to give Eusebius any four of his female slaves for Julia but Eusebius laughed it off and insisted that he wouldn't accept everything Felix owned for Julia. Eusebius was a Roman citizen and so he was protected from any direct assaults upon his property from Felix, so Felix pretended as if it was over and offered Eusebius another drink. In only a little while Eusebius was thoroughly intoxicated and he passed out. As Eusebius fell to the ground in a stupor, Felix sent his men to bring Julia to him.

Julia came in chains and was commanded by Felix to make a sacrifice to his gods. She refused and so he made her an offer: perform one sacrifice and I will set you free as governor. Indeed the power to do so rested squarely in his hands but Julia was uninterested and responded, "My liberty is the service of Christ, whom I serve every day with a pure mind." In other words, she claimed that she was as free as anybody could be and it was Felix who was in need of release from slavery--slavery to that far more deadly master: sin. Because of her refusal, Felix had her beaten severely by some of his strongest men. When that proved unsuccessful at securing her apostasy, he had her hair torn out slowly and painfully. She was asked if she would now renounce her faith to save herself further pain and eventual death. She responded that Jesus had been wounded and killed for her and it was appropriate that she be willing to do the same for him. So, they nailed her to a cross and crucified her. She died a martyr who was a slave that was more free than any.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

May 21 - Rita of Cascia, Wife, Mother, Nun

Rita's received the kind of spiritual education that can only be received in the home and by the careful guidance of a loving mother (Amata) and father (Antonio). Antonio and Amata were eager to pass on the faith that had gripped them to their only daughter and took nearly every chance that presented itself to demonstrate and explain what it was they believed. At a young age, Rita professed the faith of her parents and made it her own. When asked what she wanted to do with her life she quickly responded that she wanted to become a nun. But as the only child--and a daughter, as well---this could be a frightening prospect for her parents. Antonio and Amata worried that there would be nobody to take care of them when they were old if their daughter--their only child--disappeared behind the walls of a convent and undertook a vow of poverty. So, instead, they arranged for Rita to marry a man whose promise was strong, but not as strong as his temper and tongue. Rita married Paolo Mancini at the wishes of her mother and father and began to forge a life as a wife and soon to be mother.

Rita gave birth to two sons by her husband Paolo: Giangiacomo Antonio and Paolo Maria. Regrettably, life with her husband was not easy or pleasant. He was verbally abusive to her and nearly everyone with whom he came into contact. He was nominally Christian but his faith extended no further than his occasional words and meager attendance on Sunday. But Rita knew that love was a transforming force and so she endeavored to love him even when he was unlovable. Furthermore, she spent her life raising Giangiacomo and Paolo Maria in the faith in which she had been raised. Day in and day out her love had a slow and steady effect on those around her. It took nearly eighteen years but eventually Rita's husband came to profess a vibrant and saving faith that changed his outlook and approach to life. Rita's love had led Paolo to God's love and this transformed Paolo's corruption into redemption. Yet, tragedy was right around the corner and soon after his conversion he was murdered by those he worked with--perhaps because of the chance that had occurred in his life. Giangiacomo and Paolo Maria were both adults by this time and so they vowed a vendetta against the murderers of their father.

Rita knew well the spiritual carnage that would be wrought in the lives of her sons if they followed through on their disastrous vendetta. She begged them to renounce it and abandon the lie that said vengeance would "make things even." Rita knew well that more violence would not solve the problem and would only amplify the tragedy and in this she knew the power and value of peace. When Giangiacomo and Paolo Maria refused to abandon their awful course, Rita did the only thing she knew to do: pray. She prayed that God's will would be done and that he sons would be saved from spiritual death because of their haste and fury. They were Christians and so she prayed that--no matter the cost--they not be allowed to destroy their faith with rash actions. Within the year Giangiacomo and Paolo Maria died of natural causes and with a sudden unexpectedness. Rita understood this to be God saving her sons from impending sin and destruction. Following the death of Giangiacomo and Paolo Maria, Rita worked hard to reconcile the rest of her family with her husband's murderer. She was successful in this and retired to a convent as a nun and spiritual leader.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

May 20 - Michael Sattler, Martyr, Reformer, Anabaptist

Perhaps it exposed a vestige of naivete but Michael Sattler was honestly surprised when he became prior of the little Benedictine monastery--St. Peter's--near Freiburg. Michael was devoted to a type of ministry that included not only prayer, fasting, and disciple but, also, regular education at the nearby university. Through this program of spiritual devleopment and formation he had grown to a level of maturity that made him the ideal choice for prior--and perhaps eventually for abbot. But when he began to take an inventory of the spiritual health of the monastery he was painfully surprised and woefully underwhelmed. Sure, he had known that there were those among his peers who seemed less interested in their common calling but he had never questioned their calling to this peculiar life of service and prayer--he had assumed that they all approached the cloistered life with the same sincerity and passion that he brought to this withdrawn, spiritual life. Sadly, Michael was mistaken and when it suddenly hit him that not all who claimed a calling to ministry and service were doing it because of an increasing intimacy with God--or a desire for that intimacy--it was crushing. He still found it awkward to question their calling and so he questioned his and left the monastery. He married a woman named Margaretha and gave up the spiritual life he had been taught.

Slowly--very slowly at first--Michael began to see abandonment as a path unworth of traveling and so he considered the path of reformation. Indeed, there were those in the Church who were misguided but Michael became increasingly aware that the Church was not made up of the sainted and would always have more than its fair share of hypocrites. How could it not? After all, if the Christian Gospel was the highest of callings, then it made the most room for hypocrisy within its ranks. So, slowly at first Michael began circulating in reformer circles--particularly among the Anabaptists--and advocating for reformation of the One Church. Because of this controversial stance he and Margaretha were forced to flee to Switzerland. While he served as a minister and theologian among the Swiss brethren he relearned a way of spiritual life and leadership that was life-giving to him. In Schleitheim they convened a council of Christians who drafted a confession of faith (now known as the Schleitheim Confession) and Michael was the leader of the party that wrote the document. Both within their lives and within their document they resisted coercion within the Church, denounced the use of violence for Christians, forbade the swearing of vows on the basis of the Sermon on the Mount, called for an increasingly intentional approach to the Faith, and denied the ability of civil power to serve in the Church's place among other things. They published this document under the title "Brotherly Agreement of Some Children of God." They sought reformation but they were labeled heretics. They sought unity through healing but were labeled the disease.

For daring to suggest that the Church had problems they were targeted by the civil arm of the Church. Those in power within the State took up arms against Michael and the Swiss Brethren. He was given a trial but was not asked to defend his arguments for the need of healing and reformation within the Church--that was never considered a possibility by those within power. Rather, he was given a chance simply to deny all he had said. He refused. So, they decreed: "Michael Sattler shall be committed to the executioner. The latter shall take him to the square and there first cut out his tongue, and then forge him fast to a wagon and there with glowing iron tongs twice tear pieces from his body, then on the way to the site of execution five times more as above and then burn his body to powder as an arch-heretic." As they prepared to kill him he cried out, "Almighty and eternal God you art the way and the truth. I have not been shown to be in error and, so, I will--with thy help--on this day testify to the truth and seal it with my blood."And so they made a martyr of a reformer of the One Church. Two days later they also killed Margaretha by drowning her.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

May 19 - Dunstan, Blacksmith, Archbishop of Canterbury, Light to England

Dunstan was a monk--he hadn't been one very long but he did have a notable pedigree since his uncle was the Archbishop of Canterbury. Once upon a time had been popular in a king's court but his popularity had threatened others among the king's servants who began to despise him. So, they lied and accused Dunstan of witchcraft and black magic. Though it was a lie, sometimes lies have a way of being believed even when they're unbelievable and so it was enough for Dunstan to be sent away from the court by the king and to be beaten severely by his enemies. In his exile he became a monk and hermit. In his solitude he began once again to practice the art of the forge that he had learned as a youth. In fact, one day Dunstan was in his shop and working on a fine metal chalice. The chalice was to be used by some Christians to hold the Blood of Christ in the Eucharist. So, he took his work very seriously and endeavored to apply the full breadth of his skill to its completion. While he worked though he heard a soft pitter-patter of feet as a young woman approached his forge.

Actually, he smelled her before she ever entered the room as the breeze that preceded her carried her scent to him on a wave. It was a refreshing and enticing thing and so he looked up to ask her how he could help her and the words caught in his throat. She was gorgeous and he found he could not look away. The way she moved entranced him and reminded him of the many days he had spent in indecision about a potential vow of celibacy--he had remained unconvinced for quite some time until finally he fell under a conviction that God was calling him to the eremitic, monastic life. She leaned forward in an alluring way and it was only then that he realized how provocatively she was dressed. It wasn't that she was scantily clad or garishly risque by any means--that would be far too obvious--but as he looked upon her he noticed several things about her that seemed to call softly to his lust. It was in the little things like the turn of the collar of her dress, the gentle wave of her long, chestnut hair, the purse of her lips as she considered some clever thing to say to Dunstan, and the apparent honesty in her eyes. By Dunstan's estimation she was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen and he was enchanted as she coyly conversed with him. Each pose and stance she struck seemed effortless and without forethought but maddeningly attractive and innocently unaware. There seemed to be so much right about her.

But there was something about the way she flirted with him that made him hesitate. He was eager to join with her in "harmless fun" but became aware that there was something else at work. Though the illusion of the gorgeous woman had been fundamentally persuasive at first its sincerity faded as his lust cooled. Those soft and genuine looks began quietly to whisper sex and not sincerity. The way she turned her body to walk to another point in the shop revealed some desire in her to be lusted after. With each passing second, Dunstan became more and more aware that she knew exactly what she was doing and that there was poison beneath the sweetness. He realized with startling clarity that only that which was evil would dare masquerade as the beautiful and in this realization he began to see all the things his lust had blinded him to. He picked up the tongs that had so recently held the chalice being set aside for God's use and turned to the woman as she twirled her skirt--and perhaps gave too much of her true nature away. With stunning speed he reached out and grabbed her nose with the tongs knowing that she was no woman and only a dark spirit sent to bewitch and undo him. The story goes that the woman begged and pleaded with him at first but could not convince him that she was not the devil himself. Under the pressure, the facade began to slip and Dunstan's captive--perhaps the devil himself--began to cry out in pain and beg to be released. Finally, Dunstan let him go and the poor thing ran as fast as its legs would carry it with the tattered rags that had masqueraded as a comely dress flowing behind it. Recognizing the temptation for what it was, Dunstan knew that even the sweetest of poisons was still deadly.

Monday, May 18, 2009

May 18 - Theodotus of Ancyra, Martyr, Defender of the Martyrs, Rightfully Accused

The prefect of Ancyra could feel how the political winds were blowing with Decius at the helm of the empire. So, the prefect decided to command all Christians to come forward and make sacrifice to the Roman gods and idols or be tortured and killed. The way the prefect saw it the Christians didn't have to give up their beliefs--they just had to demonstrate that their higher allegiance was to the Roman empire and its values. What the prefect, and so many other imperial leaders, failed to realize was that the Christians could not simultaneously put anything higher than their devotion to Jesus and still call themselves Christians. To slip--even "in word only"--and place something higher than Jesus was to deny their Faith. That was the kind of saving faith they had learned: complete trust in a complete redemption. So, it came as some surprise to the powerful, then, when Christians refused the offer that Rome had deemed reasonable. The non-Christians soon learned, however, that they could accuse their Christian neighbors before Rome and then profit by taking the possessions and valuables of the seized and martyred Christians. As the number of martyrdoms increased daily, Theodotus--a local innkeeper--began doing the unheard of: he began taking the bodies of the martyrs and giving them a Christian burial. He didn't do it because they "needed it" for some special reason but simply because they deserved it. He would try to take them from the site of execution but often had to bribe the guards to be able to take them. Since he was a prosperous innkeeper this was not especially difficult at first but as the number of bodies rose, his funds dwindled further and further.

Eventually, Rome shut down the building where the Christians met. By forbidding entrance to anyone, those drunk with imperial lies masquerading as power thought they were closing the Church! In reality, they were only moving it and so for some time it met in the inn that Theodotus owned and operated. This increased his visibility to the empire and likely shortened his days. When he realized this he let the priest know that soon he expected to join the martyrs because he didn't suspect that the empire would continue to overlook his presence and his activities. Soon after Theodotus' conversation with the priest, seven women were arrested for being Christian. These women had committed themsevles to celibacy and a life of singleness so that they might focus on seeking the will of God and taking care of the poor and sick. The rulers whose minds had been warped by the twisted values of the empire and the world felt that these women should be raped and then murdered as punishment for their convictions and values. The youths who were given the charge of raping the seven women refused when they met the women and one of them had gray hair--perhaps they couldn't get past the idea of raping a woman who could be their mother and in shock their twisted values had been exposed to them. So, the prefect ordered heavy stones tied to their legs and each of them was dropped into the lake to drown.

That night a guard was posted at the shore because the bodies of the Christians had been missing far too often and if they were receiving burials then Rome's powers to frighten and terrify were weakened. The eldest of the women appeared to Theodotus in a dream and so the following night he went with a dear friend--Polychronius--to the lake to rescue the bodies of all seven women. As they approached in prayer, the guard received a vision of a Christian martyr commanding him to leave. In fear, he abandoned his post and Theodotus and Polychronius were able to do the hard work of releasing the bodies from their submerged prison. They took the bodies back and buried them but their actions were found out the next day when the seven women no longer rotted in the lake. Polychronius and Theodotus were arrested and tortured. Under torture, Polychronius broke and told his accusers that it had all been Theodotus' idea. Polychronius was set free after he made the sacrifice of his own faith--sacrificing that of inestimable value for a cheap trinket--but Theodotus was condemned to death. He was martyred and his body joined those of the other martyrs who were rescued from desecration not because they "needed it" by any means but because they deserved it.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

May 17 - Paschal Baylon, Poor, Mystic, Friar

In the year 1540 Pentecost came on May 24th and it was celebrated by Christians around the world. On the same day, a baby boy was born in the city of Torrehermosa, in the country of Spain. His mother and father named the little one Paschal Baylon--Paschal in honor of the fact that he was born on the day of Pentecost which was called the "Pasch of the Holy Ghost" in Spain at the time. Paschal was born into the poverty that his mother and father shared and brought a little brightness to their otherwise difficult lives. He helped provide for the family as much as he could as he grew older by taking a job as a shepherd for those with money to pay and flocks to mind. He did his job well and soon found himself working nearly every day. This was a great boon to his family but meant that he received little to no education and was illiterate even as a youth. As a poor young man in a world that has little room for those stricken with poverty and frustration, he soon learned that he would be unable to purchase or earn education but he still endeavored to learn to read. So, he started doing something shocking: asking people who passed his way to teach him "just a little" of how to read.

With each passing person, Paschal either found a willing tutor for a moment or yet another person unconcerned with the face he doesn't know. Person by person Paschal slowly learned to read. Every lesson he received was an act of charity that produced knowledge in his own mind and good fruits in the soul of the one who spared their time and attention for the other. Some would have been ashamed to ask those who passed by for help and assistance but Paschal knew a very important thing: he wasn't the only one who benefitted from these lessons. In accepting an act of charity, he was helping the other to grow and mature spiritually. Soon, he had repeat tutors coming by to teach him "a little more." When there was no tutor and nobody coming down the road, Paschal tried to read the book he carried with him and it grew progressively easier and easier as time went on and his knowledge increased. Eventually, he had learned to read and so he applied to be a lay brother among the nearby Franciscans. But, once again, he did something shocking: he only spent time in the especially poor monasteries.

Paschal was certain that poverty was formative and healing for him and so he refused to abandon it by residing in a monastery of some comfort and means. He is recorded as insisting, "I was born poor and am resolved to die in poverty and penance." He had found the powerful road that led through poverty into spiritual formation and growth. He had learned the power of asking others to be charitable and giving others the opportunity to prove their allegiance to a Kingdom not-of-this-world. The rest of his life was lacking in riches and filled with prayer and opportunities for charity. His many mystical and ecstatic experiences only confirmed his calling in his heart until he died on May 17th, 1592.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

May 16 - Brendan of Clonfert, Monastic, Student of the Greats, Navigator

Brendan was born in the country of Ireland, the county of Kerry, and the city of Tralee. Like so many other Irish boys near the turn from the fifth to the sixth century, he was raised in a Christian home and put to bed at night hearing the stories of Patrick the Great who had returned to the island that Brendan and his family loved so dearly. After all, Patrick had been a missionary and had ignited furious passion for missions among the Irish Christians. Furthermore, Brendan was born when Brigid was already about her calling and life's work among the monastics. He surely heard the good things that this wonderful woman was doing and must have spent some of that peaceful time right before sleep and during our most vivid daydreams imagining a life for himself like hers. Some stories suggest that when Brendan was born a chorus of angels accompanied the moment to announce its importance and his significance for the future of Irish Christianity. He was baptized by the bishop Erc when he was but a baby and when he was ready to begin his education he was sent to Ita (the woman who would become known as the "Brigid of Munster") in Killeedy for her careful guidance and teaching.

After several years at the knee of Ita he was sent back to receive the remainder of his education and training from the hand of Erc in Tralee. This was a powerful experience for Brendan but as he aged and began to experience the strengthening of his own calling he desired to travel and study under yet more great Christian leaders and teachers. Erc gave his approval but made one significant request: Brendan should return for his eventual ordination. Brendan honored Erc's request after several more years of study under the great Irish minds including Finnian of Clonard, Enda of Aran, and Jarlath of Tuam. He was ordained at the age of twenty-six and went out into the Irish countryside with missions in mind and monasteries to build. Because of his masterful education he soon became a master in his own right and attracted many disciples to himself. They built monasteries in several places (including Ardfert, Shanakeel, and at the foot of Brandon Hill) and Brendan oversaw their development and expanding mission. He even appointed his sister as abbess over one of the monasteries. He became known throughout Ireland as a master of Christian spirituality and a peer of Patrick and Brigid.

Near the end of his life he had a vision in which God called him to do something preposterous: to travel far from Ireland. For a man with as much influence in Irish life as Brendan had this seemed to be a disastrous idea. To travel far away would be to abandon the work he had done for a people who would not know him and who would not give him any of the respect or attention that he naturally received in Ireland. But, he was loyal to God's will and willing to do God's work. So, he gathered to himself sixty of his closest disciples and prepared a boat for travel. Their first voyage was a colossal failure so they stopped to regroup. After praying and fasting for forty days, they set out again and traveled for nearly seven years aboard their boat. They landed in Iceland and Greenland and may have gone as far as the North American continent. Though this seems unlikely, recent tests have even proven that it's possible with the ship that they built. Along the way, they shared the faith that motivated them and expanded the Kingdom of God into places where it had never seen the light of day. As his days drew short, he returned to Ireland (stopping first in Scotland and Iona) and founded yet one more monastery at Annaghdown. It was in this monastery where he finished his days teaching his disciples and guiding the shape of Christianity in an increasingly new world.